With record high gas prices, is flying now cheaper than driving?

By Will Chen on 26 May 2007 (Updated 19 August 2007) 14 comments
Photo: Joshua Davis

Given the record high gas prices, is it now cheaper to fly than to drive for long distance road trips?

NPR recently analyzed the cost of a typical family road trip by plane, train, bus and automobile. The conclusion: Driving is still the cheapest way to travel and will remain so until gas prices go up to $15 per gallon.

NPR used the example of a one-way trip for a family of four traveling from D.C. to Boston. Here's the breakdown:

Means of Travel
Estimated Cost

Flying

$400
Train via Amtrak $500
Bus via Greyhound $325
Driving with current gas prices of $3.20 / gallon
$100

Driving if gas is $10/gallon

$250
Driving if gas is $15/gallon $355

 

Of course, you can probably make your drive even cheaper by using a gas price finder, driving more efficiently, studying up on gas savings tips, or adding acetone to your gas tank.

You can listen to the NPR story here. I couldn't find the transcript for the show. But I did take some detailed notes for those of you who are interested in how NPR reached their conclusions.

Flying airplane vs car

  • Coach tickets ($260) + cab fare ($90 to $140) = roughly $400

Amtrak

  • Coach tickets ($472) + cab fare ($25) = roughly $500
  • Cab fare assumed to be cheaper as compared to flying because Amtrak station is more likely to be closer to final destination.

Greyhound

  • Tickets ($300) + cab fare ($25) = roughly $325

Driving

  • Cost of gas at $3.20 per gallon ($70.40) + tolls ($25.60) = roughly $100
  • Assumes trip is 453 miles, 22 gallons of fuel is used, and car gets 20 miles per gallon.
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Andrea Karim's picture

And will continue to be unable to understand, is why it should cost more to travel by train. I hate flying, and always check rail fairs when I'm planning a trip, but the cost is often two to three times as much as taking a plane.

Guest's picture
Guest

the reason trains cost so much more is you are paying for a first class seat. they are very spacious, and in good weather travel very fast (if you call 80mph very fast).

Will Chen's picture

I always wondered that as well.  According to this really old (and probably out of date) article from Cato:

"Amtrak is by far the most highly subsidized form of intercity transportation. The average taxpayer subsidy per Amtrak rider is $100."

Guest's picture

I think that the cost of staying in a hotel and paying for more meals while traveling would cancel out the benefits of driving at this point. Also, even looking only at the gas price portion of the equation, it is only a tiny bit more for a single person to fly.

Many airports have shuttles, and people can always share cabs. That is one cost that doesn't need to be that high. A cool thing about Austin...a city bus goes out to the airport, serving as a shuttle. The price? Fifty cents.

Will Chen's picture

That's a good point Michelle. 

Driving is also much less comfortable.  I would pay almost anything not to sit in a car with my family for ten hours.  =) 

Guest's picture
Perros

Of course, the price of aviation fuel will also rise alongside gas.

So even if gas does get to $15/gallon I'd fully expect flying to also have risen, keeping it more expensive.

-Perros-

Guest's picture

You also didn't consider the cost of upkeep and maintenance for your car...and the extra miles you are possibly putting on it as overage if you are leasing the car.

Guest's picture
Guest

This price comparison shows an incredible lack of attention to detail. Gas only makes up a fraction of what it costs to operate a vehicle!

I looked at the 5-year cost of ownership for a typical Toyota Camry on cars.com and here's what they showed:

Depreciation (32%)
Insurance (18%)
Fuel (18%)
Opportunity Cost (11%)
Fees & Taxes (4%)
Maintenance (6%)
Financing (9%)
Repairs (2%)

The actual operating costs translates into about $287 plus tolls for a total of about $312 for the DC to Boston drive.

Paul Michael's picture

I don't think the analysis took those costs into account because you're paying for them regardless of the trip to DC. We don't even compare car ownership vs renting a car for the drive, which I suspect in your new calculations would be cheaper than $312 you quote. The article was based on immediate out-of-pocket costs for a trip, am I right Will? Otherwise, we'd have to factor in the wear-and-tear on shoes to walk all over the airport.

Andrea Karim's picture

The costs of owning a car are there, regardless of whether your fly or drive. If you fly, your Camry is still sitting at home and costing you money. If you drive the Camry, you might pay a bit more in wear and tear, but depreciation happens either way.

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

Mr. Terrible Analysis, thanks for taking the time to enter that information. It was very helpful!

I agree with you that NPR's analysis isn't very sophisticated. The cost of operating a car is definitely more than just the fuel. But as Paul and Andrea pointed out, a lot of the costs you mentioned are there regardless of whether you drive or not.

Take depreciation for example. Some of the depreciation is linked to how much you drive. But your car takes a giant dip in value the moment you drive it off the dealer's lot. That has nothing to do with wear and tear. Fees, taxes, and financing also have little to do with the actul use of the car.

You do have a fair point when it comes to maintenance and repairs. I think those costs are directly correlated with how much you drive. As Paul pointed out, the original NPR story was focused on direct "out of pocket" costs.

"The actual operating costs translates into about $287 plus tolls for a total of about $312 for the DC to Boston drive."

Even at $312 it is still cheaper than flying. =)

Guest's picture
Incremental Cash Flows

Okay, so everybody here is right and wrong. I love putting it like that. We need to look at the issue holistically, not just from the perspective of "a typical family" seeing as how there is no real typical family.

The basis for cost in the planes, trains, and buses are all based on personal usage, and thus, will always be more expensive by driving. The difference will only grow with the number of people you have in the car. This is called economies of scale.

Now, the other thing is that when you look at the difference between any alternatives, it is best to find the similarities and differences, and split these out into categories. For instance, you would compare the air fare, bus fare, and gas in one comparison to find out this difference. Once that is done, then you would look into the travel from airport, train station, and bus station to the final destination (hotel or whatnot). On top of this, you would consider how you would get around for the vacation, which was not considered in the NPR analysis, and could be a huge decider in which is cheaper. Has anybody tried parking around Washington DC lately? This method of looking at the situation is considered "incremental cash flow analysis", or kind of a derivation of it.

Also, I just have to mention that Amtrak stations are never anywhere near where you want them to be. Airports are much more likely to be close to where you are trying to go, at least they have been in my travels.

Lastly, when the mileage increases, so do the costs of food and shelter (hotels). These were not considered in the NPR analysis because they were only going to Boston. increase the mileage and you'll have a hotel stay, which will add quite a bit to the cost, along with meals. This could eat into the savings over any other alternative.

If you were to ask me, I think that the analysis was oversimplified and forced people to accept one single number for the cost when there are too many factors involved to make such a generalized statements. A case in point is my Grandfather. He is traveling across Texas by plane cheaper than driving because:
1) he is alone
2) gas costs a lot
3) he would get a hotel room on the way
4) meals cost a lot

Well, that's my two cents. Good night all!

Will Chen's picture
Will Chen

I wish you had left a link to your blog, becuase I would surely subscribe to it.  =)

Guest's picture
Noah

I recently took an airplane trip to texas from california. Round trip was 260 plus 45 or parking and 50 for luggage. Total 355. Total round trip in gas at $2.30 a gallon with a 30mpg vehicle at 80mph would have been $500 in gas and 21 hours driving. The plane got me there in three hours (45 min layover)