When It Makes Sense to Drive Instead of Fly

Road Trip Car

The holidays bring many things: festive decorations, various holiday foods, crackling fireplaces, and general merriment and cheer. Oh, and travel. Lots and lots of travel. Looking at expensive plane tickets during this time of year, it’s pretty clear the air-travel industry is aware of this, and who are they to pass up the chance to leverage a little supply and demand? Airlines may love it, but at times, the juxtaposition of Thanksgiving and Christmas–just 30 days this year–can put plenty of strain on even the fattest wallets. In some cases, it can make you wonder whether it’s more affordable to drive instead of fly.

Our friends at YourMechanic had the same question. Using the Fly or Drive Calculator from BeFrugal.com, they ran the numbers on some hypothetical trips, including Atlanta to Disney World and New York to San Francisco, to figure out whether or not flying is always the most cost-effective method of transportation.

As it turns out, depending on the distance, flying is often not your best route. Consider the time spent at the airport–checking bags, rushing through security, and all those hours we’ve spent sitting on the tarmac–and the cost of getting to and from the airport, and for trips less than 500 miles, the time savings end up being pretty negligible. Factor in increased airfare during the holidays and the nation’s current cheap-gas situation, and we’re pretty thrilled to recommend driving, instead (we’re a car-shopping website, after all).

BeFrugal’s calculator is a handy tool. I went down to Chapel Hill, North Carolina from Boston, Massachusetts, and back this year for Thanksgiving. While a typical flight would cost around $250 to $300, the cheapest options for my Thanksgiving trip were closer to the $500-$600 range. Add in the cost of boarding my dog for 3-4 days (who was more than happy to join in on a car ride), and things were starting to look a little out of hand. Of course, it wasn’t just myself heading down south for the holiday. Tack on a traveling companion, and flying was going to cost close to $1,500.

The drive to North Carolina is about 750 miles. In a 2009 Honda Fit, 750 miles isn’t exactly a relaxing, smooth, or quiet jaunt. Considering the car’s manual transmission and potential traffic around New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, and the prospect of driving during the Thanksgiving holiday is more than a little nauseating. However, with family offering up a free bed in New Jersey along the way, I didn’t have to worry about paying for a hotel if I couldn’t make it in one shot. All in, BeFrugal’s Fly or Drive calculator pegged driving expenses at $216.26 for the round trip: $96.28 for fuel, $69.28 worth of wear and tear on the car, and about $50 worth of tolls. Best of all, unlike with an airplane, you don’t have to pay for an extra seat in a car. Although traveling with another person would nearly double the cost of flying, it effectively halved the cost of driving.

There’s more to the calculation, too. No matter who’s heading the Environmental Protection Agency, we are living in an increasingly environmentally conscious world. Using data from the EPA and an organization called Greenhouse Gas Protocol, BeFrugal measures the C02 impact for both means of travel. Flying delivers nearly 2,128 pounds of C02 into the environment, compared to 1,066 pounds for driving.

My trip for Thanksgiving may serve as an exception to YourMechanic’s 500-mile rule, and the analysts there prepared a great breakdown of expenses for not just driving and flying, but also bus and train travel between numerous cities–the whole article is worth a read. Regardless, tools like the Fly or Drive calculator can help you plan your holiday travel this month, whether it’s across the country, down the coast, or just up the road.

Do you plan to travel by plane or car this holiday season?

-Matt Smith

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