Should we fly or drive this summer?

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With the cost of everything increasing faster and faster, it can be difficult to build up a reliable travel budget. Will gasoline prices go up or down by summer? And will airline ticket prices keep pace?

Whether it’s cheaper to fly or drive is an old travel conundrum, but the many factors affecting travel in 2022 make it difficult to answer simply.

Three things stand out:

  • Airfares are expected to be less affected by high fuel prices than gas-powered car travel.
  • Driving can always be better over short distances or with a large group.
  • Keep in mind the high cost of renting a car (to get to your destination or when you arrive after a flight).

Sure, many factors beyond cost affect the decision to fly or drive. But given the rising costs of travel and its impact on planning and budgeting, we will focus on finances.

The effect of fuel cost

Rising oil prices have driven up the cost of fuel and, therefore, the cost of driving and flying. But how oil prices affect these costs varies.

Rising gas prices instantly and directly affect the cost of driving. A road trip that burns 100 gallons of gas will cost $100 more if a gallon of gas goes up a dollar.

The impact is not as clear for airline tickets. Some experts estimate that jet fuel accounts for around 30% of airline operating expenses, according to the latest Consumer Airfare Index report from travel booking platform Hopper. And increases in airfares generally lag behind increases in fuel costs, as airlines cushion the blow for consumers.

Basically, rising fuel costs affect the overall price of road trips more than the price of airline tickets.

crush numbers

Comparing the costs of driving and flying is relatively straightforward, but can start to look like a college math problem in a hurry. To make it simple, let’s compare three journeys:

  • Los Angeles to San Francisco (382 miles traveled).
  • Los Angeles to Denver (1,016 miles flown).
  • Los Angeles to New York (2,789 miles flown).

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, an independent agency of the federal government, the average fuel efficiency of a vehicle sold in 2020 was 25.4 miles per gallon. (More fuel-efficient vehicles will have lower costs, of course, and electric vehicles are a whole different ball of wax.)

The average price of a gallon of gasoline was $4.07 in April 2022 according to the American Automobile Association, a federation of automobile clubs across North America. Finally, also according to AAA, the average maintenance cost of driving an average sedan is about 10 cents per mile.

We will therefore use them as variables on the motor part of our word problem.

For airfare, we’ll compare the average cost of a main cabin flight for the week of July 4th. We will also add an additional $39 for baggage and seat assignments, the average for full-service airlines according to a NerdWallet Analysis on Which Airlines Have the Best and Worst Fees.

Here’s how it goes:

Travel

Distance

Driving cost

Airfare cost

Los Angeles to San Francisco

382 miles.

$101.

$137.

Los Angeles to Denver

1,016 miles.

$269.

$163.

Los Angeles to New York

2,789 miles.

$738.

$303.

For the shortest journey, the car is more economical than the plane. But for the longer trip across the country, the flight is much cheaper. And keep in mind that this only takes solo drivers into account. Families or friends traveling in the same vehicle can save money while driving, even on longer trips. But this analysis does not take into account the other costs of driving, such as hotel rooms or fast food stops along the way.

Rental car prices remain high

Another important factor to consider is the cost of renting a car. The average cost of a car or truck rental in March 2022 was 62% higher than in March 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Prices have not fallen significantly since last summer and remain at outsized levels.

The result, from a financial point of view, is simple: don’t rent a car if you can avoid it.

This has an interesting impact on the decision to fly or drive. Obviously, renting a car to drive long distances should be a last resort. But it could also result in considerable costs for those traveling with the intention of renting a car at their destination.

In other words, driving a car you own can make financial sense if it eliminates the cost of an expensive rental at the airport. Especially for short to medium trips, or trips to vacation destinations where rental cars can be particularly expensive, this cost could tip the balance in favor of driving over flying.

The bottom line

We only compared the cost of driving versus flying this summer overall. Every trip is different and everyone has different travel preferences.

But it’s safe to say that the flight cost savings increase with the length of the trip. Flying long distances can save you a lot when traveling solo.

And even if renting a car remains prohibitively expensive, your plans should adapt accordingly. Flying to a destination just to rent a car will reduce potential savings, making it potentially worth driving instead.

Use this analysis as a template for your own cost-benefit breakdown. Estimate the cost of driving, find the airfare, add extras like roadside hotels and rental cars, and make the call. Hurry up – summer is almost here.

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Sam Kemmis writes for NerdWallet. Email: skemmis@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @samsambutdif.

The article Should you fly or drive this summer? originally appeared on NerdWallet.

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