Is It Cheaper to Drive or Fly? Cost Isn’t the Only Thing to Consider When Selecting the Better Option

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kids flying, not driving - SheBuysTravel
Should we fly or drive? It’s the question that creeps in as you start vacation planning. Here’s what to consider. Photo Credit: Nasreen Stump

It’s family vacation time. You’ve picked the destination, you’ve discussed budget and you’re researching airfare when it occurs to you: Is it cheaper to fly or drive? Is it safer to fly or drive? Whether flying is better than driving depends on several factors. We break down your family travel need-to-knows to help you decide:  Should I fly or drive?

For some folks it’s not even a question. They are Team Fly or Team Drive.

Before you decide to fly or drive you need to ask yourself:

  • Do I even like road trips?
  • Do airports make my skin crawl?
  • How much control do I need to have over my trip?

If you pick a transportation mode you hate and only save a little bit of money, you’ll regret it. A price tag cannot be put on a low stress level.

Let’s weigh the pros and cons of flying vs. driving in a world where gas prices are soaring and flights are delayed by extreme weather and cancelled thanks to labor shortages.

Read More: What to do if your flight is delayed.

Does arriving at an exact moment matter?

If you’re flexible on when you arrive — Grandma is OK if you don’t get there on the day you planned — then it might be fine to risk a flight cancellation or delay. But if a missed connection means you’ll miss your parents’ 50th anniversary party or boarding the ship for your long-anticipated cruise, it likely isn’t worth the risk.

Either plan to book the flight a few days earlier (if you have enough vacation days) or bite the bullet and drive the 1200 miles instead. Just be sure to allow for road construction and traffic delays.

kid wearing dinosaur backpack standing next to luggage at airport
Photo credit: Grisell DeNapoles

Can you afford potential extra costs?

If your flight gets cancelled, the airline is required to refund your money. But, as SheBuysTravel founder Kim Orlando discovered, that still doesn’t get you where you need to be. When her flight from California to Connecticut was cancelled due to extreme weather, she got back the money she paid for that flight, but booking a new one last minute cost her twice as much. If hubby and the three kids had been with her, it would have quintupled her travel cost.

Before booking a flight, take the time to actually read the fine print on the airline’s policy on compensating travelers for flight delays and missed connections. That’s the only way to know for sure what your rights are in the event your flight is delayed.

And remember: The airline won’t compensate you for missed events or activities — like the day at Disney you missed thanks to a flight delay.

Consider buying travel insurance (another vacation expense to budget for) to cover those unexpected costs. But, again, always read the fine print so you know what you’re buying, what’s covered and what’s not. We are big believers in travel insurance — most of us SheBuysTravels and TravelingDads buy annual policies that cover all of our travel. But we have noticed recently that it’s getting harder and harder to be paid for claims in the wake of the pandemic and the widespread travel disruptions and challenges.

Consider ages and fears.

Yup, that’s right. Before you even start planning consider: do you have a potty training toddler? A kid who pukes on every drive longer than one hour? A teen with an intense fear of flying? Think about whether you have the bandwith to deal with high emotions before you even get to where you’re going.

Let me share my personal experience. I have four kids. I solo road trip with them every summer to see my parents. For us, it’s usually cheaper to drive. It gives me the freedom to stop when we need to and I don’t need to worry about them bothering anyone but me. We’ve made some great memories together. If it’s my oldest or my husband, baby and me? We usually only have a few days and try to go somewhere we can get a rocking cheap flight deal.

Do some groundwork.

First, sit down and do some math. How many hours away are you going? How many hours do you live from the nearest airport? What do the flight times look like? You can use a fly or drive calculator like the one from BeFrugal.

Just remember there is “human knowledge” to be considered as well. For instance, if the only flights are mid-day but you could leave early in the morning and drive all day and get there at the same time? That might alter your decision and make driving a better option.

Use an online app like Mapquest or Google maps to determine the distance to your destination. Search flights to get an idea of ticket prices. Kayak is a great way to compare flights and search multiple airports if you have several options nearby.

With the ongoing flight challenges, look for a direct flight even if it means driving a couple of hours to another airport. It will eliminate the worry about missed connections, but add time, gas and parking costs to the trip.

Read More: Want to know what low cost airline fees are? Find out the real cost of your ticket. 

Empty airport terminal - SheBuysTravel
Deciding whether to fly or drive? Airport crowds, time of day and flight duration all factor in for family travel. Photo Credit: Nasreen Stump

How far are you going? Is flying worth it?

Flying can cut down 13 hours of driving to a manageable three hour flight. How much time does air travel truly take though? You’ll need to add in drive time to the airport, arriving roughly two hours early for check-in, potential delays, the flight duration itself, time to get off the plane and gather luggage at baggage claim and the time to rent a car/board a shuttle and arrive at your lodging. This can easily end up adding up to 11 hours or so.

For drives that require an overnight, we always look at air travel first. If there is a deal, then the time saved typically makes it worth it to us. For drives under six hours, we will traditionally drive just because our airport drive + check-in time + wait time+ flight time+ baggage claim time + transportation at destination time will always add up to more than our drive time.

Fly or drive? How many days is your trip?

In the ranking of things to consider when you deliberate driving instead of flying, the length of your trip ranks right near the top. If it’s a short trip, do you really want to eat into precious family vacation time with hours on the road? Flying might be a better option.

For trips of four days or less, we are typically not willing to drive more than five hours each way. Travel dates can play a role too. For long weekend getaways over holidays, the mantra “stay close or fly” helps you avoid traffic and tears during hectic travel dates.

