Is It Cheaper to Drive or Fly to Your Vacation Destination?

by Travis Pizel · 41 comments

Last month, my family and I traveled to Destin, Florida for spring break. We decided to drive across the country — from Minnesota to Florida and back — because we thought it would be cheaper than flying. But to be honest with you, we only assumed that was true.

We never actually ran the numbers.

The Cost of Driving

I went back and added up the costs incurred on our drive to and from Florida. We broke up our trip to Florida over three different days, so we had to spend two nights at a hotel. On the way home, we drove straight through, as we were anxious to return home.

We certainly could’ve reduced the cost of our trip by driving all the way to Florida in one day, and we also could’ve spent less on our meals. (I’ve rounded the numbers for simplicity, but I don’t believe it takes anything away from the spirit of the exercise.)

Here’s a breakdown of what we spent:

  • Six tanks of gasoline: $360
  • Two nights in a hotel: $200
  • Meals: $275

Total driving travel cost for my family of four: $835

The Cost of Flying

If, instead of driving, we’d decided to fly, we would’ve had to drive about an hour north to reach the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport, but we wouldn’t have had to pay for parking or taxis, since we have family in the area. The airport we wanted to fly into is fairly small, so there are a limited number carriers to choose from.

For this exercise, I chose Delta, as that was the carrier my mother-in-law used to join us for part of our stay. If we flew, we wouldn’t have had transportation once we arrived in Florida, so I also included the cost of a rental car in my total.

Here’s an estimated breakdown of what we would’ve spent:

  • Four round-trip airline tickets: $2,800
  • One tank of gas: $60
  • Airport meals: $50
  • Rental car: $215

Total estimated flying cost for my family of four: $3,125

Flying would’ve been almost four times as expensive as driving! Obviously, the price of the airline tickets is what breaks the bank in this comparison, so if I’d found a great deal on airfare, it might be a different story. (I also didn’t factor missed time at work, wear and tear on the vehicle, or general convenience into this equation.)

In this case, it was well worth it to drive instead of fly — but there may be scenarios where it’s not as clear cut. The point is: It’s always worthwhile to plan out your travel expenses ahead of time and compare your options before making any decisions.

Have you ever calculated whether it would be cheaper to drive vs fly to a destination? Have you ever found a situation where it was cheaper to fly?

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{ 41 comments… read them below or add one }

John @ Sprout Wealth May 1, 2014 at 8:18 am

We’ve been dealing with this as we’re going out to San Diego to see the in-laws this summer. We’re planning on being there for ten days and really like the idea of flying, but flying with three little ones six and under with all their crap…yea not so much. We get pretty good gas mileage and would need a car anyway, so I think we’re going the driving route. Driving may not be the most fun, especially with little ones, but it will be quite a bit cheaper I think. I think for flying to be cheaper in many cases you’d need to go to a heavily trafficked city and not be at peak season.

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David Ning May 1, 2014 at 3:23 pm

Sometimes I think it’s actually more work than the typical office work to travel with kids, so I hear ya!

Kids are a bit more comfortable in a car than on the plane though, so at least you have that going for you.

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Travis Pizel May 3, 2014 at 7:29 am

We tried both routes when our kids were younger, John, and driving was by far easier. If they got restless during a car ride, we just stop and find something to do to expend some energy. On a plane, there’s nowhere to go….and I hate to have my restless kids bothering other passengers. The time we did fly with young kids, the experience was completely exhausting!

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Aldo @ MDN May 1, 2014 at 10:18 am

The girlfriend and I are planning on going to Boston (form New Jersey) on a weekend trip at the end of May and we decided to just take the bus. The city of Boston is crazy to drive and we would have to either get a hotel with parking, which is extremely expensive in Boston, or stay in the outskirts of the city and take the train.

Instead of a hotel we found a one-bedroom apartment on Airbnb for cheaper than the smallest room at any hotel in Boston (including Holiday Inn) and our bus tickets are $45 for both of us – round trip.

Our trip, not including food, is going to cost us $315 for three nights in Boston. If we drive, the trip would cost us anywhere between $500-$600 because we either had to find a garage to park the car or we would have to get a more expensive place to stay with parking.

The bus thing might not be ideal for families with kids, but for a young couple like ourselves it’s not so bad. The bus has free Wi-Fi and a bathroom so I’m all set. I could also bring a book and not have to worry about driving for 4 hours each way.

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David Ning May 1, 2014 at 3:26 pm

$315 for three nights is AMAZING. Awesome deal you got there!

And speaking of bus rides, my friend once went on one from San Francisco to Los Angeles. It’s like a 6 hour ride, but he was the only person on board! FOR $1 DOLLAR!

