CLEVELAND, Ohio – Here’s a question vacation planners are probably mulling more often in these days of the coronavirus: If I’m going somewhere, should I fly or drive?
Driving to say, Florida, New England or out West can offer a whole different experience than flying. See the country, maybe exploring along the way, or get there in a hurry?
But what about the dollars and cents of this question?
It’s not as simple as air fare vs. gasoline. Among the other factors: meals on the road, hotel stays and the cost of getting around once there.
Let’s dig into the money part of the mode of travel. We’ll use Florida as an example because that’s such a common destination, but the tools could be applied to about any trip.
Flight fare versus gasoline
This is the easiest comparison to run. It’s definitely not complete. But a great start. What’s the cost of an airplane fare versus the cost of gasoline for your car?
It’s 1,057 miles from downtown Cleveland to Downtown Disney, just outside of Orlando, Florida. On average, U.S. vehicles get about 25 miles per gallon. That means with a typical vehicle, you’ll need 85 gallons of gas to get there and back, excluding any extra driving while there.
The national average for gasoline in mid-March was $2.85 a gallon – making the roundtrip at this price $242 for fuel.
For someone traveling solo, this makes it almost a no-brainer on cost alone – $242 to drive versus a roundtrip air ticket. In a quick search recently for late April, I found multiple options under $250, all nonstops making the trip about 2.5 hours each way. Flexible dates makes it even cheaper.
But of course two people traveling doubles the airfare. And for a family of four, even with shopping for a good deal, the price could easily approach $1,000 – or four times the cost of gasoline.
On top of the price of gasoline, AAA spokesman Jim Garrity reminds, “Don’t forget about the cost of tolls. Don’t get caught off guard by a $30 toll.” For example, traveling the West Virginia Turnpike on the way to Florida costs $12 each way.
Other costs by air
The airline ticket is not the only expense in flying. Remember to include baggage fees if there will be any extra charges, whether you’ll be paying to park a car at the airport ($14 or $15 a day at at the Cleveland airport, less nearby), using a cab or needing to rent a car once you get to your destination.
A significant variable – especially if your airfare is low – can be how much you’ll need to spend on the final leg of your trip once landing. This could involve cab fares totaling $100 or more going and coming, or a rental car for $100 to $200. If you have a free airport shuttle waiting for you on the other end, that can wipe out these costs.
Price out the cost of your plan and add this to the total for your airfare.
Note here for Disney travelers: a great option is about to disappear like pixie dust. For years, Disney World has had a convenient money saver, offering free transportation between the airport and its hotels. This seemed like a good deal even for Disney; if you don’t rent a car, you’re more likely to stay on the grounds and end up spending more money at Disney. But the free Magical Express service is being discontinued Jan. 1, 2022.
Other car costs
Wear and tear is a difficult item to calculate for the cost of using your own car to travel, because so much depends on how long you keep your car and how much of the depreciation is dependent on mileage. But driving does end up costing some amount more than just the price at the pump.
AAA estimates that it costs a little over 9 cents a mile for maintenance, repairs and tires when driving a medium-size sedan or small SUV. That’s about $190 to Disney and back, money that doesn’t immediately show up in your trip costs.
Long-term costs can get a little iffy to nail down. But here are a couple of fairly certain costs. If you typically spend $30 on an oil change every 5,000 miles, this trip will get you almost halfway to your next oil change, so estimate $15. Let’s say you spend $400 for a set of tires that last 60,000 miles. In that case, the 2,114-mile round trip will eat up $15 in tread.
Rent a car for the entire trip
There are a few reasons why renting a car to make a long drive can make sense financially. One, you’ve eliminated the entire question of wear and tear. Two, you could be adding some peace of mind if your car is getting up there in miles. And three, the money you save on gasoline could cover a big chunk of your rental costs.
Let’s say the car you drive normally gets 20 miles per gallon. But your rental will get 35 miles per gallon.
This is the difference between needing 106 gallons of gasoline or 60 gallons to get to Disney and back – and a bigger difference for longer trips. Based on the recent national average of $2.85 a gallon, this means $131 in savings just on gasoline. That savings alone can go a long way toward covering the cost of a rental.
This, of course, will depend on what type of rental deal you can find. A quick expedia.com search found some full-size cars for about $245 a week, including taxes in late April.
This was in the ballpark of what I paid when I did a rental car story several years back based on my personal experience. At the time I was able to get a nine-day rental in Cleveland for $230. I put 2,480 miles on the car going to and from Orlando, plus some extra driving there. That worked out to 9.8 cents a mile to rent. Factoring in gasoline savings over my own SUV ($60), delaying an oil change and pushing back the next set of tires ($30 for those two costs), I estimated my real rental expense was only $140 – not the $230 I had to pay the rental company.
Extra hotel nights
Driving to Florida instead of flying very likely means an extra hotel night each way, maybe two extra nights each way – depending on the time of day you planned to fly in and out of Florida.
This is pretty straight forward. A quick check of some weekday rates in late April, after the spring break surge, found multiple name brand options for just under $100. Savvy travelers can do better by picking and choosing where to stop. But these days, a $100 a night seems to be good ballpark number use along the road, away from major attractions and outside of downtowns.
For a better idea of where to look for hotels along the way, consider using one of any number of online tools, such as like AAA’s Triptik at aaa.triptik.com, route searching options on some hotel websites or mapping sites like maps.google.com that allow hotel searching options.
Extra meals on the road
What are you going to spend on the road because of your extra travel time over flying? This likely will be an added cost of choosing the road over air. It’s best to do the math for what you would expect to spend.
For a ballpark idea, $25 per person per day is probably a fair guess for travelers who want to keep their cost down. This could include free breakfast at a hotel, lunch and dinner. Of course, it could be a lot more, depending on your dining tastes, and less if you’re the type to pack a picnic for the road.
* By air: Add up estimates for your air fare, the cab or parking costs you’ll incur for your local airport, plus your local transportation costs at your destination.
For example, after some quick shopping based on my preferences for a hypothetical early-May trip, I came up with a total of $737 for a couple or $1,129 for a family of four, including baggage fees, an Uber to and from the Cleveland airport and a rental car in Florida.
* By land: Add up estimates for gasoline and tolls, wear and tear on your car or rental charge, extra meals on the road, and extra hotel nights.
My quick estimate, including three extra meals on the road each way for everyone and an extra hotel night each way, plus gas, tolls and wear and tear totaled $795 for a couple, and $975 for a family of four.
A year ago amid the pandemic, 95% of the people who chose to travel did so by road,” said Garrity, spokesman for the AAA region that includes parts of Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. He expects those numbers to be high again this year.
“I think it is going to be a very big summer for road tripping,” Garrity said. “For a lot of people, taking a road trip is a comfortable option. You can control your comfort zone.”
But don’t forget to price things out if money matters to you in making this decision. You might find flying is a money saver in some cases.
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