Road Trip vs. Flying: How to Pick What’s Best for You This Holiday Season
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 more than half of Americans planning to travel this holiday season, plenty of people are deliberating taking a road trip vs. flying. 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, financially, 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.
Gas prices have been on the decline since August, but they’re still averaging $3.70 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 $3.70 per gallon every time you stop to refuel, your cost of gas will be $148 for the total trip. You can use this handy Gas Buddy calculator for a more exact figure.
Meals and Snacks
You’ll have to eat no matter which way you go, so 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.
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.
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.
Flight Cost Considerations
You may be skittish about flying, considering last year’s flight delays. But things are looking up.
“Airlines have added a ton of flights compared to last year, and some are struggling to fill seats,” said Kyle Potter, executive editor of Thrifty Traveler. “That’s great for travelers who want a better deal.”
Still, driving makes more financial sense in some cases. Here are some costs to consider as you’re planning out your upcoming trip.
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.
“If there is a particular destination that you want to travel to for the holiday season, book now if you haven’t purchased already,” said Chris Cave, CEO of FlightHub Group.
If you’re open to traveling anywhere, though, waiting may work out for you.
“There will be last-minute deals closer to Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day, as these travel options will be more suited to people open to traveling to any destination,” Cave said.
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,” Cave said.
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.
If your flight is delayed, you’ll have some other costs that you can’t build into your budget. Having the earliest flight time possible can help prevent delays, but winter 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.”
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,” Potter said.
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 holiday season.
1. Plan Your Dates
Whether you’re going by plane or car, choosing the right dates is essential. If you fly, you’ll 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
Leaving early and staying later can have another benefit. Since you’re taking a road trip anyway, you can make a family vacation out of it. Schedule a couple of days to explore the local area.
If there’s nothing interesting to see near your destination, consider making a stop along the way. Many road trips can be made more interesting by making a spontaneous visit to a town you’ve never seen.
3. Consider Travel Insurance
While travel insurance isn’t always worth it, for a high-risk situation like the holiday 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 holiday season may 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 comes out cheaper than the expenses associated with flying, especially for shorter distances.
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.