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The Man Who Came to Class by Plane

Bill Zhou on his year spent flying back and forth to Berkeley

November 30, 2023
by Bill Zhou, M.Eng. ’23 As told to Margie Cullen, M.J. ’22

I really loved transportation growing up. I took a lot of buses in high school.

I liked riding public transit: buses, railways, and eventually airplanes. I just love being on the plane. I don’t even know why. Even just sleeping on the plane: as soon as I hop on, I fall asleep like a baby. 

I graduated from UC Irvine in 2019. During COVID, I was tired of being stuck at home. So I started flying. All the tickets were super cheap. I have like 850,000 miles with Alaska because I have elite status. Let’s say L.A. to New York is 2,500 miles. Normally you fly one mile, you get one mile. But with their top-tier elite status, every time I fly from L.A. to New York, I get 6,250 miles. 

illustration of Bill Zhou
Illustration by Jenn Liv

Sometimes I flew L.A. to Seattle to New York, and I’d hop out and back on the same plane, not even visiting New York, just to get the miles. We call them mileage runs. I’d do weekend getaway trips, actually visiting the destination itself, as long as the tickets and the hotels were cheap. Otherwise I would fly back on the same day. 

I flew a lot in late 2020, 2021, and early 2022. In 2021, I flew 230,000 miles. 2022 was the start of my commute year. I took 251 flights over like 210,000 miles. 

 Berkeley has one of the best civil engineering programs in the U.S. I decided to do a one-year M.Eng. program, technically only from August until May. That’s only eight months, after you take out winter break. I checked most of the apartments near Berkeley—I prefer a single, private bedroom with a private bathroom—and it was super expensive. Most of the leases are 12 months. I didn’t want to go through the hassle of subleasing to someone else: It’s much harder to do so in the summer because everyone is subleasing, so you lose money if you can’t find a subleaser. The place I have in L.A. is rent-controlled. I was only going to be away for a year because my previous employer was going to hire me back after I graduated. So I decided I would not move to the Bay Area and rather commute by plane. 

I started planning it in March 2022, after I received my acceptance letter. I tried to book all the cheapest tickets using my miles. When planning the class schedule, I managed to get all my classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday so I wouldn’t have to fly to campus on Tuesdays or Thursdays. I had a Friday 8 a.m. class in the fall, and the only way to make that work is to take the 5:30 a.m. flight from LAX to OAK. I set my alarm for 3:30 a.m.  

The door-to-door round trip takes about nine hours. It’s super long. But I’m only doing it Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. I didn’t treat it like a stressful commute, more like a small trip.

I never spent a single night either at a hotel or at a friend’s place in the Bay Area. I always flew to Berkeley from L.A. and back the same day. A lot of my friends offered to let me stay. I’m like, I already booked a ticket. Also, I didn’t bring extra clothes with me. 

 I know some of my friends who lived really close to campus, like Albany or University Avenue, didn’t show up to all of the classes. But I did. 

My classmates thought I was insane, but after a month it turned into respect. While you might ask friends what they are going to get for dinner, they always asked me, “Bill, what time is the flight back today?”

I did stay on campus after class sometimes to wrap up homework or go to a career fair or socialize with friends. They celebrated my birthday. That was super nice. But I had to leave at 8 p.m., so we had to rush to cut the cake and eat it and then I rushed to the airport to catch the last flight back to L.A. 

 If I rented in Berkeley, it would’ve cost $20k at least. I spent only $6,000 for my commute, including gas and the tax I paid for the air tickets and BART and parking at LAX. That’s not including the mileage value. 

Some say the cost of getting the miles should be included in the total expense, but I already had them. Some say I wasted a lot of time. But I wrapped up my coursework efficiently. 

 My coworkers think I’m nuts, too, basically. The first day I came back, they said, “Bill, welcome back. You didn’t fly to work today, right?”

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