As the old song says, there’s no place like home for the holidays. But judging by the statistics, for millions of Americans, “home” means somewhere other than the place they live year-round.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, across the country, the number of long-distance trips – at least 50 miles each way – increases by 54% over Thanksgiving weekend, and by 23% from Christmas through New Year’s Day. Most of that increase comes from people traveling to visit friends and family.
For Americans, driving is by far the most popular way to head home for the holidays. More than nine out of ten long-distance trips over Thanksgiving and Christmas are made by car. Air travel accounts for only 5% to 6% of all trips, and trains and buses account for less than 3%.
Driving is an appealing option for holiday trips because it’s cheap and convenient. Gas and tolls cost a lot less than airplane tickets, especially for a whole family. Plus, you can leave on your own schedule and carry as much luggage as the trunk will hold. Still, driving is a fairly slow and uncomfortable way to travel, especially on long trips with children.
Of course, many holiday travelers don’t really have a choice in the matter. If you live in San Francisco and your family lives in Boston, you have to fly out to visit them or else spend several days in transit. And for short trips of 100 miles or less, flying isn’t really an option at all. Even if you could get a flight that short, you’d spend more time traveling to the airport and going through check-in than it would take to drive straight to your destination.
But for trips of moderate length – say, between 100 and 1,000 miles – the choice is a little murkier. There are a lot of different factors to balance: the cost of the trip, the time involved, safety, and convenience. And for eco-conscious travelers, there’s also the question of how much air pollution it produces.
So taking all that into account, what’s really the best way to travel?
To answer that question, let’s look at two different holiday trips. The first is a couple making a week-long trip from New Jersey to Indianapolis – just as my husband and I do every year at Christmas. And the second is a family of four traveling from Boston to New Jersey for the weekend – just as my sister’s family does at Thanksgiving. Comparing how the different methods stack up for us can give you an idea of how they’re likely to stack up for you.
The cost of a trip in dollars is pretty easy to calculate. For air, train, or bus travel, you can just look up the cost of a ticket. For driving, you can multiply the number of miles by $0.54 – the standard mileage rate set by the Internal Revenue Service. This rate factors in the cost of gas as well as wear and tear on the car.
However, a long trip has other costs besides the actual transportation. For example, most people can’t make it through several hours of travel without stopping for a meal. Air travel can also include fees for “extras” like checked baggage. And road trips often involve highway tolls.
So let’s take a look at how all these costs add up for our two sample trips. We’ll take each mode of transport in order: flying, driving, bus, and train.
Costs for Flying
New Jersey to Indianapolis
To calculate how much it would cost for me and my husband to fly to Indianapolis for a week, I used the Fly or Drive Calculator at BeFrugal. It put the total cost of the trip at about $1,249. This includes $1,024 for two round-trip tickets, $100 in baggage fees, and $125 for parking and taking the shuttle at the airport.
However, this doesn’t include any costs for food. We’d pay around $8 each for a meal or snack on each leg of the trip, increasing the total price tag for the trip to $1,281.
Boston to New Jersey
The trip from Boston to New Jersey is shorter, so the cost per ticket is lower. But my sister’s family has four people, so the tickets for this short trip would still come to $1,206. They’d also pay $200 for baggage fees and $80 for parking and transportation at the airport.
Getting home from the airport is another expense. Since there are four of them – including two who must travel in car seats – they couldn’t just get a lift in my dad’s small car. They’d need a rental car, which would tack on another $200.
Finally, there’s the cost of meals. With two small kids, even a short hop is too far to go without food. So they’d have to add around $64 for those, bringing the tab for the trip to $1,750. All told, this short trip for four costs quite a bit more than my husband and I would pay to travel more than twice the distance.
Saving on Air Travel
Of course, there are ways to lower the cost for both these trips. For example, we could:
- Find Cheaper Flights. Both families could probably fly for less by taking a less direct route or going through a different airport. However, this would also make the trip longer. That might be okay for me and my husband, but it would be hard on my sister’s family. With small kids, a longer trip just increases the chances of a meltdown.
- Avoid Checking Bags. Airlines charge about $25 each way for each checked bag. So by traveling with only carry-on bags, you can save around $50 per person. You also get to skip the baggage claim at the airport and avoid any risk of lost luggage. However, traveling light can be difficult when you have kids (or holiday gifts).
