How to decide whether to fly or drive when traveling on a budget

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information.

I don’t know about you, but winter is always my favorite time to fantasize about upcoming summer vacations. If you are starting to plan out getaways for spring and summer, you might be thinking a domestic getaway is the safest option given continued travel restrictions in many international destinations and the testing requirements to reenter the U.S.

For budget travelers, a road trip might be your go-to domestic vacation option — a plane ticket costs more than gas, right? But sometimes, flying can actually be more affordable.

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Growing up, my family drove everywhere. Each summer was filled with fast-pitch softball tournaments in neighboring states and trips to theme parks, the beach and the mountains. That meant packing everything into the family SUV, going to sleep super early the night before and waking up before the sun to hit the road.

I’ve always assumed road trips were the more budget-friendly option, but the more I fly (and learn how to maximize points and miles), the more I realize a plane ticket can often be the best route to an affordable vacation.

Of course, that won’t apply to every situation. There are always going to be cases where driving will make more sense, especially if you have a large family or pets in tow. But there are also plenty of instances where a flight will actually save you time and money on a trip.

(Photo by Thomas Barwick/Getty Images)

As an example, I’ve always enjoyed driving home for the holidays rather than flying. When I moved to New York City, my mom asked me whether I’d still make the drive home for the holidays or if I’d opt to fly. Initially, I said I might drive. New York to Arkansas is a considerably longer drive than North Carolina to Arkansas, but I figured it would be cheaper overall.

After digging into the numbers a little, however, I realized flying would actually be the better option.

I did end up selling my car during my move, which would have greatly increased the price of the road trip. But even had I kept my car, the math still favored the flight over the road trip home.

The drive from my place in New York back home is 1,308 miles, which Google Maps estimates as an almost 21-hour drive. I would have had to break that into two days, which means I’d need to factor in one night at a hotel, round-trip gas expenses and round-trip food costs.

If I had still had my car, I would have needed fill up my car five times for the trip which, at an average of $3.50 per gallon and around 11 gallons per tank, would be just over $200 in gas one-way, or $400 for the whole trip. If I stopped around halfway in Knoxville, Tennessee, I could find a cheap hotel for about $100 per night. Each way, I’d be spending at least $600 just on gas and accommodations. That’s to say nothing of eating while on the road. At about $10 per meal, I’d need to budget an additional $120.

All in, that’s $720 and 42 hours spent wishing I could trade the open road for a cramped seat in economy — even without the cost of a car rental. Even if I used points to pay for my hotel rooms, that would put me at $520 total.

Driving may seem like the obvious budget choice, but flying can actually be cheaper. (Photo by Darren Murph/The Points Guy)

By comparison, I can usually find round-trip flights from New York to Arkansas between $300 and $500, depending on the specific days I want to fly. Each flight would take a little under six hours, including a layover (which is standard for flights between New York City and Little Rock, Arkansas). Add in $50 for any food I’d grab at the airport, and we’re still only at $550 at the top of the price range. Plus, I’ve saved a total of 30 hours that I could spend with family or friends rather than listening to my most recent audiobook download.

How to decide between flying or driving

Something to consider is that I am a solo traveler. Add in a spouse and three kids, and plane tickets for the whole family would start to get more expensive than driving — even if you add in any extra gas money needed for a van or SUV.

So, how do you determine whether flying or driving is the more affordable trip for you? The best way is to crunch the numbers like I did in the example above.

Consider how much it costs to fill up your car’s gas tank, and how many times you’d need to fill your tank for the trip. Add in your estimates for food while you’re on the road and any accommodations you’ll need if it’s a multiday journey.

Related: Take these credit cards on your next road trip 

Then, compare that to flights for everyone going on the trip. Flights on weekends or holidays will likely be more expensive.

Finally, you can’t forget the time commitment between driving and flying. For long road trips to get to your final destination, is it worth spending all that time stuck in a car staring at the highway? Would you rather pay more money to be able to spend that time at home or at your destination? Or is the journey part of what makes the trip appealing?

I’d always assumed driving was the more economical option because that’s what we always did when I was younger. Of course, we rarely stopped on the way — for a 20-hour drive, my parents would have just switched drives halfway so the other could get a break while my siblings and I slept in the back. And plane tickets for a family of five would have been much more than the single ticket I have to buy myself now that I’m an adult.

For my family, driving almost always was the most affordable way to travel.

However, I’m learning that isn’t always the case for my own travels within the U.S. Sometimes, quick road trips are a great way to save money. But flying can also be a surprising way to save money (and precious time) when booking your domestic getaways this year.

Featured image by Jose A. Bernat Bacete/Getty Images.