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Travis Pizel May 3, 2014 at 7:31 am

I’ve heard that a person can go a looooong way inexpensively on the bus. I’d definitely do it if it was just me and the wife, but not with kids. I do like the idea of having someone else drive though…..I get soooo sleepy on long car drives. :)

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Kendal @HassleFreeSaver May 1, 2014 at 10:28 am

Though we don’t love the 11-hour drive, my husband and I typically drive to his parents’ place in southwest New Mexico because we can’t get their easily or affordably by flight — we usually save several hundred dollars by driving.

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David Ning May 1, 2014 at 3:29 pm

11 hours seem long, but think of the good side – at least you get to go at your own pace. A typical flight, with all the wait, lineup, time to the airport, having to arrive early plus the flight, is still pretty long.

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Travis Pizel May 3, 2014 at 7:33 am

Sometimes it is a lot more expensive to fly into and out of small airports. The flight I priced was from the Minneapolis/St Paul international airport – but I actually live an hour south of there. We have an airport, and it basically flies everyone to either Minneapolis/St Paul or Chicago and then on from there. Had I priced out of my local airport it would have been CRAZY expensive.

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Kris May 5, 2014 at 10:57 am

Hey Travis,

Do you live in Rochester,MN??

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Travis @debtchronicles May 5, 2014 at 11:16 am

Yep – Rochester, MN is where I hail from. Are you nearby?

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Kris May 5, 2014 at 1:11 pm

No, I live near D.C.
A person I know recently moved to Rochester,M.N.

I was going through the Rochester,MN Wikipedia page and your description about flights only to MSP and ORD matched what was in the Wikipedia page. So, I just gave it a guess. :)

Marie @ My Personal Finance Journey May 1, 2014 at 3:38 pm

Yes, you’re right, it’s the plane ticket that would totally cost too much unless if you purchased a promo ticket. When my family is planning to go for a travel, I always look for a promo ticket online and when they offer a very low price, I would hurriedly grab that ticket before it’s gone.

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David Ning May 2, 2014 at 9:06 am

You must love (and I do too) Jet Blue and Virgin Airlines with their $59 and $69 one way promotions!

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Travis Pizel May 3, 2014 at 7:35 am

Sometimes you can find great deals on airline tickets…but they’re generally on very well traveled routes. In this case, we were not going on a well traveled route and those sort of discounts were not available. We did, however, take advantage of such a sale once when the whole family went to Orlando – $99 plane tickets!

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Property Marbella May 2, 2014 at 3:56 am

Driving long distances instead of flying is often cheaper and more fun for the whole family. You can stop whenever you want and make extra interesting visits of culture, national parks, and other free entertainment that is also educational for the kids.

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David Ning May 2, 2014 at 9:07 am

Absolutely Marbella,

Making the detours can make road trips much more amazing, since you are actually exploring instead of visiting the usual tourist spots.

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Travis Pizel May 3, 2014 at 7:36 am

That’s one thing I wish we would have done, Marbella – we had talked about looking for interesting things to do along the way, but we ended up just scrapping those plans. Certainly a great idea for the next road trip!

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Bill May 2, 2014 at 5:25 am

My general rule has been to drive if the destination is within one day’s drive. I consider one day’s drive to be around 600 miles, but have driven farther on occasion. I always assumed that not needing to rent a car at the destination would even the costs and the time spent at the airports would offset the driving time. I had not priced air travel tickets for some time, so the ticket costs reported here surprised me. At this point, my feeling about travel is that the destination is less important than the journey, so I’ll drive to see the country and seldom take the same path out and back.

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David Ning May 2, 2014 at 9:11 am

The cost of that flight Travis mentioned surprised me too. I suspect part of the reason for the expensive flight is because he’s flying to a smaller airport.

And the journey being more important doesn’t just pertain to traveling, but with anything in life! Enjoy the journey and everything will turn out great!

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Travis Pizel May 3, 2014 at 7:37 am

The high price of the airline tickets was definitely because of the fact that we were flying into a smaller airport. There weren’t any promotions, and the ticket prices didn’t move hardly at all (we watched them for several weeks) – they just kind of were what they were….expensive!

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Jon @ Penny Thots May 2, 2014 at 5:30 am

I also factor time into the equation. For flying, you have to get there early to check in, go through security, etc. With driving, the time part is fairly obvious. It may not be a factor most of the time, but keeping a tab on time is important.

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David Ning May 2, 2014 at 9:36 pm

People are often surprised when I lay out how much time flying actually takes. It just doesn’t seem that long, even though a routine trip could take half a day when you account for everything!

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Travis Pizel May 3, 2014 at 7:39 am

This was a huge factor in a trip we made to St. Louis last year. Travel time would have actually taken LONGER had we decided to fly. Great point, Jon!

