A Year in Airfare

Photo credit: Thomas Rousing, CC BY 2.0.

Rochester to Fort Lauderdale (2/27 – 3/3)

Delta: $63.60 (+$200 Delta credit)

“I hope you’re planning on visiting your mother before you go disappear to Europe for however many months.”

Go back and read that again. “Your mother” should ring closer to ya mutha in your head. There should be some scorn in “disappear to Europe.” Yes, my mother is Jewish, and though I’m sure she was proud and excited for me in some ways, I know she wasn’t totally sold on my plan.

In January, I had been back in Rochester for about two months. I was finally home after two-and-a-half years in South Florida, where I’d been miserable, lonely, and anxious, a dusty shell of myself.

I’d moved to Florida in the wake of a breakup — feeling wild, invincible, bold, and unburdened — game to prove that I was not afraid of a big change, a new place, or of starting over. I could do anything. My brother lived in Fort Lauderdale, I’d had fun on visits — why not move there? So I did.

I gave Florida a long, honest try, and in 2015, I spent $1,200 flying back and forth between Fort Lauderdale and Rochester, crying on every single return flight.

Proof of my boldness, proof that I could start over and be somewhere new: that’s what I brought back to Rochester in 2016. I arrived the night of November 16th.

It was raining when I arrived at the house I’d be sharing with three roommates. One was not home; one was in his room with the door closed and music playing; one was dancing around the kitchen in his headphones as he made dinner. I learned that day that the doorbell did not work. I pounded on the door for a long time, and it was the dog who finally heard me, clambered downstairs, and gazed through the window silently wagging his tail.

The movement made the dancer in the kitchen look up. For the next two hours, I walked back and forth from my car to the house, then up the two flights of stairs to the attic, carrying everything I owned.

I never wanted to see Florida again, and I wanted to enjoy Rochester while I could, but I’d visit my mom anywhere on the planet. I had a $200 credit with Delta because I’d been caught up in the madness following their global system outage in 2015 (on one of my journeys to Rochester, naturally). It barely cost me anything.

New York City to London (3/26)

Norwegian: $284.90 

In 2015, I spent $1,200 on plane tickets without ever going somewhere new. Seeing the number on my year-end statement from Chase was maddening.

I knew, very soon after I moved to Florida, that I’d made a mistake, that I did not want to stay, and that I had to go back to Rochester. 

People would ask how I liked Florida, and I’d say, bluntly, that I didn’t like it. They’d usually say, “Give it six months,” then, “Give it nine months,” then, “Give it a year, you’ll change your mind in the winter.”

I did not change my mind in the winter. Leaving Florida was inevitable, merely a matter of working up the nerve and energy to move across the country again.

It’s hard to get up the motivation and grit to do that when you’re so heavy with mundane unhappiness. It had been easy to move to Florida. I wanted to be back in Rochester more than I have ever wanted anything, but the process was so much to ask of myself when I had so little strength.

$1,200. Where could that have gotten me? Just about anywhere. I could fly around the country for months. I could fly to Asia. If I hunted down the right tickets, less than half that could get me to Ireland and back.

What a strange thing, to spend two-and-a-half years longing to be somewhere else, longing for adventure and new places, yet utterly paralyzed and living day after day in that miserable limbo.

On a particularly trying day at my office job in Florida, I’d taunted my boss by threatening to disappear to rural Ireland for months at a time.

By March of 2017, I’d lined up a three-month work exchange in a tiny fishing and resort town in the northern Republic of Ireland.

I moved to Florida to prove I was adventurous, but it only convinced me that I was nothing without my home. I needed to have a place I was happy to come back to, wherever else I may go. I’ve never made a sincere New Year’s Resolution in my life, but for 2017, I resolved to say yes, travel more, be adventurous, stop making excuses. I had my home back. I had time, money, resources, and flexibility. I was going to say yes when presented with an opportunity to travel for a day, a weekend, a week, or three months. I was going to travel alone, with family, with friends, with my partner. I was going to hold myself to this.

London to Dublin (3/27)

Ryanair: $43.44 

I was going to work in exchange for food and housing, in Ireland, for three months. I’d been told, a million times, that it’s easy to do this, a common arrangement, and that Americans are never questioned at customs in Ireland.

Ireland and luck go hand in hand. I was questioned.

Every American that I met in Ireland said they were through customs after a fifteen-second conversation with the agent. Their passport was examined, they chatted for a moment, and everyone had ninety-day stamps regardless of their stated plans.

Every Irish person who heard my story told me an identical joke about Americans dancing through the customs line holding up a crude cardboard-and-finger-paint facsimile of an American passport.

