With airline and gas costs rising, figuring out how to get to where you want to go this summer is no vacation.
There are a variety of tools available online that make it easier to calculate how much you would save by choosing one mode of transportation over another. And doing your homework now will pay off when the temperature starts to rise.
"Whether a family flies or drives depends on the cost of the trip and the size of the family," said Jenn Gaines, a contributing editor at Travelocity. "We suggest doing the math."
Depending on where you live, the average domestic air fare this summer is expected to hover around $360 roundtrip for a single ticket, up 9% from last summer. Travelers should add checked baggage fees to this equation, and any other charges their airlines my foist upon them when they reach the airport. These can include the cost of meals on board, charges for pillows, blankets and aisle seats and even levies for carry-on bags.
It's also important to remember that last Christmas airlines quietly tacked on peak day surcharges as a "way to squeeze a little more money out of people on days they tend to fly," said Erik Torkells, a travel expert at TripAdvisor.com.
"If air fares and gas tend to get more expensive this summer, they are going to do it again," Torkell said. "You really benefit from moving your days around, it shows up in the fare. If you book now, you won't pay it, they're going to wait and see."
Experts suggest using a search engine that looks at fares at many sites at once, such as www.kayak.com to compare air fares. To factor fees into the equation, www.smartertravel.com offers a side by side comparison of what airlines charge for everything from peanuts to blankets.
A bevy of new airline charges is already changing some families' travel plans.
"Airline fees are so expensive when you start to really break it down, 'OK, I have this flight to go from Boston to D.C. for $140 round trip, but it costs $25 each way to bring a bag, and I'm bringing my family,'" said Anne Banas, an executive editor at smartertravel.com. "If we drove we can bring as much luggage as we want and come out ahead in terms of costs."
To be sure, driving makes more sense if you're going somewhere within a four- or five-hour radius of home. But depending on how much time you have, and the make and model of your car, it may also be cheaper to drive on longer trips.
Let's do some math.
First, it pays to figure out your vehicle's gas mileage. To do so, visit the Environmental Protection Agency's fuel economy calculator, where you can punch in the year, make and model of your vehicle and come away with miles-per-gallon estimates for both city and highway driving.
Next, there's the price of gas to consider. To figure out how much gas it will take, and at what price, to drive to your destination set your browser for the Auto Club's Fuel Cost Calculator. Here, you punch in your starting city, your destination, and the make, model and year of your vehicle.
Keep in mind that this figure doesn't take into account the other costs of driving a car, said Geoff Sundstrom, an auto club spokesman.
"The reality is, every mile you drive there is a cost attached to it in terms of depreciation and maintenance," he said. "We recently released a study that it costs 55 cents per mile to drive a personal vehicle. When you overlay that against taking the costs of a long trip, of say 1,000 miles or more, you may conclude you are better off to rent a vehicle."
Sundstrom suggests that travelers may also want to consider driving to their destination and then returning home by plane, or train.
Indeed, more travelers are riding the rails this year, with Amtrak reporting recently that ridership is on a record pace, up 4.3% for the first half of its fiscal year with 13.6 million people riding between October and March. Officials there cited an improving economy and high gas prices as reasons for this surge, which they expect to continue into the summer.
Trains, however, are often hard to catch from point to point, with more options available on the Eastern seaboard and other heavily traveled routes near and on both coasts. Once you get inland, it's harder to find direct routes.
To help you get started, we compared fuel costs to airfares on several routes for a summer trip from Sunday, July 11 to Saturday, July 17.
We chose a Honda CRV for driving, as it's ranked one of the most popular sedans and SUVs by edmunds.com. To find the cheapest airfare, we used kayak.com. Round trip mileage and gas costs are courtesy of the Auto Club's fuel cost calculator.
Keep in mind that driving calculations don't include hotel and meal costs. Hotel rates, however, are 14% cheaper than they were two years ago, providing some great bargains for road trippers, said Travelocity's Gaines.
The analysis shows that for relatively short trips, such as from Boston to Philadelphia, or New Orleans to Memphis, driving or taking the train is indeed the more thrifty option -- if you have the time:
Dallas to Las Vegas (2,430 miles round trip)
Honda CRV: $254
Single airplane ticket: $425 (Delta, USAir)
Single train ticket: $496 (66-hour return trip)
Boston to Philadelphia (634 miles round trip)
Honda CRV: $66.70
Single airplane ticket: $159 (USAir)
Single train ticket: $145 (6-8 hours each way)
San Diego to San Francisco (982 miles round trip)
Honda CRV: $113.68
Single airplane ticket: $143 (Virgin America)
Single train ticket: No direct service.
New York to Los Angeles (5,526 miles round trip)
Honda CRV: $628.50
Single airplane ticket: $422 (AirTran)
Single train ticket: $445 (62-71 hours each way)
New Orleans to Memphis (788 miles round trip)
Honda CRV: $79.48
Single airplane ticket: $368 (AirTran)
Single train ticket: $180 (8 hours each way)
St. Paul/Minneapolis to Orlando (3,120 miles round trip)
Honda CRV: $325.26
Single airplane ticket: $389 (Sun Country Air)
Single train ticket: $604 (43 hours each way)
Washington D.C. to Chicago (1,376 miles round trip)
Honda CRV: $152.36
Single airplane ticket: $297 (Continental)
Single train ticket: $166 (23 hours each way)