To Fly or Not to Fly?

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It's one of the great debates in travel: Should you book plane tickets or load everyone in the car? Obviously there are places where driving is not an option (say there's an ocean in the way). But what if you are staying within the continental U.S. to take the kids to grandma's or a theme park, or you are making a getaway to a romantic resort or the big city? We put flying and driving up against each other in a battle royale, taking into account time, money, convenience, and safety. Both sides make persuasive arguments. Now you can be the judge. Tell us in the comments which you think is the winner.


Point: Flying is faster.
You don't need to have aced algebra to figure out that a plane going 500 miles per hour will arrive at its destination long before a car going 65 miles per hour. This is obviously a huge consideration on longer-haul flights, such as cross-country trips that mean five or six hours on a flight versus at least three days in a car (factoring in nightly motel stops). Traffic is also a consideration, particularly on holiday weekends. Ask anyone who has endured bumper-to-bumper Memorial Day traffic how many extra hours were added to the trip. And for families, the clock ticks more slowly with every "Are we there yet?"

Counterpoint: Driving is faster.

Flying isn't necessarily quicker, especially if you have to drive 45 minutes to the airport, get there two hours before your flight, and wait out a tarmac delay before finally getting into the air. And then when you do land it takes 20 minutes to get off the plane and of course your bag is the last one on the conveyor belt. Even if the skies are clear where you are and where you are going, that doesn't meant the plane you need isn't stuck somewhere with a weather delay. Mechanical problems and tardy crews can also add hours to the trip.


Point: Flying is cheaper.
Flying is generally more economical on long-haul routes, especially for singles or couples. You're not paying for lodging, three daily meals, or filling the tank (gas averaged $3 a gallon in March). Check out AAA's Fuel Cost Calculator, which gives you a rough idea of how much gas you will guzzle based on your departure and arrival destinations as well as the year, make and model of your car. You also have to consider the wear and tear to your car, unless you spend the extra money on a rental. Factor in oil changes and the affect a long trip has on the car's worth; odometer miles decrease the Blue Book value. Spending days in the car will also necessitate a good professional cleaning when you get home (spilled sodas, melted crayons, car sickness, etc). And even if you choose cheap motels, those nights along the way can really eat into your overall vacation budget.

Counterpoint: Driving is cheaper.
It's not worth flying when it costs $500 per person and takes four hours (including wait time) when driving costs $200 total and takes six hours. If you have the extra time, the savings (even after gas, food and lodging) could pay for those theme park tickets. And if you have four people that each checks a bag, those surcharges really add up. Then you have to factor in transport costs such as taxis to and from the airport or a rental car at your destination. George Hobica, founder of AirfareWatchdog.com, sums it up this way: "Drive if it's under 400 miles or eight hours of highway driving and the fare is over $300, more so if you're transporting a lot of baggage and more than one person."


Point: Flying is more convenient.
With flying you get on the plane and go -- no GPS required. Flying also makes the most sense if you're visiting a large city like New York or Chicago with an extensive public transit system or if you stay in a centrally located hotel with lots to do within walking distance. Parking rates can also be astronomical (hotels in New York charge upwards of $50 a day for valet parking). Plus the chances of your plane breaking down halfway through are slim. Blowing a tire by driving over a pothole and spending an hour on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck is much more likely.

Counterpoint: Driving is more convenient.
Driving is the most flexible form of transportation since you are on your own timetable. "There's no worrying about advance booking or paying change fees if you have to alter your plan," says Anne Banas, Executive Editor of SmarterTravel.com. "And it's often better for spur-of-the-moment trips." It can cost in excess of $100 per person to change a ticket, says Hobica. Plus you can detour to that nifty restaurant or oddball attraction, not to mention being able to take in the scenery that is usually below the clouds when you are at 35,000 feet. Parents will also find that the kids have more room to spread out in the back with games, portable DVD players, and iPods to keep them entertained. And if you are on the way to the beach there's no way you are going to check umbrellas, chairs, snorkeling equipment, and coolers. You can bring all you need and save on rental fees.


Point: Flying is safer.
Banas notes that flying is statistically safer than driving. You've probably heard the expression "You're more likely to die on the way to the airport than on your flight." The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported 37,261 automobile fatalities in 2008 (WHO's annual analysis places the number at 1.3 million worldwide); those numbers increase over holidays when many travelers choose between driving and flying. Meanwhile, according to CNN and USA Today, U.S. carriers listed zero deaths in 2007 and 2008, despite transporting more than a billion passengers. The fatigue factor is also a huge consideration when traveling on long stretches of open highway. Studies have found that driving while extremely tired can be just as dangerous as driving under the influence.

Counterpoint: Driving is safer (for some).
The pro-driving team concedes that humans are safer in planes. But if you are traveling with a pet it may be safer to go in the car. "Never put a pet in the cargo hold," cautions Hobica. "No matter what anyone says it's dangerous, especially in summer." Airlines did not have to report incidents of the death, injury, or loss of an animal until 2005, but the information is now available via the DOT's Office of Aviation Consumer Protection and Enforcement. A search finds that four pets died in September 2009 alone. To be fair, only 1% of pets that go into the cargo hold do not come out in the same shape they went in. But that's little solace when trying to explain to the kids that Baxter isn't joining them on the beach after all.
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