When I got to customs, the agent didn’t accept that I was spending my spring and summer gallivanting around Ireland, even when I showed him proof that I had plenty of money and appropriate insurance. On the one hand, I hadn’t even realized what I was doing was illegal. On the other, I would never intentionally lie to a border agent anyway.

I left customs with a thirty-day stamp in my passport and stern directions: leave the country within thirty days, and email the agent my itinerary within seven days. If I didn’t, I could be arrested — or punished with long-term travel restrictions.

I’d been traveling for days by this point. I’d hitched a ride to New York City, killed a few hours, flew to London overnight, puttered around the airport all day, and after that quick, final flight to Dublin, my big Ireland fantasy crashed and burned.

I still had to wait for my two hour bus ride to Limerick. I should have spent some of that time buying a local SIM for my phone, but in my confusion, terror, and self-hatred, I didn’t have the presence or clarity to do it. I got off the bus in Limerick — charmingly nicknamed “Stab City” — near midnight. I had only a maps app that came highly recommended by my globe-trotting sister to get me to my Airbnb. The maps app was no match for Ireland’s creative interpretation of what constitutes an address.

I didn’t get stabbed.

Dublin to Rochester (4/05)

Aerlingus: $608.25

Why hadn’t I been a traveler before? Why wasn’t I someone who went on vacation with girlfriends over school breaks, or studied abroad?

For one thing, I am a control freak. I don’t like being out of my element. I like certainty. I don’t like asking for help or relying on others. When people vocally fantasized about long, aimless road trips, my hair stood on end and my teeth itched. I wasn’t friendly, or flexible, or chill. I couldn’t see myself backpacking, couchsurfing, making friends all over the world and crashing on their floors. My own community in Rochester is filled with people like this, and filled with people we met because they crashed on one of our floors or couches for a day, a week, a month. I’d always loved the people who came to us this way, but never, ever seen myself as having much in common with them.

So much could go wrong. So much could be uncomfortable, dangerous, miserable, or expensive. One might end up sobbing in a shockingly uncomfortable bed in a city that wasn’t what she expected, faced with the need to get the hell out of Dodge and absorb the cost of a huge mistake. One might be told, sternly, by a man with perfect manners and a lovely accent, not to get herself arrested. “We will arrest you, all right then?” he’d said, folding his email address into my passport and sliding it back to me under the glass.

After a day of crying and explaining everything to friends back home, I wiped the slate clean. I bought a SIM card. I cancelled the rest of my days at that Airbnb, cancelled a days-long commitment in Limerick, bought a new train ticket to Galway, and lined up more lodging for the week. I walked myself to the train station the next day, gawked at the scenes outside the window, learned that Limerick’s confusing address system was not exclusive to Limerick, and struggled to find my room for the night.

I showered, dressed, and walked for miles and miles. Galway is the model of a gorgeous Irish city, with its cobblestoned Latin Quarter, talented buskers, ancient buildings, and the views of the water off its bridges. It rained on me, and I kept walking.

I’d made a mistake, but I was in Ireland, tolerating the rain, tolerating my mistake and my ignorance and the day I wasted in Limerick. I was somewhere new. I was taking it in.

I spent a week seeing all the things you’ve got to see in Western Ireland, limited by the fact that the national bus service was on strike that week. I spent my last day hiking myself to exhaustion in Connemara.

The next day, I walked to the bus station to catch a private bus to the Dublin airport. I flew back to New York City, waited in the terminal all night, and took the last outbound flight to Rochester. I arrived, aching, after midnight. My partner Jeff met me at the airport with a can of my favorite shitty, local beer and a bag of kale to welcome me home.

Rochester to Anchorage (9/07 – 9/11)

United: $613.80 

I wasn’t happy that my Ireland trip had been cut short, but going back to Rochester was a relief. I went back to people who loved me, a city that always felt welcoming, and friends who shyly said, “Can I say I’m happy to see you?”

I got to bring Jeff to Long Island for Passover, to see my mom and my family again. I drove Jeff’s truck to North Carolina, by myself, the week my brother moved into his new house. Jeff and I went to Vermont. We went to the Adirondacks, several times. I kept up with my promise to be adventurous and do whatever it took to go new places, have new experiences, say yes to everything that was out there for me.

I had more trips planned. Then Jeff moved to Alaska, and not to Anchorage, or Fairbanks, or Juneau: he moved to a tiny bush village in the Arctic Circle, on a week’s notice.

We fought a lot. I almost broke up with him. I almost refused to buy the ticket. I almost missed the only chance I had to see him before December.

I explained that I didn’t have the time before I asked my employers if this was true. I told Jeff it was too hard to pull off before I asked my coworkers if they might cover me. My excuses kept hitting walls on their way out of my mouth.

Did I have the time? Yes.

Did I have the money? Yes.

