Which is Cheaper: Flying or Driving?

by Janey Osterlind on 28 September 2010 13 comments
Photo: Shaun W.

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).

Other Considerations

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!

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Guest's picture

Great post, and some good points. You can't evaluate purchases by cost only. There's a lot to be said for value, and that varies by person. Thanks for sharing your insight.

Guest's picture
Stephanie

Another thing to consider might be environmental effects. In most cases, you can drive anywhere in the country and use less gas than flying, so if you're worried about that, driving is a good option, especially for short trips.

Also, consider the overall commute. If Chicago is only 6 hours away, even if you were close to the airport, it would probably be worth driving. With airport waits, the drive to the airport, debarking and baggage claim times, etc, you are looking at 3-4 hours. Once in Chicago, you don't have access to a car, so you will have to rent (costly) or find other transportation. In Chicago this might not be a problem, but in many big cities in the US, there is little to no public transportation, so driving allows you to have a car at your destination.

Alternatively, however, many don't figure in wear and tear in their cost. If your car is older, it might not be worth the wear and tear to make a long trip in the vehicle.

Guest's picture
Guest

I drive for the same reason you fly - to help me stay sane. The crowds, the lines, the intrusive searches, the lack of control over my travel circumstances, the limitations on what I can bring and how I can keep myself comfortable.... I would almost always rather drive than fly.

Guest's picture
Ken

In my families case, it was always easier and cheaper to drive long distances than fly. We live in RI and my wife and I would take regular trips to Disney World with our two young children. Air fares were a little cheaper back then but it always seem that it would cost us atleat $1000 to fly all four of us. In our many trips, I found that even with all expenses it cost us half the cost of flying.

My wife and I are early risers on the first day of long drive. It's not unlikely for us to be on the road at 3am because we try to avoid the New York City morning commute and we could could get some travel time under our belts while the kids were sleeping.

We would pack a cooler with milk and breakfast for the kids and make sandwiches on the road so the meal expense wasn't that bad. When we got to our midway point we would have nice dinner. We also used the discount books on motels that are in the rest areas when you first enter a new state. We did the trip so often we always knew where we were stopping and usually used the same motel from the previous year if it was reasonably priced and clean.

I think the deciding factor is whether you like to drive long distances or not. I don't mind driving. Our 20 hour trip to Disney consisted of a 14 hour drive the first day and 6 hours the next. We alway drove a long and short day so that we were in Disney by the afternoon on the second day. It would give us time to check-in and enjoy the pool.

For us, traveling on a plane was always an adventure. As you mentioned, the time it take to get to the airport and park the car (1 hour for us). What happens if the kids are having ear problems just before you fly? All the time waiting in the airport and in between planes. It was just a hassle for us. Plus, in our case, we always had car to use in Disney so we could eat off Disney property and go grocery shopping to fill the refrigerator in the hotel room.

Guest's picture
Nyx

Because of the cost of it hubby and I actually take the bus between CO and Toronto over flying its cheaper by a world of a lot (cost just over 100 per person for a round trip), though spending almost 2 days in travel time isn't great, but when finances trump its the way to go.

Guest's picture
Olivia

You also need to consider if you need a car once you arrive at your destination. Factor in a rental as well. Not all places have extensive public transport.

Guest's picture
Sandy

Don't forget to factor in whether you will need a car at your destination. Renting a car there it is another expense you would not have if you had driven.

Guest's picture

Generally a 5 hr driving trip is my breaking point, anything over that I'll fly.

As you menioned, when you compare a 5 hr drive .. to a 1 hr flight, but add the travel time to & from airport, the time required to be at the airport in advance, and the time to collect your bag & get out of the airport (usually in the boonies) .. sometimes driving can be quicker, and definately cheaper.

Plus I always seem to buy food at the airport, but if you drive, you can grab drinks & snack from home.

Janey Osterlind's picture

Great comments! Wonderful additions to the drive vs. fly debate - in particular, the point made by several of you about the potential need for a rental car if you choose to fly to your destination. That is certainly a significant expense to factor into the equation. Keep 'em coming!

Guest's picture
Kyra

There's definitely a lot of points where personal preference makes a big difference. My reaction tends to be "fly just from there to there? WHY?" for anything short of halfway across the continental US. Then again, I love driving and have considered a career as a long-haul trucker, so your mileage may vary.

Guest's picture
Guest

We have taken some summer trips of considerable mileage and chosen to drive. A consideration is a multiple destination vacation. Also the fact that you can load up the car with a lot of belongings for those multiple destinations.

The one point that we didn't realize at the time was the wear and tear in the long run resulting in quite a few maintenance costs such as oil changes, struts, a rear wheel bearing and brakes. Long and consistent road trips age a car more quickly.

Janey Osterlind's picture

Good point - wear and tear on your car should be a factor in the debate. Having a higher-mileage car will also affect resale value in the end. Thanks for the comment!

Guest's picture
Guest

That's pretty funny that you consider 12 hours to be a long drive, my family drives waay more than that once a year to wherever we choose to go on vacation haha. Drove from NH to Florida, to Colorado, to Virginia, South Carolina, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Mont Tremblant, Canada, etc xD