- Bring Food. Airplane food is notoriously overpriced. By packing our own snacks for the trip, we could save between $30 and $60. But sadly, that’s only a drop in the bucket compared to the total trip cost.
Costs for Driving
According to the Fly or Drive calculator, a round trip drive from New Jersey to Indianapolis and back costs about $189. This includes roughly $95 for gas, $67 for wear and tear on our car, and $27 for tolls. The tolls are a bit cheaper for us because we get a discount for our E-ZPass. Without it, the total cost of the trip would be $293. Once again, this doesn’t include meal costs, which adds about $20 for each leg of the trip, bringing our total to $229.
The shorter trip from Boston to New Jersey is also cheaper. It costs about $50 for gas, $33 for wear and tear, and $12 for tolls. This is the price with an E-ZPass. Without one, tolls would cost an additional $7.
A shorter trip also makes it possible to drive through without stopping for a meal. All the family needs is about $5 worth of snacks to eat in the car. All told, the trip by car costs $100 – much less than flying.
Once again, there are steps that could make both these trips even cheaper. For example, we could pack our own food in the car so we wouldn’t have to stop for a meal. We could also take different routes to avoid toll roads and drive more slowly to improve gas mileage.
Costs for Bus or Train Travel
New Jersey to Indianapolis
To find information about bus and train travel from New Jersey to Indianapolis, I checked Wanderu, a travel site that searches deals from bus and train companies. It found a way for us to get there on a series of Amtrak trains for $528 round trip.
However, we’d have to catch our train at a park-and-ride station about nine miles away from our house. To get there, we’d have to take a separate commuter train with a fare of $2.25 each way. That would add a total of $9 to the cost of the trip.
On top of that, to catch the commuter train, we’d have to get a ride to the nearest train station. We couldn’t just drive and leave our car there, because it has no long-term parking. So if a friend couldn’t drive us, we’d have to use Uber for $6.55 each way.
Finally, there’s the cost of meals. Many long-haul trains have a cafeteria car where you can buy meals for around $10 per person. For a trip this long, we’d have to eat at least three meals en route each way. That would bring the total cost of the trip to about $670.
As for buses, Wanderu couldn’t find any. However, when I checked Greyhound, I found a bus that could take us from Newark to Indianapolis for $348 round trip. We’d also have to take a separate train to Newark for $36 round trip, plus an Uber to the station for $13 both ways. Add $60 for checked baggage and around $80 for meals, and the trip would cost $537 total.
Boston to New Jersey
For the trip from Boston to New Jersey, Wanderu was able to find a lot more options. One route involved taking an Amtrak train from Boston to New York, then catching a Megabus from there to Princeton.
At that point, someone would have to come pick the family up for the trip back to my parents’ house. In fact, they’d have to be picked up in two separate cars, because they wouldn’t all fit in one along with the driver. Fortunately, it’s only a short trip, so taking two cars wouldn’t be too impractical.
This route would cost $117 per person, each way. They’d also have to pay a total of $9 each way for subway fare to and from the station in Boston. And in New York, they’d have to take a cab between stations, which would add another $8 or so. So for the four of them, the round trip would cost $970.
Wanderu also found a route that used Megabus only. This was cheaper – $36 per person, each way. However, they’d still have to change stations in New York, and they’d still have to get to the station in Boston. So the total for the round trip would be $322.
The Bottom Line on Cost
For both trips, driving is by far the cheapest option. For us, from New Jersey to Indianapolis, the cost of driving is less than one-fifth the cost of flying. For my sister’s family, traveling from Boston to New Jersey, the price difference is even more dramatic. They can make the trip by car for roughly 6% of what it would cost to fly.
Train and bus travel fall somewhere in the middle. For us, traveling by train would cost about half as much as flying – but still nearly three times as much as driving. The bus would cost about 42% as much as flying, but more than twice as much as driving.
For my sister’s family, the train-plus-bus route costs 55% as much as flying – a little pricier than it is for us. The all-bus route is a much better deal, at 18% of the cost of flying. However, it still costs more than three times as much as driving.
The biggest advantage of flying is that it’s much faster than traveling by car, bus, or train. However, when you fly, the time in the air is only part of your trip. You also have to get to and from the airport, go through check-in, wait around between flights, and pick up your baggage. Add all this together and air travel can end up taking longer than driving – at least for short trips.
