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By The Way

How couples in long-distance relationships travel to make it work

Operations Editor

The longest we were apart was five months.

I was in Hong Kong when my now-husband, then-fiance, was in Florida. He’s still in Florida now, while I’ve moved to Washington, D.C. Traveling is the only way we stay together.

It’s a hard road, but if the person is worth it, then the traveling is worth it, too — even if it’s clear across the world.

The author, Marian Liu, and Yip Tsang. (From Marian Liu)

“People get this lovely vision in their head, but when they have to do it, reality sets in, and it’s not that easy or doable. It’s not a fairy tale,” said Benét J. Wilson, an editor at the travel website The Points Guy, who went through a long-distance relationship between Baltimore and Phoenix, then Baltimore and Atlanta. “You need to sit down and talk about what it means, do the list of pros and cons, and make sure you’re going into this with eyes wide open.”

Studies are sparse, but the number of long-distance couples seems to be increasing. About 7.4 million married Americans were away from their spouses in 2018, up from 6.5 million in 2010, according to the Census Bureau, barring divorce, separation and death. And out of Internet users with recent dating experience, the percentage who have used the Internet or email to maintain a long-distance partner has also increased, from 19 percent in 2005 to 24 percent in 2013, according to the Pew Research Center.

This may be due to changing mind-sets, said marriage and family therapist Daniel Dashnaw, from Couples Therapy Inc., a team of more than 30 clinicians in three countries. The baby-boomer generation experienced “cornerstone marriages,” marrying earlier and building their lives together, whereas millennials had “capstone marriages,” marrying after their lives and careers are established, becoming “more amenable to long-distance relationships,” he said.

For a long-distance relationship to work, couples counselor Dashnaw recommends that it have four qualities: quality communication, prioritization of schedules, planning but not over-planning, and trust.

A few couples talked about how these principles, along with some more tangible tips, help traveling work for a long-distance relationship.

Realize that you may talk more apart than when you’re together

Months would go by before we saw each other, so we talked more long-distance than we ever did in person. On top of calling, we texted constantly and used Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, which enabled us to call internationally over WiFi at no charge.

Besides chatting, we sent embarrassing photos we took when we were last together, photos of our meals apart and ridiculous memes to make each other laugh.

Brett and Tiffany Hanes (From the Hanes family)

“To tell you the truth, I don’t think I would be able to do it if I didn’t have FaceTime,” said Brett Hanes, who lives apart from his wife and three children, ages 16, 13 and 11. “I FaceTime with her almost every night and we talk usually three to four times a day, just about every day. We usually FaceTime at night, and the kids will come into the room and join in the conversation.”

In my relationship, all this texting and talking actually drew us closer. My husband, typically an introvert, was forced to open up. The phone was our only lifeline. Hong Kong was 12 hours ahead of Florida, so every time one of us left to work or went to bed, we would chat, so that everyday, the other person would be the first and last person we spoke to.

“Everything comes down to communication and being open to each other, and tackling things head-on, and being able to laugh about it,” said Megan Jerrard, 27, who met her husband at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.

Megan and Mike Jerrard in the Galapagos Islands. (From the Jerrards)

They swapped information before they each left for home the next day, to Australia and Fort Meyers, Fla. Their second in-person date was in Edinburgh, Scotland, and on the third in-person date, in Australia, he proposed. This was only possible, Jerrard said, because they spoke every night on the phone in between those dates for 10 months.

“It’s not so much about how often you speak, but the quality of conversation,” said couples counselor Dashnaw, who recommends opening up about the good and the bad. The majority of challenging issues are not solvable, he adds, and are “due to differences in values, beliefs and perpetual problems,” so the best thing is to let it out for 15 minutes each.

Set some travel limits

A third of my relationship has been long-distance, so it has required a lot of planning. When we lived in different countries, we bought tickets months ahead. My husband flew to see me three times, 15 hours each way, not including layovers, and I flew to Florida twice. Now that we’re both on the East Coast, we plan a few weeks ahead to see each other about every other week.

In addition to setting a two- to three-week window for tickets, Herbert and Mira Lowe also set a price limit and one city as home base. Now in their 50s, they’ve spent half of their 20-year marriage apart in various cities across the Midwest, South and East Coast.

