Which is Cheaper: Flying or Driving?
I have an upcoming trip to Chicago, which is about 400 miles northeast of me. This, of course, begs the usual question: is it cheaper to fly or to drive to my destination? It’s a tricky equation, and one with a number of variables. I may even decide to fly to a destination one time and drive the next, as my circumstances change. However, there are some good rules of thumb to follow when deciding whether to drive or fly.
Weigh the Cost of Each Alternative
Driving: Gas is obviously one of the first expenses that come to mind when road-tripping to your destination. However, there are several costs other than fuel, as well. If your destination is far enough away, will you have to stop and get a hotel at some point? Is your destination in a big city, like mine is? I’m budgeting $30 per day for parking in Chicago, which is what they charge at my hotel downtown. Will you need to stop for meals on your drive?
Flying: Ticket cost is probably what pops into your mind foremost. However, don’t forget that taxes make up about 25% of a domestic airline ticket price and that airlines charge $15-$35 for your first checked bag on domestic flights these days (except for JetBlue and Southwest, which were still free as of this writing!).
In addition to tickets, taxes, and baggage fees, there may be some expense associated with driving to the airport. In my case, I live two hours from the nearest large airport. This adds an additional tank of gas to any trip I plan, which is about $35. And then, there’s also parking to be reckoned with: long-term parking at my airport is $9 per day.
Side note: my little college town also offers a round-trip shuttle to the two nearest airports, for $85 round-trip. For me, the break-even point between the shuttle and driving myself to the airport is a five-day trip. At that point, the cost of gas plus daily parking becomes more than the $85 shuttle ticket.
Think about Time
Driving generally takes longer than flying, as you might assume. There’s also the possibility of staying overnight which, again, would add to your overall transit time, as would stopping for meals. In my case, driving to Chicago takes about six hours, while a flight would last less than two. However, if you’re flying, don’t forget commute time to the airport (two hours each way for me, although I think that’s probably not the norm for most of you considering driving vs. flying).
In addition, you’ll need to arrive at the airport with enough time to spare to pass through security and check your bag. The TSA indicates that arrival time varies by airline and day of travel, which is certainly true: Delta Airlines suggests arriving 75 minutes prior to departure, for example, while Southwest has a matrix that shows suggested arrival times by airport (1 ½ hours is the average suggested arrival time).
Cost and time aren’t the only things to consider when weighing the option to drive or fly. A number of other trip-specific variables come into play.
Comfort and Sanity: I don’t care if it’s cheaper to drive to Colorado than fly. I absolutely refuse to drive, because the 12-hour drive just kills me. I’ve done it enough to know that to protect my sanity, the cost of flying is completely worth it. Your personal cut-off may be longer or shorter, depending on whom you travel with (young children in the car for eight hours? No thank you) and your personal tolerance for long stretches on the road.
Economies of Scale: Carrying more passengers in the car yields a lower overall cost, while the cost of an airline ticket remains constant no matter how many are in your group.
Personal Preference: I went to a conference in South Carolina a few years ago (a four-hour flight or so total), and a member of my group chose to drive, although it took two days and cost more. The reason? He had a paralyzing fear of flying. This, of course, would affect your travel decision.
Useful Travel Apps & Articles
AAA’s fuel cost calculator will help you to accurately predict the cost of gas. It’s updated regularly with the price of gas and even calculates fuel cost based on your car’s make and model.
getset actually calculates the cheapest method of travel (plane, car or bus). It doesn’t take into consideration other costs associated with travel, but it is a great starting point.
US News & World has an article that compares some popular destinations over which people often have the drive-vs.-fly dilemma. Its cost assumptions are a bit outdated, but several other assumptions still ring true.
Hope this helps you next time you’re facing the decision whether to fly or drive, and happy travels to you!