Calculating If It’s Cheaper To Drive Or Fly Somewhere

By Janet Siroto · August 25, 2023 · 12 minute read

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Calculating If It’s Cheaper To Drive Or Fly Somewhere

Maybe you are heading up the California coast to visit Yosemite, or perhaps there’s a wedding coming up at a small town in the Midwest that you definitely can’t miss. You may be stymied about whether it makes more sense to drive to your destination or fly and which is kinder on your wallet. There are a variety of factors to consider, such as how quickly you need to get where you are going; how expensive airfare is vs. a rental car and hotel room; whether you love road tripping or perhaps hate flying; and more.

So before you start booking flights for a getaway or thinking about tuning up your car for an adventure across several states, take a look at whether it’s cheaper to fly or drive. It may be an obvious choice or a personal decision, but here’s how to size up the dollars and cents.

Pros and Cons of Driving vs Flying

It can be easy to assume that the main benefit of flying is saving time and the main advantage of driving is saving money. However, it’s not quite so simple. In fact, the pros and cons of driving vs. flying depend on the type of trip you’re taking, your priorities, and your personal preferences. Here’s a look at some of the factors worth weighing.

Pros of Driving

When thinking about driving vs. flying, there are plenty of good reasons to get behind the wheel rather than head to the airport.

•   When it comes to the “is driving cheaper than flying” question, the answer is often yes! It can be significantly cheaper to travel by car than by air, especially if you’re going with a large group of people. After all, six people flying to Vegas will each need their own ticket, but they can all pile into the same minivan.

•   Also, will you need a car when you get to your destination? If you’re going to, say, spend a week at a national park that’s a two-hour flight from home, it might be less costly to drive there. That way, you don’t need to rent a vehicle as well as buy plane tickets so the money you need to save in a travel fund could be a lower amount.

•   When considering the flying vs. driving conundrum, it’s worth noting that traveling by car can have other benefits beyond saving money. You can easily indulge in some sightseeing. Traveling by car offers flexibility so you can see the sights you want, whether that’s a quick detour through a national forest on your way across the country or planning a route that takes you from the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., to the National Blues Museum in St. Louis, to the Buffalo Bill Museum in Colorado. You can have fun and create memories while saving money on family travel too.

•   Driving also means you can more easily access any type of food your heart desires, not just what’s available in the airport. Some people even plan their road trip routes to go through foodie cities — whether that means enchiladas and sopapillas in Santa Fe or pierogies in Pittsburgh — around dinner time to take advantage of local restaurants. (Of course, making smart choices about where to stop and what to order is one way to save money on a road trip.)

•   Driving is likely more comfortable than being constrained to an airplane seat. If you’re six foot six and aren’t interested in spending five hours with your knees touching your chin, you might be more inclined to ride out a trip in the car — where you can stop to stretch as often as you need.

•   If you’re traveling with a pet, such as a large dog, a car could be more comfortable for both of you as well.

One other benefit? Science shows us that the anticipation that builds in advance of a trip may lead to a happiness boost before the trip and could even help you enjoy the vacation more. That means that a long drive to get to your vacation destination might make the trip even sweeter when you finally do arrive.

Cons of Driving

Let’s be honest, though: When thinking about diving vs. flying, hitting the road has its downsides, too, however.

•   One of the more significant disadvantages, of course, is that you can’t just sit back and relax while you’re driving — you’re the one responsible for making sure the car gets there safely.

•   It also can take more work to plan a trip, as you have to choose what route you’ll take, where you’ll stay, and whether you’ll be hitting drive-throughs from California to New York or making reservations at noteworthy restaurants along your route. If you don’t do that prep work, you may end up piling into any motel you can find and grabbing food at any dingy rest stop. Nothing like driving for hours with greasy fast-food bags stinking up your car with stale french fry smell, right?

•   There’s also the consideration of the cost of gas and wear and tear to your car — though there are, of course, steps you can take to increase mileage and save money on gas. When you get on the road, you are risking a flat tire or worse, so it’s worth thinking about how you’d handle a roadside emergency. And the fact that you need to bring your A game and alertness for a long-haul trip.

•   And we can’t forget one of the main reasons many people choose to fly vs. drive: it takes a whole lot longer to drive than to fly. Think about cruising cross-country by car versus hopping a red-eye from Los Angeles to New York: One takes days, the other takes hours.

Pros of Flying

Booking a plane ticket is often the best option when deciding whether flying vs. driving is the best way to travel.

•   It’s faster — a whole lot faster! If you’re taking a business trip to attend a crucial half-day meeting in another city, your highest priority might be the speed of flying in and out. That time-saving advantage is one of the biggest pros when it comes to choosing to fly. A trip that could take days of driving might only take hours in the air.

•   Air travel can be more relaxing. You’re free to close your eyes and snooze away the hours until you arrive at your final destination. There’s no question of what route to take, where to stop, and when you’ll leave and arrive — the airline has that all figured out for you. You can take off from New York and wake up in L.A. ready to roll, without the exhaustion of a multi-day road trip holding you back.

•   Flying can be cheaper than driving. How, you ask? If your road trip involves an overnight stay at a hotel, it might tip the car travel into more expensive territory. The driving vs. flying cost might wind up surprising you!

Cons of Flying

Of course, there are downsides to flying to mull over also.

