Are Road Trips Really Cheaper Than Flying?

Canadians love to escape the cold, dark and slushy days of winter in favor of warm, sunny destinations.  One popular option is Florida.  With it’s beautiful beaches, water parks, golf courses, theme parks and more, the state bursts at the seams with Canadians in the winter.

The path to Florida is well worn with lots of daily flights and families taking road trips.  The decision to drive south is usually influenced by price.  The perception is that it is more expensive to fly to Florida than it is to drive, but is this true?

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Driving

To drive round trip from Toronto to Orlando, you will be looking at about 4100 kilometers over 40 hours, that’s a lot of driving!

Contrast this with about 10 hours including 2 flights and check in.

On the cost front, there are many variables to consider.  First of all, your car’s fuel efficiency plays a part in the cost equation.  There will be a big difference in cost between an efficient midsize car and a gas guzzling SUV.

We’ll also have to factor in meals, a room in a hotel, and even the cost of taking extra time off work to drive the 40 hours.  Also, if you have kids in the car, they are likely to get bored and restless after 3-4 hours which will not make for a fun journey.

Flying

There are fewer costs to consider when flying south; there’s the cost of the flight along with the cost of a rental car to get around with once you reach your destination.

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The US is a car loving nation, public transit is simply not an option in most places.  For those going to Disney World, there’s an airport shuttle service which might eliminate the need for your own car.

The comparison

Here are the costs for two adults and one child to either drive or fly from Toronto to Orlando.  The flight departs Saturday March 30th and returns Saturday April 6th.

In order to drive and still have the same amount of time, we need to add two additional days onto the road trip scenario, one on each end.

Driving

Car Make/Model

2012 Toyota Camry 6cl City: 21mpg Hwy: 30mpg

2012 Toyota Sienna 6cl City: 16mpg Hwy: 23mpg

2003 Ford Expedition 8cl City: 12mpg Hwy: 16mpg

Gas Cost

$303

$407

$586

Hotel Cost

$209

$209

$209

Meals

$120

$120

$120

Extra days off

$756

$756

$756

Total

$1,388.00

$1,492.00

$1,671

As you can see, fuel efficiency makes a sizable difference here.  I used a website called GasBuddy.com to estimate the cost of the trip based on the different car types.

The US government runs a great site called fueleconomy.gov which has a database of fuel economy details for thousands of cars.

You can also have a little fun sorting by best or worst cars in terms of mileage.

Did you know a Bugatti Veyron gets around 10mpg or 28 litres per 100km?!  Don’t think I’ll include that one in the comparison.

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You’ll also need to fuel yourself, not just the car!  I roughly estimated $120 for meals for two adults and one child over both days of driving.  This includes lunch on the road both days, one dinner and some snacks.

Given the 40 hour trip length (20 hrs per day) you’ll need to sleep somewhere.

North Carolina is a popular rest stop along the way, a decent hotel will add roughly $200 to the trip for two nights.

While I haven’t assigned a dollar figure to it, don’t forget about the added wear and tear on your car.  After driving 4,000km you’ll at least need an oil change!

One of the most overlooked factors to consider in driving is the time involved.  By taking the time to drive, you’ll need to add an additional two days to your trip in order to have the same amount of leisure time in Florida.

For two people both making $65,000 per year, those extra days are worth over $700!

Flying

Air Transat

SunWing

AirCanada

Flight

$900

$1,116

$1,230

Midsize Rental Car

$475

$475

$475

Total

$1,375

$1,591

$1,705

At this time of year, flying to Orlando can be cheap or expensive.  If you are travelling during March Break, prices may be up to 50% higher.

The table above shows the price for two adults and one child to fly round trip from Toronto to Orlando from March 30th to April 6th with 3 different carriers. The end of March isn’t peak season so prices are more reasonable.

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Since you won’t be driving your own car down south, you’ll need to pick up a rental to get around.  A midsize car will cost some where between $450-$600 depending on the rental company and type of car.  I used expedia.com for the comparison.

What about Buffalo?

For those of you thinking that it might be cheaper to fly out of Buffalo – a common tactic Ontarians use to get a better deal – you’ll be surprised to know that this option is far more expensive.

A flight for two from Buffalo to Orlando on these dates costs $1400!

The conclusion

In this case, flying and driving carry roughly the same cost.  One of the big factors here is the value of your vacation days.

If only one spouse works or you have so much vacation time you can’t use it all this could vary significantly.  You’ll have to ask yourself “how much do I value my time?”.

While the costs are similar, there is far less headache if you fly.  Driving really becomes cost effective when you have a family of 4 or more or if you want to head south during the peak season for March Break.

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So next time you’re thinking of taking a road trip to Florida to save some money, make sure you do your homework and consider the options!   

Andrew Martin is a personal finance and investing blogger from Toronto, Ontario with a background in technology and a passion for travel.  His blog, She Thinks I’m Cheap aims to help Canadians make more money by sharing facts, stories and advice.


