Flying vs. driving: Which is a cheaper vacation travel option?

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With the advent of summer, more people are taking advantage of the season to travel. About 85% of U.S. vacations this year are expected to be to domestic locations, according to the latest figures from MMGY Global’s 2017 Portrait of American Travelers. And for many of those travelers, the question then becomes should you drive there or fly?

It stands to reason that both options have their pros and cons: Gas prices are etching upward so how much extra would I pay this year compared to the same drive last year? If I purchase a plane ticket, how much extra will I have to pay in baggage fees (family included)? Would the money I save on airfare cancel out what I’d need to spend for a rental car at my destination?

As you can see, there are several questions to mull over. But if we let economics be our guide, surely we’ll arrive at the right conclusion — or at least enjoy our vacation more.

For illustrative purposes, I picked a city within a day’s driving distance to count the costs. How much money would it take to drive nearly 500 miles from Atlanta, Georgia to New Orleans, Louisiana? I ventured to’s travel calculator to compare the costs of driving (2017 Nissan Altima) vs. flying and here’s what I found.

The cheapest way to travel: Flying or driving?

If I drove my vehicle:

Total Fuel Cost: $61.35
Wear & Tear: $50.71
Estimated Hotel Cost: $0.00
Estimated Tolls: $0.00
Total Round-Trip Cost: $112.06

If I bought a plane ticket:

Airfare $319.58
Checked bag fee $25
Estimated Hotel Cost: $0.00
Estimated Tolls: $0.00
Total Round-Trip Cost: $344.58

Of course, if a rental vehicle is needed, you can add about $50 a day to your travel costs. You can expect your costs to multiply if you’re traveling with a partner or family. That means checked bags and airfare will easily be doubled, tripled or more.

One thing to keep in mind is that takes into account the entire travel window, including how long it would take me to get to the airport and wait through the security checkpoint as well as to gather my bags after landing.

One thing doesn’t take into account though is your stamina and tolerance for the road. If you’re someone who is so fatigued or stressed out that you actually need to incorporate some rest into your day, then the comforts of flying — which may allow you to recuperate and get some shuteye — may be more than worth the money you save by driving.

If you DO decide to drive to your vacation, Clark has this one money-saving tip

In any event, money expert Clark Howard says if you do decide to travel via car, renting a vehicle makes more financial sense over the long haul. “Renting a vehicle could be a lot cheaper than effectively putting all those additional miles on your own vehicle,” he says.

The issue with driving your own car on vacation is that, you’ll be literally driving down the resale value of your vehicle. Clark says this is when sound decisions and comparison shopping comes into play.

“If you shop and find a good deal on a rental car, you put those trip miles and the depreciation that goes with it on that rental car instead of your own,” he says.


Meanwhile, want a completely different way to travel domestically? Here’s how to score a cheap train ticket.

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