Fly or drive? It’s more than budget travel. It’s a question of time, cost and frustration.
With summer upon us, it’s time to start planning that summer vacation. The first step is always deciding where you want to go. The next is figuring out how you’re going to get there. Will it be a road trip? Or not?
If the answer to “Where do you want to go?” is Iceland, then the transportation choices are pretty much limited to planes and boats. But if the answer is some place within, say, 1,000 miles of your home, the choice is likely to come down to fly or drive? Which mode of transportation you choose depends upon a number of factors, both practical and emotional. We outline them here. (And yes, we know that some destinations can be reached via train or bus. If you are considering a vacation to one of those places, simply add up those costs and considerations and compare them the same way we compare the cost of flying and driving.)
Cost of Flying vs. Driving
Money is a key consideration in this discussion. If you are traveling alone or with just your significant other, chances are the cost of flying won’t be prohibitive. But if you’re bringing a couple of kids along as well, the cost of flying can jump quickly, even at a super sale fare of $200 round trip.
In addition, it’s important to remember that the cost of flying is much more than the price of the plane tickets. How will you get to the airport? Will a supportive friend or family member drive you there for free? Or will you drive yourself and pay to park the car for the duration of your trip?
And then, when you arrive at your destination, how will you get around? Will your trip include transfers from the airport to an all-inclusive resort where you plan to stay put for the week? Or will you need to rent a car for sightseeing during the vacation?
The Time Involved in Flying vs. Driving
Time is an underappreciated commodity when it comes to vacation planning. If, like so many Americans, you’ll be vacationing for less than a week, you likely won’t want to spend 10 hours or more just getting to where you’re going.
However, if your destination is only 5 or 6 hours away by car, it might be faster to drive once you factor in all of the time it takes to travel by air. That includes the time it take to get to the airport, the hour-plus wait at the gate, the time you’re in the air, the time it takes to get your luggage at baggage claim (assuming your bags didn’t get lost, which will significantly increase the time required) and the time you will spend transferring to your final destination.
The Frustration Factor
The thing that all frequent travelers know that travel can be frustrating. There are flight delays. Motion sickness. Detours. And hundreds of other unforeseen events that can toss a big ol’ monkey wrench into the best laid plans.
So when planning a vacation, well-laid plans should include researching the on-time performance of the flight you have chosen. (The US Department of Transportation requires airline to report this information by flight. You should see it when you check the flight on the carrier’s website.) If you will need to make a connection and change planes, be sure to check both flights.
Driving has some physic benefits. You have the freedom to go when and where you want, the freedom to take a detour or change the destination altogether. And there is the intangible of having more uninterrupted bonding time with your traveling companions.
Still, driving is no guarantee of a frustration-free vacation. You can reduce the chances of a breakdown by prepping your car for a road trip. And you can avoid interstate highway construction delays by road tripping the way my husband and I do—taking the two lane highways through America’s small towns. You might have to stop at a stop sign now and then and it might take as long as the construction-plagued interstate, but it will be more pleasant and you’ll see much more than the exhaust coming out of someone else’s tailpipe.
Choosing Whether to Fly or Drive
Really, all you need to do is a little math. Here’s what to include.
Cost of Driving
- Car prep: Do you need an oil change? Or new tires? Whatever you need, estimate the cost for it here.
- Gas: Check websites like Gasbuddy to find how much gas is per gallon in the areas you will be passing through.
- Food: Will you bring your own travel snacks or buy them along the way?
- Hotel: Decide whether you’re a 5-star traveler or if something less expensive will do. Or maybe you’re close enough to drive straight through and save the hotel cost for the destination.
- Tolls: Or is there a freeway option?
Cost of Flying
- Airfare: Spend a little time online to find out how much the airfare will cost. And be sure to read the fine print to see if there are any hidden costs, like a fee to book a seat on the plane.
- Baggage fees: Or will you carry on?
- Food: Will you need to pay airport prices for a hamburger?
- Transportation to airport: Cab? Uber? public transit? A free ride from Uncle Bob?
- Parking at airport: Check offsite long term parking and apps like Spothero.
- Transportation at destination: Will you need to rent a car? Walk? Include an estimate of the cost.
Be honest about the estimates! Add them up, and then factor in the time and frustration costs to make the final decision.