Family in a minivan driving to a destination - SheBuysTravel
Family size plays a role in the decision to fly or drive. With six in our family driving often wins cost-wise for family travel. Photo Credit: Nasreen Stump

The number of travelers has the largest impact on whether to fly or drive.

Big families are well aware of this struggle. Flights get pricier every day and when you have five or more people flying, driving quickly becomes the cheaper alternative.

Be sure to calculate the per-person cost for the trip. The more people in your party, the more economical it becomes to drive – if you have a vehicle that can accommodate you. Which brings us to our next point.

Can my car handle the road trip?

Do you have a vehicle large enough for the number of people you plan to road trip with? Is your vehicle mechanically ready for the mileage? There is absolutely zero to be gained financially if you run up a bunch of miles on your vehicle and end up needing to pay for repairs. Or worse, the car breaks down mid-trip, ruining your long-planned vacation.

If driving is on your radar, it can be worth it to look at rental car prices in your area. Rental car prices typically run the best rate around the 5-9 day duration and become less cost effective after that. When we went to Big Bend National Park, we chose to rent a car that we would be able to drive in the park. Some roads need a high clearance vehicle like a Jeep, since the terrain isn’t minivan worthy. The $300 driving costs for the four day trip was worth it to us because we drove more than 1500 miles and were able to enter more areas of the park.

Read More: Find out what tool to use to save money on your car rental and why you shouldn’t rent at an airport unless you have to. 

Is the travel planned or a last minute vacation?

Planning in advance pairs well with airline tickets. Last minute plane tickets can be pretty pricey unless you’re grabbing a special sale and not picky on destination. We encourage spontaneity though. If you pick a destination based on specials you may discover a new favorite. Always be sure to double check hotel costs and rental car prices before booking a deal fare though.

Hidden flight costs to consider.

When you look at flight costs, be sure to always wrap in a little wiggle room. Account for plane tickets, airport parking, hotel costs if it’s an early flight, food at the airport, potential delay time, travel insurance (which we always recommend), baggage fees, fees to get a seat on the plane, meal/snack costs in flight, in-flight wifi or entertainment costs, rental car costs when you arrive at your destination and the cost of appropriate luggage if you don’t have any. Remember that flights within the United States sometimes have larger baggage allowances for carry on luggage than those headed to Europe.

For airport parking be sure to book in advance to ensure that the cheaper lots have a spot waiting for you.

Fly vs. drive: Are there good stops along the way?

There is a quote out there often attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Life is a journey, not a destination.” This quote can ring true on your travels as well. Some of our family’s favorite memories of vacations are places we stumbled across by accident. Discover the United States! However, if your flight is going to take you across hundreds of miles of plains, canyons and little else, then great. You’ve saved yourself hours of boredom and difficult driving. Road fatigue is a real thing.

However, if your drive wanders through a bunch of little towns, historical markers and maybe even passes the world’s largest fork (yes, that’s a real thing) then maybe the trip can be about more than the destination.

Hidden driving costs to consider.

When you calculate driving costs, be sure to factor in money for hotel rooms, gas prices, snacks and meals, tolls, parking costs at city hotels, AAA membership, a pre-trip check up for your car, parking and speeding tickets (follow the road rules!) and depreciation. Putting thousands of cross-country miles on your car can depreciate the value of it. This may cost if you are looking at selling or trading it in in the near future.

Other things to keep in mind are that car seat rules are different in other states. We were driving from Florida to New Hampshire to see my parents. My 8-year-old is tall and meets all height and weight requirements for a seat belt in our state. We hit Virginia and I started seeing signs about car seats and ages. She wasn’t old enough under their rules. That resulted in a frantic Target run to purchase a MiFold so that I wouldn’t end up with any unexpected ticket expenses.

This also goes for cell phone rules. You may need to factor in the cost of a good headset if your car doesn’t have hands free Bluetooth.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Check out our road trip packing list so don’t forget anything you’ll need along the way!

two girls with MIckey Mouse at Disney World - SheBuysTravel
Should I drive to Disney is a major budget question that many traveling families ask. Think about how long it will take and how stressed you will be upon arrival to the House of Mouse! Photo Credit: Nasreen Stump

How hectic is the vacation once you get there? Is driving to Disney worth it?

Let’s face it: the biggest question of fly vs. drive comes from our readers who want to know, “Should I drive to Disney?”

This is a personal decision to make. For many folks, driving is one way to save money on a Disney vacation. Be realistic though. If you are going to spend 17 hours in car, then try to pack in four days at Disney, you need to consider your stress level and that of the kids. Disney is an exciting trip and for many folks a huge investment of family vacation dollars.

Just remember what we said earlier: Don’t buy park tickets for the day you are scheduled to arrive. Plan to spend that day at the hotel pool instead. That way, if your flight is delayed or you miss a connection you won’t also miss a day in the parks.

Holiday weeks, busy times and high fares can necessitate driving. Be sure to check your resort’s parking fees when making your calculations on the cost of flying vs driving.

Want the best of both worlds? Don’t feel like you’re stuck with either a road trip or air travel. Check out one way rental car specials instead. These specials can be found near Walt Disney World in Florida several times a year. We love to fly in, play in the parks, then grab a one-way rental on the special fares and drive home. Our savings are better than round-trip plane ticket costs or round-trip driving costs. We were able to grab an SUV that fit all six of us for $15/day in 2018.

How do you decide whether to drive or fly? Share with us in the comments below.

2 responses

  1. I appreciate the reminder that the number of people traveling impacts whether it’s a better idea to drive or fly. My wife and I want to take a trip for our anniversary this year. Since it’s just the two of us, maybe it would be worth looking for cheap tickets to somewhere we haven’t been.

  2. Nice article. And I liked your bio nasreen

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