Driving or Flying? What's Faster?

two figures, one in a car, the other in a plane

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It's a familiar dilemma: You're traveling an intermediate distance—San Francisco to Reno, Sacramento to Los Angeles. Flights are available, but the drive is doable. Which option should you choose? Car travel is cheaper, period. But driving is more time-consuming. Or is it? In the late 1990s, NASA administrator Daniel Goldin concluded that for trips of less than 300 miles, and sometimes even 400 miles, flying was, overall, no faster than driving. And with post-9/11 security hassles and overbooked and cancelled flights, it's only gotten worse.

We decided to perform an experiment: VIA Senior Editor Amy Graff and her infant daughter, Paris, would fly from San Francisco to Los Angeles while writer Jennifer Reese and 6-year-old Isabel would drive. Both pairs departed at 10 a.m. and raced (no speeding allowed) to the Standard Hotel in West Hollywood. Who got there faster? Who got there more affordably? And who, in the end, had a better time?

Ready, set, go.

  • Driver 10 a.m. Minivan fully loaded with suitcase, laptop, purse, snacks, Books on Tape, and an overstuffed Barbie backpack. Pull out of driveway in a dense fog. I've heard it a million times—flying is safer than driving. But even driving in fog, I feel much calmer than I do strapped into an airplane seat.
  • Flier 10:15 a.m. Shivering in the San Francisco cold, wait for SuperShuttle. Van arrives 15 minutes late. Load up stroller, car seat, diaper bag, purse, and tiny suitcase.
  • Driver 10:25 a.m. Traffic heading east on 580 near Oakland. Reluctantly agree to listen to audiobook The Bad Beginning by children's author Lemony Snicket.
  • Flier 10:45 a.m. Arrive at San Francisco International Airport. Accidentally wait in premier class check-in line. United employee scolds me, "If you didn't have a baby, I'd send you over there," pointing to an outrageously long line. Paris starts crying.
  • Driver 11:15 a.m. I love Lemony Snicket! Isabel and I are riveted.
  • Flier 11:30 a.m. A stroller ride into the international terminal puts Paris to sleep. Scan the surprisingly gourmet options at the food court; decide on a bowl of wonton soup. Fortune cookie reads, "You are a winner." An omen?
  • Driver 12:30 p.m. Pull over at a desolate rest stop for lunch at the Apricot Tree in Firebaugh. A hot dog and cherry Jell-O for Isabel. I pick at a pile of wilted lettuce.
  • Flier 12:45 p.m. Painfully long line at security. Stroller, car seat, diaper bag, purse, and even my shoes all pass through the X-ray machine. Paris is disrupted and wakes.
  • Driver 1 p.m. Browse the kitsch in the Apricot Tree gift shop. I refuse to buy Isabel a Beanie Baby.
  • Flier 1:15 p.m. Takeoff. The roar of the engine lulls Paris to sleep but makes me anxious. An image of the plane in a nosedive enters my mind.
  • Driver 1:45 p.m. Done with Snicket, we move on to Charlotte's Web read by E.B. White. Wonderful.
  • Flier 2 p.m. Plane lands at LAX on time but bag is last to drop onto carousel.
  • Driver 2:30 p.m. "I'm so bored," Isabel moans. "You like it when I'm bored."
  • Flier 3 p.m. Shuttle to Hertz rental car agency, where there's yet another check-in line. After half-hour struggle to set up Paris's car seat, I drive to Hertz checkout exit. Man at exit alerts me that I'm in the wrong car.
  • Driver 3:15 p.m. Isabel falls asleep. Peace restored.
  • Flier 3:30 p.m. Wait in check-in line again; grapple with car seat again.
  • Driver 4 p.m. My lower back aches.
  • Flier 4:15 p.m. Arrive at the Standard. We've been traveling for six hours but time has flown by. Paris naps; I shower and iron our outfits for dinner.
  • Driver 5:30 p.m. Tired, we pull up at the hotel. The bug-spattered minivan is a crumb-filled embarrassment. Rush to room to get ready for dinner.
  • Posttrip wrap-up. 6 p.m. We share our day's experiences over dinner. Jennifer spent only $46 (not including wear on the car); Amy dropped nearly $300. Amy and Paris's day was fast and eventful but stressful and expensive; Jennifer and Isabel's journey was inexpensive and smooth though tedious and long.
  • Our final verdict: Drive.

