From an early age, my parents instilled in me a love of travel. One summer, we picked wild blueberries in Maine and walked the Freedom Trail in Boston. Another, we camped in Banff National Park and rode the ferry to Vancouver Island. I’m told my brothers saved me from certain death when I toddled toward a Yellowstone hot spring. While I have no memory of that, I can never forget the immensity of the Grand Canyon. Nor my mother’s laughter as we spun round and round in the Disney World teacups.
What did these trips have in common? Besides the faraway destinations and family togetherness? For each one, my family piled into our station wagon, camper in tow. Flying was something my dad had to do for work sometimes. I’d heard of families rich enough for trips to Europe or winter ski resorts. But I had no idea vacation flying was a normal thing until years later.
As time passed, my brothers had to work summers to save for college. Our big family trips fell by the wayside. My parents sold the camper for $5,000 – the same amount they’d paid for it years before.
Still, two or three times a year we drove the round trip to my brothers’ university. It took 8-10 hours each way depending on stops and traffic. When my turn came to attend that university, flying to or from campus never occurred to me. We’d always driven, without question.
Clearly, I wasn’t alone. The student center rideshare request board always had fresh posts on it. Yes, I mean a pre-internet, physical corkboard, with paper and thumbtacks. How quaint! “Need a ride to Atlanta for fall break.” “Room for 3 riders to Denver for Christmas.” Drivers provided a way to get from A to B on the cheap. Riders provided gas money, a break from driving, and interesting conversation. Classic win-win!
After graduation, my travel tastes grew more “sophisticated”. Having moved halfway across the country, I went on many solo trips to meet up with friends or family. With limited vacation time at work, I had neither hours to spend in the car, nor anyone I knew nearby to share the ride with. I craved exotic destinations and had some change in my pocket. In my mind, flying was the only way to go.
When my husband and I started our family, we didn’t seriously consider driving then either. The thought of road-tripping with a baby or toddler was way too intimidating. And until our oldest turned two, we “only” had to buy two tickets. Then we “only” had to buy three.
Then we got into the four-ticket zone and started staring down the barrel of five-ticket trips. We knew we couldn’t sustain the expense anymore. Not for the amount of traveling we wanted to do.
We also realized what a hassle it all was. Shell out the money for tickets. Hope we can all get seats together. Drive to the airport. Park the car. Put our liquids into baggies. Take off our shoes. Hope Security doesn’t try to confiscate our kid’s EpiPen. Keep track of carry-ons. Hope the flight isn’t delayed. Wipe the peanut dust off the tray tables and armrests. Listen to someone else’s baby cry for half the flight, relieved it’s not ours. Stand in line for a rental car at the destination. Learn that there are no freaking minivans left even though we had a reservation, and we’re standing there with three hungry kids, hours past bedtime, while this clueless guy stands 5 feet away smoking a cigarette because apparently, people smoke here!
Needless to say, we’ve made the shift back to driving as our default. Not only is it easier to hop in the car and go. Driving also makes more sense from a financial, environmental, and social perspective. Especially the more people you’re traveling with.
Flying vs. Driving: Economic Cost
When tallying up the cost of flying, you need to consider more than the airfare itself. Other costs include:
* Airport parking (or taxi/Uber/Lyft/shuttle)
* Rental car at the destination
* Overpriced airport snacks and beverages
Taos Trip: Economic Study
Consider our recent trip to Taos, New Mexico, 1200 miles away by land. My husband was presenting at a conference, so his travel and hotel fees were covered. Instead of him going alone, we decided to spend the weekends before and after driving the 19+ hours each way. The kids and I would join him for free and make a vacation out of it. We would sightsee and hang out at the resort during the day, and enjoy family time in the evenings.
Note that if he’d flown, he still couldn’t have skipped all the driving. We live 144 miles from the nearest major airport. Similarly, Taos is 137 miles from its nearest major airport. So even with flying, he would’ve still driven close to 10 hours round-trip.
Nerd alert! Time for a detailed economic breakdown. In my calculations, I used a recent national average of $2.75 per gallon. I also assumed we would drive our Prius, which gets 45 MPG at worst. An “economy” rental car would average 30 MPG.
If my husband had flown by himself, his reimbursable expenses to & from the conference site would’ve been $846. ($84 airport parking + $400 flight + $289 rental car + $43 gas + $30 airport meals)
If the kids and I had accompanied him by plane, our non-reimbursable expenses would’ve been $1700. ($1600 airfare + $100 airport meals)
By driving, his planned reimbursable expenses were $420 – half the cost. ($170 for two hotel stays + $100 meals + $150 gas. Actual expenses included only one en route hotel stay, but we’ll get to that in the Social Cost section.)
Our family food expenses would’ve been much higher if we’d eaten out for each meal. But by stopping at grocery stores to pick up family-size meals, he could get reimbursed for those instead. So the out-of-pocket cost for the rest of us to join him on the road was next to nothing.
In short, driving instead of flying saved his organization $426, and our family $1700.
