Is It Better to Drive or Fly?

So you’re planning a trip somewhere far away – but not too far away. Maybe it’s from San Francisco to Los Angeles, or from Washington, DC to New York City. For close-ish trips like these, you might be asking yourself if it’s better to fly or drive. It comes down to balancing speed, effort, and cost.

To help you decide, we punched some hypothetical trips into BeFrugal’s Fly or Drive Calculator and compiled the data. For car-based trips, we used the 2010 Honda Accord sedan as the vehicle of choice. For flights, we used BeFrugal’s plane ticket price estimates, assumed that you’ll have one checked bag, and that a taxi will take you to and from the airport.

While results will vary depending on your specific car and plans, we plotted trips which represent journeys between popular destinations. Based on what we found, 500 miles is about the threshold at which flying becomes a better option than driving – but it’s not always so simple.

San Francisco to Los Angeles

Any California resident is going to have an opinion on whether San Francisco or Los Angeles is better. While only about 400 miles separate the two cities, they could hardly be more different.

The flight between San Francisco and Los Angeles isn’t a long one, but time on the plane isn’t the only thing to consider: When all is said and done, total flying transportation time is about 10 hours. Cost of the plane ticket and taxi fare is nearly $450. What's more, in driving-focused Los Angeles, it's useful to have a car – you won't have one at your disposal if you fly.

San Francisco to Los Angeles by Plane

At a little over 11 hours total, time spent in the car is much more than time on the plane. However at just over $100, it’s far less expensive to drive. Plus, you'll have your car to get you around the city once you're there.

San Francisco to Los Angeles by Car

Given that driving will take about an hour more than flying, and flying costs at least three times as much, it doesn’t seem like paying for a plane ticket is worth it.

Still, there are other options to think about. Bus services like Megabus offer round-trip fares for about $50.

San Francisco to Los Angeles by Bus

Amtrak provides train service from the Bay Area to Los Angeles for between $100-$400 round trip, depending on whether you choose a coach or premium seat.

San Francisco to Los Angeles by Train

However, the bus and train take much more time than driving or flying. Plus, as the song goes, nobody walks in LA – you’re going to want a car to get around. Driving is going to be your best choice for this trip.

Verdict: Drive

Washington, DC to New York City

Washington, DC and New York City aren’t very large, but a lot goes on in each place. They’re subject to horrific traffic conditions: A road blockade for the President or a visiting dignitary in DC and nonstop gridlock in Manhattan means that you’ll be lucky to drive faster than 25 MPH in either city. While only 225 miles separate the two, could it be that flying is the quicker, easier option?

In optimal conditions, the round-trip drive will take less than eight hours, but finding optimal conditions is like spotting a unicorn. At least 90 minutes of traffic each way is almost guaranteed, so round-trip driving time jumps to over 10 hours. Fuel plus wear and tear will only cost about $60, but don't forget to factor in $15 bridge tolls. Worst of all are daily parking rates in the Big Apple: at about $40 per day, it's the country's most expensive place to park. Depending on the length of your stay, parking alone could be more costly than your other driving expenses.

Washington, DC to New York City by Car

Flying isn’t cheap, but it might make things simpler. First of all, you won't have a car to park; you can use taxis or the subway to get around. Travel time is reduced, too, coming in around nine hours. However, the cost is much higher than driving: between the plane ticket, checked bag, and taxis, you're looking at close to $600.

Washington, DC to New York City by Plane

This is an instance where not having a car is probably a good thing: you’ll avoid spending time and money on parking, along with the stress of driving in heavy traffic. However, buses and trains between DC and NYC are a worthwhile consideration. Amtrak takes less than seven hours and costs between $100 and $200, depending on which class of ticket you buy.

Washington, DC to New York City by Train

Bussing is the cheapest option, at about $75 for a ticket, plus taxis to and from the station. You're still subject to the same miserable traffic as if you drove yourself, but at least you can occupy the time with games, reading, work, etc.

Washington, DC to New York City by Bus

Compared to taking a car, train, or bus, flying is a serious splurge. Given the massive traffic and outrageous parking fees you’ll face, driving to NYC isn’t worth it. The bus is inexpensive but takes even longer than driving. In this instance, the train is the best choice: It’s not the cheapest, but it’s the fastest, and you’ll avoid any traffic, bridge tolls, and parking fees.