Of course, all the same delays apply to buses and trains as well. In addition, trains and buses usually make many stops, so you spend extra time waiting for other people to get on and off. Also, unless you actually live next to a station or stop, it’s impossible to find a train or bus that goes straight from your home to your destination. Most take an indirect route that costs you additional time.
Time for Flying
According to the Fly or Drive calculator, a flight from Newark Airport to Indianapolis takes just over two hours. However, my husband and I would also need two hours to travel to the airport and go through check-in. At the other end, we’d need a little over an hour to collect our bags and ride from the airport to his parents’ house. That puts our total travel time at five hours and 12 minutes.
My sister and her family have a shorter flight – a little over one hour. But they would need an hour and 40 minutes to get to the airport and check-in, and they’d take over two and a half hours to clear out of the airport, pick up a rental car, and drive to my parents’ house. All told, their travel time would be five hours and 24 minutes. So their short trip would actually take longer than ours.
Time for Driving
The Fly or Drive calculator says it takes 10 hours and 29 minutes to drive from New Jersey to Indianapolis. But based on our experience, that’s a little optimistic. We usually run into traffic at some point on the trip, which adds about half an hour to our driving time. Add another hour for meal and bathroom breaks, and the trip usually takes a total of 12 hours.
For my sister’s family, the total driving time is 4 hours and 43 minutes from door to door. They need to make some stops on the way, but only short ones. So with half an hour for breaks, the total trip time comes to 5 hours, 13 minutes. It actually takes them slightly less time to drive than it does to fly.
Time by Bus or Train
Here’s where we start to see the real downside of traveling long distances by train. Our trip to Indianapolis would involve four separate trains, plus a cab ride to the station, plus a lift home at the other end. The total time from door to door would be 26 hours. That’s right – it would take more than a full day for a trip that we could make by car in 12 hours.
The trip by bus is almost as bad. We’d spend 18 hours and 35 minutes on the bus itself, each way. We’d also spend 30 minutes on the connecting train, plus 10 more getting to the train station. Add 20 minutes for the ride home at the end, and the trip would take a total of 19 hours and 35 minutes.
For the shorter trip from Boston, train travel looks a bit better. The trip by train and bus would take seven hours and 25 minutes, including a two-hour layover in New York. The trip by bus alone takes roughly the same amount of time.
However, the family would also have to take the subway to the train or bus station. Counting the time to walk to the station and wait for trains at both ends, this would add about 30 minutes to the trip. There would also be a 20 minute car ride home at the end. So all told, the trip from door to door would take eight hours and 15 minutes.
The Bottom Line on Time
Flying is clearly the fastest way to get from New Jersey to Indianapolis. It takes less than half as long as driving and less than one-quarter as long as traveling by train.
However, for the shorter trip from Boston to New Jersey, flying has no real advantage over driving. It takes roughly the same amount of time either way. But even for this shorter trip, the train or bus is clearly the slowest way to go. It adds an extra three hours to the trip, increasing its length by more than 50%.
Comparing travel cost and time is pretty simple. In both cases, it comes down to a single figure: the total cost of the trip in dollars and cents or the total time in hours and minutes.
But convenience is a lot harder to figure out. Instead of a simple number, it’s a combination of a lot of different factors, such as the schedule of the trip, your comfort level, and the stress involved. The weight you give to each of these factors is partly a matter of personal preference. Some people want to be comfortable at all costs, while others are willing to sacrifice comfort for the sake of controlling their schedule.
To compare convenience for our two sample trips, I’ve looked at each one of these factors separately. Then, I’ve added them all up to decide which form of travel is most convenient for each trip. However, keep in mind that this is one area where your mileage may vary.
Even though the train trip from New Jersey to Indianapolis takes more than a full day, the time isn’t my actually biggest problem with it. The real problem is how that time is distributed.
To start, we’d have to get a ride to the train station before 9am in order to catch a 9:07am train. Then, we’d have to catch a second train at the park-and-ride station. That train would take us down to Philadelphia, where we’d have to wait an hour and 40 minutes for our next connection. That third train would drop us off around 8pm in Pittsburgh, where we’d have to wait more than seven hours to catch our final train – at 3:40am.
The schedule for the shorter hop from Boston to New Jersey isn’t as bad, but it’s still awkward. For starters, the family would have to leave the house by 7am to be sure of making it to the station in time to catch an 8:05am train. Then, when they got to New York, they’d have to bundle into a cab to get to a different station to catch their bus.
