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Family Cross-Country Trips With Kids – Fly or Drive?

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Though my husband and I live on the East Coast, he’s originally from California, and we aim to visit his family out there at least once a year. Unfortunately, traveling across the country has become expensive.

Several years ago, before we had kids, we were so frustrated by the lack of affordable flights that we mapped out a plan to head from the New York City area to San Diego by car. However, when we crunched the numbers, we realized that we’d wind up spending nearly the same amount on gas, tolls, and lodging, minus the convenience of getting there faster, and opted to just fly instead.

However, now that we have three kids, we may adopt a different strategy, as the cost of five airline tickets versus two obviously is much higher. Besides, the idea of taking a family road trip appeals to us on many levels. Whereas the thought of dragging young children on a six-hour flight seems pretty daunting, the notion of a family road trip sounds far less stressful and a lot more fun.

If you’re thinking of traveling cross-country with your family, you may be wondering which is the more cost-effective option: driving or flying. While  your actual costs depend on factors such as your starting and ending points and the number of children you have, there’s more to consider than just numbers.

Flying Across the Country

Costs

These days, flying is not an inexpensive prospect. While it may be possible to snag a flight from one coast to the other for as little as $250, most people who fly cross-country wind up paying more, with flights easily topping $500. Refundable tickets, which offer more recourse in the event that your plans need to change, can cost 30% to 50% more than nonrefundable airfare.

Location and dates of travel can greatly impact the overall cost of a flight. For example, flights leaving right around Thanksgiving and Christmas typically cost more than flights during less commonly traveled periods of the year. If you live near a major airport and have more flights available to you, there’s a good chance you’ll pay less than someone who lives near a smaller airport with fewer flights available.

Flying directly might also add to your travel costs, though this isn’t always the case. While direct flights sometimes cost more than indirect flights, depending on your location and date of travel, it may be possible that a direct flight is actually cheaper than a connecting one.

There are also certain peripheral costs associated with flying:

  • Baggage Fees. Unfortunately, the privilege of checking a bag is no longer included in the price of many different carrier’s tickets. Often, airlines charge $25 for your first checked bag. Some charge the same amount for a second checked bag, while others charge $35 to $50. For example, as of 2015, United Airlines charges $25 for the first checked bag and $35 for the second per passenger. If you need to check a third bag, you could be looking at fees of $75 to $100 or more.
  • Ticket Change Fees. You never know when you might need to tweak your itinerary, but if you purchase nonrefundable tickets and find yourself needing to make a switch, you’ll pay a hefty fee to do so, as airlines generally charge $100 to $200 for ticket changes. If you’re a family of four and wind up needing to change your flight date after your tickets are purchased, you’ll pay $400 to $800 on top of what the tickets initially cost you.
  • Extra Legroom Fees. Some airlines allow you the option to purchase seats with extra legroom. If you’re a tall person, that extra room could spell the difference between a cramped flight and one that’s more comfortable – but it’ll cost you. Extra legroom fees vary by airline and itinerary. For example, American Airlines charges $20 and up, and in some cases, you could pay as much as $100.
  • Getting To and From the Airport. In addition to the price of tickets and fees, you need to account for the cost of getting to and from the airport. You could drive to the airport and park your car for the duration of your trip, but at major airports, parking fees can cost $10 to $20 or more per day. Taking a taxi is also an option, though the cost varies greatly depending on the distance from your home to the airport. Depending on your circumstances, it could be cheaper and more convenient to take a taxi. Keep in mind that if you have a large family, you may not fit in a standard taxi and may have no choice but to drive.
  • Renting a Car. If you choose to fly, you may need to rent a car once you reach your destination. The cost of a rental depends on the type of car you choose. You might find an economy car for just $20 to $30 per day, but if you need an SUV or minivan, you could wind up paying double or triple that amount, plus the cost of gasoline.

Ways to Save

While flying can be an expensive prospect, you can take some steps to save money on your flight and its associated costs:

  • Fly Off Peak. If you avoid travel during peak periods like the winter holidays, summertime, and holiday weekends, you’ll probably pay less for your tickets. Flying during the middle of the week can also help you save. I find that when I book a flight that leaves on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday, it ends up being cheaper than flying out during the rest of the week.
  • Use Rewards Credit Card Miles or Points. If you travel for work or have a travel rewards credit card that gives you cash back in the form of points or “miles,” you can exchange those for a free or discounted flight.
  • Take an Indirect Flight. Sometimes taking a connecting flight is cheaper than flying directly. If you’re willing to deal with the inconvenience, you could wind up saving money on your tickets.
  • Get Bumped. Airlines have a practice of overbooking their flights, and sometimes they have no choice but to offer incentives in exchange for passengers who agree to get bumped to a different flight. If you’re flexible and your kids are good sports, you may want to volunteer to get bumped if the opportunity presents itself. Airlines have been known to offer rewards such as free tickets or airline dollars that can be used for things like baggage fees or seat upgrades.
  • Pack Lightly. The less luggage you take, the lower your baggage fees will be. Also, because airlines charge per bag, you may be able to cut your costs by packing all of your kids’ belongings into a single suitcase.
  • Get a Ride To and From the Airport. Call in a favor and ask a friend, neighbor, or local family member to haul you and your family to and from the airport to save on taxi or parking fees.

