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How to Decide When to Fly vs. When to Drive

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As I was planning a weekend trip to see a friend, I faced the perennial question: Should I fly or drive to New York City? A flight from Richmond only takes about an hour and a half, but it’s expensive — and then you have to pay for extras, like a taxi from the airport. Driving takes about six hours, unless there’s traffic, but then there’s parking to consider…

The experience got me thinking. When you’re planning a trip, what’s the best way to decide when to fly and when to drive? It helps to consider these six factors.

The Time Factor

This is, obviously, the biggest advantage of flying. A commercial airplane flies about 550 to 590 mph.i The six-hour drive to NYC from Richmond takes 1.5 hours on a nonstop flight. The nearly 11-hour drive to Orlando, FL, takes just two hours to fly.

However, you have to remember that it’s not just about flight time. When I factor in the time to drive to the airport and park (45 minutes), check in and get through security (1 hour), get off the plane and hail a cab from JFK Airport to midtown Manhattan (1 hour) the total travel time clocks in at more than four hours.

The Cost Factor

Here, driving will almost always come out ahead, unless you have rewards miles or you get an awesome deal on your plane ticket. But it makes sense to check! BeFrugal.com has a Fly or Drive calculator that can estimate the true costs of driving vs. flying to any destination. When I ran the numbers for my Richmond to NYC trip, I found that it would cost approximately $207.50 to drive, factoring in fuel, tolls and wear-and-tear. To park in a garage in Manhattan might run me around $50 per day.ii The cost of the flight — including airport parking and a cab from JFK — came in at $755. If you’re traveling with your family or a friend, that tips the math even more toward driving.

One more cost to consider: renting a car at your destination. No visitor needs a car in NYC, obviously, but if your destination is a car-dependent city like Denver, Atlanta or Houston, you may want to rent one there.iii You can save money by purchasing the Rental Car Damage Protector from Allianz Global Assistance, which provides primary coverage for covered collision, loss and damage to the rental vehicle up to $40,000 for only $9 per day.

The Hassle Factor

Pick your poison: Traffic jams or flight delays? Chances of a flight delay are significant; only 80 percent of domestic flights are on time.iv (This is why trip insurance with the travel delay benefit is so useful.) But personally, I’d rather be stuck in an airport than stuck in my car.

For road trips, departure time matters. If you can drive early in the morning, late at night, or during low-traffic hours, your trip should be easier. Weekend, holiday and rush-hour traffic will slow your roll  — and might tip the balance toward flying vs. driving.

The Risk Factor

You probably know that flying is safer, statistically, than driving. But do you know how much safer? For Americans, the chance of dying in a car crash 1 in 114. The chance of dying in an air or space transportation incident is 1 in 9,821.v

That doesn’t change the fact that you may feel some deep uneasiness about flying. While driving, you’re in control (at least it feels that way). And car accidents, while tragically common, don’t evoke the same terror as an airplane crash. If your anxiety about flying is severe enough to make you dread your vacation, then maybe driving is a better option.

 Read more: How to Overcome Your Fear of Flying: Six Personalized Plans

The Fun Factor

I like to drive. As long as I have a good audiobook or podcast, or a talkative friend riding shotgun, I’m perfectly happy driving for eight hours. However, I prefer routes that are scenic, or at least interesting — and I-95 between Richmond and New York City is neither. Now, if I’m weighing whether to fly or drive to Florida, I might opt to drive just so I can take a few side trips to places I love, like Charleston, S.C. and Savannah, Ga.

 Flying, on the other hand, isn’t fun. (Unless you’re being pampered in first class.)

The Eco-Factor 

 Driving is, unsurprisingly, the greener way to go. Driving a fuel-efficient car generates far less greenhouse-gas emissions than flying. For the trip from Philadelphia to Boston, for example,  driving would generate about 104 kg of carbon dioxide, while flying generates around 184 kg of CO2 per passenger.vi If you drive an electric or hybrid car, or if you have several passengers, the environmental impact of driving is even less.

The Alternatives 

 When you’re weighing flying vs. driving, don’t forget you have other options. Taking the bus or the train may be cheaper, more environmentally friendly and easier. But you never know… 

For my New York trip, I chose to take the train. Because of weather-related track damage, the usual six-hour journey took nine hours going up and almost 12 on the way home. Flying or driving would have been a much better choice, I thought as I stared at the unmoving scenery.

There’s no way to predict what’s going to happen on your trip, and that’s why travel insurance is invaluable. Insurance can help when you’re confronted with unexpected travel delays, flight cancellations, lost luggage, and other travel hassles. Find an affordable plan for your next trip.

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Aug 06, 2018