Drive or Fly: An Ongoing Conundrum for Mid-Distance Travelers

Gas is pricey.  Airfare is pricey.  Traffic sucks.  Airports suck.  So what’s a mid-distance traveler to do?  Is there a hard-and-fast rule to deciding when to fly  or when to drive those distances between 180 and oh, say, 450 miles?

I ask because I just dove from Austin to New Orleans — both ways — and it wasn’t nearly the wind-in-my hair getaway I had imagined.  It was long, exhausting and fraught with annoyances, including speed limits I was forced to observe in a “borrowed” car (mother) and also an irrational fear of jail in Vidor (placed in my head by my mother).  There was also traffic. In Austin, Houston, Lake Charles, Baton Rouge.  Every place except New Orleans, in fact. The drive took two days of precious vacation time (fresh off a perfect trip to the Dominican Republic) and left me with scores of ailments, real and imagined, in my shoulders.  However, I went in my own time, I saw some country (meh, I’ve done that drive a million times), I hauled STUFF.  I had a car while I was gone and I avoided what I thought was a costly flight to-and-from the two cities.  Or did I?

Benefits of flying:

Potential time saved. Bottom line. Is there ANY other reason to deal with the insanity of the airline industry if you aren’t either going overseas or too far to drive or train it?  Well, maybe.  It can, sometimes, even be cheaper. Flights from Austin to New Orleans (via Southwest) were about $290, plus taxes.  One hour flying time each way.  Two hours at the airport between getting there/boarding, each way. So, six hours total travel time, total. I was spared a cab on one side but would have forked out $30 once I got to NoLa.  So total cost of flying?  $350.

For several reasons, I opted to drive.  My rental car from Austin to NoLa was $200 for four days (It would have been a major plus if I had my own car).   Gas was another $150.  I got TWO parking tickets (hey, my psychic ran long).  Oh, but the drive took NINE hours each way. Or 18 hours total. Though I broke even on actual cost between flying and driving, I lost 12 hours of my life to Interstate-10.  And I broke up with I-10 a long time ago.  So did I make the right decision?

Benefits of driving:

According to travel experts, the real bottom line in figuring out whether to drive or fly is based on the number of travelers. Destinations that might make sense for a couple to fly to can become prohibitively expensive for a family of four or more, according to MSNAnother major factor — do you have to transfer?  Even short trips become drawn-out and potentially negative when a transfer (and the chance of a flight delay) becomes a concern.

Another benefit of driving: Your own car, your own time, your own detours.    If you have a reliable car, it makes sense to drive anywhere from 180 to 400 miles, says Budget Travel. When adding in rental costs for a car, that decision becomes a little less  clear.  But as a general breakdown, according to AP:

Flying versus driving: What’s your time worth?

Family of four, Atlanta to Washington, D.C. Two people, Minneapolis to Chicago
Driving Driving
Time: 11 hours (629 miles) each way Time: eight hours (403 miles) each way
Fuel cost: $109 each way for a Dodge Caravan, $218 round trip Fuel cost: $74 each way for a Dodge Caravan, $148 round trip
Meals: $40 each way Meals: $20 each way
Total round-trip travel cost: $298 plus tolls Total round-trip travel cost: $188 plus tolls
Flying Flying
Time: one hour and 45 minutes flight time each way, plus parking and check-in Time: one hour and 15 minutes flight time each way, plus parking and check-in
Airfare: $900 round trip Airfare: $256 round trip
Baggage fees: $120 (four suitcases at $15 each way) Baggage fees: $60 ($30 each way)
Total round-trip travel cost: $1,020 Total round-trip travel cost: $316

The Final Tally:

Get out a piece of paper and sketch costs vs. benefits.  If it’s just you — or you and a friend — flying might be the best route.  If it’s a caravan, and the trip is less than eight hours, DRIVE.  Share costs. Enjoy the sign game.  Are you traveling with stuff?  Airline baggage fees are crazy — in a car, pack it to the the roof.  But in this equation, don’t forget that time is money — or rather, it’s time you’d like to spend someplace else. -VC

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