Once they got to the other station, they’d have to wait over an hour before the bus was ready to leave. And when they finally made it to Princeton, they’d all have to wait around some more for someone to come and pick them up. Looking at these schedules, it’s easy to see why trains and buses are the least popular way to travel long distances in this country.
This is probably the single biggest perk of making a long trip by car: you have complete control of your schedule. You can get up and hit the road whenever you like, instead of getting up at dawn to catch an early train. If you end up leaving few minutes late, all it means is that you arrive a few minutes late – there’s no chance that you’ll miss your ride and not arrive at all. And while you’re on the road, you can stop and take a break whenever you’d like instead of having to wait until you pull into the next station.
In many parts of this country, there just aren’t any bus or train stations at all. They’re fairly common in the Northeast and the Pacific Northwest, but in the middle of the country, you’ll only find them in the largest cities. So if you don’t happen to live near one of those cities, taking a train or a bus anywhere is completely impractical.
Even between large cities, there are only a very limited number of bus and train routes. So if you want to travel from, say, Cleveland to Detroit, you might end up having to go all the way to Chicago and then backtrack. Of course, many small cities don’t have airports either, but there’s often some sort of shuttle service that can take you to the nearest one.
For me and my husband, it’s technically possible to travel to Indianapolis by bus or train – but it isn’t easy. For my sister’s family, it’s easier, but still a lot more complicated than traveling by car. Air travel on the other hand is easy to book for both of us.
Spending time on a train is a lot more comfortable than sitting in a car. Unless the train is unusually full, you have a lot more room to spread out and relax. You can also get up at any time to stretch your legs, go to the bathroom, or go get a snack from the cafe car. It’s even possible to book a “roomette” with a bed for a long-haul trip.
Buses and airplanes, by contrast, are even less comfortable than a car. Not only are you stuck in your set, but you’re crowded in with a bunch of strangers instead of just your own family. If you want to get up, you have to wait for the seat belt sign to go off, then climb over a bunch of people just to get to the tiny cubicle that passes for a bathroom.
If the length of the trip were the same each way, I’d definitely prefer to travel to Indianapolis by train rather than by car. But the time involved and the awkward schedule pretty much cancels out the comforts of train travel. For my sister and her family, there would be even less advantage, since they’d have to make part of the trip in a crowded bus.
When you have a bunch of holiday gifts to transport, space is important. If you’re traveling by car, you can just pack as much as the trunk will hold. On trains, you can usually check one bag for free, and more than that if you’re willing to pay extra. Buses and planes are the most limiting, usually charging extra for anything more than a carry-on bag.
And airplanes have an extra problem on top of that: there’s always a risk that your checked baggage will be lost or damaged. On a bus or train, you can usually watch your bags being loaded and make sure everything ends up where it belongs.
For me and my husband, this is one of the biggest advantages of driving. Traveling by bus, train, or plane would force us to ship most of our holiday gifts separately instead of carrying them with us.
My sister’s family doesn’t need to haul gifts at Thanksgiving, but they do need to carry enough stuff for four people – including car seats for the kids. When they take their own car, the seats go with them automatically. If they took a bus, train, or plane, they’d have to carry them separately, which would be a big nuisance.
When you’re driving a car, there’s not much else you can do at the same time. You can listen to the radio or chat with your passengers if you have any, but you can’t do anything that takes your eyes or your attention off the road.
But when you’re riding on a bus, train, or plane, you can do lots of other things with your time. You can read a book, take a nap, check your email, or even bring a laptop and get some work done. Train travel gives you the most options for keeping yourself busy because trains usually have plenty of outlets and, in many cases, free WiFi. It’s harder to plug in your gadgets on a bus, and on a plane, you can’t use your cellular connection at all while you’re in the air.
For our long trip to Indiana, being able to play cards or check email would certainly make the time pass faster. But even in the car, we can chat or play talking games like “twenty questions,” so this isn’t such a big deal. It would probably be more helpful for my sister’s family since the kids could play with their toys on the train. Still, they’d have to make sure all those toys got put away before they arrived, which would add to the stress of the trip.
Each type of travel has its own sources of stress. In a car, the main source is the driving itself. You have to wind your way through traffic, avoid accidents, and put up with the honking horns and blaring radios of other drivers.