14 Responses to Are Road Trips Really Cheaper Than Flying?

  1. Joe says:

    I think the prices out of Niagara are rising because they’re becoming less competitive. Canadians won’t come no matter what and if (when) the dollar reverts to the mean their revenue will get a shock. The price gap used to be consistently massive but when I price things out now, you’re right — the difference generally isn’t as big.

    A big part of driving is definitely the road trip “fun”. If you enjoy the act of travel through quite a few States, eating American food, etc. then a roadtrip might be in the cards even if the savings aren’t significant.

  2. Bet Crooks says:

    The flights quoted leave Pearson around 6 a.m. which means being at the airport at 3 a.m. to clear US Customs. Not really how I’d like to start my vacation, especially since you usually can’t check in when you arrive in Florida until about 4 p.m. Can make for a pretty cranky family.

    I think 50% more for March break flights is way too low. I’d say 3 to 4x more expensive for March break based on what we saw offered online last year in November. They know they’ve got a captive audience who will pay whatever it takes. For the average family with 2+ kids, it adds up very quickly.

    Another option friends use is to drive partway into the States, then take an Amtrak train the rest of the way. The car goes on the train. You get a sleeping compartment. You and the car arrived rested. They’ve done the pricing and for them it’s cheaper than flying and more relaxing than driving the whole way. (It’s called the Auto Train I believe)

    As you say there are lots of factors to add in.

    Now if you can do a cost/benefit analysis for us poor folk who won’t be going far of which sugar bush to visit this March break, that would be much appreciated!

  3. Andy R says:

    Your scenario is based on two parents and one child going to Disney. How about two children? Three? Four?

    Flights become more prohibitive as number of children increase. Solution? Leave the kids at home and just figure on two adults going to Disneyland.

  4. Money Beagle says:

    These days, the cost of a flight is not complete unless you add baggage costs. For a family of 3 or 4 that can likely add $300 alone to the flight cost. Hardly something that can be overlooked.

  5. Bets says:

    On the other side of the coin, family road trips are a blast. We did the “big drive” every March break from Toronto to visit our snowbird parents in Fort Myers, Fla. We would play car games, take lots of interesting side trips, read maps together, sing cheesy songs, keep journals and best of all, had lots of great conversations. We never regretted tacking on an extra travel day to either end of the vacation and made some amazing family memories … priceless :-)

  6. Boomer says:

    Taking the time to make a road trip part of the vacation fun is definitely important if you have kids with you. When I was a kid we took a lot of car trips. My Dad’s objective was to get from point A to point B in the least amount of time possible.

    I remember one trip from Calgary to Northern California. We were on the road before dawn, 5 kids shoe horned into the back seat of our Chev Bell Aire, only stopping to gas up. I’m sure we arrived at our destination in time for an early supper.

    It gave new meaning to the phrase “Are we there yet?”

  7. Todd Roberts says:

    When traveling with kids, direct flights at good times are much more important than when flying with adults only. Those are more expensive. In my analysis I would also include a rental car. With 2 kids and a car, plus direct flights, the drive option comes in much lower. That said, last time we flew. Might try the drive when kids are older. Long trips with 7/4 yr olds are not fun.

  8. Bill says:

    Your Buffalo comment is way off. Just flew out of Rochester…hr from Buff for $380C (2 adults all in)on Feb 27th. Adding the hotel in Roc which included 30 days parking +gas from TO the total was $550C. Air wasover $1000. It’s definitely worth the drive!!

  9. Lynne says:

    Andrew – Thanks so much for this! I am going to really have some fun with your facts and figures!

    This has been an argument around here for a while, and NOW I have the figures. Thanks!!

    Lynne

  10. Thanks for the comments all, I guess there’s only one sure thing when debating the fly vs drive dilemma: there are a vast number of options to consider!

    I think the key is to go through the scenarios and take all the factors into consideration for your own personal/family circumstances. There is no one size fits all scenario, just lay out all the different costs and do the research.

    In some cases driving will be better, in others, flying will come out on top, it just depends!

  11. Asleep12 says:

    Don’t forget about the Niagara Falls, US Airport. We got flights to Orlando last September for about $150 round trip.
    And because that airport is so small, the airport experience was no stress at all. They even have rocking chairs and couches to wait in at the gate.

  12. Some local couples figure it’s cheaper for them to go to Las Vegas than it is to go to Calgary (the closest major city).

  13. Janine says:

    I get car sick if I’m in the car for too long. Anything over 4 hours in a day and I’m done. I would gladly pay more to fly if it means not feeling nauseous for hours.

  14. S. B. says:

    We’ve done the comparison for a few trips and it depends on a lot of variables. You mentioned the fuel economy of the vehicle.

    Another factor is how long you’re going to stay somewhere. Longer trips favor driving because you have more baggage to check and more days to rent the car. Shorter trips favor flying.

    Also, the more people you have, the more driving will make sense. A family of 5 or 6 will be soaked by all the plane tickets, while the increase in gas costs to drive an additional person in the car is negligible. With one or two people, flying might easily come out ahead.

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