The breakdown of expenses for my family to fly from New Jersey to California is as follows:

  • $2,000 in airline tickets – five tickets at $400 each, assuming we were to fly at an off-peak time to save money on the price of tickets
  • $100 in checked baggage fees for suitcases, assuming one suitcase for me, one for my husband, and two for our three children
  • $100 in additional checked gear, assuming we’d only be charged $25 for our two strollers (one for our son, and one for our twin infants) plus two portable cribs
  • $70 in airport parking fees, assuming we were to take a seven-day trip and find parking for $70 per day
  • $280 in car rental fees – $40 per day for seven days
  • $315 in car seat rental fees – $15 per car seat times three for seven days (our son still uses a car seat and isn’t old or large enough for a booster seat)

In total, it would cost us roughly $2,865 to make the trip by plane.

Ways Save Expenses

Advantages

  • Expediency. The primary advantage of flying to reach your cross-country destination is expediency. If you manage to snag a direct flight from the East Coast to the West Coast, you’ll reach your destination in five to seven hours. Even if you have to take a connecting flight, there’s a good chance you’ll be able to leave for your destination on a given morning and arrive later that same day.
  • Convenience. Not only is flying fast, but you can also time your flights to coincide with your sleeping schedule to make for the least amount of interruption. For example, those flying from the West Coast to the East Coast can take an overnight (or “red-eye”) flight and attempt to sleep on the plane. Red-eyes can be hit or miss in terms of price – sometimes they are more expensive than morning, daytime, or evening flights, but sometimes their cost is comparable or even cheaper.
  • More Time at Your Destination. Another benefit of flying is getting to spend more of your trip sightseeing and doing activities, as opposed to being stuck on the road for hours on end. While you can map out a scenic route to make the drive more interesting, you may find yourself with stretches of dull, empty highway.
  • Less Boredom en Route. Flying can be a lot less physically and mentally draining for both you and your kids. When you’re dealing with a 3,000-mile drive, you’re bound to get restless at some point. The same thing can happen on a long flight, but when you travel by plane, you’re talking about being cooped up for six hours or so at the most. However, driving could mean subjecting yourself and your family to numerous long stretches of being stuck in the car.

Disadvantages

  • Aggravation. While flying is faster, it’s not always as convenient or hassle-free as you’d like. For example, if you get stuck taking connecting flights with a large gap in between, it could make for a long, tiring travel day.
  • Stress. For many, flying can actually end up being quite stressful. Some find the process of going through airport security quite harrowing, and regardless of the season, you can’t discount the possibility of extensive delays or missed flight connections.
  • Less Flexibility When Packing. Baggage fees and limitations can make packing stressful, especially if you’re dealing with younger children and infants, who tend to come with a lot of gear. Though some airlines allow passengers to check one additional piece of infant gear (such as a stroller or car seat) at no additional charge, lugging that gear to, from, and through the airport is far from easy.
  • No Car. Flying means you won’t have a car when you arrive at your destination. If you’re planning to tour a walkable city, this may not be an issue. But if you need a car to explore your destination, you’ll incur the added cost of renting one. Plus, you’ll then have to navigate a new place in a car you’re not used to driving.
  • Restless, Noisy Children. Flying with children can be trying. Children, especially young ones, can grow bored and restless on a flight, and it is your job to entertain them while making sure to limit the extent to which they disrupt other passengers. While it’s true that children can just as easily get bored during a road trip, at least then you have the option to stop for a break. Another thing to keep in mind is that when you drive, you don’t have to worry about your children making too much noise and disturbing other travelers.

Driving Across the Country

Costs

At first glance, in comparison to flying, driving might seem like a great way to save money on vacation – especially if you’re a family of four or more and are looking at plane tickets that fall into the $400 to $500 range. But when you consider these costs of driving cross-country, you may come to realize that you won’t save a whole lot by hitting the road.

