Should You Drive or Should You Fly? A Vacation Formula

January 27, 2017 by · Leave a Comment 

When heading out on vacation, the biggest decision you’ll make is how to get there. Do you drive or fly? If you fly, you can get there sooner and spend more time at your destination. Driving is more budget friendly, but it takes a couple of extra days out of your vacation time.

In my travels, I’ve driven and flown to dozens of destinations. On some airplane trips, I would have been satisfied with driving, and on some car trips, I wish I’d been born with wings. But for the most part, we made the best decision we could with the information and resources we had. If you’re trying to decide, here’s a handy 3-step formula you can use to help make your decision.

How far is your destination?

Kids on a planeI typically won’t fly anywhere if I can make the drive in less than six hours. If I fly, I get to the airport two hours early, and it takes me at least 45 minutes to drive, park, and get inside. My flight will take at least one hour. Then I have to disembark, walk to the rental car counter, get my car, and drive to the hotel, all about two hours after the plane touches down. And if I take the hotel shuttle, then I’m without ground transportation.

This all takes at least 5.5 hours.

But if I drive, I can take the same amount of time, and have my car with me in a new city, which lets me explore on my own. I’m in control of my progress and circumstances.

Advantage: Driving. Based on these factors, I’ll drive as far as eight hours before I ever consider flying. There are no TSA checkpoints when I drive.

Will your kids survive a two day car trip?

My brother and his wife have two kids, ages five and two. I’d love for them to visit us here in Florida, but I don’t know that they could easily manage a 700 mile car trip.

You could normally make the drive in 12 – 14 hours. You could even break it up into a two day trip if you didn’t want to push too hard. However, a flight to the same destination will only take five hours, and if you’re moving around a lot, it’s harder for your kids to get bored.

While driving seems to be the obvious answer, you need to consider your kids’ temperament and patience. Can they handle 14 hours sitting still without having a meltdown every four hours? If you have an in-car or portable DVD player, the ride will be much more painless. Also, leave in the middle of the night so they sleep most of the way.

Advantage: Flying. If you have young kids, shorter trips will always be preferable to longer trips.

Vacation Finances

Let’s face it, it costs much, much less to drive a car than it does to fly. I can drive 1,000 miles by myself in two days for the cost of roughly three tanks of gas, and a hotel night (assuming I don’t stay at a friend’s instead). Throw in a few road trip meals, and I can make the whole trip for about $200 – $250. The cheapest I can fly is $300.

At $300, it’s a little tempting to fly. After all, it’s only $50 more, and I save myself an extra 13 – 15 hours of traveling. But, I also have to consider transportation at my destination. I can rent a car for as little as $30 per day, or $150 for a 5 day trip. Now it’s $450 versus $250. Now I have to decide, do I need the $200 or do I need the extra time?

But what about traveling with your family? Getting a $300 ticket isn’t much of a problem. But what if there are four of you? Now we’re talking about $1200 in plane tickets. And you’ll probably need a bigger car than the tiny wind-up car I would rent for myself. That’s another $50 per day, or $250 for the trip. You’re looking at $1450 just to fly and rent a car, versus $400 to drive the same distance (assuming two days, one night, road trip meals, etc.)

Advantage: Flying if you’re alone, driving if there are more than three of you.

Who’s the winner? In a perfect world, if you have the money for it, flying wins every time. The trips are shorter, the times are shorter, and you don’t have to sit still for so long. With young kids, you have to take that into account.

But if you’re traveling on a budget, and you need to make every dollar count, then driving is the way to go. It costs less per passenger, because gas and hotel costs are fairly consistent, no matter how many people are in your car. Your meal costs will increase with more people, but you can reduce those costs by packing a couple meals at the grocery store.

How do you decide between driving and flying on your vacation? Have you done one and wished you had done the other? Or have you found the secret to vacation harmony and efficiency? Share your ideas and wisdom in the comments below, on our Facebook page, or in our Twitter stream.

Photo credit: Lars Plougmann (Flickr, Creative Commons)


Erik Deckers is a travel writer, as well as a content marketer and book author. He is the co-author of Branding Yourself, No Bullshit Social Media, and The Owned Media Doctrine. Erik has been blogging since 1997, and has been a newspaper humor columnist for over 20 years

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