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Flying vs. Driving: The Great Vacation Debate

Written by Nickel - 19 Comments

       Flying vs. Driving: The Great Vacation Debate

As I write this, we’re in the midst of a road trip that will total roughly 3,000 miles by the time all is said and done. As we were planning this trip, we compared the costs of flying vs. driving and I wanted to share the results with you. Note that I’m just looking at the cost differential as opposed the total cost of our trip. In other words, I’m excluding all the stuff that’s the same regardless of how we get there.

If we flew…

For starters, the costs associated with flying… There are six of us, and tickets to our destination have been consistently in the $400-$450 range, so for the sake of this post I’m going to call it $425/person. That’s a total of $2,550 for airfare.

Note: I’m ignoring baggage fees because I get free checked bags with the Amex Delta SkyMiles card.

We’d also have to drive ca. 160 miles roundtrip to the airport and pay for parking for ten days. We’ll get to mileage costs in a minute, but parking if $10/day at the airport so that’s another $100.

At our destination, we’d need local transportation for six people plus our stuff. That means that we’d need to rent a minivan at a going rate of around $1,300 (including taxes and fees) the length of our stay. While you can often get great deals on Hotwire or Priceline, I’ve never had much luck with this itinerary (it’s an annual trip, so there’s some history here).

If we drove…

If we were to drive, we’d go around 1,250 miles on the outbound trip and the same coming back. We’d also have about 500 miles in local driving, but that’s the same whether we fly or drive. Recall that we’d still have to drive 160 miles (to the airport and back) if we decided to fly.

Looking just at the cost of gas, the 2,340 extra miles (2,500 out and back minus 160 for the airport trip) we’d drive by taking the car would cost around $315 in gas. This assumes the EPA estimated mileage of our Honda Odyssey (28 mpg) and an average cost of $3.50/gallon of gas. Assuming maintenance and tire costs at 5.94 cents/mile (see here; I used the “large sedan” estimates since they didn’t have a minivan category) on 2840 miles (the 500 local miles now counts since the wear and tear would be on our own car) that’s another $170.

I’m ignoring things like insurance and registration since those are paid for either way, but we do also have to factor in depreciation. Here again I’m going to defer to AAA’s numbers, though I could probably refine this using something like Edmunds or Kelley Blue Book. They assume $4,828 in depreciation per 15,000 miles driven, or 32.2 cents/mile. So that’s another $915 (more or less).

We split the outbound trip across parts of three days, whereas we hightail it back home at the end. Thus, we spend two extra nights in a hotel on the front end and one extra night in a hotel on the back end. I used Hotwire to score decent rooms at an average of $70/night (including taxes), so hotels are $210.

And finally, we incur some extra incidentals on the road trips (restaurant meals, etc. that we wouldn’t have paid for if we had flown). Being generous, I’ll call that $150 in each direction, or $300 total.

Totaling it up…

Considering airfare, airport parking, and the cost of a rental car, our transportation costs would have been $3,950 if we had flown. If we had driven (as we did), our estimated transportation costs would total up to $1,910. So, in our case, we saved a little over $2k by driving instead of flying.

Obviously, the numbers will vary with your particular circumstances, but I’ve found that it’s almost always cheaper for us to drive than it is to fly — in part because we have such a big family and the airfare plus large rental vehicle really add up.

Of course, I’m ignoring some of the intangibles (or at least less tangibles) here, such as extra time off work when driving, the flexibility afforded by driving, the misery associated with driving (or flying, as the case may be), and so forth. In our case, the kids actually enjoy the drive (it’s part of the adventure!) so that’s a plus.

Your experiences…

And now, dear readers, I’m opening it up to you. Have you run the fly vs. drive numbers in the past? Considering all the factors, which do you prefer?

Published on July 2nd, 2012
Modified on July 9th, 2012 - 19 Comments
Filed under: Frugality, Travel

About the author: is the founder and editor-in-chief of this site. He's a thirty-something family man who has been writing about personal finance since 2005, and guess what? He's on Twitter!

