Flying vs. Driving: Which Is More Cost Effective for Travel This Year?

Shot of an adorable little girl going for a walk with her parents on the beach.
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Summer vacation is just around the corner. You have the time off work, and you’ve settled on a destination. But before the fun begins, you’ve got the trip details to iron out. And that can be anything but fun.

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The biggest decision, the one from which all the planning dominoes will fall, is this one: Will you fly or drive?

That depends on a variety of factors, including how long the road trip is, how many days you have for your vacation, if you want to sightsee along the way, if you’ll need a car at your destination and, of course, cost.

The last one — cost — is the biggest variable. Unfortunately, no magic formula, such as X dollars per mile traveled, exists for consumers to calculate airfare. It will take some work to figure out if flying or driving will be the most cost-effective for you.

Do Your Research

Trip planning starts by creating a spreadsheet, or at least jotting it down in a notebook, to record what you find.

Make Your Money Work for You

Read: The Cost To Book Last-Minute Summer Travel to Top US Destinations

Your first entry will be the number you find when you search for flights that fit your itinerary. From there, build out the costs of flying. They include:

  • Parking your car at the airport for the duration of your trip if you don’t have someone to drop you off. Alternatively, if you will use a ride-share service or a taxi to get the airport, add that.
  • Fees assessed for checking your bags on the plane
  • Eating at the airport, if your trip has a long layover
  • Getting around at your destination. Will you rent a car, book a ride-share or take public transportation? If you’re renting a car, include any expenses you anticipate paying to park and for gas.

With that on your spreadsheet, move on to the costs of driving:

  • Gas
  • Pre-trip car maintenance, which includes a tire rotation and oil change at a minimum
  • Meal expenses along the way
  • Lodging, if your trip is long enough to have to stop for one or more nights. Note: Exclude this step if you’d be paying for a hotel at the destination anyway if you fly. Include it if your lodging costs at the other end are free, such as staying with family.
  • Parking costs and tolls

See: 10 Credit Cards To Consider for Travel Rewards

The Intangibles

Your decision about flying or driving probably won’t be based on cost alone. There are other considerations when deciding your method of transportation.

  • How long the trip will take: If your destination is 1,200 miles away, for example, it will take you two days to drive there and two to get back. If your vacation is only a week, you’ll be spending more time in the car than you will having fun.
  • Are there sights you’d like to see while driving, or do you have family or friends to visit along the way?
  • Is anyone in your traveling party afraid to fly or unable to follow COVID-19 protocols that the airline might have?
  • Will your children be too restless on a long car drive?
  • Is your car in tip-top shape to make the trip?

Calculating the Costs

In this scenario, let’s say your family of two adults and two children, ages 6 and 9, will travel from Raleigh, North Carolina, to Orlando, Florida. Your trip will begin Aug. 14 and you need to be home Aug. 21. The distance is roughly 600 miles (each way) with a travel time by car of about 8 1/2 hours. We’ll use $3.04 as the average price of a gallon of gas and assume your car gets 30 miles to the gallon.

Make Your Money Work for You

For plane tickets, we’ll find the cheapest option.

Check Out: The Best and Worst Airlines for Cheap Flights

FLYING DRIVING
Airfare

Or gas and car prep (oil change, tires rotated at minimum)

$136 per person (assuming no fees for checked baggage)

Total: $544 per family

40 gallons of gas: $121.60

Pre-trip maintenance: $100

Total: $221.60

Cost of airport parking Total: $80 at Raleigh-Durham International Airport Total: $0
Public transportation during trip SunRail passes are $42.50 for the week for adults, $21.25 for ages 7-18.

Total: $106.25

You might want to leave your car parked where you’re staying to avoid parking fees in the city and mix in SunRail with day passes.

Estimate: $50

Parking and tolls $0 Estimate: $50
Food costs during travel $40 per day

Total: $80 for two days

$60 a day for a mixture of stops on the road and food you’ve packed.

Total: $120 for two days

Trip total $810.25 $441.60

The Variables

In this example, the family of four venturing from Raleigh to Orlando would pay about $370 more to fly than to drive.

But what if you have four children? Your driving costs will be altered only slightly for meals, but your costs to fly will go up by $272. And what if only two people are traveling? Your costs will be reduced by $272, making the difference between flying and driving about $150.

In this scenario, the destination has public transportation. But what if you need to rent a car? The cost of rental cars is soaring because of a shortage created by agencies selling off cars following the plunge in demand caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The lowest cost to rent a compact car in Orlando in the August example week is $527, which you’ll need to add to the trip budget.

More: How To Save Money on Rental Cars for Your Upcoming Trip

The Bottom Line

In this scenario, the cost to fly from Raleigh to Orlando is less than $400 more than driving. Once you are armed with all of the information you need for your vacation destination, you’ll have a decision as to which is more cost-effective for your family. It’s all a matter of budget and preference. You can spend that difference on adventures during your trip or splurges on some nice meals, or you can pocket it. Conversely, you might decide that the price is worth it to get to your destination faster. Either way, getting this decision out of the way should make the rest of the planning much easier.

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Last updated: May 26, 2021

Flying vs. Driving: Which Is More Cost Effective for Travel This Year?
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