Fly or Drive? 9 Factors to Consider

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Fall is a popular time to travel, but the best way to go may surprise you. For a family, even a trip of several hundred miles might be cheaper to drive, while a solo traveler may be better off flying. But price isn't the only factor to consider.

Planning a trip to enjoy the autumn foliage or go wine-tasting? According to a recent TripAdvisor survey, 86 percent of travelers are planning a leisure trip this fall, and those are the top activities.

For those who traveled on Labor Day, 60 percent expected to drive, and 34 percent planned to fly. (Guess the other 6 percent were either taking trains or boats.) But how often is driving a better option than flying?

In the video below, Money Talks News reporter Jim Robinson takes a look at that question, using a trip calculator to weigh the costs and benefits. Check it out, and then read on for more.

Here’s the tool Jim used: BeFrugal’s fly or drive calculator. Plug in some travel dates, locations, the number of people going, and some other optional info to get a side-by-side comparison. Regardless of how the money shakes out, though, Jim’s right – both modes have their pros and cons. Here are a few things to consider before you decide…

  1. Packing. Fly, and you’re looking at baggage fees in the realm of $20 per bag, per person, each  way. This could easily cost a family of four $160. If you drive, there are no extra fees and you can stuff whatever you want in the car. But depending on the vehicle, there may not be much space for everyone’s luggage.
  2. Pace. Flights require you to arrive by a certain time so they can make you stand in a long line and then sit in the takeoff queue. Plus there are storm delays and waiting at baggage claim – but the farther you have to go, the more time you save. And at least there’s no traffic in the sky. Drive and you’ll face lots of it, but your travel time is otherwise only restricted by your own endurance. (And maybe speed limits.)
  3. Scenery. On a road trip, every seat’s a window seat, and you can stop for a closer look whenever you want. In the air, you’re stuck with the in-flight movie (if you get one) or the snoring guy in the next seat.
  4. Distance. Where long distance is a factor, so are overnight accommodations. Unless you plan to sleep in your car or drive all night – not the safest idea – you have to add motel costs to the total price, and food costs stack up too.
  5. Numbers. The biggest cost factor is how many people are traveling with you. Costs multiply per person on a flight, while driving allows you to pool gas money.
  6. Safety. According to the Smithsonian Institution, planes are far safer than cars: “More people die in auto accidents in three months in the United States than have lost their lives in the entire history of commercial flight.”
  7. Multitasking. Driving duty leaves you with little time to relax or get work done so you can enjoy time off at your destination. Take a plane and you can sit on your laptop or smartphone – maybe with in-flight Wi-Fi.
  8. Comfort. Sitting in a car for hours is no fun, but at least you can get out and stretch. That’s impossible while crammed in a plane, and you may have to jostle others just to reach the bathroom.
  9. Destination travel. Flying may leave you without a free ride from the airport, and may mean public transportation or cabs to get around. Bringing your own vehicle can save on that expense.

Bottom line? The choice between flying and driving isn’t always obvious. If you weigh the benefits and plug some numbers into a flight calculator, you might be surprised. If you are going to fly, take some advice from Money Talks News travel expert Jason Steele – he’s a licensed pilot who knows all the tricks, from flying business class cheap to the best frequent flier programs and maximizing bonus miles.

Stacy Johnson

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