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19 Responses to “Flying vs. Driving: The Great Vacation Debate”

  1. 1
    Trey Says:

    We are doing a hybrid of the fly/drive. My pregnant wife is flying with our 10 month old daughter. We looked at all of the same information you did but there was an additional HUGE factor – our 10 month old does not travel well. So we weighed the cost of buying some type of interactive entertainment like a tablet or iPad against the cost of a plane ticket and out sanity. The trip is two hours in a plane or eight hours in a car. Ultimately when the round trip flight price dropped in half – we bought her a ticket. I’ll drive with all of the luggage – a friend will drop them off at the airport to save on airport parking.

  2. 2
    Smart Military Money Says:

    Nickel,
    What a breakdown! I’m glad you figured out how to save more than $2,000. That’s a big difference.

    I’ve definitely run the comparisons as I travel the Midwest (from Columbia, Mo.) almost monthly. Being in the middle of a state always requires I drive about 120 miles to an airport.

    Recently, I traveled to Washington, D.C. by plane. It was more costly, but I had a limited amount of time and the ridiculous drive from here would’ve added several days to my trip, which I calculated as loss of wages. In the end, I didn’t spend much more flying when I accounted for money I wouldn’t have made.

    -Christian L.

  3. 3
    Rob O. Says:

    If there’s only 2 or 3 people traveling, this can come a lot closer to being a wash. And as you mentioned, don’t forget to factor in your time. If you can fly out in the morning and be at your destination in time for lunch versus driving 12-15 hours and arriving just in time to collapse, then you’ve lost a full day on both ends of the trip. And you’re likely to be far less rested when it’s time to go back to work.

  4. 4
    Tim Says:

    next time you fly and need to rent a vehicle, check to see if there are any car dealerships near the airport you are flying into that rent vehicles. I friend of mine mentioned this to me once and I now do it every time the family flies to Milwaukee for an extended period. The place we use actually picks us up at the airport for free. Easily saves 25-33% of the price of an airport rental.

  5. 5
    Lance@MoneyLife&More Says:

    The more people you are taking the better chance that driving will come out on top. If you’re going by yourself flying could indeed be cheaper depending on where you are visiting and if you have to rent a car or not. Great analysis!

  6. 6
    NCN Says:

    Very thorough and interesting. With our three kids, it’s usually cheaper to drive, but we’d have to factor in two hotel rooms for any stops along the way. One thing we’ve found, to make the hotel stay a bit cheaper, is to go w/ a “suite” instead of a standard room. At nicer places, there will be a door, creating two bedrooms instead of just the one. Be safe and have fun!
    -NCN

  7. 7
    nickel Says:

    Trey: We’ve done the hybrid approach before. When our youngest was just an infant (and likewise didn’t travel well), my wife flew ahead with him and our second youngest and I drove the other two. That saved the cost of two airfares plus the rental on the other end — though we used to live a bit closer to the destination so the drive was also less of an issue.

  8. 8
    nickel Says:

    NCN: I totally agree on booking a suite — or even a full blown condo — when we’re at a destination. It’s a huge sanity saver to have the extra space and if you get a place with a kitchen (or at least kitchenette) you can save a ton on food. On the road, we just book a regular room and the kids crash on the floor in sleeping bags. While most rooms are limited to four (or five if there is a pullout) at the most, we’ve never run into a problem. Just don’t advertise that there are more of you than the room will technically accomodate. Of course, if you’re not comfortable with that, then ‘fess up and book two rooms. ;-)

  9. 9
    Funny about Money Says:

    Interesting analysis.

    Personally, I no longer fly, because IMHO the conditions associated with air travel today are abusive. Since I don’t have to fly on business, I don’t need to be treated like that.

    If I can’t get there in a car, I don’t go there.

  10. 10
    PTAMom Says:

    Re: Funny About Money’s comment…. I too have started to factor in the potential of invasive searches at the airports in our drive versus flying deliberations. In the end it is just not worth it to me to take the chance that my 15 and 12 year old children could end up being treated inappropriatly either by screeners who are only doing their jobs or the occasional employee who may be overdoing it.

