Flying vs. driving: Which is cheaper when gas is pricey?

by , SmarterTravel Staff
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on July 14, 2004. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, Zak Patten.

More fuel for thought:

Keep travel costs down when gas prices rise

With the price of gasoline giving new meaning to the term "black gold," travelers have been feeling the squeeze lately. After six weeks of decline, the American Automobile Association (AAA) reports that gas prices are again on the rise, at nearly $2.00 per gallon. Travel in the skies has also been affected, as airlines are now paying in excess of $1 per gallon of jet fuel and are passing some of their costs on to consumers. The conventional wisdom holds that it's usually cheaper to drive somewhere than to fly there, but is that still the case this summer? The results might surprise you. We compared the costs and benefits of travel by air and by automobile, so that you can choose how best to take your next domestic trip.

The chart below compares short, medium, and long trips, and their costs in different modes of transport. To show the range of car travel costs, we used AAA's Fuel Cost Calculator for the 2004 models of the compact Ford Focus and the much heavier Chevrolet Suburban sport utility vehicle (SUV). We also averaged airfares on different dates in July and August.

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From the perspective of price alone, shorter car trips such as those between New York and Washington (233 miles) are more economical than a flight, even driving a gas-guzzler like the Suburban. On the other hand, trips of almost 800 miles—the distance between New York and Chicago—were only slightly more expensive in the SUV than on a plane, though the car travel time in this case is significantly longer. And, carpooling can lower costs even more. For example, two travelers in the Suburban would pay only $114 each, or just $57 in the Focus.

Not surprisingly, fuel costs for the cross-country route from New York to San Francisco were much higher than the fares we found, regardless of the vehicle used. Since you won't save any money or time by driving almost 3,000 miles from sea to shining sea, there needs to be some other compelling reason to do so.

Travel mode New York to Washington, D.C. New York to Chicago New York to San Francisco
Ford Focus $34 $114 $453
Chevrolet Suburban $69 $229 $906
Flying $121 $205 $237

While weighing the relative costs of driving and flying is wise, it's important to think about the kind of trip you want. If playing the slots in Las Vegas is your only vacation goal, a cheap flight may be more appealing than a long drive through the desert. On the other hand, travelers who enjoy meandering along country roads and stopping at whatever catches their eye may prefer to get behind the wheel.

Additionally, the number of people in your group can help decide how to get where you're going. Single travelers may choose to purchase a plane ticket for even a short-haul trip, since they'll only be paying for themselves, and would be otherwise forced to do all of the driving on their own. Larger groups have the advantage of sharing both the driving and the costs, however, as they can all pile into one car and split the fuel costs evenly. Likewise, families may opt for a road trip over the purchase of multiple plane tickets paid entirely by mom and dad.

For those not interested in either hitting the highway or the friendly skies, buses and trains can be both affordable and efficient. Led by Greyhound, the U.S. has a large network of bus lines, and fares can be extremely low, depending on the route. Riding the rails is an alternative that usually offers the passenger more space than bus travel, though costs may be somewhat higher. See Amtrak to buy tickets or find more information on seeing America by train.

Unless you walk, bike, or swim to your next vacation destination, gas prices will likely be a factor. Remember to think about your budget and desired travel experience, and you can make the most of your trip without paying too much at the pump.

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