  • Fuel. Even if your car is fairly fuel-efficient, you’ll spend a fair amount of money on gas to drive from one end of the country to the other. Your actual cost depends on factors such as gas prices at the time of your trip, the type of vehicle you drive, your vehicle’s condition, traffic, and whether you drive efficiently. For example, idling during periods of road congestion can decrease your fuel efficiency and increase your gas costs, as can speeding. If your vehicle gets about 30 miles to the gallon on highways and you’re talking about a 3,000-mile trip each way, you’re looking at roughly 200 gallons of gas to make the trip. At $2.50 per gallon, that’s $500 in gas alone. Sites such as Cost 2 Drive can help you calculate your trip costs in advance so that you get a sense of how much you’re likely to spend.
  • Tolls. Depending on which roads you take, you could pay some tolls along the way. You can use sites such as TxTag to get an estimated cost of tolls on your route.
  • Lodging. If you’re looking at a 40- to 50-hour drive, you’re going to need to take a break at some point. To that end, you’ll need to factor in lodging costs. You may be able to find a room at a budget motel for as little as $50 or $60 per night, whereas many hotels cost $100 or more for a night’s stay. Keep in mind that if you have more than four people in your family, you may need to rent a cot for an additional fee. While you can limit your lodging costs by driving through the night as much as possible, doing so may detract from your enjoyment, and it could actually be unsafe for both you and your passengers.
  • Food. Whether due to boredom or hunger, being on the road for multiple days at a time means needing to come up with food. If you pack a cooler with healthy meals and snacks, you can limit your food costs significantly, but the more you dine at restaurants or purchase ready-made meals along the way, the more you’ll add to the cost of your trip. Though fast food is a reasonably economical compromise, eating a lot of it can wreak havoc on your digestive system, which is not the sort of thing you’d want when facing 100-mile stretches without a rest stop.
  • Wear and Tear on Your Vehicle. The more mileage you put on your vehicle, the more you’ll wear it out. While you may not pay for the wear and tear caused by your road trip up front, putting an extra 6,000 miles on your car could add to your maintenance costs down the line.

Here is a breakdown of expenses for my family to drive from New Jersey to California and back:

  • $500 in fuel costs (assuming gas costs $2.50 per gallon) – our car gets about 30 miles per gallon on highways, so we’d be looking at 200 gallons round-trip
  • $40 in tolls
  • $1,000 in lodging expenses, assuming we spend a total of 10 days on the road to and from California
  • $400 for meals, assuming we pack our own breakfasts and lunches but dine at inexpensive restaurants every night for 10 nights

For us, driving to California actually makes more sense than flying on a cost-basis alone, as it would mean spending $1,940 as opposed to $2,865. Plus, we’d have the added convenience of being able to pack whatever we need for our children without stress, as we’d just cram it all into our minivan.

Driving Across Country

Advantages

  • New Discoveries. One major advantage of driving cross-country is that it offers you the chance to see things along the way that you may not otherwise discover. When you drive, you have a real opportunity to get off the beaten path and explore.
  • Family Bonding. When you’re on vacation and you’re out and about doing things, you’re less likely to stop and take the time to talk. But when you’re on the road for hours at a time, you get a real chance to reconnect.
  • Carefree Packing. Rather than have to worry about weight limits for your suitcase or baggage fees, you can pack more freely and err on the side of taking too much.
  • Access to a Car. Driving cross-country eliminates the need to rent a car once you arrive at your destination. Rather than have to deal with the logistics of reserving, picking up, and returning a rental, you’ll have a means of easy transportation the whole way through.

Disadvantages

  • Long Stretches of Highway. Taking a cross-country road trip can be a real adventure, and while there are some pretty fabulous things to see along the way, there’s also a good chance you’ll encounter many hours of monotony and boredom. Unless you stretch out your drive over five days or more, you can expect long days in your vehicle and a potential lack of scenery in some areas.
  • Bored, Impatient Children. Some kids do not take well to the idea of being trapped in the car for days on end. Some parents find that teens or preteens do well on longer trips because they’re able to entertain themselves with electronic devices and books. Others claim that younger children fare better because they can talk, sing, and find other creative ways to pass the time – and they’re also more likely to nap. If you’re going to attempt a cross-country drive with your children, be sure to bring plenty of entertainment. If you have younger kids, bring portable toys and books, and for older kids, stock up on travel and card games.

Additional Considerations

  • Amount of Vacation Time. If you have limited time off or are in the midst of your busy season at work, flying may be the more sensible option, as it enables you to reach your destination quickly. Flying may also make more sense if you’re self-employed or are a freelancer who is ineligible for paid time off. On the other hand, if you’re not facing any constraints with regard to taking time off, you may want to attempt the drive.
  • The Timing of Your Trip. If you’re attempting to squeeze in a trip at a time when your children need to be back at school, flying might make the most sense. Otherwise, you may feel rushed while on the road, which can detract from the experience of taking that type of drive.
  • The Reason for Travel. If you’re traveling for a wedding or a family affair, you may want to consider flying. While delays can happen, you’ll likely reach your destination in time if you give yourself enough leeway. Driving, on the other hand, is a more risky prospect when you’re on a deadline, as you could get lost along the way, encounter bad weather, or have car trouble.

Final Word

Flying is a quick and relatively easy way to get across the country, but if you’re up for an adventure and have plenty of time to travel, you may want to consider attempting the drive. You never know what interesting things you might encounter along the way, and in the process, you just might take the concept of family bonding to a whole new level.

Have you ever driven across the country? What was your experience like?

Maurie Backman
Maurie Backman is an experienced writer and editor based in Central NJ who enjoys blogging about everything from parenting to money management and investing. She spends much of her time chasing after her children and chipping away at her never-ending piles of laundry. She also bakes way too often.

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