Road Trip vs. Flying: How to Pick What’s Best for You Summer

This side by side photo shows one woman sitting on top of her car while basking in golden hour while traveling. The second photo shows an airplane wing outside of the window of an airplane.
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When it’s time to travel, what’s your preferred method? For some, there’s nothing like a good road trip. For others, flying the friendly skies is a better option. With 82% of Americans planning to travel this summer, plenty of people are deciding between a road trip vs. flying (or doing both). 

There are pros and cons to each, but if your goal is to save money, it’s important to look at pricing before you make a decision.

Road Trip vs. Flying: What’s Right For You? 

Road Trip Cost Considerations

Driving vs. flying often comes down to preference. Do you enjoy driving? Even if you do, spending eight hours or more on the road, round trip, may not sound so appealing.

But preferences aside, driving will often be the cheapest way to go. To make the costs clear, consider putting together a road trip budget and comparing it to the cost of flying. Here are some ballpark costs to factor into your planning process.

Fuel Costs

Gas prices have been creeping up since January. They are averaging $3.77 a gallon. You can calculate the average cost of fuel by determining how much gas you’ll need to make the trip.

Say your vehicle meets the U.S. average fuel economy of 25 miles per gallon. If you’re driving 1,000 miles and your car gets 25 miles per gallon, you’d need 40 gallons of gas to go 1,000 miles. If you pay $3.77 per gallon every time you stop to refuel, your cost of gas will be $151 for the total trip. You can use this handy Gas Buddy calculator for a more exact figure.

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Meals and Snacks

You’ll have to eat no matter which way you go. Road trips take longer, so you might be eating more meals away from home. But you might have more choices, including fast food or fast casual restaurants. In this area, meals and snacks can actually be cheaper. This is especially true if you save money by packing a cooler for your road trip.

Before traveling, make a list of the snacks and meals you’ll need and weigh stopping for food vs. making a quick trip to the grocery store before you go. With restaurant costs on the rise, even fast food stops can add up, especially if you have a big family.

Accommodations

If your trip will take more than 10 hours or so, you won’t want to fall asleep behind the wheel. That means you’ll need a hotel stay to break up your drive. If you drive round trip, that means two hotel stays. While hotel prices vary by location, you can bank on at least a couple hundred dollars.

This is where driving solo sometimes makes less sense than flying. If you don’t have another adult to take the wheel occasionally, you may tire out more quickly, making hotel accommodations a necessity. Plus, those longer trips can be less enjoyable when you don’t have others in the car to keep you company.

Other Costs

Gas, food and lodging aren’t the only considerations. Before you leave on a long trip, you’ll likely have the vehicle checked out. Your trusty mechanic might look your car over for free or at a minimal cost, but the extra mileage is still going to require you to get an oil change sooner. Don’t forget the overall wear on your vehicle that driving will cause.

Driving also comes with a few other extra costs. First, there’s your drive time. You may have to use vacation days or put off chores to spend a day or two on the road. It’s also important to consider any tolls you’ll have to pay during the drive, as well as parking costs once you arrive at your final destination.

Road tripping this summer? Before you hit the road, read our tips to save money on road trips.

Flight Cost Considerations

You may be skittish about flying, considering reports of safety issues on runways and in the sky. However, the chances of a commercial flight fatally crashing are extraordinarily slim (the last fatal domestic flight crash happened in 2009). Flying is considerably safer than driving, according to US Facts

Still, driving makes more financial sense in some cases. Here are some costs to consider as you’re planning out your upcoming trip.

Plane Ticket

Those traveling solo may find flying beats driving, even if you can’t snag a good deal on tickets. But as you add family members, plane tickets get pricier, making flying a less attractive option. Plus as it gets closer to summer, many flights to popular vacation spots are booked or getting expensive. 

You might dream of going to Paris this summer, but with the Olympics there in July and August, the already expensive trip could get astronomical. If you haven’t settled on a specific vacation destination, it might be worth exploring less popular or well known places.

Sometimes you can find deals (including last minute ones) through apps and websites like Hopper, Going, Skyscanner and Momondo.

Hidden Costs

Don’t forget the extra fees you’ll pay when you arrive at the airport. You may be able to avoid baggage fees by skipping checked bags in favor of carry-on luggage, but some airlines charge for extra legroom, drinks, choosing your seat and even printed boarding passes.

