June 1, 2020
Due to travel restrictions, plans are only available with travel dates on or after
Due to travel restrictions, plans are only available with effective start dates on or after
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Israel; Jamaica; Republic of Ireland; Northern Ireland;
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, Va. only takes about an hour and a half, but it can be 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.
Remember: Travel insurance provides essential protection whether you’re flying, driving, or traveling another way. If you’re planning two or more getaways this year, an annual travel insurance plan can cover every trip you take for one low price. Get a quote to see how much you can save.
This is, obviously, the biggest advantage of flying. A commercial airplane flies about 550 to 600 mph.1 The 6-hour drive to NYC from Richmond takes 1.5 hours on a nonstop flight. The nearly 11-hour drive to Orlando, FL, takes about 2.5 hours to fly nonstop.
However, it’s not just about flight time. When I factor in the time to drive to the airport and park (1 hour), 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 to NYC clocks in at around 4.5 hours.
Another thing to consider: What’s the likelihood of a travel delay adding hours to the trip? For any road trip on Interstate 95, it’s high. The stretch of I-95 from Fredericksburg, Virginia to Washington D.C. “has consistently been rated the absolute worst daily average of traffic within the Continental United States for years,” according to one analysis.2 So my projected 6-hour drive could easily stretch to 8 hours or more.
(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.)
Chances of a flight delay are also pretty high. In 2022, only about 76% of domestic flights were on time.3 But personally, I’d rather be stuck in an airport than stuck in my car. If you have travel insurance with trip delay coverage, you can be reimbursed for eligible expenses—like meals and lodging—following a covered delay by your travel carrier. The trip delay benefit may also apply on road trips, but only if your delay is caused by a covered reason, such as a natural disaster or if you or a traveling companion is in a car accident. If the delay is caused by something else, such as awful I-95 traffic, then you’re out of luck.
For shorter trips, driving will usually be cheaper, 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 $200 to drive round-trip in a Prius, factoring in fuel, $94 in tolls and vehicle wear-and-tear. However, parking in a garage in Manhattan might run me around $50 per day, nudging the total cost toward $350.4
The cost of the flight, including airport parking and a $70 cab ride to and from JFK, came in at $442. If you’re traveling with your family or a friend, that tips the math even more toward driving.
For longer trips, flying will generally be cheaper than driving. When calculating the numbers on a one-way trip from Atlanta to Seattle, the estimated cost to drive was $886 (including three hotel nights). Flying was $509 (excluding the cost of airport parking).
One more cost to consider: renting a car at your destination. No visitor needs a car in NYC, but if your destination is a car-dependent city like Denver or Houston, you may want to rent one there. You can save money by purchasing the OneTrip Rental Car Protector from Allianz Global Assistance, which provides primary coverage for covered collision, loss and damage to the rental vehicle up to $50,000 for only $11 per day.
You probably know that flying is safer, statistically, than driving. But do you know how much safer? For Americans, the lifetime chance of dying in a car crash 1 in 101. The lifetime odds of dying as an aircraft passenger in the United States? “Too small to calculate,” the National Safety Council says.5
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.
Even before COVID-19, plane travel included a higher chance of getting sick. Close quarters; dry, recirculated air; and germs on tray tables and armrests all threaten to give you an unwelcome souvenir of your trip. Recent research has shown that air travel also conveys a higher risk of catching COVID, although the exact probability keeps shifting as variants emerge and decline. On a road trip, you’re much less likely to come in contact with a virus—unless someone else in the car is sick.
Of course, there’s no guaranteed way to avoid sickness while traveling. That’s why travel insurance is crucial! If you need to cancel or interrupt your trip because of a covered illness, travel insurance can reimburse your lost, nonrefundable trip costs. If you need medical care while traveling abroad, your domestic health insurance probably won’t be accepted—but emergency medical and dental benefits can reimburse you for the cost of covered emergency medical care.
I like to drive. As long as I have a good audiobook or podcast, or an entertaining 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.
Most American travelers agree that flying is not fun. To improve the experience, you can:
Driving is typically the greener way to go. Driving a fuel-efficient car releases 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.6 If you drive an electric or hybrid car, or if you have several passengers, the environmental impact of driving is even less.
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. Get a quote for your next trip.