Recently my wife and I took a trip to Sacramento, departing from Chicago, a distance of 2,000 miles. Our original intention had been to fly. We even went so far as to book the tickets and make the rental car reservations. But the COVID crisis made us think twice, and we changed our minds. We decided to drive instead. This provided us a golden opportunity to compare the costs of flying versus driving 2,000 miles.
As a long time practitioner of budget travel, I have always looked for the most cost effective way to get from one place to another without regard to the amount of time required. I realize this is not the case for most people. Vacation time may be limited, and driving may not be a realistic option, but for those who can drive, the question of which is cheaper is relevant.
At first blush it may seem that driving would always be cheaper, and while that may be true for destinations that are within a day’s drive, when you are traveling 2,000 miles, you must factor in the cost of overnight lodging on the road, and then things get more interesting.
The Cost of Lodging on the Road
The average price of an overnight stay at a mid-scale hotel in the US is $90.00, down 27% since the beginning of the pandemic. In all likelihood it will go back up by the end of 2021, so for purposes of analysis, let’s assume the average price of lodging at $125.00 per night.
On a 2,000 mile road trip, the minimum number of nights in a hotel will be four, that’s two nights each way. To accomplish this, you will have to be willing to drive nine and a half hours each day, leaving early in the morning on the first day, and arriving late in the afternoon on the last day. If you are not so ambitious, figure three nights each way. Six nights altogether. By this measure, the cost of lodging will be $750.
The Cost of Fuel and Food
Your next biggest expense will be fuel. The average cost of fuel in the US is $2.39 per gallon. The average auto fuel consumption in the US is 24.9 mpg. To drive 2,000 miles will require 80 gallons of gas. Since you are driving roundtrip, that will be 160 gallons at $2.39 for a total fuel cost of $382.
You also have to eat on the road. You can hold this cost down by enjoying the complimentary breakfast at the hotel and taking your lunch with you in a cooler at an average cost of $25 each way. Dinner will require eating out six nights at an average cost of $26 per night or $156.00 for six nights. The total cost for food will be $206.00
Taken all together, the average cost of two people driving 2,000 miles is about $1,338.00.
The Cost of Airline Travel
By comparison, the biggest expense in flying is the cost of airfare. The cost will vary depending on where and when you fly. If you fly to popular hubs at low demand times, the prices can be very attractive and make flying easily more cost effective than driving. For example, if you fly from Chicago to Seattle in February of 2021, the price is under $200 roundtrip. But, really, who wants to travel to Seattle in February in the middle of a pandemic?
In our case, we were flying to Sacramento during the holidays, a peak travel time, albeit in the middle of the pandemic. The cost of our tickets was $420 roundtrip each, a total airfare of $840. The previous year in 2019 the same trip cost us $1,031.92. In all likelihood the cost will go back up to that by the end of 2021, so for purposes of analysis, let’s assume the cost of two roundtrip airline tickets to Sacramento during the holidays at $1,031.92.
The Cost of Ground Transportation
Your next biggest expense when traveling by air is the cost of a rental car. When we rent a car, we are looking for transportation, not to make an impression. Consequently, we tend to rent compact or intermediate cars, which holds down the costs. A five day rental from Sacramento during the holidays before adding insurance or other add-ons was $420.
Finally, you must add the cost of transportation to and from the airport in your city of origin. The typical cost of a cab or Uber ride to the airport in most American cities is $30. Both ways the cost is $60.
Taken all together, the average cost of two people flying 2,000 miles is about $1,511.92.
Is it Cheaper to Fly or Drive 2,000 Miles?
In the final analysis, by driving 2,000 miles from Chicago to Sacramento for the holidays, we saved $173.92 compared to the cost of flying. As I said, this will vary depending on when and where you travel, and on other factors, such as how long you rent your car for, or how much you spend on hotels while on the road.
Two factors to keep in mind, however, are the cost of airfare and the cost of gas. A decade ago, the cost of gas was 53% higher than it is now. At that price, the cost of driving 2,000 miles was $258 more than it is now. Last year, the cost of airfare was 25% higher than it is now.
The economic influences effecting oil prices are unlikely to change. Gas prices are unlikely to return to their 2011 levels. But airfare will spike as soon as travel picks up. The airlines will be hungry to recapture much of their 2020 losses, and flyers will pay the price.
Under those circumstances, for the foreseeable future, it seems, driving will be cheaper than flying, whether your destination is a day away, or whether it’s 2,000 miles.
Other Interesting Travel Tips
Check out The Unruly Stowaway to find out how to ship large items 2,000 miles at a much lower cost than FedEx or UPS, and other great travel hacks
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Bergen, Amy. “The True Cost of Eating Out (And How to Save),” Money Under 30, January 20, 2010, Website
“Fuel Economy in Automobiles,” Wikipedia, acquired 20 January 2021, Website
Lock, S. “Monthly average daily rate of United States hotels from 2011 to 2020,” Statistica, 12 January 2021, Website
Sacramento Road Sign, The Dispatch
Hampton Inn, Malcolm Logan
Gas Station at Night, Franco Folini
Air Travel, Daria Nepriakhina
Taxi Cab, Kingsporthumor.com