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Comparing The Real Costs of Driving Vs. Flying

December 28, 2011 · 136 comments

in Personal Finance, Travel

Our family loves to escape to Florida every year just to get a break from the cold, gray Michigan weather.  The past two trips, we have driven to Florida for a variety of reasons.  However, this year, I decided to go extravagant and bought refundable airline tickets for the five of us.

While enjoying my free peanuts somewhere over Georgia, I started wondering if flying really was ‘extravagant’, or if it actually made sense. I then started breaking down the costs for flying and driving, and the details are as follows:

How Much It Cost Us To Fly Round Trip To Florida From Detroit and Rent A Car

Ticket cost:   $1575  ($315/person, including taxes and ‘refundability’.  Actually, three of the tickets were free, but lets pretend I paid full price for all.)

Rental car cost for one week:  $208.  We got a Crown Marquis, so space was not an issue.

Gas:  $55.

Cost of driving to and from airport in Detroit:  $63.00 (100 miles x 63 cents per mile)

Airport Parking back in Detroit:  $140

Baggage check:  $50

Grand Total to Fly to Florida and Back:  $2091

How Much It REALLY Costs To Drive Round Trip to Florida From Detroit

Total Car Cost:  $1700  (2700 miles x 63 cents per mile, based on info from AAA.  Cost is probably higher as that per mile rate was based on $2.88 cost per gallon of gas.  Used a figure based on driving a minivan for 15,000 miles a year.)

Meals:  $240

Grand Total to Drive To Florida and Back:  $1940

Keep in mind, we drive straight through from Michigan to Florida, whereas most people would probably incur hotel charges and make the trip in two days.  If hotel costs were added, it would cost MORE to drive than to fly.

So Why Drive When You Can Fly For the Same Price Or Less?

To tell you the truth, I don’t have a good answer to that question.  Obviously, driving is cheaper up front because you only have to pay for gas on the trip, and possibly hotel.  (It isn’t like you have to pay money out for depreciation and wear on your car, so driving may seem more affordable.)  Plus, it is nice to have all your stuff with you in the car instead of being limited to cramming what you need in carry on bags to avoid the bag-check fee.

However, I can say I don’t think I will ever drive to Florida again.  Even though it is a little cheaper to drive than fly, I don’t want to give up 2 days of my life in a car like that again, not to mention how tired and awful I feel the day after driving that many miles.  I am glad we had the adventure driving, and we did actually have a good time in the car for most of the time.  (Those last 4 hours can be grueling.)   In essence, my time and comfort is worth way more than the small incremental cost of flying versus driving.

What are your thoughts?  Do you have ‘breakeven’ distance, where you insist on flying instead of driving?


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{ 39 comments… read them below or add one }

Moneycone December 28, 2011 at 11:08 am

Nice breakdown Kris! As you say, its a tradeoff – time vs. money! I do hate the flying, but sitting cramped in a car for more than 5 hours is not something I look forward to!

I am seriously considering Greyhound! Looks like a nice tradeoff!


Kris December 29, 2011 at 11:15 pm

Oh my, Greyhound would drive me insane. I hate those little bathrooms on the bus! 🙂

I am not a fan of flying either, you could say I hate it. But I am willing to put up with it to gain more vacation time and not feel exhausted. I am officially setting 12 hours (driving) as my limit, unless plane tickets are ridiculously expensive!


Michelle December 28, 2011 at 12:13 pm

We fly, but that’s only because I get heavily discounted tickets through my dad’s survivor retirement benefits.


Kris December 29, 2011 at 11:13 pm

Michelle, I am sorry your dad has passed though. Was he a pilot?


Rachel December 28, 2011 at 12:32 pm

I’m single, so any time the gas costs more than the plane ticket I fly. Also, if the travel time by car is more than what can reasonably be covered by one person driving in one day, I fly. My time is valuable.


Kris December 29, 2011 at 11:11 pm

I imagine that it is probably cheaper to fly a lot if it is just one person. Although it can be fun to road trip it too with just your music and stopping wherever you want!


Linda December 28, 2011 at 7:08 pm

We used to take long road trips every year when I was a kid and I recall them fondly. We would drive from Chicago to Florida or Texas and camp the whole way. So I do have some affinity for road tripping in a car, although I have some criteria for a good road trip. For example, it has to be mostly open road. If I’m driving in heavily traffic congested areas, I’m more likely to try to find an alternative such as a train, bus, or plane.

Air travel is actually one of least favorite ways to travel. I really wish Amtrak would get better because I love to travel on trains. I’ve taken a few trips on Amtrak and they just can’t compare to the commuter trains in major metro areas or the trains in Europe. It’s such a shame. I used to enjoy flying, but airports are so crazy these days and the security/luggage restrictions, consistent delays, and harried airline personnel are such downers that the experience is no longer pleasant.

