Spring break is nearly upon us and that means travelers are going to be hitting the roads and skies. Sometimes, it’s just more cost-effective to travel by car, but it depends on how far from home you plan to visit, how many you’ll be traveling with and how much time you want to spend at your destination. How do you know if driving is a better deal than flying? Start by calculating the number of times you’ll need to fill up the tank, eat and stay overnight somewhere along the way, because if you have to travel for 3 days there and back and it’s going to cost your family of four $1200 before you even make it anywhere, it’s not worth the time and effort. You’re losing a week in transit when you could have been there in 6 hours or less and everyone will already be cranky and sick of each other by the time you get where you’re going.
If a road trip is within your budget and sounds like a good time, then by all means, start planning it out and packing up your car. There are many benefits to a good road trip and a few downsides, but that seems to be with anything. Let’s look at the benefits first, because those are the most fun:
Family togetherness – With school, sports, friends and work, you are lucky to see your kids at dinnertime. Reconnect with everyone while you have them trapped in the car for hours at a time. Play games, listen to music, talk about what you’re most looking forward to (or what you loved the most, if you’re on your way home) and plan out what you will do when you get to your destination (if you haven’t completed you itinerary yet).
You can bring your own food – Sure, you can bring your own food on the plane, but you can’t take an entire cooler full of sandwich fixings, sodas, fruit and potato salad. When you drive you can bring all that and more. It can feed you for many meals and allow for snacks without stopping every 5 minutes.
You can bring the dog – Yes, you can bring your dog on the plane with you, but at a price to both the dog and your wallet. Your dog is probably already used to riding in the car, so it’ll be less stress on everyone and you can share your vacation fun with your four-legged child(ren).
2 or 7 can travel for the same price – This is one of the biggest plusses. No matter how many people can fit in your car or minivan, it’s not going to cost you more gas to carry them. You will fill up the same amount whether there are two of you or a bunch of you.
More legroom – If you’re among the majority, your car has more legroom than your average airplane seat. If you get cramped, you can stop at a rest area and run around and use a regular size bathroom stall. Stretch your legs, eat a sandwich and then get back in the car and be on your way.
See many things along the way – Some people aren’t into stopping when they’re on the road, but I say that’s most of the fun! Buy AAA guides and search the Internet before you leave for funky and odd things along your route. You can stop at something you never would have before, like the Oregon Vortex. Maybe it’s hokey, but it can be entertaining and also get you out of the car for a bit.
No “peak” travel days – Aside from everyone trying to drive somewhere during rush hour and all day on Saturday, you won’t have to pay more to road trip when you want to. You might get stuck in some traffic, especially if you’re driving in/through a big city, but that’s to be expected.
Pack as much as you want – As long as it fits in your car, you can take it. No one is going to tell you that your bag is overweight and slap you with a heavy fee. If you are traveling with strollers, car seats, camping equipment or golf clubs, this is awesome. If your little one refuses to go anywhere without their own pillow or blanket, you don’t have to say there’s no space. You only have to pack light if you want to.
Can stay in campgrounds or hotels – When you drive, you have the choice of where you stay. If a hotel seems like too much, you can bring a tent and stop at a campground. There’s a big difference in price here. Usually they charge around $12-15 per car at a campground. If you multiply that by the number of days you’re traveling and compare it to spending $50+ per night on a hotel, it’s a big savings. Of course, if you’re like me, after a long day on the road, I want to sleep in a bed. Pick up those coupon books at rest stops and roadside diners and find deals on lodgings along your way.
Bring your own car or rent one – If your car is in good shape, you can save even more money by traveling it in. If it’s not, you have the option to rent a car or a bigger car if it would be more comfortable for everyone traveling. This is still a huge savings over airfare.
You have a car at your destination – You don’t have to rent a car at your destination or take public transportation if you don’t want, because you already have a car to get around town. Convenient!
Now that you know all the good things about road tripping it, let’s look at the potential sucky parts of being in the car much of the day for possibly several days. You probably remember your childhood trips in the car and don’t exactly look back on them fondly. You can make them better, and I have some great ways to do it in my two-part post here and here.
Family togetherness – While this can be a plus, too much togetherness can be a bad thing. If your kids are fighting the whole way or your driver doesn’t like to stop for directions when lost you may NOT have a very good time. At that point, you want to leave everyone on the side of the road and go without them. Bring your GPS, pack some chocolates, handheld games and DVDs and when everyone has just about had it with each other, let them all do their own thing for a while.
Takes longer to get there – You “waste” a lot of time driving to your destination if you have to spend days to get there. It’s time you could have spent having a good time there already if you’d flown.
Parking fees – When you drive, you can sometimes incur parking fees, both at hotels and activities. Sometimes they are nominal and still beat public transportation costs, but other times they are outrageous.
Gas prices – Gas prices are nearing $4 per gallon in some places and in others it’s even higher. You may want to check online to see what the average cost per gallon is along your route to make sure you’re actually saving money.
Rental fees – If you have to rent a car, the rates can be a little steep, since the larger the car, the more you pay. A compact car is always going to be less expensive than a sedan or a minivan. You have to decide if it’s worth the cost, especially if you don’t want to drive your own car.
If you decide to go for it and take that road trip you’ve been talking about and plan to stop at hotels along the way, make sure you check in advance if there are any conventions or festivals happening along your way, as this can really throw a wrench in your plans if you were just assuming you could find a place to stay while you were driving. This happened to us on a few trips and we didn’t have reservations and had to drive quite a long way to find a vacancy or we had to sleep in our car in a campground. It’s better to be prepared than not. Don’t forget, campgrounds can fill up, too, especially during the weekend. Many will let you book ahead of time.
What are some of your favorite road trip memories?