How should you decide between flying and taking a road trip?

Figuring Out if it's Cheaper to Drive or Fly

If your head is spinning in an attempt to wrap itself around all the variables in a "drive versus fly" decision, here's some good news: online you can find a number of trip calculators that help you figure it all out. There are calculators for determining your vehicle's mileage, current gasoline prices, airline fares (also known as discount fare sites), and even how a driving trip and an airline flight stack up to one another.

We used a calculator from to help make the "fly or drive" decision for two hypothetical households considering a visit to Orlando, Fla. from their homes in Herndon, Va., during the same week in July. "Tyler" drives a relatively fuel-efficient Ford Focus and is headed south by himself to visit relatives near the Magic Kingdom. The "McGowan" family of five owns a Toyota Highlander SUV and wants to take a family vacation with Mickey and the gang.

For Tyler, it would cost $248 and take about 5 hours to fly, versus $414 and a day and a half on the road if he drove. Interestingly, his CO2 emissions from flying, at 1,184 pounds (537.1 kilograms), are less than if he'd driven the more than 860 miles (1,384 kilometers). Winner: flying.

What about the McGowans? It would take them nearly the same amount of time as Tyler (even though we know kids demand more frequent "bio breaks" -- but work with us, here). Their flying tab would weigh in at a whopping $1,240, versus $832 driving the family SUV and staying a night in a motel. That's more than a $600 savings that could go toward funnel cakes and souvenirs! Winner: driving.

Sometimes the bottom-line dollar figures are so close that it isn't clear which is the better choice. In that case, the decision whether to fly or drive will boil down to very personal preferences. Some people don't mind the lengthy waits, along with all the mandatory scanning, patting and shoe removal that accompany modern-day commercial flying. Others consider the journey itself worthy of savoring, and relish the time in the car with family or friends as a precious opportunity to deepen their bonds. Some thrifty people are willing to spend several extra hours on the road in their quest to "squeeze a dollar 'till it hollers." And yet for others, the speed and convenience of a quick flight are worth paying a bit extra.

One last thing -- we've looked at flying versus driving yourself, but don't forget those other over-land travel options -- the bus and the train. Both modes of transit have witnessed notable developments in recent years, including the addition of electrical outlets, Wi-Fi Internet access, and in the case of bus travel, significant fare discounting that could make the economic decision an easy one, depending on the route.

For more information that can help you decide whether to fly or take a road trip, go to the next page.

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  • Christensen, Stephanie Taylor. "Should You Fly or Drive on Your Summer Vacation?" May 12, 2011. (June 30,2011)
  • Lavelle, Marianne. "To Drive or Fly? Top Tools for Choosing." U.S. News & World Report. June 10, 2007. (June 29, 2011)
  • McGee, Bill. "Fly or Drive? We Do the Math." USA Today. June 25, 2008. (July 1, 2011)
  • Osterlind, Janey. "Which Is Cheaper: Flying or Driving?" WiseBread. Sept. 28, 2010. (July 1, 2011)
  • Patten, Zak. "Flying vs. Driving: Which Is Cheaper When Gas Is Pricey?" SmarterTravel. July 14, 2004. (July 1, 2011)
  • Reese, Jennifer. "Driving or Flying? Which Is Faster?" Via (AAA Northern California, Nevada & Utah). November/December 2003. (June 29, 2011)
  • Widzer, Joel. "Summer Vacation: To Fly or Drive?" MSNBC. May 2, 2006. (July 1, 2011)