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Fly or Drive: Which is Cheaper? (A Definitive Answer, Once and For All)

As gas prices soared this past year, several writers tried to determine if it was less expensive to fly rather than to drive to a given location. Gas prices still hover around the $2.80 per gallon mark for regular grade nationwide, but prices for airline tickets are hard to nail down. The cost of that latter mode of transportation will depend on how early you purchase your tickets, how many individuals you plan to take with you, and your point of departure and destination. Since some of you might be pondering how to travel over upcoming holidays, this guide might help you to make a decision on whether to fly or drive.

We’ve provided a few comparisons, along with some tips on how to save money along the way. Our figures, which were current at the time this article was written (shortly after Labor Day 2007), were derived from the AAA Fuel Cost Calculator for gas, and from Priceline for airline comparisons. We want to note the date, as gas and airline costs usually escalate around holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Roundtrip Chicago to San Francisco

We chose a Chicago to San Francisco round trip for the first example, as both cities contain major airports with regular flights between both destinations. As for the automobile mode, we chose a 2007 Toyota Camry Hybrid for the trip. There are two city-dwelling (Chicagoan) adults on this trip, which is scheduled for a non-holiday week during late September.

Driving

According to AAA, the distance round trip between Chicago and San Francisco equals 4212 miles, and gas price equals $332.04. The driver would use 110.84 gallons in this particular Toyota. Time to drive this distance would equal about seventy hours, or thirty-five hours one way (one and one-half days) if the driver maintained a consistent sixty mph speed with no stops for food, gas, rest stops, or hotels.

Flying

American Airlines and United Airlines coach tickets were the least expensive from Chicago’s O’Hare airport (ORD) to San Francisco’s International airport (SFO). The cost of the flight, with two stops at Omaha, NE (OMA) and Denver, CO (DEN), departing 22 September and returning on 29 September (Saturdays), came to $272 per person, or $544 total (including all taxes and fees), at Priceline. Trip duration averaged at eight and one-half hours.

Tips

Although flying to San Francisco from Chicago cost $211.96 more than driving, the advantage comes with time saved. Unless you and your companion are willing to trade off on driving and sleeping in the car, you would need to add hotel room costs into the driving total. If you drove a little over ten hours per day, that trip would extend to three days, with two hotel rooms at an average of $70 per night, or $140 total. Remember that you’ll be crossing the Rocky Mountains on your trip, and few roads in that area are conducive to exceeding the speed limit. These roads will slow you down, although you could make up that time across Nebraska and in Utah if you’re willing to risk a speeding ticket.

If you choose to take your time, the addition of hotel rooms and food costs to the driving total could easily exceed the difference in price between driving and flying. Of course, you might need to add parking fees to the flight total and food costs as well. But, if you take the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) Blue Line to O’Hare, that ticket would cost a mere $1.75 one way with $.25 transfers. This cost is based upon getting to a Blue Line station by walking (feasible for many inner-city dwellers) or with a ride from a friend. The taxi ride or rental car that you might need upon arrival in San Francisco isn’t figured into this equation.

Finally, if you spend three days driving one way, you’ll spend six out of seven days on the road with only one day in San Francisco. Flying, however, will give you five full days out of seven to enjoy your destination. We also checked a few other dates to see if flying on a Friday or Wednesday on or near the 22 September date would make a difference in the flight cost. The Wednesday date did make a difference. A roundtrip flight booked on 26 September with a return on 3 October was $229 per ticket. So, if you could travel mid-week, that ticket would save $43 per ticket for a total of $86, bringing the difference between flying and driving down to $125.96 (without hotel rooms and food configured into that driving cost). In this case, it would be cheaper and less taxing physically to fly.

Roundtrip Portland, Maine to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

This time a family of four – two adults and two children under age ten – will decide how to travel from Portland, Maine to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to see grandma during Thanksgiving. They own a 1999 Ford Taurus wagon. Thanksgiving 2007 falls on Thursday, 22 November, so this family plans to depart Portland two days prior on Tuesday, 20 November (yes, they took the kids out of school one day early) and depart Pittsburgh on Saturday, 24 November, so they can use Sunday to rest and gather their wits for the upcoming work/school week.

Driving

This time, the mileage equals 1348 round trip, the gas will cost $143.24, and they’ll use 51.84 gallons of gas total. Total driving time equals almost twenty-three hours, or eleven hours one way averaging 60 mph. If the driver is up to driving eleven hours, not including pit stops for bathrooms or for eating, the trip could be concluded in one day. However, many parents might opt for a hotel room with two double beds to take a break at the halfway point. If so, this would add at least $70 to the final cost.

Flying

Unfortunately, the lowest priced roundtrip tickets ($426 per person including taxes and fees for a total of $1,704) between Portland (PWM) and Pittsburgh (PIT) included two stops in Newark, NJ (EWR) and Cincinnati, OH (CVG). Some parents who are traveling with two children won’t want this option unless they’re unwilling to drive and are willing to pay more for the plane tickets. Children might get fussy with all the stops, take-offs, and landings. But, the only other option also includes a stop in Washington, DC (DCA). This roundtrip ticket costs $468 per person. The total for a family of four, with the one stop instead of two, would equal $1,872.

Although some might argue that the time spent flying is better than time spent driving with two kids, in this case that argument doesn’t hold much water. The total time for the flight with just one stop is approximately 5 hours. With two stops, the total time for the flight would be approximately seven hours. Either flight, even with short layover times, comes to only half the time or less than it would take to drive. The least expensive tickets were offered in both cases by Delta in coach.

