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Should you fly or drive on your summer vacation?

Photo: iStockphoto

The economic malaise of the past few years has brought new words and expressions into the American vernacular, among them “frugal fatigue” and “staycation.” In fact, staycations (vacations spent at or near home), became so common in the tightened economy that the term was added to the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary.

However, as “frugal fatigue” implies, Americans are just plain tired of scrimping and pinching to live on a budget. So, if you just can’t resist an actual vacation getaway this year, what’ s the cheaper option: flying, or driving?

It used to be that driving was an instant way to save money on a trip, particularly for a traveling family. Just one year ago, that may have been true–but prices have climbed quickly. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration ( EIA ), the average price for regular unleaded gas was $3.96 per gallon, as of May 2, 2011. That figure represents a climb of $1.05 per gallon on the East Coast, in just one year. In the Midwest, conditions are even worse: gas prices have increased in the past year there by almost $1.13.

Air travel hasn’t exactly become more affordable, or convenient, either.

Air fares increased by five percent in the first three months of 2010, according to the Department of Transportation. The average plane ticket now costs $328. Don’t forget the “extras” that airlines started charging for back in 2008, like fees for bags, refreshments, and even pillows.

There are many variables to consider when deciding whether to fly or drive to your vacation destination, including where you are traveling to and from, duration of the trip, flexibility around your plans, and the number of travelers.

The first basic step in weighing the cost of flying over driving is to assume the cost of gas and mileage, based on the fuel efficiency of the vehicle making the road trip.  AAA offers a fuel price calculator that simplifies those calculations.

For the sake of analysis, assume a family of four (“The Smiths”), are taking a vacation from Cleveland, Ohio to Orlando, Florida, and that they’ll drive a Toyota RAV4. According to AAA’s calculations, their round trip vacation to travel the 2,042 miles will cost roughly $375 in fuel.

By contrast, the cheapest airfare available for one passenger to fly from Cleveland to Orlando is $219 on United Airlines.  Flying the family of four would equal about $876. Factor in the costs of potential baggage fees ($100), and airport parking or a shuttle service, and costs start to creep beyond $1,000.

However, there are intangible costs to consider when driving to a vacation destination. The plane ticket is a direct flight that gets the Smith family to their destination in a little over 2 hours and 16 minutes. (Assuming no travel disruptions). By contrast, the drive one-way will take the Smiths about 15 hours, not including stops for sleeping, bathroom breaks, and meals.  Herein lies the conundrum of the “to fly or drive” question. What’s time really worth?

One way to calculate the cost of your time is to base it on professional compensation. Assume that Mr. and Mrs. Smith are both taking paid vacation days from work in order to take the vacation. If both are paid $30 an hour, the “value” of their time in a typical eight hour day is $240. With that in mind, the time spent driving becomes less cost effective, when both are spending nearly two full workdays in the car to travel each way. The elder Smith’s time spent in the car round-trip is worth about $900.  Add the $375 cost of fuel to that, and a driving trip actually costs around $1,275, not counting the costs of meals.

Mary Song, founder of travel flash sale site Yuupon, provides this standard rule regarding whether it’s cheaper to fly or drive: car trips that are four hours or less will generally always be cheaper than flying, when you factor in the drive to the airport, advance time, flight, and deplaning. She also advises travelers to consider whether or not they will require a rental car at their destination.

Song also recommends considering Amtrak trains depending on the location of your travels, because they are usually less expensively than flying, and do not require that paying for gas or putting mileage on a vehicle.

Robert Reid, Lonely Planet’s US travel editor, suggests that travelers going to pedestrian- friendly east coast cities consider the bus, explaining that service providers like Megabus and Boltbus are expanding budget bus services that connect regularly between cities like Manhattan, Boston, Philadelphia, Washington D.C, Pittsburgh and Toronto. Reid tells travelers they could “spend a happy 10 to 14 days hopping around a few of these cities and never need a car. Or the gas.”

If you’re put off by the thought of bus travel, keep in mind that this form of transportation has gotten a serious upgrade in the past few years. RedCoach, a luxury ground transportation provider in the southeast, offers travelers amenities like reclining leather chairs, WiFi, power outlets and flat screens. Cynthia Kranek, a rep for the company explains that RedCoach buses are equipped with amenities perfect for families and business travelers alike, offering plenty of options for “in-ride” entertainment, and all the technology needed for working while traveling. RedCoach provides service to 12 markets, including Orlando, Miami, and parts of Georgia.

Stephanie Taylor Christensen is a former financial services marketer based in Columbus, OH. The founder of Wellness On Less, she also writes on small business, consumer interest, wellness, career and personal finance topics.