Airline Bestows Graduation Gift On Student Who Used Miles To Commute To School To Save On Rent

A college student living in Los Angeles used miles to commute to school at U.C. Berkeley to save on rent. He was in a one-year program for a Master of Engineering in Transportation, was living rent-free, and planned to return to L.A. Why pay rent in the Bay Area when you can just fly up there three times a week (although he did have to commute daily for a few weeks)?

  • In spring 2022 he booked his fall 2022 semester travel, and in fall 2022 he booked his spring 2023 travel.

  • Most of his tickets were booked using Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards points and Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. Both carriers have a significant presence up and down the West Coast. Notably, he mostly eschewed United.

  • He monitored award pricing, and rebooked when trips got less expensive. He booked travel for every day in case he needed to make a trip, and then he’d cancel shortly before a day he didn’t need to fly.

  • His strategy was to book the cheapest flight on a given day, and make same day changes to his itinerary thanks to his airline status.

Despite a four or five hour commute in each direction door-to-door, and the vagaries of airline delays, he never missed a class.

For the full school year:

  • He took 114 trips totaling 238 flights.

  • And spent 156,945 Southwest points; 407,500 Alaska miles; 6,500 Avianca miles; and 5,500 United miles.

  • With an out of pocket cost was $5,593 including taxes; transportation to and from the airport; parking; and inflight wifi.

He even wrote a trip report of the journey on FlyerTalk and shared the experience on Reddit.

Alaska Airlines, whose Mileage Plan program represents the bulk of the cost of this endeavor, has bestowed a graduation gift of a ‘Flight Pass Pro’ bundle of future travel on him as a gift.

Credit: Alaska Airlines

Somewhat oddly, Alaska is promoting his story and even that many of his miles were earned from credit card initial bonus offers.

“I had a lot of miles from previous mileage runs or credit card sign-up bonuses with Alaska,” he added. When I started planning this commute, I checked, and there were 850,000 miles in my account.”

Naturally he says he loved flying Alaska on these trips because they have lounges to work from before his flights.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. It makes perfect sense for him to avoid United. United’s fares are woefully uncompetitive for intra-California flying. Quite unfortunate as I have status with United, but I often find United’s fares to be significantly higher for less service. (Southwest and Alaska manage a beverage and snack service on SJC-LAX; United can’t even consistently hand out beverages on SFO-LAX.)

  2. Per the comment about uncompetitive UA fares – I have found DL domestic airfares – through my company’s travel management portal (my company typically has 4000 people on travel on any given weekday – so.a fair amount of clout) have become very uncompetitive. I guess they have full airplanes so don’t want our business.

  3. I’m too lazy to do the math on this combination but would rent in a very small place be that much more? The actual cash out-of-pocket was north of $5500. The AS miles have a decent mileage value as do the SW miles. The Avianca and UA miles are trivial in this case. But there is a travel time value as well.
    I know rent can be insane in that area but actual school is likely to last only 8 or 9 months(two semesters). Was there no dorm he could live in for those two semesters even in a Master’s level program? Or even sublease an apartment?

  4. Geoff- I would guess minimum for a room alone in a house would be $1500/month reasonably close to campus. Dorm would be similar/more if even available. Bay Area is crazy expensive.

  5. I think it wasn’t that big of a ‘savings’ if you assume it’s 1c/mile and had use for the miles. But in this case, he’s using his mileage ‘money’ for something he would pay cash for when possibly he has no real use for all his airline currency. So in that way it’s a big win, though I think the time ‘cost’ is high and not factored in. Min 1hr travel time via public transportation to get from SFO to/from UCB. Of course you can Uber, but that’s going to cost.

    Usually friends get together and pool for an apt. My daughter is in a group of 4 sharing a 2bdrm apt for $3200 across the st from a UCB dorm — so $800 per person. A friend of ours has a son in the same situation, their rent is $3K/mo, $750/person . But you have to live with others and share a bdrm. If you want a single, then it’ll cost you. Dorm was like $1.6K a month for a triple — but that included room and board, so your all-you-can-eat food cost was included in that. Dorms may be hard to get past the 1st guaranteed year, though. I personally stayed in UCB graduate housing when I was there.

  6. From reading the FT thread, he actually used mostly AS SFO lounge after his northbound flight for breakfast and as a buffer against delays–arriving SFO before 8 am for his 10 am Berkeley class.

    He also used SFO and SEA lounges after classes.

  7. Before we shared our lives on social media, a co-worker did this as well from SJC to LAX/BUR for similar reasons. She was living with her parents so why not? She flew Southwest and of course, quickly earned Companion Pass status. But she never wrote about it in FT, so no news coverage. The point is I’m sure plenty of people have done this for decades.

  8. So it means credit card signup bonuses are more lucrative to the airline than actually flying passengers (the bank pays the airline to purchase these miles).

  9. Bart runs right into SFO, so that’s an easy, though time consuming commute to Berkeley.

    What I don’t understand is the “never missing a class” thing- I lived a 20 minute walk from campus at Berkeley, and missed every morning class! Grad student, I guess…

  10. “College student” is more typically taken by me to mean an undergraduate student pursuing education toward a bachelors degree (or maybe an associates); a masters would not be generally applicable to being a college student even as there are combination degree programs that combine a BS/BA with an M.

    I remember some people doing Priceline NYOP bookings and IHG hotel point breaks to do school, study abroad and internships and work away without being tied into expensive leases.

  11. This kind of thing was also done in the 1990s using the youth fare coupon booklets to fly the DCA/BOS-LGA-BOS/DCA shuttle flights. And on regular adult fares in the 1980s and early 1990s there was also a ticket broker who would sell the “throwaway” segments to help students do this kind of thing.

  12. I hope it’s safe to say this graduate isn’t going to be blogging about climate change.

    That said, congrats to him for graduating as planned.

  13. I guess it’s cheaper than a job offer.

    I am not going to monetize my flying life, no matter how weird.

  14. I recommend reading his trip report regarding comparative costs for housing vs. flying. This guy really knew what he was doing.

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