June 29, 2009

Planes, Trains, Buses and Cars - Picking How to Get There

I usually fly for longer trips and drive my car for trips within 500 miles. Sometimes I might fly for shorter trips but I try not to since it costs a lot more. I might fly for a shorter trip if its winter and I am concerned about getting stuck in my car in the middle of nowhere in a blizzard. I've occasionally looked at travel by train but usually discounted it as not much cheaper than flying and no better than driving. But maybe I'm missing out on a better alternative with bus or train travel?

Below I'll compare the roundtrip costs for a trip to cities about 400 and 200 miles from my home. These are both trips we might take to visit friends & family. The costs and travel times for air, train, bus and driving my own car are as follows:

Trip #1 = 400 miles

Airline fare is $167 roundtrip per person and flight time is 2hr 15min total round trip. Morning flights each way.
Train fare is $92 roundtrip. Travel time is almost 15 hours. Train arrives at destination around Midnight and leaves on return around 2AM
Bus fare is $54 roundtrip. Travel time is 13 hr 20 minutes. Departures in morning and arrivals in afternoon or evening.
Driving my car is about $73 in gas and $64 in mileage depreciation for 1-4 people. Travel time is 13 hours round trip. Departures and arrivals are whenever we want them to be.

No surprise that bus is cheapest and air is most expensive. The train seems like an OK compromise between cost and time but the departure and arrival times are geared towards night owls.

Note that I'm using 8¢ per mile as the cost of mileage depreciation. That means I'm figuring that every mile I put on my car reduces the value of the car by 8¢. This is not an immediate out of pocket expense but is still a real expense that I should account for.

Trip #2 : 200 miles

Airfare is $159 roundtrip. Travel time is 1hr 40min. Departure/arrivals are in morning or afternoon.
Train fare is $56 roundtrip. Travel time is 7 hours total. Departure and arrivals are in the morning/afternoon.
Bus cost is $29 roundtrip. Travel time is 7 hr 25 minutes. Departure /arrivals are in the afternoon.
Driving my car is about $36.5 in gas and $32 in mileage depreciation for 1-4 people. Travel time is 7 hours round trip. Departures and arrivals are whenever we want them to be.

Again the costs are no surprise with the bus being the cheapest and the plane most expensive.

Whats the total travel time?

When I fly anywhere it seems to take an extra 3-5 hours in addition to the actual flight time. We have to drive across town to the airport. Find parking at the economy lot and catch the shuttle to the airport terminal. Get through checkin and then stand in the line for security. Plus you have to be there 30 minutes in advance of the actual flight. Then when the plane arrives at the destination you have to wait to get off the plane then get your baggage. Finally you have to get yourself home from the airport one way or the other which is often another trip across town. That all adds up.

It doesn't take as long to check in and check out of the train or bus travel. One reason is that security takes longer at the airport. My local airport recommends you arrive there 2 hours before your flight during busy morning hours. Amtrak recommends you get to the station at least 30 minutes before train departure. Greyhound says to arrive at least an hour before departure if buying tickets but they also say that "Advance purchase tickets do not guarantee a seat." Still you've got travel time to and from the train or bus station just like travel to or from the airport. Overall I think you can safely add an extra 2 hours each way when traveling by air. When traveling by train or bus I'd have to add probably 1 hour extra.

Fastest = Air
In both trips traveling by air is the fastest. But traveling by air is also the most expensive option.

Cheapest = Bus or Car
If you have 1 person then the bus is cheapest. If you have 2-3 or more people then traveling by car may be cheaper.

The downside to driving your own car is the time you're spent driving is not relaxing. You can't read a book or otherwise 'tune out'. It can be a bit of work to drive a long distance. It may not seem like real work to simply drive your car but I'm usually a little weary after a 6 hour trip. However the hassle of dealing with boarding a plane or bus and the total freedom you have when driving your own car generally balance that.

If you need a car at your destination then driving your own car is generally the most economic option since you can save the cost of a rental car.

Conclusion: Driving the car is usually going to be our best option. My wife and I are traveling together so gas costs are less than roundtrip bus costs. Plus we generally need a car at our destination. But if time is important then traveling by air is the best choice.

Photos by bfraz, Professor Bop, Roadsidepictures, The Eggplant

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