Fly Vs. Drive: We Break Down the Costs

I’m traveling to at least four social media conferences this year, and usually, I would nab a plane ticket and book a night or two’s stay.  It would run me less than $1,000, and I would be gone for no more than 3-4 days.  This year, however, I’ve found that increasing airline costs, a new baby, and the hassle at the airport have warranted a good, hard look at alternative means of transportation.  Here is what I’ve learned:

Photo: Frank

What does it cost in time?

A typical flight from Omaha, NE to New York is less than 3.5 of actual flying time.  Add in the hour to the airport, the recommended 90 minutes arrival before departure for security and bag checking, layovers, and boarding/deplane times, and you have a grand total of 8 hours dedicated to getting there. That’s a full day of getting to someplace that you won’t spend in the office, with your family, or (if you’re like me) sleeping – I just can’t fall asleep on planes.

Compare that with the time of driving from Omaha to New York.  Yes, it’s a stretch, and it’s most definitely not for the weak, carsick, or anyone with no time to take off to explore the countryside.  A drive from Omaha to New York will run about 21 hours, not including stops and overnights.  It’s almost three times as long on the time commitment, as well as extremely taxing.  You will need to take many days off work to get there via car – approximately 3.5 days, if you go with minimal rest stops.

What does it cost in cash?

This is where a number of variables can come into play.  Assuming you are traveling alone, the costs of using an airline can be broken out as:

Plane ticket with fees: $400,  Airport parking: $15,  Transportation to/from airport: $60,  Meals: $25

Total cost to fly: Less than $500

This seems very reasonable at first glance. Compare that to the cost of driving your own vehicle:

Gasoline (26 MPG at $3.15 per gallon): $155

Meals for 3 days: $60 – 70 (saving some for packing your own lunch in a cooler)

Add in wear and tear on your vehicle, and you could be looking at around $300+ for taking your ride to NYC.

Benefits to flying

All costs aside, the main benefit to flying is time saved.  There is also the amount of energy you can expect to reserve by having someone else do the transporting.  (Flying is exhausting for many, but probably not nearly as taxing as a three day journey across the country.)  It’s possible to multi-task on the flight, using time to nap, catch up on some office work, or even catch a flick on your laptop.  While things can go wrong with flights (delays, cancellations, and less-than-pleasant seat mates can occur), it’s a generally reliable way for a single person to get to where they need to go for a budget-friendly price tag.

Benefits to driving

My family is actually planning to drive to the east coast this spring.  We have a total of 7 people in our family, and we figured that it wasn’t even possible to pay for the 2 adults and 5 kids to take a flight (could you imagine the security hassle in an airport?) In addition to the money saved on airfare (approx. $2,000), we are using the trip to see some sights and incorporate real-life adventure into our existing homeschool curriculum.  Families don’t have to be as large as ours to see real cost savings in this area.  Just two or three people can see the cost to rent a car, buy gas, and stay a few nights in an affordable hotel rival the cost to take everyone via airplane – and you can turn it into an experience that you’ll remember for a lifetime.  (Can you say that your layover in Chicago was as valuable?)

If you’re a get-it-done, no frills type of single traveler with little room in your budget or calendar for exploration or detours, flying is still the most affordable way to go.  If you have a growing brood, need to discover your country land, or just feel like having an adventure for once, transportation via car can be just as affordable – and possibly offer a better ROI.  Which would you prefer to do?

8 Responses to Fly Vs. Drive: We Break Down the Costs

  1. In your example you forgot to add in the cost of parking your car in NYC, which would take a big chunk out of your “savings.” And hotels along the way? (I assume you’re not driving 21 hours straight both ways…).

    Obviously a trip with the family (or even one extra person) tips the scales. But for a solo traveler your example is a real stretch.

  2. Thanks for your comment! You are correct in assuming that most people will need a place to crash along the way. I didn’t include this in the figure for transportation, because it isn’t really considered transportation and it can be avoided in the following instances: Many people will stay with friends and family along the way, or opt to travel with another person who can take turns with the driving. A zero-cost in this area is possible.. although not always practical for a single traveler, as you mentioned. The parking is a brilliant point 😉

    Your mileage will vary according to your situation. The article was to present the bare minimum, base cost of travel alone, and will flux upward to accommodate such realities. Again, the single traveler will almost always come out ahead by flying, but depending on your lifestyle, driving can be just as “valuable”. Thanks again!

  3. I enjoyed this article. Although the example used, a business trip, wasn’t the best example for my purposes, because travel IS sometimes a business expense, I thought there were some great points brought up for personal travelling. We are finding it more and more difficult to travel as a family these days (there are 4 of us), due to both cost and hassle. There is something to be said about the family road trip – you can plan mini side trips on your way and let your vacation start the minute you get in the car. Not to mention, the terrific cost savings you’ll net on a family of four. Thats not to say that plane trips are a thing of the past…some places you just can’t get to without one – just make sure you start saving now!

  4. It’s an interesting article, but I don’t think you’ve really done justice to following through on the original idea.

    Rarely, I think, people will find such parallels in their need for business and leisure travel that they can be done in the same place and at the same time. Who really wants to drag their family to that business seminar you need to attend in Memphis? And driving there from Seattle, where I choose to live? Are you kidding me?

    Additionally, business travel is a necessity, whereas leisure is just the opposite. I really like to ‘sandbox’ these things so that when I’m on vacation, I’m not thinking about work, and vice versa. If you have your own business, these costs cane become tax advantages at the end of the year. You cannot write off your family vacation. If you are traveling for your corporation, all of your expenses should be paid for by them.

    I will admit that as of late, air travel is not the true bargain it once was. I recall fondly the days of $250 round-trip, non-stop flights form Seattle to Washington DC or New York. But, if you truly value your time, air travel is still the best value. By far.

  5. Saying that you didn’t include the cost of hotels along the trip because that’s not technically a “travel cost” is disingenuous at best. The cost of the hotel is one that you wouldn’t be incurring if you flew and most people don’t have friends in every possible city between their destinations where they can crash for a night.

    Also when driving you have to consider opportunity cost. Sure I’ll spent 8 hours between the airport and transportation and the flight itself, but I can do things during those 8 hours. I can be on the phone with clients or colleagues (when not actively on the flight). I can work on my laptop, read reports, etc., etc., while on the plane. While driving, I can’t do any of that. I have to be actively focused on driving.

    All of that said, I prefer to drive most of the time when I travel and will gladly bear the extra cost. Primarily I prefer to drive because when I travel for business, I carry a lot of equipment that I’m not willing to check on a plane. But I’m not going to try to convince myself that driving is less expensive … because it just isn’t.

  6. Thanks, KH! I agree that it’s possible to multitask on a flight — that’s why I mentioned it as a perk to flying. Opportunity cost most definitely needs to be factored in. Appreciate your comments!

  7. Very good and timely article with March break just around the corner.

    We have 7 in our family too and I ran the numbers on flying verses driving from Toronto to Orlando (approximately the same distance as Omaha to New York, and your numbers are bang on. Round trip drive is about $350 in gas (using, while the 7 plane tickets would be about $3000. Don’t forget the added hassel of flying with kids, security, etc.

    Granted there’s probably a couple nights in a motel and a bit of wear-and-tear on the car, but at least you have a car while you are there. If you can take the extra time, it can be a great bonding experience for the family.

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