Most of my vacations these days are to areas with good public transit or that are walkable. So I avoid driving when I reach my destination as much as possible, negating the need for a car. In fact, trying to stash the car somewhere can be a real problem in these types of places.


Kris December 29, 2011 at 11:04 pm

Linda, I actually hate flying, but I love how quickly you get there. It was wonderful to leave Detroit which was 30 degrees and step off the plane 2.5 hours later to 80 degrees and a lot of sun.

I think when the kids are moved out and it is just my husband and I, we may just pack the car and hit the open road. Or, maybe I will find cheap flights to Vegas and we will drive to the airport. (Never been there…) I don’t know, but I do know I want to travel more.

I also hate traveling in congested areas. I was always so nervous about how bad traffic would be as we approached Atlanta and some other major cities. We got lucky as we usually hit Atlanta around 5 in the morning, but I have heard horror stories of how long it took some people to return from Florida.

I too would love mass transit, but that will never happen in Detroit (in my lifetime).


Squirrelers December 28, 2011 at 7:19 pm

Nice post, you wrote on a topic that’s been on my mind. I like how you look at the real cost by applying a cost per mile factor. This is something that many people don’t consider, and don’t remember that a car depreciates through use and miles. It’s not just the cost of gas, as we know, it’s that plus wear and tear on the vehicle. Driving can be costly in terms of money and time, though with a larger family I can see how the value proposition changes.

Having said all this, I do think it’s a good idea to take a long driving vacation a couple times with kids. We did that a lot when I was young, and I’m way behind with my own. Seems like people have less time these days, and that includes me:)


Kris December 29, 2011 at 11:01 pm

Squirreler- I am really glad we have done a lot of driving trips with the kiddos. From Michigan, we have driven to Boston, Maine, North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Chicago, DC, Pennsylvania, and more, all on different trips. However, the kids are getting older (and so am I), so I kind of feel like it is ok to transition from car trips to flying if the cost is reasonable. We have great memories from these trips, but I think I am going to start treasuring flights now. 🙂


UltimateSmartMoney December 28, 2011 at 9:50 pm

Considering it’s 2700 miles of driving, I would say flying is much better option. But if that mileage is about 1000 – 1500 miles, I would say you can save a lot by driving instead of flying.


Kris December 29, 2011 at 10:59 pm

USM- yeah it does depend on how many people are traveling and the number of miles for sure. I have no problem with driving 12 hours, but much beyond that, I think I hit my limit. I can cover a lot of ground in 12 hours- Boston, DC, etc. However, I can’t get very far west in that amount of time.


Carrie December 29, 2011 at 10:16 am

Last spring we had to make the same decision. We decided to fly because we knew we could not drive straight through without stopping at a hotel. Adding in the cost of 1 night in a hotel each way put the cost of driving way over flying. We also did not want to use 2 extra vacation days on either side of our vacation, just for the drive.


Kris December 29, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Carrie, great point about the extra vacation days you need to travel. Plus, as I said, it seems like I need another day to recover too. It is one thing if it is a beach vacation and you can just lay around, but if you are going to be busy, it is hard to drive straight through and function well the next day.


Christa December 29, 2011 at 1:15 pm

We fly anywhere that’s more than 1,000 miles. For us, in the midwest, that’s pretty much anywhere! My sister and brother both live on the east coast and my husband’s cousin is in California. so we like to fly whenever we visit any of them.


Kris December 29, 2011 at 10:56 pm

We drove home from Bar Harbor Maine, and it was exactly 1000 miles to our driveway. It was actually quite amazing that it flipped to 1000 as we pulled in.

I don’t know that I want to drive that far anymore. It cam be grueling. Maybe it is the memory of my daughter getting car sick on the way home that time.


Don December 29, 2011 at 9:18 pm

We flew to Captiva Island this past Summer, and I have to admit, it was awesome!

While I might drive to Hilton Head Island still, Florida will definitely be a fly and rent a car vacation from now on!

Thanks for breaking down the costs! I knew the cost would be close, but I had no idea it was that close! Of course, since I’m driving from Ohio, it’s a little bit shorter for me, but still the time savings is definitely worth the small extra cost for us too!

Great research 🙂


Kris December 29, 2011 at 10:54 pm

Driving to Hilton Head is pretty reasonable from Ohio. I think if we head back to Myrtle Beach though, I will fly. I may become more of a last minute traveler and take advantage of last minute deals. Of course, that also assumes I can get a decent hotel rate too, which may be more difficult.


Roshawn @ Watson Inc December 29, 2011 at 9:48 pm

This is a great example. I can definitely appreciate the your feelings. I don’t have a break even point, but I have no intention for driving very long distances. It’s uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous, and as you said, it can be grueling all for a slight cost advantage. This of course, assumes you discount your time and don’t stay at the hotel. I enjoyed your analysis. Cheers!