On a bus, someone else takes care of the actual driving, but you still have to deal with traffic noise and delays. On top of that, you have to worry about catching your bus and making your connections on time. On a train, you can avoid traffic completely, but you still have all the trouble of sticking to a schedule.
When you fly, you have all those same schedule worries, plus the added hassles of getting to (and getting around) the airport, checking bags, going through security, and so on. For many people, this makes flying the most stressful of all.
For my family, driving is the least stressful way to travel. The freedom of being able to set our own schedule and stop when we like more than outweighs the hassles of driving. For my sister’s family, the benefits of driving are even greater. The hassles of air, train, and bus travel are bad enough with only two people. With two children to keep in line, the trip would be even more stressful.
The Bottom Line on Convenience
In terms of convenience, car travel has many advantages. First of all, you can travel from any point on the map to any other without having to worry about available routes. You can also set your own schedule and carry as much luggage as your car will hold.
On the other hand, driving isn’t as comfortable as traveling by train. It also doesn’t give you as much freedom during the trip. Train travel allows you to do more with your travel time, while driving time is pretty much wasted time.
On the whole, this one looks like a toss-up between driving and train travel. It basically comes down to a question of whether you can get a train that goes directly from your home city to your destination. If that’s possible, you can enjoy the comfort of train travel without too much added hassle. But if you have to make a bunch of transfers on the way, train travel becomes a complicated mess that’s far more trouble than driving.
For me and my husband, there’s no way to take a train from New Jersey to Indianapolis without making several transfers. Even for my sister’s family, the trip involves at least one transfer. So for us, the car trumps the train for convenience.
Flying makes a lot of people nervous. They can’t board a plane without worrying about the idea that it could crash. Driving, on the other hand, is something most of us do every day without a second thought. We’re so used to it that we don’t think of it as a threat.
But if you look at the actual statistics, this way of thinking is completely backward. On a mile-for-mile basis, you’re actually much safer traveling in a plane than in a car.
Comparing Safety Rates
The best way to compare the safety of different forms of travel is to count the number of deaths per passenger mile. A passenger mile is one mile traveled by one person. So if 1,000 people all make a trip of 1,000 miles, that’s a total of one million passenger miles. If one of those 100 people dies in an accident, the death rate for the trip is one death per one million passenger miles.
A 2013 study in Research in Transportation Economics calculated this figure for several different modes of travel. Here’s how they compare:
- Air Travel. Flying in a commercial airliner is hands down the safest way to travel. The death rate is 0.07 for every billion passenger miles traveled. In other words, for every hundred billion people who travel by airline, there’s less than one death. If you took a 500 mile flight every day for a whole year, your risk of dying would be only 1 in 85,000.
- Bus Travel. Bus accidents kill about 40 people per year – and 10 of those 40 are drivers and other people who work for the bus company. This adds up to an overall fatality of 0.11 for every billion passenger miles. That makes bus travel about 65% more dangerous than flying, but still very safe overall.
- Train Travel. Most of the people killed by trains in this country are pedestrians, drivers, or railway workers who are struck by trains. If you count all these deaths, the fatality rate for long-haul trains comes to 0.43 per billion passenger miles. However, if you look only at people traveling on the trains, the fatality rate drops to 0.15 per billion passenger miles. That makes train travel nearly, but not quite, as safe as bus travel.
- Driving. Riding in a car or light truck is just about the most dangerous way there is to travel. Drivers and passengers have a fatality rate of 7.3 per billion passenger miles. That’s 67 times as high as the risk for bus travel and more than 100 times as high as the risk for flying. Only motorcycles are riskier, causing a whopping 212 deaths per billion passenger miles.
Staying Safe on the Road
Although driving is riskier than other modes of travel, it’s still pretty safe. As a 2013 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation points out, the death rate from car travel in 2010 was less than one-third what it was back in 1975.
The study also notes that some types of driving pose more risk than others. Ways to stay safer on the road include:
- Sticking to Urban Areas. It might seem like busy city streets should be more dangerous than country roads. But according to the study, car travelers are actually 2.7 times more likely to be killed in rural areas. Rural roads tend to have higher speed limits, worse lighting, and fewer curves and other devices to slow drivers down. So a well-traveled route is a safer route for your road trip.
- Having an Experienced Driver. People aged between 18 and 29 are 50% to 90% more likely to die in an auto accident than older people. So if you’re traveling with your family, it makes sense to put an older, more experienced driver behind the wheel as much as possible.