Tips

Although it might be more fun for the kids to fly than sit in the back seat of a Taurus for eleven hours, the time and money factors are working against the flight option. If this family chose the least expensive airline tickets for a total of $1,704, they would pay $1,560.76 more for those tickets than they would for gas, and they would save only four hours’ drive time. That equates to about $390 per hour for each hour saved on the road. As a parent, I would think about the really nice hotel that our family could stay in along the way for a fraction of that cost. Plus, the family wouldn’t need to rely on a rental car or on a family member to cart the family around in Pittsburgh if they flew.

So, grandma might not be able to spend as much time with her grandchildren as she’d like if the parents spread the trip out over two days both ways, but the family might be much more relaxed than if they took three flights both ways or if they spent more than eleven hours on the road in one day. One way to save money on traveling from Portland to Pittsburgh is to move grandma closer to Portland. Being cut out of the will for an unwillingness to travel over the holidays isn’t an option.

As an alternative mid-price option, this family could choose to rent a newer model car that might prove more comfortable. If they lived in Portland, they might pick up a MiniVan at the airport on the night of 19 November after work, and return that car on the day following their return. At Priceline, a MiniVan goes for $384/week for a total of $464 at National (including taxes and fees). In other words, if that family decides to keep the car for the full week, that $464 would drop to $384. For gas, if they ended up with a 2007 Chrysler Voyager/Town and Country, their fuel costs would equal $148.96. Total cost for the full-week rental would come to $532.96. Add a hotel room for one night and some food, and the total may come to about $700 (hotel room at $70, dinner at $15 per person average, and breakfast at about $10 per person average). This option is still $1,004 less than the least expensive airline ticket.

Roundtrip Atlanta to Pensacola, Florida

A single college student who lives in a dorm in Atlanta is heading home to Pensacola, Florida for Christmas break. The dates of this break are from 20 December 2007 to 6 January 2008. The student doesn’t have an option about when he can travel, as the dorms shut down during the vacation holiday. This student owns a 2000 Volkswagen Jetta.

Driving

AAA states that this student will drive a total of 648 miles round trip, will use 24.92 gallons of gas, and the cost will total $67.20, or $33.60 one way. The trip will take approximately 6 hours if that student drives an average of 60 mph without stops for the bathroom, food, or gas. This is a fairly easy trip on flat land, so the student could leave early in the morning at about 7:00 a.m. and arrive in Pensacola in time for a late lunch if he needs to make two stops.

Flying

According to Priceline, the least expensive ticket for these dates totaled $278 per person, including taxes and fees. But, the flight takes only fifteen minutes, and it’s nonstop (hard to do fifteen minutes with a stop!). Once again, the lowest price was a coach ticket on Delta.

Tips

For a student who doesn’t rely on parental wallets, driving would be the only option. If the student managed to find a person to take along on the trip and who was willing to pay for half the gas, the gas price would drop to $33.60 for the round trip for that student. The flight, on the other hand, comes to about $18.50 per minute in the air, and that cost cannot be shared with another person.

Conclusion

If you followed along using the AAA calculator and Priceline to check the costs for your trip, you might realize that there are many factors that can contribute to costs. Though you might complain about gas prices, there are only a few situations in which flying would be more economically feasible than driving. Most of those factors depend upon unknowns that pertain to any given individual situation.

For instance, if you don’t live near a major airport, you also need to calculate the cost of arriving to and from that airport. Additionally, you may need to travel to your final destination from the arrival airport. Add the time as well as the cost that it takes to travel to and from airports, as those factors may contribute to your final decision on whether to drive or fly.

Some other tips that could help you save money:

  • Rental cars vary in price for the car size, but prices also vary depending upon when you book the car. Online booking is often less expensive than renting the car directly at an airport, and weekly rentals often cost far less than rental times that are less than a week and that are based upon that weekly price.
  • If you travel alone, you can arrange to have family and/or friend meet you and offer access to a vehicle at least part of the time. If you’re traveling alone on a long trip, the flight might cost the same or slightly more (sometimes less for off-season or airline specials) than driving. Driving alone for long periods of time is far less safe than flying as well, as long stretches of highway can lull even the safest driver to sleep.
  • If you plan to travel to multiple destinations, figure time as well as cost into the equation. Sometimes air travel is more advantageous than driving long distances, as you’ll save time flying. If time equals money for you, then flying may be the only alternative.
  • No matter what type of travel you choose, planning ahead can save money, even on holidays. Rental cars and airline tickets are usually less expensive when you can purchase them in advance.
  • If you’re traveling with an infant, you can hold that child for the trip if it isn’t a long one. This will save money on a full price ticket on certain airlines. Be sure to check policies, as they vary from airline to airline. Southwest, for instance, allows one child over fourteen days and under two years of age, to travel for free if that child doesn’t occupy a seat and if that child is traveling with an adult over age twelve. A two-year-old child may be difficult to hold and to entertain on long trips, however.
  • Planning ahead also applies to gas prices. If you plan to drive, you can find less expensive gas stations along the way through GasBuddy.com or through GasPriceWatch.com.
  • Use a credit card for gas, rental cars, and airline tickets that will earn travel bonuses, gas rewards, airline miles, hotel points, or even cash back when you travel. Also, if you’re crossing state lines, stop at the nearest welcome center to pick up a hotel coupon book. The coupons usually are good only if you haven’t booked in advance, although some hotels will take them regardless. Between the rewards cards and coupons, you could save enough money to treat the whole family to a nice dinner on the road.

The differences in price don’t make a difference to someone who would prefer to fly than drive. Plus, if you plan to travel long distances – especially when your time is limited – flying may be your only choice. Finally, New York to London by car isn’t an option. Otherwise, plan to spend money on gas, as driving – in most instances – remains the least expensive way to travel.

Posted:September 25th, 2007 in Transportation No Comments

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