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Are road trips cheaper than flying? Here’s what to know

by Staff


Tim Ervin plans to take a road trip with his son this month from their home in Portland, Oregon, to Northern California, but it wasn’t the call of the open road that prompted him to drive.

Ervin, who has family and friends in Chico and Folsom, said driving is cheaper for the pair than flying.

“If money was no object, I would fly because I’ve lived in Portland for 26 years now, and my family was always down there,” said Ervin, 52, who estimated he has made the drive about 80 times. “It’s nice; I can almost do it with my eyes closed now, but there’s nothing about it that is particularly surprising.”

Ervin, a construction project manager, estimated that flights to Chico – a little over an hour of flight time, and four hours of travel door to door – for he and his 12-year-old son, Alex, would cost $400 to $500, while driving about eight hours in his Toyota Prius would cost just $100.

Road trips can be an economical alternative to flying, particularly as travel costs have ballooned amid inflation, but they may not always be.

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Is a road trip cheaper than flying?

That depends.

“I would say kind of the easiest rule of thumb is the more people that are going on the trip, the more that you can usually save (by driving),” said Kaleigh Kirkpatrick, founder of the travel agency The Shameless Tourist, an affiliate of Avenue Two Travel.

A family of five may find a road trip more economical than buying plane tickets, she said. However, if only one or two people are going on the trip, driving may not be the more affordable option once gas and food are factored in. Plus, drivers may get less time at their destination and have to spend more time away from work, Kirkpatrick noted.

Road trips may make more sense for shorter distances, Kirkpatrick said. “If you can make the drive in a full day or one overnight, maybe you’re spending a couple hundred dollars on a hotel room, that can be a good cost savings.”

The average price for a gallon of regular gas in the U.S. is $3.47, slightly up from a week earlier but lower than a year ago and significantly below its roughly $5 record last summer, according to AAA. 

With travel costs up amid high inflation, Kirkpatrick has noticed an increase in flight prices – particularly for international travel – in the past couple of months and has had clients cancel trips or put off plans because of cost-prohibitive fares. And even travelers going longer distances that would require hotel stays may be better off driving.

“It totally all depends on when you’re booking and what you’re booking and all of that, but … I do think that there are a lot of cases where the flights have outpaced (the increase in hotel pricing),” she said.

How to save money on road trips

There are ways to bring down the cost of a road trip, too. Paula Twidale, senior vice president of travel at AAA, recommended taking steps such as bringing enough food and water for the journey rather than spending money on restaurants fast food, and avoiding idling too much.

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“A car engine consumes one quarter to one-half gallon of fuel per hour when idling, but a warm engine only takes around 10 seconds worth of fuel to restart,” she said in an email. Turn off your engine if you’re going to be stopped for over a minute (if you can do so safely).

Travelers should also keep an eye on their speed. “Fuel economy peaks at around 50 mph on most cars, then drops off as speeds increase,” she said. “Reducing highway speeds by 5 to 10 mph can increase fuel economy by as much as 14%.”

Kirkpatrick said driving also offers a different kind of trip than flying, with opportunities to stop and sightsee on the way, play games in the car and build more bonding time for families.  “I think that (road trips) are an interesting way to travel regardless of if you’re trying to save money or not,” she said.


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Scott L. Hall, USA TODAY

Nathan Diller is a consumer travel reporter for USA TODAY based in Nashville. You can reach him at [email protected].

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