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

girls driving car on road trip
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With two pandemic summers thankfully in the rearview mirror, people across the country are dusting off their long-postponed warm-weather travel plans and hoping that the third time’s the charm. Unless you’re planning to travel overseas this summer, the biggest financial variable in your vacation budget will be the question of whether you drive or fly.

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The answer depends on a variety of factors, including the distance you travel, the number of days in the trip, 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.

Make Your Money Work for You

Do Your Research

Trip planning starts by creating a spreadsheet, or at least jotting down numbers in a notebook, to compare and contrast.

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 to 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 rideshare or take public transportation? If you’re renting a car, include any expenses you anticipate like parking and gas.

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

  • 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, although you can 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
Make Your Money Work for You

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, which includes two adults and two children, ages six and nine, will travel from Raleigh, N.C., to Orlando, Fla. Your trip will begin on June 14 and you’ll arrive back home on June 21. The distance is roughly 600 miles each way with a travel time by car of about 8 1/2 hours. We’ll use $4.57 as the price of a gallon of gas, the national average as of May 18, according to AAA, and assume your car gets 30 miles to the gallon. For plane tickets, we’ll find the cheapest option on Expedia.

Make Your Money Work for You
FLYING DRIVING
Airfare

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

$166 per person (assuming no fees for checked baggage)
Total: $664 per family
40 gallons of gas: $182.80
Pre-trip maintenance: $100
Total: $282.80
Cost of airport parking Total: $84 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 and free for kids six and under.

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 Total: $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 $934.25 $502.80

The Variables

In this example, the family of four venturing from Raleigh to Orlando would pay about $431 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 airfare will go up by $332. And what if only two people are traveling? Your costs will be reduced by $332, making the difference between flying and driving only about $100.

In this scenario, the destination has public transportation. But what if you need to rent a car? The cost of rental cars is still high because of the pandemic rental fleet selloff and the chip shortage and auto industry inventory crunch that followed. Expedia’s lowest cost to rent a compact car in Orlando in this example week is $287, which you’ll need to add to the trip budget.

The Bottom Line

In this scenario, flying from Raleigh to Orlando will cost you more 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 splurge on some nice meals — or, of course, you can pocket the difference. Conversely, you might decide that the extra expense is worth the money 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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Andrew Lisa contributed to the reporting for this article.

About the Author

Jami Farkas holds a communications degree from California State University, Fullerton, and has worked as a reporter or editor at daily newspapers in all four corners of the United States. She brings to GOBankingRates experience as a sports editor, business editor, religion editor, digital editor — and more. With a passion for real estate, she passed the real estate licensing exam in her state and is still weighing whether to take the plunge into selling homes — or just writing about selling homes.

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