Sitting alone at a Dallas/Forth Worth International Airport gate, I anxiously refreshed the arrival time for an incoming flight from San Francisco on my phone. My girlfriend, Lizzie, was due to land soon. My flight from Tampa had arrived 90 minutes earlier. It wouldn't be long before we were reunited in familiar fashion, the ticking clock beginning on another fleeting weekend that would see us pulled apart back at the airport where it started.
When there are 2,907 miles and three time zone changes wedged between you and your significant other, you learn to get creative. "No one wants to be good at long distance," a friend once remarked. But for Lizzie and me, there is no other choice.
We are both journalists by trade, but our career paths have taken us far from each other. I am a photographer for the Tampa Bay Times, and Lizzie covers City Hall at the San Francisco Chronicle. We met in the middle, in a hammock on the University of Missouri campus. (But that's another story). When she landed her first gig in California last year, I followed for a summer internship.
But all seasons come to an end, and I was soon flung to the other side of the country for a job opportunity. So began our long-distance saga. We did our best, and our best depended on technology. When Lizzie was hopping on the train after work and I was winding down for bed, we Facetimed. On weekends, we watched episodes of The Office together — from different computers in different cities. And for our fleeting, 48-hour weekends together, we harnessed a stream of websites and apps: Google Flights, Airbnb, Uber, Yelp and City Mapper.
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There are no direct flights between San Francisco and Tampa, and, as young professionals, we don't have the budgets to travel expensively. Instead we try to find another city that has either direct flights from our airports or cheap accommodations. Chicago, Dallas, New York City, Miami and more — these cities have become our temporary homes. With each trip, our Instagram maps expanded. The millennial aspect of our existences could bring a baby boomer to tears.
We start with Google Flights (google.com/flights), using the search function to compare flight prices and dates to destinations across the country. Occasionally, airline flash fares will decide the city for us. Once tickets are booked, we head to Airbnb (airbnb.com) to find a cheap apartment near public transportation. (We can't share a home, but we do share a profile on the site.) Once in a city, we may look to Uber (uber.com) for local transportation, Yelp (yelp.com) for restaurant reviews and the transit app City Mapper (citymapper.com) for the best way to get around.
The Airbnb website isn't foolproof, but user reviews give a sense of what the place is like. There haven't been any nightmarish experiences so far.
It's hard not to see someone's living space as a puzzle, riddled with clues about their lives. The contents of their fridge and the photos on the wall provide a glimpse into the intimate parts of our hosts' lives. Our only connection is the key left under the mat or the hastily typed text on how to work the shower.
In Dallas we stayed in the renovated garage of a young married couple with two dogs. They left us a bottle of red wine and a pair of bikes to ride around the Bishop Arts District. We ate real Texas barbecue and bought a book at the Wild Detectives bookstore.
In Chicago we rented a Logan Square apartment with light-filled windows and plants hanging from hooks. It was a 10-minute walk to the Blue Line and made for easy access to the Loop, where our fingers and ears grew stiff from the cold.
On a return trip — you can't beat O'Hare airfare — we tried a modern unit on the 30th floor of a high rise overlooking Lake Michigan. It was still winter, and we watched snow fall on the beach and rented movies from a Redbox down the street.
In Miami, we booked a college student's studio. Business textbooks and term papers lined his bookshelf, and there was more booze in the freezer than microwave meals. We watched the traffic snake by outside the window and ordered Shake Shack to go.
To visit New York City on a budget, we flew into Newark and rented a spot in Jersey City near a Path rail station. Each day, we vacation-commuted right along with men and women in business suits.
And when Lizzie won a United Airlines Instagram contest, we had two free plane tickets on our hands. We settled on Tobago, taking a weeklong departure from the usual two-day rush of arrivals and departures.
We often find ourselves in cities where old friends live, affording us the luxury to beg for a spare bedroom — or a coffee date. In New York City, Lizzie took a trapeze class on a Manhattan rooftop with a college friend while I networked with a photo editor. In Chicago, she met with a former editor while I lunched with a childhood friend.
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Despite what the Facebook photos might seem, there's nothing glamorous about dating someone who lives on the opposite coast. We reunite one day only to separate 48 hours later. Sleeping on the lawn in Central Park, both exhausted after flying on red-eyes and before check-in, is par for the course. So is sleeping in the cellphone waiting lot and in random coffee shops in far-flung cities.
Our lifestyle is strained. We live out of strangers' bedrooms and have our heartfelt talks in cold airport gates. But our relationship is something that would not have been as possible a decade ago. Flying in opposite directions never gets any easier — but hopefully it's getting us back to finally being in the same place.
For now, it's on to planning the next trip. We're thinking Denver. I'm sure Airbnb appreciates our business. And we'd like to hike in the Rockies.
Contact Loren Elliott at email@example.com. Follow @Lelliottphoto.