My partner and I have lived 4,000 miles apart for 3 years. Here’s what we do to keep our long-distance relationship alive — and how we can afford it.

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Sarah Bence with her partner Dan on a trip to Prague in 2016, when they both lived in England. Sarah Bence
  • Sarah Bence is American and has been dating her British partner for seven years, after they met while Bence was studying abroad in England. They have been long-distance for the last three years.
  • The couple tries to take turns visiting each other every three months, but it’s not always easy to coordinate time off, and frequent international travel can add up quickly and create a financial burden.
  • Bence says they have found ways to save and afford their relationship expenses, including different budgeting techniques, using savings apps, and splitting the cost of flights and accommodation.
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My boyfriend and I have been together for seven years. But for the last three years, we’ve lived on different continents.

Dan and I met at a Halloween party back in 2013. I was studying abroad in England at the same university he attended. I went to the party as a chimney sweep, he just wore a white shirt covered in fake blood. He’s British, I’m American – it was a little cliché, but still incredibly romantic. That is, until my expiring visa got in the way.

After my year abroad, I returned stateside to finish college, and we stayed together, albeit long-distance. After graduation, we reunited when I returned to the UK for grad school. During those years, we lived an hour apart on England’s south coast. After being separated by 4,000 miles, that hour hardly felt like long-distance at all.

In 2017, I finished grad school, and made the tough decision to move home to the USA for health, career, and visa reasons. Dan stayed on in the UK for his own career reasons. The cost? We’d have to (once again) enter an international long-distance relationship.

At the author's graduate school graduation in 2017. Shortly after, she moved 4,000 miles away. Sarah Bence
At the author’s graduate school graduation in 2017. Shortly after, she moved 4,000 miles away. Sarah Bence

So, we said hello to a five-hour time difference, FaceTime calls, and carefully counting our pennies because, unfortunately, international long-distance relationships are ridiculously expensive.

International long-distance relationships can have a big financial burden

Everyone likes to think of long-distance relationships as romantic – and they are. There’s nothing as sweet as finally seeing each other after months apart. But there’s also an immense amount of privilege that goes into relationships like ours, which isn’t discussed nearly enough.

Beyond the passport privilege and the ability to get time off work to see each other, travel costs a lot. In typical years, we visit each other every three months. This means paying for (at least) four international round trip flights per year, between the two of us.

Sarah Bence
The couple hiking Scafell Pike in England, on one of their reunions over the past three years. Sarah Bence

Managing these expenses can cause stress that I’m sure has ended many would-be long-distance relationships. For us, it’s created resentment at times, and led to difficult conversations.

But after some practice over the last three years, we’ve found some go-to ways to keep the costs down, and improve our communication when we’re not physically together.

How we save on expensive international flights

We’ve opened travel credit cards to help cut down on the cost of flights. We get reward points for daily spending (and extra rewards for travel expenses – which we have a lot of), which eventually add up to free or discounted flights.

I also opened a frequent flyer account with Delta to stack up my airline miles, because they’re the major airline serving Detroit, my home airport. Thanks to this, I often get great discounts on round trip flights to London.

Another tool we use is Skyscanner, which finds incredibly cheap deals on flights, often by lumping together multiple airlines. This is how I once bought a $US300 flight from Detroit to London. It was, however, a red-eye flight with a middle-of-the-night layover, no leg room, and on a budget airline that actually went bankrupt while we were in the air. Budget travel has its cons as well as its pros.

It took a while before we found a fair way to divide travel expenses

For a long time, Dan and I each paid for our own flights since we switch off who travels each time.

This worked for a while, because we have different airline preferences. I’m content to hop on a gruelling 36-hour mid-week flight for a low price. Dan, who has stricter work hours and is much taller than me, prefers direct Friday night flights with plenty of legroom – and he’ll pay premium for it.

Sarah Bence plane
A common but expensive view when you’re in an international long distance relationship. Sarah Bence

But after a couple years, we started turning his visits to me into an opportunity to travel elsewhere in the United States. So, even though it wasn’t “my turn” to fly, I’d still be paying for a domestic flight.

Then, of course, the pandemic hit. Like many other binational unmarried couples, we were separated indefinitely. Even though it was Dan’s “turn” to visit me this summer, as a British citizen he’s not currently allowed to enter the United States.

So when international travel restrictions were lifted in early August, after nearly six months apart, I found myself scrounging up $US1,754 for a flight to England – as well as the associated 14-day Airbnb to quarantine in.

Sarah Bence
The Airbnb where Bence quarantined in England, after spending six months apart from her partner. Sarah Bence

I felt resentment building up at the unfairness of the situation, and turned to the No. 1 rule of any long-distance relationship: communication.

After hashing it out via FaceTime, we decided that going forward we’d split the cost of flights and any accommodation, beginning with this trip. We’re both happier with this new agreement, and it creates less room for brewing bitterness.

This might not be the right answer for all long-distance relationships, but it did teach us to be flexible with our “rules” as our finances and situations change through the years.

We do our best to save money by eating in and staying with each other

Generally, we try to save money by staying in each other’s homes, and cooking for ourselves. We also do a lot of hiking when we’re together, because we enjoy it, and it’s free.

Sarah Bence
Hiking the Pen y Fan mountain peak in South Wales. Sarah Bence

But after a couple years, since we use all of our vacation time to see each other, we also started travelling during our visits – sometimes for a simple weekend away, and sometimes for a bigger trip. In February, we used our time to see each other to both fly to India, where we attended one of my best friends’ lavish week-long wedding. These trips are always a decision balanced between budgeting and making the most of our time together.

Sarah Bence
The couple at the wedding of one of Bence’s close friends in India in early 2020. Sarah Bence

How we split costs in different currencies

Typically, whoever’s home country we’re in pays for most things. This reduces credit card and exchange rate fees for the person visiting.

We add these expenses to the Tricount app to keep a tally of who owes who, and we pay each other back via TransferWise, which cuts out typical bank fees associated with international transactions.

We’ve changed our lifestyles to limit everyday spending

In order to essentially afford our relationship, Dan and I both live frugal lifestyles to save up money to see each other. I use the free Mint budgeting app to set savings goals for our reunions.

Sarah Bence Mint
The author’s 2019 budget breakdown in the Mint app, where travel was her largest expense. Sarah Bence

I’m actually more financially stable now

Before our relationship, I never budgeted and was always a bit terrified to check my bank account. Even though it’s expensive, our relationship has made me more financially savvy. Thanks to budgeting, I actually have more savings today than I did before we began this long-distance journey.

Sarah Bence Sri Lanka
Thanks to budgeting, the couple was able to visit Sri Lanka after the wedding they attended in India. Sarah Bence

Although there’s no denying our long-distance relationship has its challenges, it always feels worth it to be together. Ultimately, the money we’re lucky enough to be able to spend on seeing each other is transitory; what we get back in memories and time together is priceless.