How Commuting from New Zealand was Cheaper than Living in Sydney
Living in one country and studying in another may seem like a crazy idea, but it made perfect financial sense while I was at university.
After moving out of home at the age of 18, I decided to attend university in Sydney. I liked Australia’s largest city and the University of New South Wales (UNSW) had exactly the courses I was looking for. As a poor student, there was just one problem with living in Sydney: it’s so expensive!
At the start of each university year, I would return to Sydney and begin the dreaded search for a rental property. I wasn’t fussy — a small apartment was fine, and I was willing to share with other housemates. But even for just a small flat in the suburbs of Sydney — with an hour-long one-way commute — I was looking at around AUD$250–270 per week.
Living at or near the university campus was out of the question. This was prime real estate, and would have cost at least $300–400 per week. That’s just for rent, let alone food and other living expenses! Living somewhere nice would have naturally cost even more, but I barely earned enough from my part-time job to rent something basic.
Thank goodness the Australian government allows students to defer paying for their university courses with interest-free “HECS” loans. Without that assistance, studying away from home would’ve been financially impossible. I don’t know how students in the United States do it, with up-front tuition fees that are through the roof!
Anyway, after struggling to keep up with bills in my first year of university, I got lucky with my timetable in the first semester of 2016. I had managed to fit all of my weekly classes into two consecutive days. My first class each week would begin at 1pm on Tuesdays. I would then do back-to-back classes for the rest of Tuesday and most of Wednesday until my final weekly class finished at 4pm on Wednesdays.
This presented a unique opportunity. With this timetable, I only had to physically be in Sydney on Tuesday nights each week. So with the cost of living in Sydney so high, I seriously considered living outside of Sydney and commuting once per week. I would then just stay Tuesday nights at a hostel in Sydney, at a cost of around $40/night for accommodation.
A Jetstar sale almost made this a reality
I initially thought this was a crazy idea. Then Jetstar launched one of its regular sales on flights between Sydney and Auckland, New Zealand. Tickets were $175 return, and the sale covered the entire university semester period.
My grandmother lives in Auckland, and I could have easily stayed with her for free on the other six nights each week. What’s more, the Jetstar flights were timed perfectly. Jetstar’s Auckland-Sydney flight on Tuesdays departed at 7.35am and landed in Sydney at 9.15am. That gave me just enough time to clear customs and get to my first UNSW lecture of the week. On Wednesdays, the Jetstar flight back to Auckland left Sydney at 6.30pm — 2.5 hours after my last class finished — and arrived back in Auckland just before midnight.
Those Tuesdays and Wednesdays would’ve been exhausting. But at least I would’ve then had five full days to recover each week before returning to Australia.
Jetstar is a low-cost carrier and of course, at that price, the tickets did not include checked baggage. But I probably could’ve managed to fit what I needed for each week’s classes into my 7kg hand luggage allowance. Thanks to my frequent flyer membership I also would’ve had access to the Qantas business class lounges for a shower and a meal before each flight. That would have made the weekly commutes a bit more bearable.
The flight time from Sydney to Auckland is around 3 hours. In total, once you also account for the time spent travelling to and from airports — and waiting in them — my total commute time would’ve been around 12 hours per week. This may seem like a lot. But when I lived in suburban Sydney and took public transport to university, my daily commute time was 2.5 hours (1 hour and 15 minutes in each direction). During normal semesters, when I had to attend classes five days per week, this amounted to more than 12 hours spent commuting each week!
So, not only would I have spent less overall time commuting by living in New Zealand, but I would have saved money too. The total cost of my weekly flights and one night in a Sydney hostel would have been $215/week. By renting a small flat in Sydney, I spent over $250/week instead. (Of course, by living with family in New Zealand, I also could’ve saved on grocery expenses.)
Why I decided not to commute from New Zealand to Australia
Although I did visit family in New Zealand regularly while studying in Sydney, I ultimately decided against living an entire semester in Auckland.
If I ignore the risk of delayed flights, I’m quite sure my crazy idea would have worked! But there were drawbacks.
While I technically only needed to be in Sydney from 1pm on Tuesdays until 4pm on Wednesdays, this of course didn’t give me any time for a social life. I was simply allowing enough time to attend my weekly classes before immediately leaving the country again. I also wouldn’t have been able to attend university events, after-hours exams, extra tutorials, join society meetings or participate in-person in university group assignments. In 2016, group assignments were still an important part of many courses. This was before covid-19, when regular Zoom calls became an acceptable replacement for face-to-face meetings.
I also soon realised that that whole point of studying in Sydney was that I actually wanted to be in Sydney! Simply attending university classes each week, then leaving, defeated the purpose. I’d at least have Tuesday nights, I suppose, but I would’ve been too tired once my classes finished at 8pm to do anything other than eat and go to sleep. (I would’ve needed to wake up at 4.45am, New Zealand time, to catch my flight each Tuesday morning. That equated to 2.45am in Australia with the time difference.)
Of course, there’s also the negative environmental impact of flying to New Zealand and back every week for an entire semester! According to one carbon footprint calculator I used, I would’ve needed to plant 451 trees to offset the CO 2 emissions from all those flights.
Despite the obvious downsides, a small part of me wishes I had tried living in New Zealand and commuting to Australia each week. I would’ve legitimately saved money, and I guess it could’ve been an interesting experiment.
Covid-19 has changed the equation
As I write this in October 2020, I’m reminded of how easy it once was to travel overseas. Until the covid-19 pandemic struck, Australians and New Zealanders could freely travel between, live and work in both countries. But Australia’s international border has now been closed for more than six months.
Until the pandemic, many frequent flyers took overseas travel for granted. But catching a flight to New Zealand is no longer a trivial thing like taking the bus to work. 2020 has served as a harsh reminder that the freedom to travel is a privilege, not a right, and that it shouldn’t be taken for granted.
To travel from Australia to New Zealand now, I would need to get a special exemption from the Australian government to leave the country and get permission from New Zealand’s authorities to travel. I would then need to enter 14 days of managed isolation, at my own expense, on arrival in New Zealand. At the moment, returning to Australia would be almost impossible due to a lack of flights and the Australian government’s strict arrival caps. But even if I could somehow get a flight back to Australia, I would once again need to undergo 14 days of quarantine in a hotel at a cost of around $3,000. Clearly, commuting between Australia and New Zealand is not a viable option in 2020.
But, equally, covid-19 has led to a seismic shift in attitudes towards remote learning, work and meetings. Just as many businesses are now allowing their employees to work from home — something that would’ve been unimaginable at many firms just 12 months ago — universities are now shifting more and more to online teaching. There are certainly some downsides, and I don’t think that tutorial classes can be as effective when conducted via Zoom. But telecommuting is now more prevalent than ever, and new technologies have enabled remote learning and work to be done more effectively than previously possible.
As the pandemic drags on, I yearn for a time when commuting from New Zealand to Australia is once again possible. But, once the pandemic is over, this may no longer even be necessary. With the advancement in remote learning technology, and an imperative incentive for universities to invest heavily in it, it may soon be entirely plausible to live in one country while studying full-time in another country without needing to fly back & forth each week at all. That could lead to many new opportunities for both cash-strapped students and universities.
The rise in remote work & learning could also place downward pressure on the cost of living in major cities such as Sydney, as fewer people will need to physically live within close proximity of Central Business Districts. And there are many, many other potential economic, social and environmental benefits of increased location independence. That can only be a good thing.