If time were really money, as they say, the people with the most time—children on summer vacation, the unemployed, residents of retirement homes where the staff does all the cooking—would be the richest people in the world. They aren’t, though, which proves that the formula applies only when both time and money are scarce and one can be converted into the other. Spend an extra dollar, save five minutes. Sacrifice an hour, save 50 bucks. Or, if we find ourselves negotiating modern air travel, fork out 30,000 frequent-flier points to upgrade from economy to first and save 11 seconds in the boarding line, plus the right to go grubbing in a free snack bowl containing a green banana, some miniature candy bars, and several skimpy bags of SunChips in a flavor you’d never buy at home.
The time and money exchange rate is hard to calculate, especially when we’re in motion and the companies keeping us in motion insist on perpetually readjusting it. The travel industry has come to specialize in concocting schemes that promise to speed us on our way by lightening our wallets (airline clubs that grant shorter check-in lines) or that let us keep our wallets closed in return for inconveniences (budget carriers that fly late at night in and out of budget airports). The result is that making optimal travel decisions has become so mentally taxing that certain friends of mine now rely on spreadsheets to perform such challenging procedures as determining the actual dollar value of various hotel loyalty programs.
Not long ago I took a trip to Poland that presented a host of tricky dilemmas. I flew from my home in Montana to Chicago, where I was scheduled to catch a flight to Warsaw, where I would catch a third flight to Gdańsk. During my five-hour layover, I weighed the benefits of buying lunch at a pricey deep-dish-pizza joint or wandering around O’Hare in search of the business-class fliers’ lounge shared by LOT, the Polish national airline, and a couple of even smaller carriers. In the lounge, I could plug in my laptop and eat for nothing, but what, exactly, would I end up eating? Pigs in a blanket sweating in a steam tray? If so, I’d rather shell out for the pizza. If I opted to try the lounge, though, I’d be stuck with my decision, since it was on the other side of international security. I took a chance on the club fare.
The decisions grew only harder after that. I was starving when I reached my plane seat, one of those gee-whiz recliners that do everything but deliver IV sedatives while performing a reflexology massage. If I wanted to arrive in Warsaw fresh (a good idea, since my schedule for the next day allowed no time for naps), the smart choice, I felt, was to pop an Ambien and let myself be swallowed by the recliner. But that would mean missing the three-course supper and going unfed for nine hours until breakfast (which my time-zone-scrambled metabolism might not enjoy).
When the mind of the traveler grows overly preoccupied with opportunity costs, the capacity for discovery diminishes.
I put the pill aside and filled my stomach, which slowed the tablet’s entry into my bloodstream when I actually did take it half an hour later. I let some time pass, then took another.
What ensued was a period of unconsciousness so deep that I could have undergone surgery somewhere over the North Atlantic. The pills hadn’t worn off when I deplaned and found that my new smartphone didn’t work in Europe as I’d been told it would. With a thick, fuzzy head I faced my next decision: Buy a disposable phone and email my new number to friends and colleagues, or simply drop out of touch for a few days?
In my drugged, dreamy state, I chose the second option, reasoning that I was in Poland to see Poland, not chitchat with America. This turned out to be an expensive choice. Halfway through my visit I missed a text message that cost me $5,000 in lost income. At the moment the message arrived (or didn’t arrive), I was enjoying a eucalyptus steam bath with an old laborer who’d belonged to the Solidarity Union, which had helped defeat communism in Eastern Europe. His stories were thrilling, but were they $5,000 worth of thrilling?
Of course they were, I concluded on the flight back. When the mind of the traveler grows overly preoccupied with estimating opportunity costs, the capacity for discovery diminishes, displaced by the obsession with efficiency. The voyager may as well have stayed home, since he’s not really on a voyage anymore; he’s researching economics in the field.
Time and money, travelers should remember, are merely forms of currency, of measurement, not values in themselves. Sometimes the wisest choice is to ignore them. I offer as evidence my wasteful preference for driving to Los Angeles instead of flying whenever business or my love of sunshine lures me from Montana, which is 1,200 miles, 18 hours, and lots of Utah to the north. A plane could get me to palm trees in two hours (assuming I was willing to pay extra for the new once-a-day nonstop from Bozeman rather than one of the frequent one-stop flights that cost a third less, take twice as long, and require a sprint through the Salt Lake City airport because of their tight connection times), but I’d rather cruise along playing satellite radio and mulling over ideas for stories and novels based on people and places encountered en route. Last year, for instance, in St. George, Utah, I passed a mall with the evocative name the Outlets at Zion. I jotted it down in a travel journal I keep, and eventually it became the title of a tale of three restless small-town Mormon girls seduced by a rack of Italian designer shoes.
I don’t always choose to travel so lazily, with such disregard for the clock, the quickest route, and access to reliable cell phone signals. Sometimes I want to get there yesterday while reading my email the instant it arrives. I check in to my hotel early, spring for a room on the club floor, wolf down some SunChips, buy an $18 sleep mask from the in-room goodies basket, grab a nap, then hop into a town car (just slightly more expensive than a cab but stocked with bottled water) and hit five art museums before dinner. I pay for the meal with a miles-earning credit card whose annual fee, I fear, cancels out the points but whose concierge service has wangled me a ticket to a hot show that I leave at intermission, so eager am I to sleep and wake up rested for another hyper, budget-busting day.
Time over money. Money over time. The curving graph lines rise and fall, forever in motion, and you move with them, guiding them. The subcompact is cheap and gets great mileage, but the full-size offers a smoother ride as well as room in the trunk for all your bags. If you dine before 6 you receive a half-price appetizer, but you’ll probably be hungry again by 10. Decisions, decisions. Compromises, too. They never stop, and sometimes they make your head hurt, but mile by minute they carry you along.
Walter Kirn is the author of Up in the Air and Lost in the Meritocracy.