Personal Finance

How Many Days To Drive Across Country

By David Krug David Krug is the CEO & President of Bankovia. He's a lifelong expat who has lived in the Philippines, Mexico, Thailand, and Colombia. When he's not reading about cryptocurrencies, he's researching the latest personal finance software. 13 minute read

While we now call the East Coast home, my husband’s family is in the West, so we try to make the trip out there at least once a year to see them. The cost of cross-country travel has risen, unfortunately.

Years ago, before we had children, we were so dissatisfied with the high cost of airline tickets that we made plans to drive from the New York City region to San Diego. After doing the math, we discovered that driving would take almost as long as flying and cost almost as much in gas, tolls, and accommodations, so we decided to take the plane instead.

Now that we have three kids, however, we may change our approach due to the clear increase in expense associated with purchasing five airline tickets rather than two. 

Furthermore, there are numerous reasons why we think a road trip as a family would be fun. When compared to the prospect of bringing young children on a six-hour flight, taking a road trip sounds much less stressful and more like a lot of fun.

It’s natural to ponder whether driving or flying across the nation would be more cost-effective for a family vacation. While specific expenses will vary based on variables like origin and destination as well as the number of dependents, there are other elements to think about as well.

Crossing The Country In A Plane

Costs

Flying is a pricey proposition these days. Though it’s possible to find round-trip tickets from coast to coast for as little as $250, most people who fly across the country spend more, with airfares easily reaching $500. 

Tickets that can be refunded, giving you additional flexibility in case your travel plans change, might be 30% to 50% more expensive than nonrefundable tickets.

The price of a flight can vary substantially depending on factors like departure and arrival location and time. Exit flights around the holidays, such as Thanksgiving and Christmas, are often more expensive than flights at other times of the year. 

There is a significant probability you will pay less if you are located near a big airport with more travel options than a smaller airport with fewer flights.

Although it is not always the case, direct flights may potentially increase your overall travel expenditures. However, depending on your departure and arrival points, it is possible that a nonstop flight will be less expensive than a connecting flight.

Some additional expenses arise due to air travel as well:

  • The Cost of Luggage. Sadly, the cost of a ticket often no longer includes the option to check a bag. The typical fee for the first checked bag on an airline is $25. There are airlines that charge an additional $35-$50 for a second checked bag, and those that don’t. Take United Airlines as an example; in 2015, they charge $25 for the first checked bag and $35 for the second. The cost of checking a third bag might range from $75 to $100, or more.
  • Fees for Changing Tickets. If you buy nonrefundable tickets and then need to make a change, you’ll have to pay a steep price: typically, airlines charge $100-$200 per ticket to make a change. After purchasing plane tickets, if a family of four has to reschedule the date of their trip, they will have to spend an additional $400 to $800 per person.
  • Costs for Additional Legroom. Additional legroom may be purchased on some airlines. The price difference between a tight and a more pleasant flight might be as much as a few dollars if you happen to be a tall passenger. Costs for purchasing additional legroom in a plane seat shift depend on the carrier and the route used. For instance, American Airlines has a minimum fee of $20 and can go as high as $100.
  • Location and Access to Airport Transportation. Getting to and from the airport will add to the total cost of your trip. Even if you may drive to the airport and keep your car there for the duration of your vacation, you should know that parking at large airports can cost you anything from $10 to $20 each day. You can also take a taxi, although the fare will vary substantially depending on how far you live from the terminal. Taking a taxi might be the best option if you want to save money and time. If you have a big family, you might not be able to squeeze into a regular taxi, thus you could need to drive.
  • Spending Money On Car Rentals. It’s possible that you’ll need to rent a car once you get to your destination if you decide to take a flight there. How much you spend on a rental automobile will be determined by the sort of vehicle you want to drive. Depending on your needs, you could locate a budget car for as little as $20-$30 per day, but if you want an SUV or minivan, you could pay as much as $70-$100 per day with gas.

How to Save

The cost of flying and other travel expenses can add up quickly, but there are ways to reduce those expenditures.

  • Jump the Cliff and Fly. You can save money on plane tickets by booking your trip at a less popular time of year, such as when school is out for the summer or when major holidays fall during the week. You can save money by booking a flight for the middle of the week. Booking a flight that departs on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday is typically cheaper than booking a flight that departs on any other day of the week.
  • Utilize the Points or Miles on Your Reward Credit Card. You can get free or cheap airfare by using the points or miles you earn from business travel or your travel rewards credit card.
  • Use a Different Route to Get There. It’s possible that taking a connecting trip could save you money compared to booking two separate flights. Assuming you can handle the hassle, you may be able to get cheaper plane tickets.
  • Please Be Bumped. Because airlines frequently overbook their flights, they sometimes must give compensation to customers who accept being relocated to another aircraft. If your children are easy-going and good athletes, you might consider offering to be bumped if the occasion arises. Free flights or “airline dollars” redeemable for extras like checked bags or preferred seating are examples of the kinds of perks that airlines have been known to hand out.
  • Carry only the essentials. You can save money on baggage fees by traveling with as little as possible. Furthermore, as airlines charge per bag, you might save money by consolidating your children’s stuff into one luggage.
  • Travel To and From the Airport in Comfort! To avoid the high cost of a taxi or airport parking, you could ask a local friend, neighbor, or family member to drive you and your loved ones to and from the airport.