“When booking your flight, we recommend being extra cautious of add-on services to your ticket such as seat selection, travel insurance and even priority boarding, as it can substantially increase the cost,” said Chris Cave, CEO of FlightHub Group.

Airport Parking

Chances are you don’t live next door to your local airport. That means you’ll need to deal with getting there. Ideally, you have a family member or neighbor who can drive you. But if you have an inconvenient departure time or you simply don’t have a ride, you’ll need to factor in the cost of transportation.

Airport parking is one option, but the average price will almost always be higher than a local park-and-fly option. You can also consider calling for a rideshare or looking at your local bus schedule. In bigger cities, you’ll often find shuttle services that run from the airport to local neighborhoods throughout the day.

Meals and Snacks

Just as you factored meals and snacks into your road trip budget, you’ll need to consider the cost of meals while flying. Chances are, you’ll be at the airport more than a couple of hours, so you’ll at least end up grabbing a snack or a cup of coffee.

This is where flying vs. hitting the road can be pricier. Sure, you’re consuming fewer meals than you would on an all-day road trip, but airport vendors pack on fees and taxes. You also can bring your own beverages along on a road trip, while TSA prohibits them at the airport.

Delay Costs

If your flight is delayed, you may have a chance at a refund, but not always. Having the earliest flight time possible can help prevent delays, but summer weather can disrupt even the best-laid plans.

“If you’re flying, consider your departure, layover and arrival airport locations,” travel preparedness expert Cheryl Nelson said. “What is the weather typically like this time of the year in each location? If flights are delayed or canceled due to weather, airlines are not responsible for your unexpected accommodation costs.”

Ground Transportation

Once the plane lands at your destination, you’ll need a way to get around. Renting a car can be pricey, with a $25-a-day rental car often totaling hundreds of dollars once fees and taxes are added. Public transportation and rideshares can be a cost-saving option once you land, but you’ll need to factor those in.

“Even far-flung airports—I’m looking at you, Denver and Washington, D.C.-Dulles—now have public transit options, which would always be my first choice,” said Kyle Potter, executive editor of Thrifty Traveler.

A family gets ready for a road trip in their vehicle.
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Tips for Saving on Travel

Whether you fly or drive, there are some things you can do to save money. Here are a few ways to streamline your travel budget, whether you’re flying or hitting the open road this summer.

1. Plan Your Dates

Whether you’re going by plane or car, choosing the right dates is essential. When flying, you get the best deals and reduce your delay risks by avoiding heavy travel days. If you’re driving, you can steer clear of traffic caused by car accidents or heavy travel volume by carefully scheduling your road trip.

If you haven’t booked your flight yet, Potter recommends using a site like Google Flights.

“It’ll let you know if shifting your travel plans by a day or two can save you gobs of money,” he said.

2. Make the Most of It

Half the fun of traveling is planning the trip. If you are driving, see what interesting places are along the way. You can use sites like Trippy or Wanderlog, which show you cool places along your route. 

If you decide to fly, treat the time in the airport and on the plane as part of the vacation. Bring that book you have been meaning to read, or catch up on your favorite shows while you wait. Explore the airport, or if you have a long layover and checked your bags, consider using public transportation to get to the action in cities like Boston, Las Vegas and Atlanta.

3. Consider Travel Insurance

While travel insurance isn’t always worth it, for a high-risk situation like the busy summer season, it might be a good idea. If you’re flying, you might like the peace of mind it gives you. Travel insurance helps cover the cost if your trip has to be canceled.

But travel insurance isn’t cheap. It’s important to pay close attention to what it covers, as well as what it doesn’t. The process of getting reimbursed for eligible purchases can also be fairly lengthy and involved.

Road Trip vs. Flying: What’s Best For You?

The choice to fly or drive this summer likely will come down to personal preferences. While a road trip lets you keep your own schedule, it can also be tedious and filled with traffic risks. But the cost of gas and vehicular wear often shake out cheaper than flying, especially for shorter distances. A third option might be traveling by train, which has some of the benefits and drawbacks of both flying and driving. 

Stephanie Faris is a professional finance writer with more than a decade of experience. Her work has been featured on a variety of top finance sites, including Money Under 30, GoBankingRates, Retirable, Sapling and Sifter. JoEllen Schilke contributed to this report.

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