Flier education: L.A. resident commutes by plane to attend UC Berkeley

Bill Zhou, pictured in graduation garb next to an Alaska Airlines sign.
Bill Zhou commuted by plane from his home in Los Angeles to complete a master’s program at UC Berkeley.
(Bill Zhou)

When one Los Angeles resident was accepted into a master’s program in engineering at UC Berkeley, he faced an all-too-California problem — Bay Area housing prices.

“Some places were like $1,500 to $2,000” a month for a single bedroom, Bill Zhou said.

He had applied to other schools, including some on the East Coast, but had his heart set on Berkeley — his dream school — and was committed to making it work.

After doing some “rough estimates,” the 26-year-old engineered himself a solution: For higher education, he’d use sky-high transportation.


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He hatched a plan to fly commercial between Los Angeles International Airport and the Bay Area nearly every day he had class — mostly Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

The plan wasn’t always easy, but it was successful. He completed the one-year program in May.

And if you ask him, it was well worth the effort.

“They have the best civil engineering program in the entire country,” he said in an interview with The Times.

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Zhou detailed the plan in a Reddit post titled, “I survived living in LA and commuting to Cal by plane over the past academic year to save on rent, AMA” — or “Ask Me Anything.”

In the post, Zhou explained that he booked all of his travel well in advance — making liberal use of frequent flier programs with airlines such as Southwest and Alaska.

He booked many of his tickets in spring 2022, ahead of his first semester that fall.

A “typical” day went something like this: For a class that started at 10 a.m., he would wake up around 3:40 a.m., take an Alaska flight from LAX to San Francisco International Airport at 6 a.m., have breakfast in the airport lounge, then take Bay Area Rapid Transit to campus.


After class, he would hang out with friends or attend office hours, then grab some dinner before catching a flight back to LAX, usually at 9:05 p.m. or 10:30 p.m.

“Typically, the door-to-door commute time between my home in LA and my classroom in Berkeley is 4-5hrs EACH WAY,” he wrote on Reddit. “So yeah, I spent a lot of time on my commute.”

But driving could take even longer, depending on California’s infamous traffic.

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In all, Zhou says he spent just under $5,600 on travel expenses, including public transportation to and from the airports and in-flight Wi-Fi. His cumulative commute time totaled nearly 76,000 minutes — roughly 53 days of travel.

On the real estate search site Zillow, the lowest listed price for an apartment in Berkeley as of Thursday was roughly $1,000. Even at that price, Zhou would have spent in the neighborhood of $9,000 just in rent over the course of his program.

And it all went rather smoothly, he said.

Thanks to Berkeley’s academic calendar, he avoided most peak summer pricing and skipped the 2022 Southwest holiday travel debacle that left thousands of travelers stranded for hours.

But the schedule, especially for the first few months, took its toll.

“Sometimes I felt exhausted,” he said. “Usually on the weekends, I would just catch up on sleep.”


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But Zhou said he never considered taking a break after the first semester ended.

“I had my mind set on finishing in one year,” he said.

And he had a good support system of friends and family, even if they thought Zhou was “crazy.”

“They were supportive and helped me to get through this,” he said. “And they also told me to not to stress myself too much.”

While many on Reddit said they were impressed with the plan, others slammed it as irresponsible considering the greenhouse gas emissions associated with air travel.

But, Zhou noted, “the planes are flying with or without me.”