Drive or fly? Here's what we'd do:

  • San Francisco to San Diego — Fly
  • San Francisco to Santa Barbara — Drive
  • San Francisco to Portland — Fly
  • San Francisco to Tahoe — Drive
  • Sacramento to Los Angeles — Drive
  • Redding to Los Angeles — Fly
  • Reno to Salt Lake City — Drive
  • Los Angeles to Las Vegas — Fly

Oregon

It's a familiar dilemma: You're traveling an intermediate distance—Portland to Boise, Medford to Seattle. Flights are available, but the drive is doable. Which option should you choose? Car travel is cheaper, period. But driving is more time-consuming. Or is it? In the late 1990s, NASA administrator Daniel Goldin concluded that for trips of less than 300 miles, and sometimes even 400 miles, flying was, overall, no faster than driving. And with post-9/11 security hassles and overbooked and canceled flights, it's only gotten worse. But flying is indisputably safer.

We performed an experiment: Writer David Sharp drove from Portland to Vancouver, B.C., while his wife, Oregon Home Editor Sheila De La Rosa, flew. Both left at 7:30 a.m. and raced (no speeding allowed) to the Pacific Palisades Hotel. Also, both brought along John Grisham's The Summons, David on audiobook CD and Sheila in paperback. Who got there faster? Who got there more affordably? Who got through more of the Grisham novel? Who had a better time?

By Car

 

  • 7:30 a.m. Load luggage. Toss Mabel, the dog, in backseat. Her mood: ecstatic.
  • 7:45 a.m. Drop Mabel off at kennel. Her mood: inconsolable.
  • 8 a.m. Merge onto I-5 north. Traffic crawling. Pop in Grisham CD to fend off tedium.
  • 8:10 a.m. Vancouver already! (Washington State, unfortunately, not B.C.)
  • 8:21 a.m. Share road with logging trucks and campers. Set cruise control at 70 mph.
  • 9:09 a.m. Pass exit for Mount Rainier National Park. Country music floods radio dial. Hurriedly pop in next Grisham CD.
  • 10:58 a.m. Seattle. Bumper-to-bumper traffic.
  • 11:44 a.m. McDonald's in Marysville, Wash. "Do you want fries?" First human contact.
  • 1:29 p.m. Gas up at Bellingham mini-mart. Wish I'd packed hazmat suit for the rest room.
  • 1:54 p.m. At U.S.-Canadian border, join half-mile-long line of vehicles waiting to clear customs.
  • 2:58 p.m. Customs official waves me through without inspecting my passport. So much for border security.
  • 3:04 p.m. Canadian speed limit: 100 km/hour. Yikes, metric!
  • 3:44 p.m. Arrive in Vancouver. Puzzle over meaning of blinking green lights at city intersections.
  • 4:15 p.m. Reach hotel room. Grab phone. Switch dinner reservations from restaurant across town to restaurant in hotel. Too tired to drive another mile.
  • Final verdict: Drive to save money.

By plane

  • 7:30 a.m. Racewalk to bus stop.
  • 7:38 a.m. Board bus for ride to light-rail line.
  • 8:14 a.m. Transfer to light-rail train.
  • 8:38 a.m. Arrive at airport.
  • 8:50 a.m. Become 26th person in Air Canada line, behind group of travelers whose luggage tags read beaverton christian church. this flock is going to . . . tokyo/japan!
  • 9:15 a.m. Check bag. Kill time in airport shops.
  • 10:10 a.m. Go through metal detector. Decorative metal on shoes and suede vest sets off alarm. Stress level skyrockets.
  • 10:30 a.m. Settle into seat 6C; plane takes off.
  • 10:35 a.m. Admire Mount Hood.
  • 10:48 a.m. Watch ash plume billow off Mount St. Helens as I crack open The Summons.
  • 10:51 a.m. Mount Rainier looms. Wow!
  • 11:37 a.m. Touch down in Vancouver.
  • 11:48 a.m. Present passport to customs officer. Looks at me. Looks at passport. Bombards me with questions.
  • 11:51 a.m. Another customs official sidles up. "Passport, please!" he says. More questions.
  • 12:01 p.m. Arrive at main terminal. Buy ticket for hotel shuttle.
  • 12:32 p.m. Board shuttle. Sit beside bleary-eyed woman who tells me she left South Africa 20 hours earlier.
  • 1:40 p.m. Check into hotel.
  • 1:45 p.m. Lose loafers and dive for nearest sofa. Sweet silence rings in my ears.
  • Final verdict: Fly to save time.

Posttrip Wrap-Up



Car

  • Total Time— 8 hours, 45 minutes
  • Scenery— Franchise-filled interchanges
  • Fatigue Factor— Totally tuckered
  • Worst Moment— Half-mile-long line at customs
  • Grisham Intake— 196 pages
  • Amount Spent— $32.94

Plane

  • Total Time— 6 hours, 15 minutes
  • Scenery— Volcanologist's delight
  • Fatigue Factor— Slightly frazzled
  • Worst Moment— Taking off shoes at security
  • Grisham Intake— 5 pages
  • Amount Spent— $259.55

Illustration by Melinda Beck

This article was first published in November 2003. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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