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Alex @ Credit Card XPO May 2, 2014 at 11:51 am

That’s a huge saving! I love road trips, but since I have 2 young children, 2 & 5, I think the longest I’d drive to a destination vs flying is no longer than 8 hours straight each way.

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David Ning May 2, 2014 at 9:32 pm

Have you considered (or do you already own) a car with those built in TVs? You might be able to stretch a longer trip if you just have Frozen on loop!

You’d probably go crazy with all the kids signing “let it go” though!

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Travis Pizel May 3, 2014 at 7:42 am

When we traveled long distances with kids that age we always brainstormed for things for them to do during the ride. Their attention spans were short, so we’d have a list and the supplies ready to go. When none of them worked, we’d just stop and get out of the van for awhile. It’s definitely a challenge, but it can be done!

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Tim May 2, 2014 at 8:17 pm

Over spring break, my wife, son and I did a major “lengthwise” trip to see our older son and his girlfriend. We drove from our home in Indiana out to Seattle and back, and had a WONDERFUL time. Many people said we were “crazy”, or that it would be cheaper to fly. But, no, over a period of 9 days we covered over 4650 miles, and spent about $2200. Flying would have been much more expensive. We averaged 700 miles each day, stayed in decent motels (Best Westerns were our favorites), and saw some great sights along the way. Best of all, we got to spend 3 full days with our son and his girlfriend. I’d recommend the trip to anyone who is adventuresome and likes to see new places and things.
Someday we want to do this trip again without the time constraints of school and work responsibilities.

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David Ning May 2, 2014 at 9:35 pm

Woah. I’m happy to hear that you had a great time, but it takes guts to even try a trip like that. I bet your family came out of it closer than ever though!

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Travis Pizel May 3, 2014 at 7:44 am

It’s not just traveling, it’s an adventure! Love it! Glad that you had such a great time, Tim!

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Sassy Mamaw May 3, 2014 at 7:39 am

The price of the rental car is what ends up throwing it over the edge for us, Travis. Sometimes you can find a great price on a flight, but I haven’t had much luck with rental car prices…

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Travis Pizel May 3, 2014 at 7:47 am

Rental cars do add a significant price to the trip, Sassy Mamaw…and sometimes people think of that as an afterthought or don’t consider it as part of travel cost! Great point!

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Andy@artofbeingcheap May 3, 2014 at 9:02 pm

Interesting article. I find that if I am traveling alone it is usually cheaper to fly but with a family of four it is usually cheaper to drive.

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David Ning May 4, 2014 at 4:27 pm

It’s not just the cost either. When you are alone, it’s much more dangerous (and boring) to drive long distances.

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Travis @debtchronicles June 9, 2014 at 2:57 pm

It doesn’t have to be boring, David…you could find neat things to see and do on your trip as well. :)

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Jason May 6, 2014 at 3:27 am

Amazes me how many people ignore vehicle costs. How much do minivans cost these days? $35k? Even if you expect to get 2000,000 miles out of it, that $350 of it right there, let alone maintenance. (I’m being intentionally generous to make a point.). The $700 per person airfare is outrageous, too… We either fly or drive to Florida, and when we get good deals on flights and rentals, it’s a wash for us, because we’re honest about vehicle costs. We tend to fly because it’s safer. But, when we drive, we set aside an equivalent amount to help pay for the next car we’ll need. Everyone’s math is different, but you have to look at all the costs!

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Jason May 6, 2014 at 3:29 am

My tablet added a zero to that odometer… Meant 200k miles, not 2 million!

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Travis @debtchronicles May 6, 2014 at 3:47 pm

I certainly understand what you’re saying Jason…but it’s hard to count wear and tear on your vehicle as an expense since it doesn’t come out of your pocket immediately as a plane ticket, or gasoline would. As mentioned in an earlier comment, the airfare prices are higher because of the destination…the airport is small and deals/discounts are likely hard to come by. Glad you clarified the mileage…2 million is A LOT of miles!

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David Ning May 6, 2014 at 8:52 pm

Good point about wear and tear, but it’s very difficult to calculate just how much a trip costs when you factor in the car’s depreciation. After all, you don’t drive each car for 200k and then sell it for $0, but rather drive a different amount of miles on every car and then sell it for more than $0.

But I agree that we should be more honest about the cost of a road trip. Add gas, some estimated amount on wear and tear and remember to add maintenance cost too.

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Caleb June 5, 2014 at 8:31 am

In many cases they can turn out to be almost even. By the time you buy gas and food while driving, you have paid for a plane ticket. You might as well fly and get great transportation service when you arrive at your destination.

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Travis @debtchronicles June 9, 2014 at 2:59 pm

You might want to take another look at what I actually spent for driving for our trip, vs what we would have spent for flying. It wasn’t even close…..driving was a fraction of the cost!

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