When they were in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, Herbert ended up flying 20 times in 22 months on Southwest, capping his limit at $400 a ticket. Driving was easier than flying when Herbert moved to Milwaukee, but to beat traffic, he had to leave by 2:30 p.m. or be stuck for 2 1/2 hours on the way to Chicago.

Herbert and Mira Lowe (Shay Lavin)

“It’s all about sacrifice, understanding what you are sacrificing and why, and how long you are willing to make that sacrifice," said Mira, director of the Innovation News Center at the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications.

Herbert, director of the Summer Media Institute at the same college at UF, added about distance: “It was worthwhile to enable us to advance our careers. If the choice was to be together and one person following and stalling their career, neither one of us was willing for that to happen, and more so, we didn’t want it to happen to the other person. That was why we agreed to do it.”

Driving also was easier than flying for Hanes, the man who lives apart from his wife and kids. There’s no direct flight to the 49-year-old engineer’s family in Blairsville, Ga., so he would still have to rent a car and drive two hours from either Chattanooga, Tenn., or Atlanta, from South Florida. So every third week, he drives 12 hours, setting out early on a Saturday, armed with audiobooks and plenty of cheese and Triscuits. And rather than packing, he just lays out his clothes, still on their hangers, into the back of the car.

“Most of what we do is just spend time together,” said Hanes, who rotates two weeks in South Florida, then one week in Georgia. “We like to lay on the bed and watch movies together, some nights pile up with the kids.”

When you are together, plan but don’t over-plan

Human attention is precious, said the couples counselor Dashnaw, and “if you distract yourself with far too many experiences, you take your eyes and attention away from your partner. And when you return, your capacity for memory is crowded with unnecessary experiences.”

I over-planned our honeymoon this past September, because I wanted to squeeze in as much as possible with my husband. The honeymoon had been delayed a year after the wedding. But during it, we were so tired each day from walking, we were barely awake for anything else.

And you really can only plan for so much. Since we’ve been long distance, I’ve gotten stuck in Florida by two hurricanes — Irma and Michael. Granted, it wasn’t fun boarding up the condo, parking the cars in a safe place and getting by with no WiFi, but it was nice extending a trip for free due to circumstances out of our control.

Through all this traveling, it’s important to factor in some “me-time.” I’ve flown back-to-back weekends, and as much as I missed my husband, I could not handle flying out again. So on weekends apart, we do laundry and catch up on sleep. Ironically, these are the activities together I miss the most when we’re apart. So, in Hong Kong I set aside his-and-hers slippers for some semblance of normalcy.

Marian and Yip's matching slippers. (From Marian Liu)

Figure out what rewards work for you

There are some travel hacks you can plan for, like signing up for mileage credit cards. Jerrard, who also writes her own travel blog, Mapping Megan, jokes that marriage not only came with promises of being together, but also signing up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred credit card. Wilson, from The Points Guy, also recommends that card for its 10 airline partners and three hotel partners. She also suggested the United Explorer Card for perks like travel protection and club passes.

Hotel rewards are important, too. Raymund Flandez, in a 10-year relationship with his boyfriend across the East Coast and South, signed up for the Hilton app for their discounts, and it has come in handy for breaks on long drives.

“I think you have to have a certain kind of personality, an open-mindedness to be okay with a long-distance relationship,” said Flandez, a publicist in his 30s, who was used to the concept of a long-distance relationship after his mom moved to Jordan as a nurse when he was 4 and did not reunite with the family until he was 10. “It’s not so bad doing your own thing and once you come together. [You] show them new places.”

Trust is a no-brainer, but even more important

Like any relationship, it comes down to trust. This isn’t my first long-distance relationship. I’ve attempted closer ones, between Northern California and Southern, and later, between Seattle and Hawaii.

My long-distance marriage has been the hardest and most heartbreaking thing I’ve ever tried. But together, we’ve had adventures that I don’t think we would have had if I had just stayed in Florida — such as ziplining in Malaysia, a wedding banquet in Taiwan, running around the oldest penitentiary in Philadelphia and the best pizza I’ve ever had in Baltimore.

Someday these long-distance couples can look back, said the couples counselor Dashnaw, and see it all as a “bittersweet growing pain.”

I know that what I look forward to the most is not having to go to the airport again to see who I love.

Read more:

The completely correct guide to unpacking after a trip

7 things to know about booking travel through Costco

The illustrated encyclopedia ofsleeping positions on a plane

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