It started when Billy Budd got put on the no-fly list. Billy Budd is a dog, a cairn terrier belonging to my mother, and it turns out he’s a nervous flier with Hulk strength. His daring escape from his carrier on a Southwest flight from Oregon to Texas in 2013 resulted in, among other indignities, my mother getting a police escort off the aircraft.
My father, meanwhile, was on a completely different flight, having sworn a solemn oath never to step foot on the same plane as that dog. My dad’s an anxious flier too; 15-minute tarmac delays stress him out, so watching his wife and canine come under sky law—which he had predicted would happen—was simply not an option.
That Southwest flight marked the first time my parents took separate trips to the same destination, and it worked great. My mom had a story for the ages; my dad read the New Yorker for three hours.
These days, my parents almost never fly together, anywhere. They vacation together plenty, but they usually travel separately. This way, my dad and his New Yorker are oblivious to my mom’s other eccentricities (leaving her boarding passes at Starbucks; leaving her computer at the rental-car counter; leaving her wallet at home, once successfully making her way through the TSA checkpoint with a prescription bottle and an addressed copy of the Nation as her ID). Meanwhile, when the fog rolls into San Francisco and mucks up my mother’s connection, she gets rebooked in peace without my dad treating a missed flight like the Cuban Missile Crisis.
My parents just left for a two-week bicycle tour through Europe, managing to fly from Eugene, Oregon, to Milan on the same day, on different airlines, without catching sight of each other once. They’re currently a week into their trip, having a blast together.
With peak summer vacation season upon us, I got to thinking: Why don’t more couples do it this way? I’ve read plenty of tales of spouses flying separately so that in case a plane crashes, they won’t leave their children orphans. (I wonder: Do they also drive separately, since they are far more likely to die that way?)
I’ve also seen plenty about couples taking entirely separate vacations and being happier for it—but what about just separating for the planes, trains, and/or automobiles, and then reuniting later for the good stuff? After all, my parents are hardly alone in not being at their best in transit. A 2014 study showed that “getting to, from and through a departing and arriving airport” is the No. 1 travel stressor in this country, ruining vacations and sometimes even relationships.
Lovers’ quarrels in transit are such a common peril, in fact, that those who want to avoid a live-tweeted in-flight breakup can find plenty of advice online for mitigating inevitable flight-based relationship strife on vacations. Possibly the ultimate authority on this phenomenon is the couple known as Dave and Deb, the force behind the popular travel blog the Planet D; they’ve been traveling together for eight years and emailed me from the Maldives to weigh in. “It seems that the biggest fights happen during the ‘in transit’ moments,” Deb says, explaining that she and Dave have “had epic arguments trying to catch connections and getting off at wrong stops. There was a time when we hopped off a bus too early in the middle of nowhere, and were so mad at each other we couldn’t walk side by side.” Of course, they were also lost, so they couldn’t separate. “So we simply walked 100 meters apart so we didn’t have to look at one another.”
And it’s not just globetrotting couples in the Gobi desert (where Dave once got so irate that he left the car and walked). Faye Lane, a flight attendant and performer, tells me that “couples lose it at the airport and on the plane all the time,” and yes, that includes mundane domestic short-haul trips. Sometimes, she says, they manage to avoid unrest at 35,000 feet by refusing to sit together (a solution Dave and Deb also recommend). She once offered to reseat a man’s wife next to him, but “before the words were even out of my mouth, he was shaking his head violently while making a throat slitting gesture.”
But sometimes, by the time a couple has boarded, it’s already too late—between the traffic jam on the way to the airport and the security line, the vacation (and marriage) might be toast before the seat belt sign comes off. And sometimes it’s no laughing matter. Lane says she once saw a plane return to the gate “because a husband in a middle seat stood up, turned around, and decked his wife, who was in the middle seat behind him.” I hope that couple is split up and the husband is in jail—but I also wish they’d been on separate flights to begin with.
Lane tells me that she’s never heard of anyone taking the measures my parents have; nor had any other of the airline professionals, frequent travelers, or travel writers and bloggers I contacted for this story. But Lane still thinks it’s a good idea. “If flying is stressful for both parties, why not take different flights and meet at the destination? Less stress and more adventure.” After all, if it weren’t for a fateful trans-Atlantic flight, the greatest love story of our time might have turned out differently.
I realize this solution isn’t for everyone. (And if you’ve got kids to wrangle, it’s likely off the table completely.) But adhering to its spirit and not its letter might still help avoid trip-ruining and relationship-imperiling blowouts.
One couple I talked to, for example, came up with the solution of commuting to the airport separately—that way he can arrive the recommended 90 minutes prior to departure like a reasonable human, and his partner can show up half an hour before wheels up like she’s James Bond. Another couple I talked to, whose yearly dust-ups always centered on thorny rental-car navigation, decided to re-allocate some of their vacation funds toward a hired car and driver.
Believe it or not, this kind of advance fight-avoidance has a name. According to Slate’s favorite game theorist Kevin Zollman, who is also a frequent traveler, it’s called playing a game “against oneself.” He says people do this all the time—they don’t buy candy so they won’t eat it; they have their employers contribute to their retirement plans so they don’t blow the money. “There is the you-today who wants not to fight,” he says, and then the “you-tomorrow who will want to fight because she’s stressed out. So, you-today takes an action to minimize the ability of you-tomorrow to fight.”
If you are a stress-prone traveler, it might already be too late for you-today to take any of the more dramatic measures to prevent you-tomorrow from being the Elaine to your partner’s Puddy. But if you haven’t booked your trip yet, consider this: My parents just celebrated their 48th wedding anniversary, shoving down well-earned calzones under the Tuscan sky, after biking up 30 miles of hills for fun. But if they’d spent any of the three-flight, 15-hour journey together, they might instead be drawing up divorce papers on their laptops, hashing out custody of the New Yorker subscription and the dog.