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Planes, Trains, or Automobiles? Our Summer Travel Primer

You may have heard that airfares are expensive this summer. Capacity cuts and increased demand combine to make a lethal combo for travelers looking for a bargain. But will you get a better deal if you forego a flight and take to the road instead?

In many cases, you may be able to save by hopping on a bus or train, or driving yourself. But keep in mind that what you save in money, you’ll spend in time. In the case of summer vacations, then, the question becomes what’s more valuable to you—your budget or your schedule?

I looked at three (relatively) short trips for summer sojourners: Boston to New York City, Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and Indianapolis to Chicago. I priced out airfare, bus fare, train tickets, and road-trip fuel costs, and also calculated the amount of time each respective travel method would take. Each scenario shows round-trip per-person costs, including all taxes and fees. Estimated duration times are each-way. For the fuel test comparisons, I checked prices on AAA’s Fuel Cost Calculator using a 2005 Honda Civic as an example. The results came in as follows:

Route Flight Price/Duration Train Price/Duration Bus Price/Duration Fuel Price/Duration
Boston/New York $123/1h 20m $98/4h 10m (NE Regional), $221/3h 35m (Acela) $19/4h 15m $42/3h 40m
Los Angeles/Las Vegas $130/1h No train option $60/5h 45m $54/4h 20m
Indianapolis/Chicago $156/1h $56/5h 5m $28/3h 15m $35/3h 6m

{{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}In the above examples, driving yourself came in cheapest for the Los Angeles to Las Vegas experiment. The bus was best for the Boston to New York and Indianapolis to Chicago trips. Additionally, note that if more people are joining you, a self-drive trip might work out to be more economical than the other options, as you’ll have several people to split the cost of fuel. But with each of these, you’ll be spending significantly more time in transit.

Beyond the test data, here are other items to consider: For air travel, factor in fees for baggage and other services, time spent at the airport, possible weather delays, and the cost of transportation to and from the airport. For road trips with your own car, you’ll want to consider traffic, toll costs, and general wear-and-tear on your vehicle. In every case, you’ll want to take your personal comfort into account. Are you a traveler who hates coach-class seating? If so, you’ll probably prefer train travel or taking your own car. Can you not stand sitting in traffic? Skip buses and driving and instead hop on a plane or train.

Then there are more minor, but still important, factors. Driving your own car allows you to blast your music, make fuel and food stops at your own discretion, and change plans en route in response to traffic, weather conditions, etc. Taking a bus, train, or plane gives you less freedom, but more down time during the actual traveling—no stressful behind-the-wheel situations here; for the most part you can pop on your MP3 player, grab a snack, and (hopefully) enjoy the trip. For these differing types of travel (and their related costs), choosing your method of transport is truly a value judgment.

As noted earlier, how you interpret the data is going to be different for every traveler. Let’s use me as an example. Years ago, as a college student, I would have gone with the bus for most short-haul travel—it’s cheap, safe, and the travel time isn’t too restrictive for a weekend getaway. Nowadays, while I still take the bus from time to time, I might spring for the train or a plane if I want a little more comfort while traveling, or more time at my destination. Conversely, a family of five might find a road trip much more affordable (and manageable) than corralling kids on a plane. And a business traveler, who’s just spending a few hours in her destination, may exclusively fly to make the most of her time.

If you’re planning a short-haul trip this summer and have several transportation options to choose from, conduct your own experiments to see which provides the best value to you.

Your Turn

Let us know about your past experiences with shorter-length trips. Have you consistently found better experiences choosing one mode of transportation over another? Which do you tend to prefer and why? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!

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