Planes, Trains, Cars and Buses: We Do the Math to Find the Cheapest Way to Travel Per Mile
After the lean years of the early COVID-19 pandemic, travel bounced back in 2022 in a big way. More than 43% of American adults (about 112 million people), are planning to travel by airplane, car, bus or train this holiday season, per a Thanksgiving travel survey from The Vacationer.
If you are traveling a long distance, it’s hard to beat air travel for convenience and price, but the considerations get trickier with shorter trips. Time spent in security and boarding could be spent cruising down the road (or rail).
The number of people traveling is another big factor — airplane, train and bus fares are all per person, while car prices generally stay the same when you add more passengers. Luckily for you, we did the math for traveling by airplane, car, train or bus for four of the most popular travel routes in America, and the results are enlightening.
Cost of airplanes, cars, trains and buses per mile
|Median cost per mile|
*Because of limited train service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas, and Atlanta and Orlando, the media cost per mile for trains was calculated using only the routes from New York to Chicago and Boston to Washington, DC.
If you’re traveling by yourself on a major airline route, it’s always fastest to fly, and it’s also often the cheapest method. Only bus fares dip below airfare for any of our routes, and the overall median cost per mile for flights easily beats automobile and train transportation too.
However, if you’ve got a traveling companion or two (or if you need a car at your destination), driving becomes a more attractive option financially. And while buses might give a slight discount over airplanes, they’ll take at least twice the time. Read on to see how much each mode of travel costs for each of our four weekend journeys, and how to calculate the best way to travel to save money.
For more We Do the Math tips, read how much you can save by shopping at Trader Joe’s.
How we did the travel math for transportation costs
13, 2023 (with the caveat that prices may vary greatly depending on time of year and day of the week). I used Amtrak for all one-way train fares, and I searched FlixBus, megabus and Greyhound for the lowest one-way bus fares using the same January date. I calculated per mile rates by dividing by the distance between cities per Google Maps.
For driving costs, I used AAA average gas prices on Nov.
16, 2023 for the states where gas fill-ups would be most likely, then calculated an exact number by simulating an average small American car with a 15-gallon gas tank getting 25.4 miles per gallon. After calculating the gas fees, I added in 9.68 cents times the number of miles for an additional maintenance cost, per AAA.
How much does it cost to fly, drive or take a bus or train from Los Angeles to Las Vegas?
|Total cost||Cost per mile|
|£42||16 cents per mile|
|£84||32 cents per mile|
|£114||42 cents per mile|
|£20||7 cents per mile|
It’s about 270 miles from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, and the quick trip is one of the most popular flying routes in the country. The flight generally takes a little more than an hour (or 2.5 hours with airport security and boarding), while driving will take a little less than four hours at an average driving speed of 70 miles per hour.
Using a departure date and time of Friday, Jan.
13, 2023 in the afternoon, we were able to find several flights for as low as £42. That fare is about half of what it would cost to drive (£84) using a current California gas price of £5.40 a gallon, while also including AAA’s standard of 9.68 cents per mile for maintenance costs. However, driving in a car is the only travel option that gets cheaper per person as more people travel with you.
If you’ve got four people driving with you from LA to Las Vegas, you’re suddenly each paying half of what it would cost to fly.
If you’ve got extra time, a bus can get you from Los Angeles to Las Vegas for half the price of flying.
Train fare from LA to Las Vegas isn’t quite fair to compare, since there’s no direct service. You can take an Amtrak train to Oxnard, California, and then transfer to a bus, but it will cost five times more than a standard bus. Speaking of buses, we found several £20 fares on both Greyhound and FlixBus.
If you’re looking for the absolutely cheapest way to get from Los Angeles to Las Vegas, it’s hard to beat that bus trip, though it will take at least five hours.
How much does it cost to fly, drive or take a bus or train from Atlanta to Orlando, Florida?
|Total cost||Cost per mile|
|£49||11 cents per mile|
|£98||22 cents per mile|
|£169||38 cents per mile|
|£49||11 cents per mile|
The drive from Atlanta down to the home of Disney World is a popular route and a manageable 439 miles straight down I-75 till you veer left at Lake Panasoffkee. It’s also the seventh busiest flight route in America, per Jetline Travel. If you’re looking to make that trip from Georgia to Florida, you have plenty of options for flights, trains and buses.
By surveying Skiplagged, momondo and Travelocity, we found a few £49 flights for the afternoon of Friday, Jan.
13, 2023. That’s twice as cheap as driving, if you’re going solo. Using the current average gas prices in Georgia and Florida, you’ll pay £55.44 in gas, plus another £42.50 in maintenance costs.
