Flying vs. Driving: Factors to Consider Besides Just Cost

Flying isn't always necessarily faster than driving. Here are some trade-offs to consider.
Sally French
By Sally French 
Edited by Meghan Coyle

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Is it better to drive or fly? Maybe you’re traveling solo and found a cheap airfare deal. But then you add up the costs of rideshares to and from the airport, plus checked bag fees, and it’s suddenly not so cheap.

The main difference between flying and driving to a vacation is time spent. Benefits and drawbacks vary for either; driving can make hard-to-reach areas accessible, but risks traffic and high gas prices. Flying, meanwhile, allows you to multitask, but you’re at the whim of airlines.

The literal costs of a road trip versus flying may shake out exactly the same, but there are intangible costs like time, energy and traffic at stake, too.

Here are the biggest factors you should consider when deciding whether to fly or drive.

Driving vs. flying costs

Driving costs

Gas for the road trip

Calculate not just the cost of gas to get to and from your destination, but also the cost of gas when you’re there. While gas prices can vary dramatically by region, AAA breaks down gas prices by county to provide a better idea of costs. Use AAA’s gas cost calculator, which also factors in the make and model of your car, for an even more accurate estimate.

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Car wear and tear

The more you drive, the more you’ll need to replace tires or get an oil change. Those costs vary depending on what kind of tires you need or who's servicing your oil change, but again, AAA has an interactive tool that can help estimate.

Parking and tolls

Factor in potential toll roads, as well as parking fees, such as at hotels, on busy downtown streets or at popular attractions like zoos, theme parks or sporting events.

Additional time commitments when driving

If time is money, then driving can demand a lot of it. Tools like Google Maps can estimate the drive time. And while they can’t predict the future with 100% accuracy, they can estimate how long your trip will take based on your departure time.

Plan for the drive to take longer than the estimate, as these tools typically don’t account for stops for gas, food or stretching. You also may encounter traffic due to weather or an accident.

Costs of flying

Airfare and associated costs

The price of flying entails a lot more than airfare. You may be able to avoid checked bag fees or seat selection fees by holding certain credit cards or elite status. But if not, bake those hidden costs into your budget.

Most airlines charge extra if you’re flying with a pet, and that’s if they even let you bring pets on board, period.

A rental car

If you’re renting a car, factor in not just the base rate, but also extra costs including gas and parking. You might also encounter other fees, like an underage driver fee, second driver fee or rental car insurance.

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Rideshares or public transit

Don’t overlook the cost of rideshares, public transit or airport parking required to get from home to the airport and from the airport to your lodging. And don’t assume that public transit is cheap — some train fares to airport metro stations cost significantly more than other routes of similar lengths.

Rideshares can be tricky to budget because cost can vary greatly based on demand. If you’re trying to get to and from a highly trafficked area, like a concert or sporting event, expect surge pricing versus a normal day.

Additional time commitments when flying

The time to get to a destination by air is far more than the duration of the flight. When figuring out whether driving or flying will take longer, there are other time obligations to take into account.

Consider how long it will take to get to the airport, accounting for delays or traffic. From there, most major airlines recommend arriving at the airport two hours before a domestic flight and three hours before an international flight. You might be able to cut down on some time if you hold TSA PreCheck or Clear memberships, but that’s an additional expense to gain access.

Assuming your flight takes off and lands at its scheduled time, also account for the time to disembark and, if applicable, to get luggage. Next, add the time to get from the airport to lodging, which might entail a queue at the taxi stand or waiting for the hotel shuttle.

Benefits of driving

Even if driving is pricier than flying, there are some reasons you might opt to drive anyway.

You don’t have to book ahead of time

As COVID-19 continues to cause uncertainty, you might be disinclined to book a flight that you potentially cancel. Airline cancellation policies are generally less flexible than they were in 2020 and 2021, and you might incur additional cancellation fees, headaches and time on hold.

If your risk-mitigation strategy is booking a last-minute flight, be aware that airfares tend to rise as the travel date gets closer. However, if you’re driving your own car, there’s no need to book transportation ahead of time.

No worries about delays or cancellations

The past year has been fraught with flight delays and cancellations, especially as airlines have experienced coronavirus-related staffing problems. While you might experience a traffic delay if you drive, you’re not at the mercy of an airline canceling your flight.

You can pack in people, pets and suitcases

Checked bag fees can be expensive, and some basic economy fares don’t even let you use the overhead bin without paying an extra fee.

Driving can be appealing for heavy packers, or travelers with items that might be prone to oversized or overweight fees.

By driving, you can also avoid buying airfare for multiple people or pets. The cost to drive your partner plus your pup is largely the same as the cost of driving solo. The same can’t be said for flying.

Freedom to depart whenever you want

It might be difficult to find flight availability at convenient times, especially given how many airlines have trimmed schedules due to COVID-19. If the only available flight departs at 5 a.m., you could be in for a rough day of little sleep. Tricky flight schedules could also compel you to pay extra for late checkout or early check-in. By driving, you set the schedule.

Benefits of flying

You can multitask

Sure, the internet might be painfully slow on a plane, but at least you have it. Even sans internet, flying gives you the freedom to kick back in the airport lounge, or crush a sudoku puzzle while sipping a diet soda served by a flight attendant. You’ll probably get more done while flying versus keeping your eyes on the road as you drive.

You’re not cramped in a car

Airplanes might feel like they have limited legroom, but so do cars. At least flying allows you to stretch your legs as you walk down the aisle. Plus, you’ll get some good exercise strolling from the security check to the gate.

When to drive vs. fly

The decision to drive versus fly comes with plenty of trade-offs, and the hidden costs listed here certainly aren't the only factors at stake. Both options incur separate environmental costs and could take a toll on you mentally if you have a fear of flying or get anxious when sitting in traffic.

Be sure to calculate not just the fixed costs, but also the time and value of the intangible costs, which only you can appraise.

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