•   You’ll pay a premium in exchange for a speedy arrival and the convenience of flying. It is often more expensive to fly than to drive — possibly a lot more expensive. And if you are traveling with your squad or family, that price differential will be magnified.

Sometimes, on short flights, the time differential between flying and driving isn’t that much. If you’re thinking of taking a 60-minute flight versus a five-hour drive, it might be a wash when you think about getting to the airport, going through security, waiting to board, retrieving your luggage…you might actually be better off driving in terms of time invested.

•   You might also have to sacrifice a little personal space and dignity when flying. Airplane seats can be a tight squeeze, and more and more people are packed onto flights. This means that you can pretty much count on being kind of uncomfortable while you engage in a silent but cutthroat battle with your seatmate over who gets to use the single armrest.

•   And if you’re a nervous flier, the anxiety of air travel might outweigh the benefit of getting to your destination sooner.

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Is It Cheaper to Fly or Drive?

For many people, the factor of whether it’s cheaper to fly or drive will determine how they travel. While you may be tempted to merely compare ticket prices to gas prices to decide which one is cheaper, don’t forget to take into account extra costs like eating out, luggage fees, and hotel rooms. These can wind up emptying out your checking account rather quickly! Let’s break this down for you in a bit more detail.

Calculating the Cost of Driving

Here are a few travel costs of driving to consider:

•   Gas

•   Hotel rooms

•   Eating out

•   Car maintenance

•   Possibility of having to rent a car if you don’t own one or yours isn’t available

•   Tolls

Hotel Rooms

There is of course a huge price spread in hotel rooms. If you are going to stay in a motel when driving, it will be much more affordable than pulling into a city and staying at a posh hotel fee where even garaging your car can be a considerable expense.

Maybe, however, you could use points from your rewards credit card to book a room, or perhaps you are a frequent guest at a hotel chain and could bring the cost down. These are among the many ways to lower hotel costs.

Opportunity Cost of Time Spent Driving

Another thing to consider is what you lose if you spend more than, say, a day driving. Do you have to take unpaid time off from work? Do you need to hire childcare since your kids are in school while you’re away? Think through the implications before you opt for a long haul on the highway.

Calculating the Cost of Flying

Now, think about the costs associated with flying:

•   Ticket

•   Seating choice

•   Luggage fees

•   Eating out

•   Transportation to and from the airport

•   Airport parking

•   Car rental, if needed

Rental Cars

The cost and availability of a rental car can vary tremendously. If you are renting a car in a small suburb, it likely won’t cost as much as hopping into the driver’s seat over Memorial Day weekend at a major city’s airport. Your destination city, location of car pickup and dropoff, size and style of car, and timing will all matter.

You can scan what rental company or credit card rewards might lower the price if you need to rent a car after a flight.

Accessing Remote Areas

Another factor to consider is where you’re heading to. Not all locations are easily and affordably accessed by plane. For instance, if you are heading to a destination wedding in the Rockies over the summer, you may find that the direct flights that were plentiful and lower-priced during ski season have become sparse, booked-up, and pricier than you expected.

Or you might find that the closest airport is hours away from your destination, so you will be renting a car and driving anyway. That could tip the balance and lead you to decide to drive the whole way vs. flying.

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A Rule of Thumb for Deciding Which Saves You More Money

As far as rules of thumb, some say for trips of around 600 miles or shorter, it’s wiser to drive.

For longer trips, the value of driving will decline as the distance increases, unless of course you want to experience the pleasures of a road trip and stop off at some other places en route.

Obviously, there are also such variables as whether you are traveling a common and readily available route, such as from New York, New York, to Orlando, Florida, or if you are covering ground between two Western US locations that have infrequent and expensive flights.

Luckily, in this day and age, you don’t need a map and a calculator to figure out which transportation method will be more cost-efficient. You can easily use an online calculator like this one from Travelmath or this
from BeFrugal to get an idea of how travel costs may compare whether you are driving or flying. Thankfully, technology is here to help you make the best choice for whatever trip you may be planning. Bon voyage!

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Is driving cheaper than flying?

Driving typically costs less than flying, but if you wind up needing to pay for lodging en route, it might not be as good a deal. You can use online tools to compare driving and flying costs for different itineraries.

How much more expensive is flying than driving?

Flying is typically more expensive than driving, but it’s important to consider other factors. For instance, if you fly to your destination, will you then need to rent a car? It can be helpful to use online tools to compare costs and find the best deal for the particular itinerary you have planned.

Is it more energy-efficient to fly or drive?

In recent years, studies have indicated that flying may be better than driving. However, the answer to this question depends on how many people are in your party. When multiple people share a road trip, the emissions per person are lowered. This, in turn, makes driving more environmentally friendly than taking to the skies. But if the choice is flying or driving cross-country solo, you’d be better off with the plane.

Should you drive 5 hours or fly?

If you drive five hours at 60 miles per hour, you will cover about 300 miles. That is considered a fairly short trip and so you may well be better off driving.

Is it better to drive 12 hours or fly?

If you drive 12 hours at 60 miles per hour, you will cover about 720 miles. That’s a significant distance, and it will deprive you of a day and a half of productive time, whether that means earning money or taking care of your family. Only you can assess which option makes more sense, based on cost, scheduling, and other factors.

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