Bring a passenger with you, and your cost per person will be about exactly the same as flying. Unfortunately, the train isn’t much of an option for southern travel either. In order to take an Amtrak train from Atlanta to Orlando, you’d need to take a multi-day trip that goes northeast to Greensboro, North Carolina, and from there down to Orlando, more than doubling the travel distance.
You can do it, but it will take two to three days and cost at least £169. A Greyhound bus costs about the same as airfare: £49. However, while a typical flight from Atlanta to Orlando takes an hour and a half (or about 3.5 hours with security and transportation factored in), a bus will arrive in about eight hours.
How much does it cost to fly, drive or take a bus or train from New York City to Chicago?
|Total cost||Cost per mile|
|£86||11 cents per mile|
|£248||33 cents per mile|
|£90||12 cents per mile|
|£110||14 cents per mile|
Connecting the two biggest financial metropolitan areas of the eastern US, the New York to Chicago route is always among the most popular flights.
Even though it’s the longest trip in our comparison — 790 miles — the train rates aren’t much more than flying. You can get a direct train from New York City to Chicago for the afternoon of Friday, Jan.
13, 2023 right now for £90 on Amtrak. The trip takes about 19 hours.
However, even that competitive train price can’t beat flying. Flights out of New York airports on that Friday afternoon are currently hanging out at £86, and those flights will get you there in a little more than 2.5 hours (or about five hours considering security, boarding and transportation to and from the airport). The bus won’t help you much here.
Current prices for Greyhound trips from New York to Chicago on a Friday afternoon are £110, and your trip will take just as long as the train.
Driving solo might cost more than flying, but you can set your own pace and use your car at your destination.
And what about driving? It’s pretty much a straight shot across six states on I-80, but the longer your trip, the more gas prices will eat at your wallet. Using average gas prices from New York, Ohio and Indiana, we calculate that you’d need to pay £174 in gas and £74 in maintenance costs for £248 total.
You’d want at least two other people with you for the road trip to cost about the same as flying. One of the biggest factors in deciding whether to fly or drive when traveling is whether or not you need a vehicle at your destination. Renting a car for the weekend in Chicago right now will cost you at least £300 and up to £1,000 or more for a large or luxury vehicle.
Those prices for rental cars make it a financial no-brainer to drive if you need a car on your trip, and can afford the extra time to get there. (I’m not even gonna get into the calculus of Uber/Lyft/taxis vs. public transit vs. storing and parking your own car.)
Is there any US route where it’s cheaper to take the train? What about Boston to Washington, DC?
|Total cost||Cost per mile|
|£73||17 cents per mile|
|£109||25 cents per mile|
|£74||17 cents per mile|
|£59||13 cents per mile|
When you’re talking about the 440-mile journey from Boston to Washington, DC, the price of airfare and train fare are nearly identical. You can take the Acela — Amtrak’s fastest, with speeds up to 150 miles per hour — from Boston to Washington in less than seven hours for a little more than £70.
If you’re on the Acela line — which has 14 stops in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Washington, DC — you’ll find competitive train prices down to DC and back up to Boston. Your flight from Boston to DC would cost about the same for a one-way ticket on a Friday afternoon and take about one hour and 40 minutes (or about four actual hours with airport transportation, security and boarding processes). It’s certainly possible that you could find a train ticket for Boston to Washington, DC, that’s cheaper than airfare.
In fact, I found several for weekend and weekday dates. Like all of the other routes, driving ends up costing a little more once you factor in the 9-plus cents per mile maintenance costs. Filling up in Massachusetts and then just a little gas in Maryland will get you from Boston to DC at £66 for gas and £43 for maintenance for a total of £109 — definitely a bargain if you have traveling companions.
Super bargain hunters should keep an eye on FlixBus. The Greyhound competitor was offering a £59 rate from several Boston stations to DC at the time of this article. You’ll pay for that £15 in savings, though, since the trip takes 10 to 11 hours.
The bottom line on the cheapest way to travel
When deciding on a mode of transport for a trip, you’ll have a lot of personal factors to consider, but some constants emerged from our calculations.
If you’re traveling alone on a major route, it’s hard to beat flying. Buses were only cheaper for two of our routes, and they generally took several hours longer. Trains might provide a change of pace (and scenery), but they only really make sense if you’re on the Acela line in the US Northeast.
Taking a train at any longer distances will increase your travel time dramatically for no cost savings.
Driving a car makes the most sense if you have multiple passengers or need a car at your destination, but as your trip gets longer, flying becomes more and more financially advantageous.
To glean more insights into calculating financial decisions, read about how much more it costs to buy organic produce.