How to decide whether to fly or drive when traveling on a budget
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information.
One of the biggest decisions you have to make when planning your spring and summer getaways is choosing whether to drive or fly to your destination. If you are traveling on a budget, you may assume a road trip is always the cheaper option. However, there are times when a plane ticket can be the best route to an affordable vacation.
Growing up, my family drove everywhere. Each summer was filled with fast-pitch softball tournaments in neighboring states and trips to theme parks, the beach and the mountains. That meant packing everything into the family SUV, going to sleep super early the night before and waking up before the sun to get on the road.
I always assumed driving was the cheaper option, but I’ve learned that there are times when a plane ticket really does cost less than the gas you would need to get from Point A to Point B. This is even more true once you learn how to maximize points and miles for travel.
Of course, that won’t apply to every situation. There are always going to be cases where driving will make more sense, especially if you have a large family or pets in tow. However, there are also plenty of instances where a flight will actually save you time and money on a trip.
How to calculate the cost of driving vs. flying
I’ve always preferred driving home for the holidays over flying. When I moved to New York City, my mom asked me whether I’d still make the drive home for the holidays or if I’d fly. Initially, I said I might drive. New York to Arkansas is a considerably longer drive than North Carolina to Arkansas, but I figured it would be cheaper overall.
After digging into the numbers a little, however, I realized flying would actually be the better option.
I sold my car during my move, which would have greatly increased the price of the road trip. Even if I had kept my car, though, the math still favored the flight over the road trip home.
The drive from my place in New York back home is 1,308 miles, which Google Maps estimates as an almost 21-hour drive. I would have had to break that into two days, which means I’d need to factor in one night at a hotel, round-trip gas expenses and round-trip food costs.
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If I had still had my car, I would have needed to fill up my car five times for the trip, which, at an average of $3.56 per gallon, according to AAA, and around 11 gallons per tank, would be just under $200 in gas one-way, or $400 for the whole trip.
If I stopped around halfway in Knoxville, Tennessee, I could find a cheap hotel for about $100 per night. Round trip, I’d spend at least $600 just on gas and accommodations. Factoring in about $10 per meal, I’d need to budget an additional $120 for meals along the way.
All in, that’s $720 and 42 hours spent wishing I could trade the open road for a cramped seat in economy — even without the cost of a car rental. Even if I used points to pay for my hotel rooms, that would put me at $520 in total.
By comparison, I can usually find round-trip flights from New York to Arkansas between $300 and $500, depending on the specific days I want to fly. A nonstop flight would take just over three hours or closer to five hours if I had a layover. Add in $50 for any food and coffee I’d grab at the airport, and we’re still only at $550 at the top of the price range. Additionally, I’ve saved a total of 30 hours that I could spend with family or friends rather than trying to entertain myself with audiobooks on the long, lonely drive home.
Here are other things you should consider when choosing between driving or flying.
How many people are in your travel party?
Something to consider is that I am a solo traveler. Add in a spouse and three kids, and plane tickets for the whole family would most likely be more expensive than driving — even if you add in any extra gas money needed for a van or SUV.
Use a calculator to help compare costs
How do you determine whether flying or driving is the more affordable trip for you? The best way is to crunch the numbers as I did in the example above.
Consider how much it costs to fill up your car’s gas tank and how many times you’d need to fill your tank for the trip. Add in your estimates for food while you’re on the road and any accommodations you’ll need if it’s a multi-day journey.
Sites like AAA even have easy-to-use gas cost calculators that do most of the work for you. All you have to do is plug in your point of origin, your destination and the make and model of your car to find out how much you’ll pay in gas to get where you are going.
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Then, compare that to flights for everyone taking the trip. Flights on weekends or holidays will likely be more expensive, but if your dates are flexible, you may be able to find a good deal.
Choose a flight to anywhere
If you really want to play a wild card, you can use sites like Google Flights or Skyscanner to search for flights to multiple destinations by typing in only your airport of origin and your travel dates. The results will show pricing to multiple destinations so you can pick the one that best fits your budget.
Consider the time commitment
Finally, you can’t forget the time commitment between driving and flying. For long road trips to get to your final destination, is it worth spending all that time stuck in a car staring at the highway? Would you rather pay more money to be able to spend that time at home or at your destination? Or is the journey part of what makes the trip appealing?
I’d always assumed driving was the more economical option because that’s what we did when I was younger. Of course, we rarely stopped on the way — for a 20-hour drive, my parents would switch drivers halfway through the trip so the other could get a break while my siblings and I slept in the back. Also, plane tickets for a family of five would have been much more than the single ticket I have to buy myself now that I’m an adult.
For my family, driving was almost always the most affordable way to travel.
However, I’m learning that isn’t always the case for my own travels within the U.S. Sometimes, quick road trips are a great way to save money. Flying can also be a surprising way to save money (and precious time) when booking your domestic getaways this year.