An Airfare to Remember
As the Cost of Travel Soars, Couples in Long-Distance Relationships Are Feeling the Pinch

By Alex Baldinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 13, 2008

In the 1988 hit "I'm Gonna Be (500 Miles)," Scottish pop band the Proclaimers famously declared "I would walk 500 miles/And I would walk 500 more" -- just to wind up at the door of some distant love interest. It sure sounded admirable, if completely unrealistic.

But as the price of oil keeps climbing, taking the cost of gas and airline tickets with it, walking might not seem like such a bad idea to those who find themselves in one of the estimated 3.5 million long-distance relationships in the United States.

Whether your partner lives across the state or across the country, the price of a visit is skyrocketing. To cope with the rising cost of long-distance dating, some couples are cutting back on trips to see their partners or booking flights only at off-peak times and away from convenient-but-pricey holiday weekends. Others are spending more of their disposable income on relationship-related travel at the expense of the rest of their social lives. And then there are those contemplating long-distance romances who are consulting their purse strings as often as their heartstrings to decide whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

For more than a year, Kassie Brown has been in a long-distance relationship, something she never expected when she made plans to move from California to Virginia with her boyfriend, Jason Rogers. But as Brown, 28, was settling into a consulting job in McLean, Rogers, 26, got a job offer near Boston he couldn't refuse. Suddenly, JetBlue became a third party in their relationship.

Because of busy work schedules and ratcheted-up ticket prices, many of the couple's monthly flights are of the off-peak variety. "I ended up having to get a ticket that came in at 10:30 at night because everything else was like $350, $400, $500, for the nice flights that actually get you in at a normal time," Brown says. Rogers "was thinking about coming down for Memorial Day, but basically when we looked at tickets, it was unreal." The couple decided to plan a visit for a non-holiday weekend, which could mean burning a vacation day.

"I didn't blame him for [asking], 'Can we spend time with you and your family when it doesn't cost me $500?' It's totally understandable," she says. "But it does cause friction at the time because at that point you're kind of like, wait, am I not worth $500?"

Greg Guldner, director of the Center for the Study of Long Distance Relationships (yes, there actually is such a thing) and author of "Long Distance Relationships: The Complete Guide," says it's too soon to see the results of the current economic downturn in his ongoing research of long-distance couples. Anecdotally, however, what he's gleaned from couples recently is that increased costs have added another wrinkle to the complicated circumstances that long-distance partners face.

"From just talking with people who have been in long-distance relationships, . . . as the prices for flights and gasoline start going up, it makes them all much more stressed," he says.

As if being in a long-distance relationship wasn't stressful enough.

Guldner studied the tendencies of 200 long-distance couples and compared them with those of 200 couples in proximate relationships. He also analyzed census data to determine trends in long-distance relationships based on population figures.

The average long-distance couple, according to Guldner's research, is separated by 125 miles, with visits one or two times per month and 30-minute phone calls every two or three days.

Fortunately for cash-strapped couples, the research shows no correlation between the frequency of visits and the probability of a breakup. "That's one of the myths that's out there, is that you need to see each other a certain number of times," Guldner says.

"People who buy into those myths who now can't afford to [travel] are now facing quite the dilemma. Because if they believe that the relationship won't work if they don't see each other once a month, they may be making decisions about either ending the relationship or ending whatever it is that's keeping them apart."

Brian Rafkin, 25, is cashing in his long-distance chips at just the right time. After three years of dating his girlfriend, Elizabeth Levine, 24, of Washington, from afar, Rafkin found a job in the city working for the federal government and will move in August.

"You used to be able to get, each way, a Southwest ticket for like $60," the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native says. "Now they're like $130 each way, so it's basically doubled."

Rafkin's estimate isn't far off: The price of jet fuel has risen 102.4 percent since last July, according to the International Air Transport Association. As operating costs increase, so do travelers' expenses.

In December, Bethesda native Kyle Hurt, 23, met Mitchell West, 27, through mutual friends, and the two started dating. Hurt was so intrigued by West that she changed her New Year's travel plans at the last minute to spend more time with him.

The problem? Hurt now lives in Seattle, where she attends graduate school, while West works in marketing in Washington. They parted ways and planned to keep in touch. Hurt began looking for consistently cheap cross-country airfare, and that's when she fell hard for Virgin America. The carrier was set to introduce nonstop service from Seattle to Dulles from $144 each way early this year. Who knows, she thought: If it's going to stay this cheap, maybe this could go somewhere.

But the end of the introductory-fare honeymoon, combined with rising fuel costs and fuel surcharges, means a nonstop round-trip fare could now cost her more than $600, presenting another hurdle for a prospective couple still testing the relationship waters.

"I'm a little too optimistic to say I would let flight prices get in the way," Hurt says. "That's when I most recently lost a little hope, when I lost my ability to fly home whenever I want." West is now planning a trip to Seattle to visit Hurt.

"We're just trying to make it up as we go along," Hurt says. "It's tough to define it. It's not going to be what a standard relationship is going to be."

Couples who need to fly to see each other aren't the only ones feeling the crunch. Kristin Grigerick, a 28-year-old government contractor living in Arlington, drives 350 miles to visit her boyfriend, Christian Banach, 28, who lives in East Hampton, Conn. She recalls a time during her first long-distance relationship when the 731 miles separating her and her then-boyfriend back home felt like nothing at all, at least to her wallet. The year was 1998, and a gallon of regular gasoline cost 98 cents.

Now, the six-hour drive costs about $75 each way with tolls, she says, which is time and money she might previously have spent on clothes at H&M or with her family in North Carolina.

"They'll ask me to come down, and I'll say, 'Oh, no, I can't spend the money to get down there,' " she says. "And then Chris will call and be like, 'Oh, you want to come up here for this weekend?' and I'm like, 'Yup!' My family's kind of like, 'What the hell? You can't afford to come see us?' But you make sacrifices because you want to see that person."

The most important calculus for evaluating a long-distance relationship might have less to do with economics than with whether the time a long-distance couple spends together outweighs the burden of the time spent apart.

"As long as the long-distance relationship keeps meeting the needs of the people involved as you increase the so-called costs of the relationship -- the stress that's involved -- then people will be okay with it," Guldner says.

But even couples who have successfully navigated a long-distance relationship for several years have found it necessary to alter their visiting habits.

St. Mary's College of Maryland graduate student Caitlin Fisher, 22, is only about 88 miles from her boyfriend of 4 1/2 years, Collin Vredenburg, 21, of Wheaton. Their relative proximity works against them, as it only feeds the desire for weekly visits. Fisher fights the temptation.

"Instead of going up every weekend, I try to space it out and also look at other expenses at the time," she says, adding that with gas at more than $4 per gallon, something has to give. "If I was spending less on books and stuff like that . . . I would put it toward gas money."

Or a comfortable pair of walking shoes.

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