Verdict: Train

Atlanta to Disney World Florida

Whether you’re a diehard Disney fan or just like to have fun on the rides, there’s entertainment for everyone at Disney World. The Orlando, Florida mega-resort attracts visitors from all corners of the globe, but for this getaway, let’s assume you’re leaving from Atlanta, Georgia.

There are about 450 miles separating Atlanta from Disney World. The drive will take a little more than 12 hours round trip, and cost about $120 for fuel, plus average wear and tear on your car.

Atlanta to Disney World Florida by Car

Flying is also an option, but keep in mind that Atlanta’s Hartfield-Jackson airport is regarded as the busiest airport in the world – expect long security lines to contribute to the 10 hours of total transportation time. The round-trip flight costs about $300, and taxi fares total over $200.

Atlanta to Disney World Florida by Plane

Whether you drive or fly, you won’t need a car once you’re at Disney World. The resort’s famous monorail system can help you get around.

A trip to Disney World brings out the eager little kid in anyone, but resist your urge to save time by spending extra on a flight – don’t forget to budget for the park’s hundred-plus dollar one-day adult ticket price. In the end, driving is the best option: it’s not as fast, but saves a lot of cash, and no one will judge you for singing your favorite Disney tunes the entire way down.

Verdict: Drive

Los Angeles to Las Vegas

We all know that what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but figuring out the best way to get there shouldn’t be a secret. If you’re starting in Los Angeles, you have to cover about 270 miles to get to Sin City.

Attractions on the Strip are densely packed, so once you’re there getting around by foot isn’t a big challenge. If you drive, expect about eight hours round trip, assuming light traffic. The cost of driving should be about $75, and parking fees could be included in your hotel rate.

Los Angeles to Las Vegas by Car

If you choose to fly, be ready to spend about $200 on a plane ticket, with a similar amount on taxi fares. Travel time totals up to about nine and a half hours.

Los Angeles to Las Vegas by Plane

Flying could actually take longer than driving, and it’s over six times more expensive. But before you drive, there’s the bus to consider, too. Megabus fare is only about $60 round trip, but taxis will cost you another $100. Traffic could slow things down, too, so expect at least 11 hours of travel time.

Los Angeles to Las Vegas by Bus

Like flying, the bus is actually more expensive and time-consuming than driving. So save your money for the slot machines, and use your car to get between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Verdict: Drive

San Francisco to New York City

What if you’re gearing up for a big journey, and want to get from coast to coast? Approximately 2,900 miles separate San Francisco and New York City. It’s a no-brainer that flying is going to be faster, but could the cost savings make an epic road trip worth it?

In short, the answer is no. Driving means nearly three and a half full days spent behind the wheel. That's hard on you, and your car, too: it will accrue about $350 in wear and tear, and burn through over $400 in fuel. You'll need a place to sleep, too, so unless you want to stay in your car, budget at least $600 on hotels. Finally, when you arrive in NYC, you'll be hit with $15 bridge tolls.

San Francisco to New York City by Car

Conversely, flying will take under 20 hours total. A $600 round-trip ticket and approximately $160 in taxi fares seem like a bargain compared to the cost of driving.

San Francisco to New York City by Plane

Basically the only reason you’d elect to drive from coast to coast is if you wanted to make a fun sightseeing trip out of it. Otherwise, flying is going to save you a ton of money and several days of your life.

Verdict: Fly

We often think of flying as being fast and efficient. After all, passenger planes can cruise at hundreds of miles per hour – your car can’t get anywhere close to those speeds. However, as the data shows, once all factors are considered, flying is a surprisingly time-consuming and costly choice. For certain trips there’s no question it makes more sense, but if your destination is less than 500 miles away, driving is the better option than flying.

Here are the key takeaways from all this: If you drive, the wear and tear on your car adds up. The miles will wear down your tires and bring you closer to needing an oil change. Parking fees can get expensive too, and depending on where you go, tolls may be a factor. Don't forget to budget for overnight hotel stays, either.

In terms of flying, time spent on the plane isn't the only thing to consider: Add in time for check-in, security, baggage claim, and transportation to and from the airport, and the total flight time can easily exceed the time it takes to drive. Even if flying will end up being a little quicker, compare the costs to driving and decide if it's worth the expense. Don't misjudge the inconvenience of not having a car at your destination.

Finally, taking a train or bus may be a faster and/or cheaper option, so don't overlook those methods when you're planning a trip. However, as with flying, you'll have to plan how to get around once you're at your destination.

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