The costs of getting my family from New Jersey to California via plane are as follows:

  • We’d need to spend $2,000 on plane tickets, or $400 per person (assuming we fly during off-peak hours to save money).
  • Cost of $100 in luggage fees, assuming three suitcases total (one each for me, my spouse, and our three children).
  • We brought two strollers (one for our kid and one for each of our twin infants) and two portable cribs, so we checked an extra $100’s worth of luggage, anticipating we’d be charged $25 for each item.
  • To park for a week at the airport would cost $70, assuming we could find a spot for $70 a day.
  • Cost of rental automobile was $280 ($40 x 7 days = $280).
  • Our baby still needs a car seat, and he’s not big enough for a booster seat, so we had to rent three of them for seven days at a cost of $315.
  • The entire price of flying there and back would be around $2,865.

Pros

  • Expediency. If you need to travel across the country, flying is your best bet because of how quickly you can get there. It takes between five to seven hours to fly from the East Coast to the West Coast, provided you get a direct flight. There is a good chance that you can depart one morning and arrive at your destination later the same day, even if you have to take a connecting aircraft.
  • Convenience. Since flights can be scheduled to correspond with passengers’ normal rest times, air travel is not only quick but also relatively unobtrusive. Flying from the West Coast to the East Coast? Take a red-eye flight and try to get some shut-eye over the Atlantic. The cost of a red-eye flight can vary widely depending on the time of year; at times they can be more expensive than those departing in the morning, during the day, or in the evening, but other times they can be cheaper.
  • There Will Be More Time to Enjoy Your Vacation Spot. A further perk of flying is that you won’t have to waste as much of your vacation time sitting in traffic to get to your destination as you would if you drove. Even if you take the time to plan a gorgeous route through the countryside, you may still have to travel long sections of roadway that provide little in the way of scenery or human company.
  • Travel Time is Broken Up Less Frequently. You and your kids may find that flying is far less taxing on your energy levels than driving. It’s only natural to feel bored after three thousand miles in the car. Traveling by plane can result in the same feelings of confinement, but at most, you’ll be in the air for six hours. However, driving may need spending a lot of time in a cramped vehicle with your loved ones.

Cons

  • Aggravation. Traveling by air is quicker, but it’s not always as easy or comfortable as you might hope. It could be a long and tiring day of travel if, for instance, you have to take connecting flights with a significant interval in between.
  • Stress. Some people find flying to be a very stressful experience. Going through airport security can be stressful for some people, and long wait times or missed connections are always a possibility, no matter the time of year.
  • Having Less Wiggle Room In Your Suitcase. Traveling with smaller children or newborns, who typically come with a lot of stuff, can be challenging because of baggage fees and constraints. Traveling with an infant isn’t exactly a breeze, even if some airlines may let you check an extra item of baby gear (such as a stroller or car seat) at no extra cost.
  • No Car. If you take a plane, you won’t be able to drive around after you get there. The issue might be moot if you’re only visiting a walkable city. However, renting a car to get around at your destination will increase your budget. Moreover, you’ll be driving an automobile you’re not familiar with in a region you’re unfamiliar with.
  • Arousing, Disruptive Children. Flying with little ones can be a challenge. When flying with kids, it’s your responsibility to keep them occupied and from disrupting the flight for everyone else, especially if they’re young. True, kids can become bored on a road trip just as readily as at home, but at least you can pull over when they do. When you’re behind the wheel, your kids may be as loud as they want without worrying about waking up the people around them.

Traveling the Country by Car

Costs

When you consider the cost of plane tickets for a family of four or more (which can easily exceed $500) versus the cost of gas for a car, it’s easy to see why driving would seem like a better option. 

However, when you factor in all of these expenses, it’s possible that you’ll decide that traveling across the nation isn’t the best option after all.