- Wearing Seat Belts. Nearly half of all people killed in auto accidents are adults not wearing seat belts or children not using car seats. So just by buckling up, you can instantly cut your risk in half.
- Staying Sober. It goes without saying that no one who has been drinking should get behind the wheel of a car. But the study sheds a clearer light on just how dangerous drinking and driving really is. It shows that alcohol is a factor in roughly one out of three traffic deaths, with at least one person involved having a blood alcohol level above the legal limit.
- Staying Focused. Distractions such as cell phones can be just as bad for your driving as alcohol. A 2004 study by the Brookings Institution used a driving simulator to compare the performance of drivers who were legally drunk with drivers talking on a cell phone. It found that the phone users were even more impaired than the drunks – even when the cell phone was hands-free.
The bottom line is that there’s probably no way to make driving as safe as flying, or even riding a bus or a train. But with some reasonable precautions, you can keep the risk low enough that it shouldn’t deter you from making your trip by car.
On the other hand, if you actually prefer to fly, it’s nice to know that you don’t need to worry about your safety in the air. Statistically speaking, you’re safer up there than you would be in your car on the ground.
For eco-conscious travelers, there’s one final factor to consider: the environmental impact of your trip. Cars, buses, trains, and planes all produce air pollution – some a lot more than others.
The easiest way to compare how different forms of travel affect the environment is to look at their carbon footprints. True, CO2 is only part of the pollution that traveling produces. But in many cases, a bigger carbon footprint comes with other pollutants as well.
To compare the carbon costs of flying versus driving, I used the Fly or Drive Calculator from BeFrugal. It gives an estimate of the carbon impact of your trip, along with its cost and time.
For other types of travel, I used a 2008 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). It compares the carbon impact of different types of travel for short, medium, and long trips. It also shows how the best choices change depending on how many people are traveling.
New Jersey to Indianapolis
The UCS report calculates the carbon impact for trips of three different lengths: 100, 500, and 1,000 miles. Our trip from New Jersey to Indianapolis is about 700 miles each way, so it’s closest to the middle number.
According to UCS, for a trip this long with two travelers, the greenest option is a long-haul bus, followed by a train. Driving in a “typical car” is the next best option, and flying in coach class comes in fourth.
These numbers fit in with the figures I got from the Fly or Drive Calculator. According to its figures, a round-trip flight from New Jersey to Indianapolis produces 2,264 pounds of CO2. Driving in our fuel-efficient car produces 1,027 pounds – less than half as much.
Boston to New Jersey
For my sister’s family, the numbers are a little different. Their small SUV isn’t as efficient as our car, but they have four people in it, so they’re producing less carbon per person. Also, their trip is shorter – a little less than 300 miles each way. This puts it closer to a short trip by the standards of the UCS report.
UCS says that for a short trip with four travelers, a bus is still the greenest way to go. However, driving with this many people comes in ahead of taking the train. Even if you make the trip in an SUV instead of a “typical car,” driving is still greener. Flying remains the worst option of the lot.
In fact, according to the Fly or Drive Calculator, driving isn’t just greener than flying for this trip – it’s a lot greener. This site says a round-trip flight from Boston to New Jersey produces 2,482 pounds of CO2. By contrast, making the drive – even in a compact SUV – produces only 499 pounds.
Making Travel Greener
Most people aren’t going to make their decision about how to travel based solely on carbon footprint. Therefore, the UCS report also offers some general tips on how to make your trip greener, no matter how you travel.
- Stick to Coach Class. Flying in coach class isn’t just cheaper than flying first class – it’s also greener. A first-class seat takes up nearly twice as much space on the plane, so a passenger in that seat is accountable for twice as big a share of the plane’s carbon output.
- Bigger Is Better. Bigger planes are usually greener than smaller ones. They use more fuel and put out more carbon in total. But because they have more seats, they emit less per passenger.
- Fly Direct. Nonstop flights tend to produce less carbon than multi-stop trips. The less direct your route is, the more miles you cover in the air. Nonstop flights save time as well. Unfortunately, the downside is that they tend to be pricier.
- Driving Is Better for Short Trips. Driving tends to be one of the greenest options for trips of 100 miles or less. However, the longer the trip is, the lower car travel ranks on the green scale. For trips of 1,000 miles or more, trains and even airplanes are better.
