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?