Flying vs. Driving: Environmental Cost
In general, the environmental benefit of driving vs. flying increases with:
* The more people you have traveling together
* The more fuel-efficient your vehicle
* The less distance you need to cover
As a rule of thumb? Even with a low to moderate efficiency vehicle, it’s almost always more efficient to drive if you have at least three people. Depending on fuel efficiency and distance, it may even be more efficient to drive with two.
To be certain, you’re best off running a quick calculation on your specific trip. It’s really easy to do that! Any modern map application can give you the distance by road. And the Carbon Footprint Calculator can tell you the carbon cost of both flying and driving. We’ll use our Taos trip again as an example.
Taos Trip: Environmental Study
To fly, we still would’ve driven 144 miles in our Prius to get to our “home” airport. Then we’d drive another 137 miles in a rental car from Albuquerque to Taos. The Carbon Footprint Calculator reveals that all together, the round trip would’ve added 1.3 metric tons of CO2 to our atmosphere.
By driving 2400 miles in the Prius instead, we added only .45 metric tons. That’s about 1/3 the environmental cost of flying.
When You Must Fly
When flying is unavoidable, the following strategies can reduce your impact.
* Make one long trip instead of several shorter ones. Dying to see both Germany and Portugal? Save up for a 2-week vacation instead of two 1-week vacations. Take public transit between your destinations to go ultra low-carbon. (Bonus: combining trips is cheaper too!)
* Fly direct when possible. Taxiing, takeoff, and landing are the most carbon-intensive phases of any flight. Stopovers can nearly double your trip’s carbon impact.
* Fly economy class. Yes, it’s less comfortable. But you’re also taking up less space on the plane and allowing the airline to pack more people in. This reduces the average carbon impact of each person. (Bonus: it’s cheaper too!)
* Choose an eco-friendly airline. Alaska, United, JetBlue, and Delta top the list of US carriers.
* Pack a reusable water bottle. Remember that you can carry an empty, reusable water bottle through security. Most airports have water bottle filling stations built into their drinking fountains.
Flying vs. Driving: Social Cost
Road trips offer unique social opportunities that aren’t available when flying.
The first social opportunity lies in good conversation. On an airplane, everyone in your group can tune in to movies, electronic games, or books. And airplane conversations can be awkward. Try speaking louder than the engines, yet quieter than nearby strangers’ hearing can detect. If you can figure out how to do that, please let me know your secret!
In the car, there’s always one person – the driver – who cannot stare at a screen or book. And that person often prefers conversation to music. It’s amazing what you can learn about someone when you spend a few hours in the car with them!
The last social opportunity lies in flexibility. As a worst-case scenario thinker, having some wiggle room in our travel plans saves me a lot of anxiety. What if someone comes down with a stomach bug? Or some other calamity befalls us? What if there’s a natural disaster at home, or at our destination?
Taos Trip: Social Study
As luck would have it (or not), a double whammy hit us on our Taos trip.
We had left home on a Friday morning. We settled into the resort on Saturday night, rested up, and went sightseeing during the day on Sunday.
On Sunday night, we got The Call. A terrible thunderstorm had ripped through our neighborhood back home. 100 mile per hour straight-line winds had taken down 19 trees in our yard. Their trunks and branches had blocked our driveway and knocked out our power.
There was only so much we could do from where we were. Make a few phone calls. Find someone who could save the food in our big garage freezer. Assessing the damage and starting the cleanup would have to wait ’till we got back. It was a hassle and added some stress, but not enough to change our plans.
On Tuesday morning, we got The Call again… this time, a much more ominous one. A close family member had been suffering from a terminal illness. She’d been doing pretty well when we left, though. No chance for recovery, of course. But she’d had a smile on her face, her spirits were high, and she didn’t hesitate to buy green bananas.
The expression “life is unpredictable” is an understatement, to say the least. She’d taken an unexpected turn for the worse… much worse. The Call’s message was clear: Get home, as quick as you can.
The conference organizers were so accommodating. They switched the schedule so my husband could present on Tuesday afternoon instead of Friday. The kids and I cleared out the room and packed up the car while he managed to pull off his talk.
We left as soon as he finished, took turns driving through the night, and made it back in the nick of time. I will always be grateful that we all had a chance to say our goodbyes. She got to hear each of our voices one last time. About an hour after we arrived, she took her final breath.
That experience was stressful and heartbreaking. But it would’ve been so much worse if we’d been a flight away instead of a drive. It’s hard enough to rebook one airline ticket, much less five. In our panicked state, we may not have considered a one-way car rental. Perhaps one of us would’ve gotten on an earlier flight, and the rest would’ve followed later… too late. We’ll never know for sure. But we’re lucky that it worked out the way it did.
In fact, under the circumstances, it could not have worked out any better.
By now, you’re convinced that the benefits of driving outweigh the convenience of flying. But what if you’ve never been on a road trip before? Or never taken your kids on one? It can feel intimidating, but have no fear! In a future post, I’ll share some tips to make your road trip a success. Stay tuned!
Thanks for reading, and for taking the next step to becoming SuperGreener!
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