How to decide whether to fly or drive when traveling on a budget

Jun 30, 2021

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As more people start booking trips again, there are a lot of things to consider, from your budget to COVID-19 restrictions that are still in place in many international destinations.

And for budget travelers, road trips might be a go-to option for a summer vacation because a plane ticket costs more than gas, right? But sometimes, flying can in fact be more affordable.

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Growing up, my family drove everywhere. Each summer was filled with fastpitch softball tournaments in neighboring states and trips to theme parks, the beach and the mountains — which meant packing everything into the family SUV, going to sleep super early the night before and waking up before the sun to hit the road.

I’ve always assumed road trips were the more budget-friendly option, but the more I fly (and learn how to maximize points and miles), the more I realize a plane ticket can often lead to a more affordable vacation.

Of course, that won’t apply to every situation. There are cases where driving will make more sense, especially if you have a large family or pets in tow. But there are also plenty of instances where a flight will actually save you time and money on a trip.

(Photo by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

As an example, I like to drive home for the holidays rather than fly. Now that I’m moving to New York City, my mom asked me the other day whether I’d fly or drive. Initially, I said I might drive. New York to Arkansas is a considerably longer drive than North Carolina to Arkansas, but I figured it’d be cheaper overall.

After digging into the numbers a little, however, I realized flying would actually be the better option.

The drive from my new place in New York back home is 1,308 miles, which Google Maps guestimates is an almost 21-hour drive. I’d have 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.

I’d need to fill up my car five times for the trip which, at an average of $3 per gallon, would be about $200 in gas one-way, or $400 for the whole trip. If I stop around halfway in Knoxville, Tennessee, I can find a cheap hotel for about $100 per night (at the time of writing, the Fairfield Inn and Suites had rooms for $87 per night). Each way, I’d be spending at least $600. That’s to say nothing of eating while on the road. At about $10 per meal, I’d need to budget an additional $120.

All in, that’s $720 and 42 hours spent wishing I could trade the open road for a cramped seat in economy.

Driving may seem like the obvious budget choice, but flying can actually be cheaper. (Photo by Darren Murph / The Points Guy)

By comparison, I can find round-trip flights from New York to Arkansas between $300 and $500, depending on the specific days I want to fly. Each flight would take a little under six hours, including a layover (which is standard for flights between New York City and Little Rock, Arkansas). Add in $50 for any food I’d grab at the airport, and we’re still only at $550 at the top of the price range. Plus, I’ve saved a total of 30 hours that I could spend with family or friends, rather than listening to my library of downloaded John Mulaney comedy specials.

How to decide between flying or driving

Something to consider is that I am a solo traveler. Add in a spouse and three kids, and plane tickets for the whole family start to get more expensive than driving — even if you add in extra gas money needed for a van or SUV.

So, how do you determine whether flying or driving is the more affordable trip for you? The best way is to crunch the numbers like I did in the example above.

Consider how much it costs to fill up your car’s 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 multiday journey.

Related: Take these credit cards on your next road trip 

Then, compare that to flights for everyone going on the trip. Of course, flights on weekends or holidays will likely be more expensive.

Finally, you can’t forget the time commitment between driving and flying. For long, multiday 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 always did when I was younger. Of course, we rarely stopped on the way (for a 20-hour drive, my parents would have just switched halfway so the other could get a break while my siblings and I slept in the back), and tickets for a family of five would have been more than the single ticket I have to buy myself now that I’m an adult.

For my family, driving almost always was 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, but flying can also be a surprising way to save money (and precious time) when booking your domestic getaways this year.

Featured image by Jose A. Bernat Bacete/ Getty Images.

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