Plane, Train, Bus, Car: For Short Trips, Which Is Cheapest?

Plane, Train, Bus, Car: For Short Trips, Which Is Cheapest?

If you’re traveling from New York to Los Angeles, you don’t really have much choice but to fly, but sometimes the best way to travel short distances are unclear. Train and bus routes often link major metropolitan areas, not to mention that it's more feasible to simply drive if you're traveling a short distance. Although this is truer of close-together East Coast cities like Boston, Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D.C., the principles are the same for the rest of the country, as well.

To give you an example, we've computed the cost of traveling (and time duration of trips!) via the various modes of transportation from New York to the nearby cities of Boston, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. for a long weekend. We based these prices on round-trip travel departing Friday, Feb. 12 and returning Monday, Feb. 15 (President’s Day weekend), but this chart is intended only to give you a general picture of how each method of transportation stacks up.

graph*Note that airplane times will be augmented by transportation to and from the airport, plus wait time for security and at the gate.
**Base rate of $265.79 for four-day rental from Enterprise, economy car class with unlimited mileage for driver over 25, plus cost of gas.
***Assuming fuel economy of 25 mpg and average fuel cost of $2.75 per gallon.

Moral of the story:

Buses Are Cheapest, But Come With Caveats.

If you're traveling between places with inter-city bus service, that's going to be your cheapest option. (Plus, it's better for the environment than taking your own car!) All the same, buses can be unreliable. For the Boston and Philadelphia trips, we derived our estimates from the Bolt Bus, which we've found to be relatively pleasant because of its free wireless internet. For the D.C. trip, however, we went with the Chinatown bus, which we've often found to be overcrowded and unreliable. We didn't think that the Bolt had enough convenient times for that trip. Greyhound buses travel all over the country, but we find them most worthwhile when we nab their online-only deals.

Sometimes, Flying Is Cheaper AND Timelier Than Taking a Train

Even when we're talking about short distances, sometimes it makes more sense to fly than to take the train. When we looked, it was actually cheaper to fly from New York to D.C., plus and actual travel time was an hour and a half less. To Boston, you can reduce travel time by over two hours, for just a $5 difference. Of course, it takes time to wait in annoying airport lines and pass through security. Nonetheless, flying still makes sense for these two trips...even if you show up to the airport an hour and a half before your flight.

Renting a Car Costs Loads of Money

We'd only recommend doing so if you're with a big group that's prepared to split the costs--and if the scenic drive is somehow part of the road trip experience.

Happy trails!

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