- The More Passengers, the Better. The more people there are in the car, the smaller your carbon footprint is per passenger. For a family of four, driving is always greener than taking a train or a plane. For solo drivers and couples, the train is always better.
- Fuel Efficiency Matters. The same trip is much greener in a small car than in a big one. For each mile traveled, a big, gas-guzzling SUV produces nearly four times the carbon emissions of an efficient hybrid car. If you don’t own a fuel-efficient car, UCS recommends renting one for long road trips.
- Avoid Traffic. A car uses more fuel when it’s driving in heavy traffic. According to the report, a car stuck in traffic can produce twice as much CO2 as the same car cruising at highway speed. UCS recommends planning your drive so that you aren’t on the road at rush hour. It also suggests getting a GPS unit that can alert you to traffic hot spots so you can steer around them. As a bonus, avoiding traffic means a faster and less stressful trip.
Trains and Buses
- Buses Are the Greenest. Long-haul buses, also known as motor coaches, are nearly always the greenest way to travel. For a couple, taking the bus cuts the carbon footprint of the trip nearly in half compared to driving – even in a hybrid car. Bus travel doesn’t have to be uncomfortable either. The report notes that many newer buses are loaded with amenities, including seat-back video, satellite radio, and free WiFi.
- Try Trains in the Northeast. The Northeast Corridor – from Washington, D.C. up to Boston – is the best-developed segment of Amtrak’s rail network. Travelers in this area have more trains to choose from, including high-speed Acela trains. And because these trains all run on electricity, they’re greener than the diesel trains used in some other parts of the country.
- Look for Local Rail Stations. For travelers outside the Northeast, trains can still be an option, but it depends on whether there’s a station nearby. Most train stations are located right in city centers, so city dwellers will have the easiest time finding a station within striking distance. If your city doesn’t have a train station, check to see whether you can reach one in a nearby city by bus. Amtrak offers Thruway bus service to its stations from most cities.
Adding It All Up
Adding up all the different factors – cost, time, convenience, safety, and carbon footprint – it looks like my husband and I are making the right choice by driving to Indiana each year. It’s by far the cheapest way to go, and the most convenient too. Flying is faster and safer, but it’s also the most expensive way to travel, as well as the most polluting. As for trains and buses, the terrible schedules put them right out of the running.
For my sister’s family, the choice is even clearer. A car is the cheapest, fastest, and most convenient way for this family of four to travel. It’s also the second-greenest, coming in just behind the bus. It’s not as safe as other modes of transport, but with an experienced driver and well-traveled roads, it’s still pretty safe. So for them, driving is the winner by a mile.
However, what works best for our families might not be best for yours. The best way to travel can change based on the length of the trip, the number of people, and your start and end points. Based on the results we got for our two trips, here are a few general conclusions you can use when planning yours:
- A Full Car Is Better. When you’re traveling on your own, driving isn’t all that much cheaper than taking the bus or train – and it’s not nearly as green. However, as you add more people to the car, driving looks better and better. The cost and the carbon footprint go up a tiny bit, but the cost per person drops dramatically.
- Flying Is Only Fastest for Long Trips. For our 700-mile trip to Indianapolis, flying would be a lot faster than driving. But for the shorter trip from Boston to New Jersey, driving is just as fast. The time spent getting to the airport and at the airport cancels out the time saved in the air.
- Buses and Trains Depend on Location. For us, bus and train travel just wouldn’t work out because there’s no direct route from start to finish. Taking a bus or a train means taking a long, indirect route with many stops that delay the trip. But if you happen to be traveling between two cities that have a direct route between them, bus and train travel become much more practical. For instance, if you live in San Jose, California, and you’re heading for Los Angeles, you can take a train all the way there and travel in comfort for a reasonable price.
As you can see, determining the best way to travel home for the holidays is a complicated business. You have to consider your specific situation: the length of the trip, your time and budget constraints, what you have to carry, and how green you want to be.
Fortunately, there are tools online to make the math a lot easier. You can punch your personal details into the Fly or Drive Calculator to compare the pros and cons of making your trip by plane or by car. If you want to check out bus and train travel as well, you can visit Wanderu or use a transit app like MyTransitGuide to find available routes. Once you’ve seen all the options, you can crunch the numbers to figure out what works best for you.
Will you be traveling for the holidays? If so, how do you plan to make the trip?