Flying vs. Driving: The Great Vacation Debate

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As I write this, we're in the midst of a road trip that will total roughly 3,000 miles by the time all is said and done. As we were planning this trip, we compared the costs of flying vs. driving and I wanted to share the results with you. Note that I'm just looking at the cost differential as opposed the total cost of our trip. In other words, I'm excluding all the stuff that's the same regardless of how we get there.

If we flew…

For starters, the costs associated with flying… There are six of us, and tickets to our destination have been consistently in the $400-$450 range, so for the sake of this post I'm going to call it $425/person. That's a total of $2,550 for airfare.

Note: I'm ignoring baggage fees because I get free checked bags with the Amex Delta SkyMiles card.

We'd also have to drive ca. 160 miles roundtrip to the airport and pay for parking for ten days. We'll get to mileage costs in a minute, but parking if $10/day at the airport so that's another $100.

At our destination, we'd need local transportation for six people plus our stuff. That means that we'd need to rent a minivan at a going rate of around $1,300 (including taxes and fees) the length of our stay. While you can often get great deals on Hotwire or Priceline, I've never had much luck with this itinerary (it's an annual trip, so there's some history here).

If we drove…

If we were to drive, we'd go around 1,250 miles on the outbound trip and the same coming back. We'd also have about 500 miles in local driving, but that's the same whether we fly or drive. Recall that we'd still have to drive 160 miles (to the airport and back) if we decided to fly.

Looking just at the cost of gas, the 2,340 extra miles (2,500 out and back minus 160 for the airport trip) we'd drive by taking the car would cost around $315 in gas. This assumes the EPA estimated mileage of our Honda Odyssey (28 mpg) and an average cost of $3.50/gallon of gas. Assuming maintenance and tire costs at 5.94 cents/mile (see here; I used the “large sedan” estimates since they didn't have a minivan category) on 2840 miles (the 500 local miles now counts since the wear and tear would be on our own car) that's another $170.

I'm ignoring things like insurance and registration since those are paid for either way, but we do also have to factor in depreciation. Here again I'm going to defer to AAA's numbers, though I could probably refine this using something like Edmunds or Kelley Blue Book. They assume $4,828 in depreciation per 15,000 miles driven, or 32.2 cents/mile. So that's another $915 (more or less).

We split the outbound trip across parts of three days, whereas we hightail it back home at the end. Thus, we spend two extra nights in a hotel on the front end and one extra night in a hotel on the back end. I used Hotwire to score decent rooms at an average of $70/night (including taxes), so hotels are $210.

And finally, we incur some extra incidentals on the road trips (restaurant meals, etc. that we wouldn't have paid for if we had flown). Being generous, I'll call that $150 in each direction, or $300 total.

Totaling it up…

Considering airfare, airport parking, and the cost of a rental car, our transportation costs would have been $3,950 if we had flown. If we had driven (as we did), our estimated transportation costs would total up to $1,910. So, in our case, we saved a little over $2k by driving instead of flying.

Obviously, the numbers will vary with your particular circumstances, but I've found that it's almost always cheaper for us to drive than it is to fly - in part because we have such a big family and the airfare plus large rental vehicle really add up.

Of course, I'm ignoring some of the intangibles (or at least less tangibles) here, such as extra time off work when driving, the flexibility afforded by driving, the misery associated with driving (or flying, as the case may be), and so forth. In our case, the kids actually enjoy the drive (it's part of the adventure!) so that's a plus.

Your experiences…

And now, dear readers, I'm opening it up to you. Have you run the fly vs. drive numbers in the past? Considering all the factors, which do you prefer?

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Flying vs. Driving: The Great Vacation Debate