Airline Fares Climb as Some Passengers Choose to Drive

By: Matthew Paolini

There's predominantly bad news for travelers intending to fly on business or on vacation this summer, according to a recent article appearing in U.S. News & World Report. Not only has the number of delayed flights risen, but so, too, have the number of passengers impacted per plane. For some, the news was worse than for others. Evaluating major airports using a combination of the percentage of flights delayed and the average load of departing aircraft, the U.S. News article branded Detroit's Wayne County Airport as the nations "most miserable airport".

Official Department of Transportation numbers paint a frustrating picture for Motown's frequent fliers. Thirty-nine percent of flights at Detroit leave the tarmac late. Combined with an average load factor of just under seventy-seven percent - meaning that passenger flights leaving Detroit are nearly 77 percent full - Detroit's airport offers the most misery to the largest number of people when flights are delayed.

Because I live near Detroit and make the occasional business trip to nearby Chicago or Cleveland, these figures got me thinking about the advantages - if any - of traveling by car to these destinations. With the help of some other tips in the article, it was quite easy for me to price and then compare the cost of driving and flying to each of these cities.

Step One in the process was to pay a visit to fuelcostcalculator.com.

Maintained by the American Automobile Association (AAA), this website asks you to supply your departure point and final destination along with the make, model and year of manufacture of your car. Using MPG estimates for your particular vehicle and the average gas price for your neck of the woods, AAA's fuel cost calculator rapidly calculates the overall distance, the amount of fuel required and cost of that fuel for a typical drive from let's say - Detroit to Chicago. In my case, I learned that I could expect to consume 10.58 gallons of gas for the 275-mile drive to the Windy City at an approximate fuel cost at just over 33 dollars (33.23). The calculator likewise computed the round-trip cost of the drive, in this case, 66.46.

To find out how this would compare to flying, I next visited sidestep.com.

Sidestep appeals to me because it searches hundreds of airline and discounted fare websites for the best deal and then lets me book directly with the airline company instead of using a go-between like Orbitz, Travelocity or Expedia. Dealing with the airline directly instead of through a third-party ticket broker, makes it easier and possibly less expensive if there are additional fees to change my flight if necessary.

While at sidestep.com, I found an American Airlines non-stop flight that would whisk me from Detroit to Chicago on a Tuesday and return me the following Thursday at a total round-trip cost of 119.00 dollars. Not a bad price by any means, but still approximately twice the cost of traveling by car. And the price didn't factor in the cost of airport parking or any additional airport charges or taxes.

Since driving is a pleasure for me, the decision to drive to Chicago on my next business trip was an easy one. My route takes me right by the Detroit airport anyway and I'd rather spend my time driving through the scenic countryside of Western Michigan than battling long lines and possible delays at the airport. In addition, it's nice to have a familiar car in Chicago and also gratifying to save on the cost of a rental.

Whether a decision like this adds up for you depends to a large extent on your starting point and ultimate destination. While it's still marginally less expensive for me to drive from Detroit to Los Angeles than it is to fly, for example, I'd never dream of making this long drive part of a business trip.

It's generally the shorter trips, on the order of 250 to 450 miles, where driving makes sense. See for yourself by comparing the cost of flying and the cost of driving from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, Washington, D.C. to Boston, or Miami to Orlando using the tools available at fuelcostcalculator.com and sidestep.com.

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