    Yes, we’ll definitely be driving.

  11. 11
    Noadi Says:

    To balance the issues of screening you have to consider relative safety of each mode of travel. Chances of death while driving is almost 40 times higher than by plane for the same distance traveled.

    I’m just playing devils advocate here. I’m not a big fan of big vacation trips so it’s not a decision I generally need to make.

  12. 12
    Bryan Says:

    Major factors – what is more comfortable to the person travelling? Is there enough time to hit a destination by road? Is there an airport close enough to a destination?

    Growing up, I spent more than enough time in the back of a van travelling 1000+ miles per day – yes – 7 AM to nearly midnight. Yet, as an adult, I am not always fond of standing in line with several thousand of my closest friends waiting to be microwaved before I step on a plane.

  13. 13
    Karen Says:

    I LOVE road trips. I like to stop along the way to see whatever is there to see. It is relaxing. On the way back I choose an alternate route. Great way to see our beautiful country! Don’t forget to take along all your favorite tunes!

  14. 14
    Sam Borman Says:

    Excellent analysis of travel costs. I travel from Louisiana to South Dakota several times a year (2 adults, 2 kids). I have done a similiar cost comparison of flying vs driving. In my situation, driving (1,250 miles 1-way) is always less expensive than flying.

  15. 15
    Michael Says:

    While I can understand the pov of the larger family’s budget concerns, even as a single person, I now find driving the trip from Wisconsin to Florida a bargain compared to the torture of flying. Since it’s a fairly predictable 2 day drive, I usually front load the trip with a super early departure on day one, getting to slightly better than 1/2 way mark that evening, so I can pull in at the folks around dinner time on day 2. I’ve learned to relax and take my time, put-putting along the interstates under my own steam.

    If I could truly get there in 3 or 4 hours, I would gladly fly, but those days are long gone. Next time I go I’ll keep track of costs, but even if I am spending slightly more to drive, the cost of the trip overall feels less expensive!
    mc

  16. 16
    Warren Says:

    A depreciation of $4800 per 15k miles sounds like in 5 years your $30k van is only worth $6k .. which seems like an awful lot of loss to me.

    The $1300 for 2 weeks of a minivan also sounds high – are you sure you checked all available rental options – Dollar, Budget, off-airport, Rent-a-Wreck, etc? Off airport locations are generally as much as 50% cheaper than at-airport (I’ve seen this true in the city I live in and many others).

    Did you consider taking the train? I’ve done that a few times, and while not always a lot less than flying, it includes meals if you get a room (check options for your specific travel plans). It’s about the same time as driving, but much more relaxing.

    Also, wrt baggage fees, the vast majority of flyers can save money by purchasing what they need (shampoo, deodorant, hair spray, etc) when they arrive – especially for a family vacation, and carry-on their bags. Also consider the cost of using the washer and dryer at the hotel or a local laundromat vs taking enough clothes for 2 weeks. I never pay baggage fees on my status airline, but I also travel for work.

  17. 17
    Jackie Sheldon Says:

    When it comes to family vacations it’s all about the memories. All our best memories come from random stops on roadtrips. Couldn’t recall one fond memory based on flying. Have minivan will travel is my mantra!

  18. 18
    Evan Says:

    When comparing the driving vs. flying calcs before it seems to me the more people you have “splitting” the car costs the further the numbers get from each other.

  19. 19
    J Says:

    We did the exact cost comparison for a trip to syracuse. It was around 500 each for my me, my wife, and baby (1000). We ended up doing southwest (free bags) to baltimore for 180 a piece (360 total). We then rented a car at the airport with unlimited miles for 200$. We were lucky my wifes sister lives about an hour away so we stayed one night there then drove 5 hours to syracuse. All in all it was half price to do the fly 1.5 hours then drive 5 hours. If we drove straight there it would’ve been 15hours (wasn’t doing 15 hours with a 16month old :) ).

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