Author: Roger Wade

Road trip vs. flying: Which is cheaper this summer?

The cost of gas is a hot topic of conversation for just about everyone lately, as many of us are stunned to see prices at levels we never thought possible in the United States. Suddenly, we are all having to think twice about driving on even mundane errands around town, and the concept of a summer road trip seems as frivolous as it does unaffordable.

Of course, airfares have gone up too, and even though they haven’t literally doubled since last summer we wondered: Is flying to your vacation destination cheaper than driving now? Of course the answer is complicated and will depend on many factors, but we were curious how things stacked up at the moment so we decided to choose 3 itineraries that seemed like common summer trips and then see how much each would cost right now.

We looked for the cheapest flights and car rentals we could find now for a trip about 8 weeks in the future. We took the current average gas prices for the states where road trips would take us, and also hotel and motel prices in each of those areas that would be appropriate for families traveling on a budget.


Driving your own car versus renting a car

For the sake of these tests we assumed travelers would be renting the cheapest appropriate car they could find instead of abusing their own wheels. Considering the fact that rental cars in the USA tend to be fairly cheap at weekly rates, this seems like a wise choice for most people anyway. Driving your own car might save you a bit of money if everything goes perfectly, but by the time you add in thousands of miles on the odometer and the depreciation that comes with them, plus wear and tear on tires, an oil change, and anything else that might go wrong, rental cars can really seem like a bargain. The new late model cars from the rental companies will often get better gas mileage than your everyday car as well, which would help it pay for itself even more.

The trips we compared

Each of the following summer vacation trips is based on a Saturday through Saturday trip of 7 nights and a bit more than 7 days. Below we listed all the expenses that might be different on a road trip versus a flying trip, but certainly not all the expenses that will be incurred. For example, regardless of how you travel you’ll want three meals per day, so food expenses weren’t included in these comparisons.

TRIP 1 – San Francisco Bay Area to the Grand Canyon for 2 adults and 2 young children

Road trip
800 miles each way, 1,600 miles total (not including driving once you get there, since it would be the same either way)
Midsize rental car for one week in San Francisco: $281
A midsize car driven carefully on open roads should average about 30 MPG
53.3 gallons at $4.50 per gallon: $239.85
Roadside motel at $75 for 2 nights: $150
Grand Canyon area hotel at $120 for 5 nights: $600
Total: $1270.85

Flights for 4 at $233 each: $934
Midsize rental car for one week in Phoenix: $202
Driving Phoenix airport to Grand Canyon: 230 miles each way
460 miles takes 15.3 gallons at $4.10 per gallon: $62.86
Grand Canyon area hotel $120 for 7 nights: $840
Total: $2038.86

>>book a cheap flight to Phoenix and also look for a hotel in Phoenix

Notes on driving – In spite of insane gas prices, driving would cost about $750 less for this family of four. Of course, this also means a long day and a half on the road each way, so the pleasant scenery multiplied by your family’s tolerance for long car journeys might make this anywhere from the road-trip of a lifetime to a never-ending nightmare. You lose two days in Arizona, but replace them with days on the road, which can also be quite interesting depending on your route.

Notes on flying – With only about half a day lost on each end eaten up by the airport hassle and the flight itself, the family would get almost 6 full days in Arizona to see sights and relax. For those with a low tolerance for long car journeys the $750 added expense might be worth it for the extra time at the destination.

TRIP 2 – Chicago to New Orleans for 2 adults

930 miles each way, 1,860 total
Midsize car in Chicago $189 per week
62 gallons @ $4 per gallon: $240
Roadside motel for 2 nights: $120
New Orleans hotel for 5 nights: $600
Parking in New Orleans for 5 days: $50
Total: $1199

2 adults at $263 each: $526
Airport transportation in New Orleans at $10 X 2 people X 2 trips: $40
3 days economy rental car in New Orleans (for area sightseeing during part of your stay): $171
New Orleans hotel for 7 nights: $840
Total: $1577

>>book a flight to New Orleans and check out the hotels in New Orleans as well

Notes on driving – A couple would save just under $400 in this scenario, and would get to see a couple thousand miles of scenery in the process, but on the other hand they would have to spend more than a day and a half on the road each way. For those not fond of long car trips, the savings probably don’t add up to enough.

Notes on flying – A couple would get to spend more quality time in their destination by flying, but in most US destinations renting a car for at least part of the stay is the best way to see the area. Those wanting to rent a car for the entire stay would be adding perhaps $200 more between the longer rental in an expensive city as well as parking costs.

TRIP 3 – Philadelphia to Orlando for 2 adults and 2 young children

1,000 miles each way, 2,000 total
Midsize rental car in Philadelphia: $378
66.6 gallons at $4 each: $266.67
Roadside motels $80 for 4 nights: $320
Orlando hotel $80 for 3 nights: $240
Total: $1204.67

4 plane tickets at $274: $1098
Midsize car rental for week in Orlando: $150
Orlando hotel $80 for 7 nights: $560
Total: $1808

>>look for Orlando Airfare and book a hotel in Orlando

Notes on driving – A family of 4 would save over $600 in this scenario, but a week-long trip would include almost 4 full days of driving for this route. Depending on the age of the children, the trip could feel more like 4 full years on the road. On the other hand, this route has plenty to see, and frequent stops along the way could make the driving part enjoyable for some families.

Notes on flying – With only half a day on each end used up by airport craziness and flights, a family would be able to spend 6 full days in and around Orlando. You’d need a rental car when you got there, but cars are far cheaper rented in Orlando than in Philadelphia.


It was at least a little surprising that even when finding bargain flights compared to insane gas prices, the road trips were still significantly cheaper in each case. Even for only two people on the New Orleans trip, the flights combined with a 3-day car rental were still much more expensive than the road trip that included all that expensive gas. Those willing to gamble by driving their own cars could save even more money by driving, although there will always be downsides to tacking a couple thousand extra miles onto your car during one hot week in summer.

The bottom line

As freaked out as we may all be by gas over $4 per gallon, road trips can still be a bargain compared to flying to the same place. If gas were only $2 per gallon instead, it would only shave a bit over $100 off each of the road trips, which is fairly insignificant in the overall scheme of things. Filling up your tank for $60 a pop might be painful, but it can still be a transportation bargain, especially if your group is larger.

Obviously each trip would have to be judged on its own merits. Some people and families would self-destruct on a long car trip, while others could create lasting pleasant memories while they are “seeing the country” at the same time. If you are the type that loves the adventure of the road as the world zooms by, don’t get bogged down by the price at the pump because it’s not really as bad as it seems in the bigger picture.

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Photo credits:Grand Canyon by Mike Tickle on Flickr , New Orleans by kateharbath on Flickr , Florida by amber_h on Flickr