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By The Way
Detours with locals. Travel tips you can trust.

Should you fly or drive this summer? Here’s how to decide.

Prices and complications are high almost everywhere. So how do you know how to travel?

(Video: Washington Post Illustration/iStock)

No matter how you travel this summer, it’s complicated — from travelers flooding airports and roads to literal floods canceling vacations.

So what’s the better option – flying or driving? With high gas prices and labor shortages at airports, picking your mode of transportation can feel like a double-edged sword. On one hand, you have traffic, fuel costs and a rental car shortage to deal with when driving. On the other, you have flight cancellations, long lines and high ticket prices.

“The decision of which mode to take depends on personal circumstances, the distance involved, and the need for speediness,” said Andrew Gross, a spokesperson for AAA. For example, if you only have a few days but need to go across the country, air travel is the move.

Much of the decision can come down to preference and distance. Here’s how to weigh whether you should hit the road or brave the airports.

The costs

You might be experiencing sticker shock at the pump, but unfortunately, flights aren’t cheap right now either, thanks to an increase in demand as pandemic restrictions eased.

“There are two primary factors you should consider when deciding whether to fly or drive — per-person price and total travel time,” said Scott Keyes, founder of Scott’s Cheap Flights.

It is important to break down how much each option costs. For example, if a trip to Cincinnati is $150 for a round-trip flight or $200 total in gas, flying comes out ahead if you’re flying solo, Keyes said. And there are other road-trip factors to consider, such as an overnight stop at a hotel or Airbnb if needed, plus meals.

Summer road trip? Our gas calculator can help you see your costs.

If you’re traveling with a family of four, however, then flying would be three times more expensive. “The most financially intelligent decision for summer vacation at this point would be to drive somewhere a few hours from home,” he said. “There are almost no cheap summer flights left, so flying is not the best financial choice for the summer.”

Kayak launched a summer trip calculator to help travelers decide this very question of driving or flying. The tool asks for your destination and dates, and then calculates the distance and time; how much fuel you’ll need and the cost; and rental car pricing, if you need one. Then you can compare it to flight prices to decide on the smarter decision.

The value of your time

While the aforementioned flight to Cincinnati may only take 90 minutes, it is important to account for the time in transit to the airport, going through security, waiting for your flight, and getting to your hotel or house from the airport, Keyes said.

“A 90-minute flight may actually mean five hours or more of total travel time,” he said. If driving to Cincinnati would take you double this time, it might be worth it to fly. But if driving there would only take you a few hours, driving is the move. And that’s only if your flights are still on schedule.

Summer travel is chaos. Here are 8 things to know.

If you are flying, the Transportation Security Administration recommends travelers arrive two hours ahead of their domestic flight and three before international. Even if you like to cut your airport arrival time close, now is not the time.

The airport complications

Flying can come with more situations out of your control, especially this summer. Labor shortages everywhere from flight crews to airport restaurants have caused chaos at airports lately. And because airlines are short-staffed and have cut flights, summer storm delays can complicate things more than they did in the past. So take all this into consideration when booking flights.

“Americans are not fazed by high airline ticket and fuel prices as they rush to ramp up travel that’s been curtailed for two years,” Gross said. This makes air travel chaotic. “In many instances, a trip of a few hundred miles might make sense to go by car versus flying right now, given the struggles the airlines are having dealing with volume,” he added.

The dos and don’ts of flying this summer

Deciding when to fly over driving also depends on the weekend you’re traveling.TSA said the Friday before July Fourth was the busiest day for air travel since February 2020, with nearly 2.5 million passengers screened. Over the holiday weekend more than 1,400 flights were canceled, which was down from Memorial Day weekend and the weekend of Father’s Day and Juneteenth.

To avoid these complications as much as possible, weigh whether you can afford — both time-wise and financially — to fly early in the day. You are less likely to be canceled and will have more options for rebooking if you are.

The pandemic risks

Flying may still not be a realistic option for medically vulnerable people or children under 5 who aren’t fully vaccinated yet. Plus, maskless crowded spaces can be anxiety-inducing for anyone.

The risk of contracting the coronavirus while on an airplane is low, said Joseph Allen, an associate professor at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

That is a function of “great ventilation and filtration while the systems are running,” he said, except during boarding and deplaning because systems aren’t usually running at that time. He recommended wearing a high-grade mask that fits well if a traveler is feeling concerned.

You don’t have to wear a mask on planes. Do it anyway, experts say.

Allen has studied airplane air quality for more than a decade and said although transmission can happen on an airplane, it is rare.

“Even if others aren’t masked, you’ll be well-protected,” he added. “One-way masking is very effective.” He also said it is not worth it to avoid drinking water. “The ventilation system is doing its job during the flight, and hydration is really important to staying healthy, especially on an airplane where there is low humidity,” Allen said.

In airports, however, the coronavirus exposure risk is higher, especially if fellow travelers aren’t masked. It is also important to note that masks are no longer required on flights, and if that makes you uncomfortable, driving is probably a better option.

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