  • Fuel. In spite of your automobile’s petrol mileage, crossing the country by car will still cost you a lot of money. In reality, it’ll cost you more or less depending on a number of variables, including current gas costs, the condition of your vehicle, the amount of traffic you encounter, and how effectively you drive. If you’re driving in heavy traffic and you have to idle, you’re wasting gas and spending more money. If you’re planning on doing a 3,000-mile round trip, and your car gets approximately 30 mpg on the highway, you’ll need about 200 gallons of gas. That’s $500 only for gas, assuming a price of $2.50 per gallon. Foreseeing your travel expenses with the help of a site like Cost 2 Drive is a great way to plan ahead.
  • Tolls. Some of the highways you take may need you to pay tolls. Sites like TxTag can help you estimate your statewide toll bill.
    Lodging. When driving for 40-50 hours, breaks are inevitable. Therefore, remember to budget for your stay. While many hotels will cost you $100 or more for a night’s stay, a budget motel might just cost you $50 or $60. If your family is larger than four, you may need to rent a cot at an extra cost. You may save money on a hotel by completing as much of your traveling as possible throughout the night, but doing so may diminish your experience and put you and your passengers in danger.
  • Food. Being on the road for days at a time means you’ll need to find ways to keep yourself entertained and fed. If you plan ahead and bring a cooler full of nutritious snacks and meals, you can keep your food expenditures down while on the road, but if you eat out at restaurants or buy premade meals, you’ll end up spending more money overall. Fast food is an affordable middle ground, but too much of it may wreak havoc on your digestive system, not something you want when you have to drive for 100 miles without stopping for gas.
  • Use and Abuse of Your Car. You will wear down your car faster if you drive a lot. Even if you don’t have to pay for the extra mileage you’ll be putting on your car because of your trip right away, doing so could increase your maintenance costs in the long run.

My family and I drove from New Jersey to California and back, and here are how much it cost us:

  • If gas is $2.50 a gallon, the cost of fuel for this trip would be $500. Since our car gets 30 miles per gallon on the highway, we would need 200 gallons to make the trip.
  • A $40 toll bill
  • In the range of $1,000 for lodging costs, assuming a total of 10 days on the road to and from California.
  • Budgeting $400 for 10 nights of food implies we will bring our own breakfast and lunch supplies and eat at low-priced eateries for dinner.

From a purely financial perspective, driving to California makes more sense for us than flying there because it would cost us $1,940 instead of $2,865. The minivan would also make it easy for us to bring all the gear we need for the kids without worrying about leaving anything behind.

Pros

  • Recently Found Items. Cross-country road trips have the distinct advantage of allowing you to explore new sights and experiences you might have missed otherwise. It’s much easier to deviate from the typical tourist route when you’re behind the wheel.
  • Connecting As A Family. As a general rule, people are less talkative while they are on vacation and actively engaged in activities. However, the long hours spent traveling together provide a unique opportunity to catch up.
  • Simple Packing. You can pack more carelessly and err on the side of taking too much because you won’t be limited by the weight of your suitcase or subject to extra penalties for checking bags.
  • Possession of a Car or Possession of the Means to Acquire One A car rental won’t be necessary when you get to your location if you drive there. With this convenient mode of transportation at your disposal, you won’t have to worry about the hassle of renting, picking up, and dropping off a vehicle.

Cons

  • Lengths of Highway That Go On Forever. Though there are many amazing sights to behold on a cross-country road trip, you should be prepared to deal with extended stretches of boredom and monotony as well. Expect long days in the car and possibly a lack of scenery in some regions unless you spread out your travel across five days or more.
  • Kids Who Are Bored and Impatient. Some children may not handle being confined to a car for several days very well. There are parents who claim that their teenagers or preteens travel well on extended journeys because they can keep themselves occupied with video games, movies, and books. Others argue that younger children do better because they are more likely to nap and are more inclined to engage in conversation and singing to pass the time. Be sure to pack a lot of kid-friendly entertainment if you plan on driving across the nation with your kids. Take along some books and small toys for the younger ones, and travel games and card sets for the older ones.

Additional Points to Consider

  • Time Off in Vacation. Flying might be a better choice if you have a limited amount of vacation time or are in the thick of your busy season at work because it allows you to get where you’re going quickly. If you’re self-employed or a freelancer who is not entitled to paid time off, flying can make more sense. On the other side, you might wish to try the drive if there are no restrictions on your ability to take time off.
  • Your Trip’s Timing. Flying might make the most sense if you’re trying to fit a trip in when your kids need to be back at school. Otherwise, you can feel hurried while driving, which could ruin the enjoyment of going on that kind of drive.
  • The Purpose of the Journey. Consider flying if you’re going on a trip for a wedding or a family event. Even while delays can occur, if you allow enough time, you’ll probably get to your destination on time. Driving, on the other hand, is riskier when you have a deadline since you might get lost, run into severe weather, or experience car issues.

Bottom Line

Flying is an efficient and generally simple method to traverse the nation, but if you’re up for an adventure and have plenty of time to spare, you might want to try driving instead. You never know what fascinating things you might run into along the way, and you just might elevate the idea of family togetherness to a whole new level in the process.

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