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Summer Travel: What’s the Cheapest Way to Go?

Not too long ago, my son and I were trying to figure out how to take a trip to see my grandfather in southern Arizona. I was trying to decide whether to fly or drive. I don’t live in a major metro area; it take an hour and a half to get to the airport in Salt Lake City, UT. And Grandpa lives three hours from Phoenix, AZ. However, discount plane tickets from Salt Lake and Phoenix are often quite cheap.

After running the numbers, I found that if I were traveling alone, it would be cheaper to fly to Phoenix and rent a car than it would be to drive to my grandfather’s house, staying a night on the road each way. However, add in my son’s plane ticket, and it became a little cheaper to drive. Hooray! I love a good road trip [3].

Deciding Whether to Fly, Drive or Hitchhike

With summer vacation upon us, it is a great time to travel. If you are looking to save money, though, you will need to consider your options. What is cheaper often depends on how many people are going on the vacation, and what you plan to do for accommodations. I decided to consider traveling from Los Angeles to New York City — another fun trip. Here are some of the things to take into account as you plan your cross-country adventure:

Driving: The biggest expense with driving cross-country is the gas — especially now, with gas prices [4] on the rise. You can use the AAA Fuel Cost Calculator [5] to estimate what you will pay on your trip. I used my Saturn wagon as a model to find that gas would cost $969.60 for a round trip drive. I can already tell that flying would be cheaper if I went alone. (In my Prius, it would cost only $387.84. So I’d really take the Prius. But if you have a family minivan, you are more likely to spend closer to $900 – $1,000.)

As for hotels, it depends on how many nights you want to spend. If you figure an average speed of 60 miles per hour, it will take just over 46 hours to drive the 2,763 miles between LA and NYC. I would expect to stay at least three nights, possibly four, each way, depending on what I wanted to see. Checking on a discount travel site, it appears that I will likely spend about $60 a night, totaling between $360 and $480 for lodging.

My total, without accounting for meals, attraction admissions and other costs, could be as much as $1,449.60 (if I stay four nights going and four nights coming back; $867.84 if I took the Prius). And that doesn’t count staying in a hotel. Although, honestly, if I were going to drive to NYC, we’d actually stay at my husband’s parents’ house in the Catskills for free and take the train to the city for a couple of days, and probably take another to Boston for a couple more days. It’d be more fun that way. When going on a road trip, it’s a good idea to look for camping spots and plan your trip to stay with relatives. We could save another night’s lodging by planning our route through Ohio, where my uncle lives.

Flying: If I fly out by myself, and stay from a Tuesday to a Thursday, and stay in a hotel [6] the whole time, I can do it for $986 — provided I am willing to fly into (and stay in) Newark, NJ. There are other packages for up to $1,400 as well. I assume I’m not renting a car because I absolutely refuse to drive in New York City. Who needs to? The subway and other forms of public transport are more than adequate, and reasonably priced.

However, once my family comes along, things change. For three of us, it would cost more than $2,700. And that doesn’t include food and attractions.

Hitchhiking: I wouldn’t do this with my family. But, last time I hitchhiked, years and years ago, I offered to help pay for gas and a meal for the driver. It worked out. If I were hitching across the U.S., I could probably do it for less than $700, assuming I paid for some hotels, food and offered to provide a little help for drivers. A really enterprising person could probably hitchhike from LA to NYC for much less.

What do you think? What is likely to be cheaper for you in terms of travel?

(Photo: smemon [7])