Is it cheaper to fly or to drive?

Courtesy Emlyn Stokes/Flickr

Gas prices are reaching $4 per gallon in some places and airfares have risen 15 percent since last year. Still, the majority of Americans (59 percent), are planning on traveling, according to Ellen Bettridge, Vice President of American Express Travel. So which method of transportation—car or plane—is more affordable these days? With Memorial Day just around the corner I was motivated to find the answer to the question. Here's what I learned:

There are several major factors that influence the cost of a trip, including how fuel efficient your car is, how far you're traveling, how many people are traveling with you, and whether or not there is a low-cost airline that flies to your destination.

In general, the more people that are traveling with you, the more cost-efficient driving will be because you're not purchasing airline tickets for each individual. Obviously, the more gas efficient your car is the cheaper it will be to drive.

The easiest way to figure out what makes the most sense for you is to do a quick cost comparison. Here are the four things you'll want to consider as you do the math:

Step 1: Determine your vehicle's gas mileage.

You probably already have a good sense of what kind of gas mileage your car gets, but if you want to be really precise a good resource is the Environmental Protection Agency's car comparison calculator, which provides miles-per-gallon estimates for both city and highway driving.

Step 2: Check gas costs.

Determine how much it will set you back to fill up your tank on your trip. The best source for this is AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report, which provides detailed gas prices in hundreds of markets across the U.S. Just punch in your origin, destination, and your vehicle's year, make and model and the website will churn out an estimate on fuel cost for your trip.

Step 3: Factor in the cost of tolls and hotels.

Don't forget to consider the amount of money you'll be spending on tolls and, if you're traveling long distance, any hotels you might need along the way. For example, a round-trip drive between New York City and Washington D.C. costs $60 in tolls alone if you take the major highways. On the other hand, many regions in the south don't have any toll roads. There's no one single website for determining toll costs, but many states have toll calculators (to find these websites google the state you're in and "toll calculator"). The website Toll Fare Calculator has links to such resources in 16 states including Texas, New York, California, and Oklahoma. Certain GPS units, such as Garmin nuvi 3750, also give you the option of plotting toll-free routes.

Step 4: Check airfare costs and compare.

Last but not least, check how much it will cost for your party to fly to your destination and do a cost comparison. Start your fare search with sites such as Kayak or Expedia, but keep in mind that not all airlines share their data with online travel agencies (Southwest and Vision Airlines are two examples of companies that only sell tickets via their own websites).

Finally, don't forget about trains and buses, which can provide affordable options as well. To see what kind of public transportation options are available in your state, check out the American Public Transportation Association's helpful map.


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