Did I want to go to Alaska, see Jeff, say yes, be a person who sees an opportunity and snatches it up? Yes. What was I afraid of, exactly? I don’t know. Was my resistance force of habit? Maybe.

I got the time off. I bought the flights. I watched the tiny Bering Air plane land at an unsecured gate and watched Jeff walk down its little stairs onto the tarmac. We stayed in a trailer I found on Airbnb, sharing pots of coffee and plates of pancakes overflowing with the wild arctic blueberries Jeff had been picking and stashing all week. We hiked Flat Top mountain and sat down right on the trail, watching two moose — the first I’ve ever seen — through a monocular.

We soaked up every second together. My flight home was at midnight, and the mud on my boots was barely dry when I got on the plane. Hours before that, at sunset, we drove into Chugach State park and got out of the rental car to climb up the rocks at Beluga Point. We stood atop the sharp outcroppings, Dall sheep picking over the cliffs behind us, a pod of namesake belugas — flashes of impossibly bright, pure white in the water — passing through, wild and without regard for either us or the sheep.

Rochester to New York City (9/28 – 10/02)

Delta: $156.40

I meant to be home for Yom Kippur, to travel without adventure. My adventure was going to be to hang out with my mom for a few days, see my dad and the few friends I still have on Long Island. I meant to do that.

Perhaps one day after I bought this flight, my brother — a professional YouTube mountain bike hooligan — presented me with another opportunity: travel with him, his wife, their dog, and a friend for two weeks.

Almost nothing was set in stone for this trip. There would be twelve-hour stretches in the car, sketchy lodging, new places several times a week, and zero privacy. But my brother? I’d trust my brother with my life. This trip was a rare opportunity. It also slashed my time with my mom down to one short day.

She forgave me. I’d like to think it makes her happy that my brother and I are so close, and that we’ve both become adventurous.

New York City to Fayetteville (9/29) and Denver to Rochester (10/13)

Delta: $339.50

By the time I left, the trip had changed shape many, many times. It had gone from a very tight set of Airbnb and hotel stays to two weeks of living out of a rented RV trailer on various campsites. We linked up in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Little more than twenty-four hours later, we left to drive through the night to our next stop: Salida, Colorado. When we were three hours away, a friend called and told us to keep driving: a snowstorm was about to kill our chances to cross the Rockies in time for one of the only firm commitments of the entire trip. We had to be in Moab, Utah that weekend, and if we didn’t press on to Grand Junction, we might be stuck on the Eastern slope for days. Grand Junction is over twenty hours from Fayetteville.

We were three humans and a French bulldog in a pick-up truck loaded with gear and bikes, the RV creaking loudly on its anti-sway bar behind us. As our party climbed through the mountains, the snow came down harder and harder. We made it to Grand Junction in one piece, twenty five hours later, stir-crazy and burnt out. I’ve never been so happy to see a KOA.

In those two weeks, I rolled with the many punches. I dealt with everything life handed me. I weathered the long road trips and shared space and my utter lack of control over my life. I leaned in to the stereotype and read Wild bundled up in a camp chair in Moab, staring out at miles and miles of bright red rocks. Cell service was spotty. My sister-in-law and I drove through national parks, went on long hikes and outings, and made tons of one-pot meals on the compact RV stove. One day, I split off by myself and hiked six miles in the Moab desert, then waited at the trailhead — dizzy, exhausted, and out of service — for my brother to come get me at a pre-appointed time. In distant rocks, the funny cries of coyotes rang out and echoed back to me.

All the things I feared about traveling happened on this trip. All of it rolled off me. I came home lean and hungry and alive.

Rochester to Denver (12/16 – 12/30)

Delta: $279.80, United: $212.80

This was supposed to be my first year back home, but how many weeks have I spent away? It feels like a lot, like months even. Rochester might be the love of my life. My home, my great love — greater every day, every time I walk its streets, talk to its people, each day I live in one of its old buildings — is not threatened by the days, weeks, and months that I spend elsewhere.

Sometime in the fall, I was at work. A favorite, frequent customer walked in, and I automatically went to pour the drink I knew he’d order: a black chicory cold brew. He mentioned something that had happened in town some weekend, and I blinked and shook my head.

“Oh,” I sighed, “I was out of town for that, I think.”

He nodded and narrowed his eyes. “Oh, yeah, that’s right.” He wasn’t asking, but reminding himself out loud: “You travel a lot don’t you?”

“Yes,” I said, pausing as the tap handle snapped back into place. “I do.”

2017 airfare total: $2,602.49

Emily Rose Alvo is a barista, occasional freelance writer, and frequent traveler based in Rochester, NY. She enjoys petting dogs, drinking gin, and hiking, ideally all at once.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Moving Series.

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