The Real Cost Of A Road Trip: Compared To Cheap Plane Tickets?

The Real Cost Of A Road Trip: Compared To Cheap Plane Tickets?

No matter where we go this summer, we want to get there in the smartest way possible. Flying sounds expensive (especially when you tack on taxes, checked bag fees, and pricey on-board snacks), but road trips involve paying for gas, accommodations, and possibly rental cars.

So, when does it make sense to pack up the car and drive?

We’ve done the math for you, assuming that you’re in the game for a three-day/two-night road trip that lasts 800 miles—about the distance of a drive between San Francisco and Seattle, or a round trip between Boston and Baltimore. The average car gets around 20 miles per gallon, so we’re assuming that, too.

Average Gas Price Average Car Rental Zipcar
$2.75 per gallon $50 per day for small car, plus tax About $66 per day
TOTAL $110 $150 + $240 +

With your own car: about $110.

With a rental car: about $260.

With a Zipcar: about $240.

1. A Word On Car Rentals

One point to remember is that car rentals often become more cumbersome and expensive if you plan to drop the car off somewhere different from where you picked it up. Some companies won’t do this at all, and others charge extra for the convenience. Remember to ask about it.

2. Zipcar: Cool To Know About But Not Road Trip Savvy

With stylish car-share services like Zipcar, users pay about $75 in application and annual fees, entitling them to use cars by the hour or the day—gas and insurance included. Although we love the ability to rent a car by the hour, daily rates start around $66 and go up on the weekends. Many locations also start charging an extra $0.45 per after mile over 180 each day, which is a definite road-trip damper.

3. Forget Louise—Bring A Gaggle Of Friends And Save

Share fuel, hotel, and rental costs. Plus, pack your own meals, snacks, and drinks from home. This saves money and eliminates the need for greasy rest-stop food. Also, call ahead to hotels where you might stop for the night to check the best rates and ask about discounts (AAA membership can drop the price 10%).

4. Budget For Gas Expenses And Know Where To Stop

We’ve estimated the average price of gas at $2.75 per gallon, but the real price will fluctuate. Use AAA’s Fuel Cost Calculator for a more accurate estimate of how much your trip will cast—this takes into account your specific car and where you’re traveling. Plus, BillShrink allows you to find the cheapest gas stations between two points.

Moral Of The Story

Never assume that driving automatically trumps flying for frugality—it can often be more expensive, especially if you need to rent a car. But, if you still have that itch for the open road, here are five of our favorite adventures:

1. Music City

You don’t have to live within a day’s drive of Nashville to make music your destination. Find a favorite band or fun summer music festival and a load of friends and plan the trip.

2. City Living

Whether you live in a city or not, take a ride to a new one—trade Boston for New York; Chicago for St. Louis; or Los Angeles for San Francisco.

3. Great Outdoors

Getting out into the wilderness doesn’t have to mean giving up all of civilization’s comforts. State and national parks offer clean campgrounds or even cabins—which can cut down on hotel costs.

4. Historic Adventure

Not everyone is up for an exhaustive tour of Civil War battle sites, but little slices of history can make fun destinations or stops along the way.

5. Don’t Skip The Kitsch

What would a road trip be without a stop to see the world’s largest ball of twine (Darwin, MN) or the Button Museum (Bishopville, SC)? These roadside attractions are usually a bargain.

So, start your engines—and don’t forget your favorite playlists!


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