Kris December 29, 2011 at 10:52 pm

I don’t think I will want to drive over 12 hours again. I can handle 12 hours in a day without feeling awful for 24 hours afterward.


Financial God December 31, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Yeah, flying is also safer overall. Plus, the poor kids cramped up in the car like that! 😉


Kris January 3, 2012 at 8:44 am

My kids actually love to drive. The only time I heard a complaint was when we had to pull over to take a little nap on our way to South Carolina last summer, my poor son sitting in the middle could not get comfortable.


Kris December 29, 2011 at 11:12 pm

You know, my husband’s grandpa actually was a truck driver, and he can drive just about anywhere without a break even today, and he is 97 years old. (Scary, I know.) Some people must really just be built that way, just like your husband. I too love a good road trip, especially if there isn’t a schedule to be kept. However, that is very rare as the kids have limited vacation time and such.

Enjoy your road trips!


Crystal December 30, 2011 at 2:29 am

I hate driving but I hate airports even more…it usually boils down to – take a flight if it will take more than 6 hours to drive…


Kris January 2, 2012 at 7:05 pm

I would probably have a breakeven time like yours too if I had to buy less tickets. Driving can be fun, but it can be drugery too!


Jacq December 30, 2011 at 11:27 pm

Ooh, that’s a tough one. Sadly, most places I want to go are fairly far away so flying is the option to take. Like most people said, the big factor is time. I hate just bombing through to get somewhere else – that’s why I bought an RV in the first place – so I wouldn’t have to do that. But this year instead of going skiing like usual during the school break in Feb., we’re going on a cruise to Jamaica out of FLL, and yeah, we’re flying.


Kris January 3, 2012 at 8:50 am

I think I would pick Jamaica over skiing any day of the week. Sounds like a fantastic vacation, and I am sad my trip to Florida has come and gone.


Financial God December 31, 2011 at 1:56 pm

I would drive as part of the experience, but just for travel I think I would prefer to fly. I hate airports and flying in cramped cabins, and I especially hate all the security checks and rude officials, but that much driving is exhausting.


Kris January 3, 2012 at 8:47 am

I had to wear a giant leg brace for the flight, so I had to go through some extra security. However, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. Airports don’t really bother me, but that is probably because I don’t really fly very much. Plus, I am always sitting with my family, so I don’t have to worry about being rude and asking people to move if I have to get up to go to the restroom. Not to mention we are a family of short people (except my oldest son), so we don’t feel super cramped on planes.


Financial God January 3, 2012 at 7:48 pm

I might be biased from having to sleep overnight in them a couple of times and having very long legs. 😉


David @ yesiamcheap January 1, 2012 at 12:52 am

Driving can actually be more expensive than flying. Also, driving takes too long! Fly instead and save your sanity!


Kris January 3, 2012 at 8:43 am

I am agreeing with you, my sanity is worth way more than a hundred dollars!


101 Centavos January 1, 2012 at 1:18 pm

Good comparisons, Kris. Definitely depends on the mileage. I don’t mind road trips, and can drive and drive. My wife on the other hand, hates being on the road and would much rather fly. As with many things, we have to compromise.


Kris January 3, 2012 at 8:42 am

Sometimes, I want to just hop in the car and drive without a plan or anything, just go. But I think for planned vacation, if it is a real long drive, I will want to fly instead. I think part of it is how great it is to go to a completely different (and better) climate in just a couple of hours. I may not care as much in the summer.


Kay Lynn @ Bucksome Boomer January 1, 2012 at 5:17 pm

We just made a long car trip for Christmas to the Midwest (from California) and it was more expensive than flying plus I hated sitting in the car for four days.

We drove so we could take the dog with us. I don’t know that we’ll do it again.


Kris January 3, 2012 at 8:40 am

Oh my gosh, driving to the Midwest from California would be exhausting!! Couldn’t the dog have flown too? I hope you still have a great vacation though!


retirebyforty January 2, 2012 at 5:12 pm

I think driving is good if you plan to take some side trips. We want to drive to CA next year and plan to stop by various national parks and also visit some friends. Usually we fly because we are in a hurry, but the next trip will be a relaxing trip.


Kris January 3, 2012 at 8:37 am

Joe, if you have a lot of time and make a ‘vacation’ of the journey, then driving is great. We did a vacation once where we drove up the California coast and it was fantastic. However, if I don’t have anything I ‘need’ to see, then flying is my new choice!


wayside April 4, 2012 at 7:53 am

I live quite a distance from an airport. It is all commuter plane service no non stop flights. The cramped conditions are tiring and trying. The washrooms on commuter planes are awful. Traveling from here with layovers at various stops can take as long as driving. You add in the security and baggage hassles it is no longer a vacation type experience. I travel when I have to no longer for fun.


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