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The heart pines, and now the wallet wails

Separated lovers' travel costs soar

By Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff / May 16, 2008
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Staying in love has become a financial burden for Benjamin Davies.

For more than a year, Davies, 28, has lived in Inman Square while his girlfriend, Adina Matusow, 26, has been in Philadelphia, getting her graduate degree in nonprofit management at Gratz College. The long distance used to be bearable - until last fall, when the cost of gas skyrocketed, discount airline AirTran canceled its cheap and direct route from Boston to Philadelphia, and flights departing from both cities became less reliable across the board.

"Without question, at the very least, it has tripled," Davies said of the cost of traveling to see his girlfriend.

As if being in a long-distance relationship wasn't challenging enough, the bleak economy is making it increasingly unaffordable.

Long-distance couples half-rooted in the Boston-area - many of whom are in their 20s and 30s, separated by graduate school, internships, and first jobs - say gas prices and airfare (not to mention a wave of canceled flights) are leaving them broke, emotionally exhausted, and seeing less of each other. No more last-minute jaunts to New York to surprise their partner after work. No more quick flights to Philadelphia to see their significant other's smile. Travel is too expensive these days for spontaneity and frequent visits.

Davies, a nonprofit worker who makes a little over $50,000 a year, said that the price to keep the spark alive, with two visits a month, has soared in the past six months. It had been under $300 for two trips, but in November AirTran canceled its Boston-to-Philadelphia service. Now, to avoid $300-plus roundtrip flights on other airlines, Davies takes the train to Providence, a bus to T.F. Green Airport, and flies Southwest Airlines for about $160 each visit.

"It puts you into a period of total limbo," he said of the rising costs. "Basically you put your life on pause. Any vacations you were planning or anything you were planning on buying . . . any disposable income goes to maintaining your relationship."

Davies is about to move to Connecticut, where he has accepted a job, and hopes his girlfriend will join him in August, after she finishes school.

Michael Salguero, 26, who works in real estate development and lives in Central Square, is also familar with the recently inflated cost of the Philadelphia trip. His girlfriend, Karlene Lihota, 25, is halfway through a three-year program in physical therapy at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, and because she's a student and he has a job, he does most of the traveling.

Like Davies, Salguero said the loss of the AirTran has been a hardship for his romance. Since the cancellation of the route, Salguero has driven to Manchester, N.H., for Southwest's Philadelphia flight. With the gas, $10-a-day parking at the Manchester Boston Regional Airport, and airfare, seeing Lihota twice a month costs Salgueri $450 a month, up from $300 last fall.

And it's not just more expensive; Salguero said traveling is also more of a grating experience these days because flights are delayed more often.

Salguero said that when Lihota first moved to Philadelphia, he'd find last-minute flights or plan a quick trip if they were missing each other, but not in the past six months. "You can't do any last-minute trips," he said. "I couldn't just decide that I wanted to go this weekend. It's way too expensive. It's cut down on my being spontaneous."

Mary Maguire, director of public and legislative affairs for AAA Southern New England, said AAA doesn't keep statistics that would show how many of its members are in long-distance relationships. But she believes that travelers who are far from their mates have cut down on the number of trips because of rising costs.

Distance isn't always a bad thing for couples, she said. "Absence makes the heart grow fonder. It could do wonders for the relationship in the long run," she said, adding that her own marriage started out as a long-distance relationship. And, she wryly pointed out, if a couple is having problems anyway, this may be the time to end the arrangement: "The gas prices could be a deciding factor."

The economy has inspired some couples to make a big move to the same city earlier than expected.

Jadi Seiz, 23, of Boston, said she hopes that in a year or so she'll join her boyfriend in Laconia, N.H. The trip there isn't very long, but the gas can cost at least $30 a trip. She might have stayed in Boston longer, but because of the growing expense of visits, she is eager to end the long-distance problem.

Seiz had been taking the Concord Trailways bus into Concord, N.H., where her boyfriend would pick her up and drive the half-hour back to his place. But this past weekend, when Seiz realized that bus prices had risen again, she switched back to driving. "I mean, eventually I'll be moving, period," she said.

Chelsea Finn, 25, whose boyfriend, Matt Lerner, 27, moved from Somerville to Charlottesville, Va., last August, plans to move to the college town next month. The two have spent almost a year doing the same routine.

Lerner estimates that the cost of travel, between the two of them, has been about $500 to $800 a month. It's money they'll start putting toward a mortgage in the next few weeks. Finally, he said, the couple will be able to travel together - to somewhere besides Boston or Charlottesville.

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