For many trips this summer, flying is still cheaper than driving
By George Hobica
Another summer, another gas price hike. It’s just like 2008. (But hopefully without all those failing banks!) Before you go sour on the idea of your annual vacation, take a closer look – higher fuel prices don’t always mean that one way of getting there (say, flying) is always better than the other (driving). As airlines continue to raise fares for consumers flying to and from smaller airports, the method of transport that offers the best value differs greatly by route.
So should you drive or fly? Needless to say, cost isn't the only factor in making your decision. And while we are Airfarewatchdog.com after all, and we're all about flying, we thought we'd take a look to see if, even with higher gas prices, driving might make more sense this summer. And for those without their own car, we also looked at current weekly rental car rates using data from autoslash.com.
The short answer is that in many scenarios, flying is still cheaper.
Totally at random, we examined a few popular summer routes across the country and calculated costs road vs. air, taking into account the new national average fuel price of about $4 per gallon and an average 25 miles per gallon of gas. We also considered the total "wear and tear" cost (you know, tires, oil, insurance, all that stuff) calculated with the 2011 IRS allowance of 51 cents per mile. We didn't include things such as airport parking fees, tolls, value of frequent flyer miles you'd earn by flying, hotel costs while on the road (you're not planning on sleeping in the Town and Country are you?), and Happy Meals. And of course, you have to consider checked bag fees, how many people are in the car, TSA aggravation, and that sort of thing.
But what we found was that on many routes, assuming just one person flying vs. one person driving, flying is still much cheaper, and on some routes, even with two or three people in the car, flying still wins out. Let's take a trip from Phoenix to San Diego. It's rare that you can't find a $98 tax-included fare on that route (Southwest and US Airways), flying nonstop. Driving the 710 miles would cost you $112 in fuel or $362 using the standard 51 cents per mile. And let's not forget your time: that drive would take most drivers at least 10 hours on the road.
But on some trips, such as Salt Lake City to Jackson Hole, WY, you'll definitely make out better driving, as the accompanying chart shows. So are you flying or driving this summer, and what's the max number of hours you're willing to be behind the wheel to avoid taking to the skies?