What’s The Best Way To Travel On Vacation? – Cost And Time Considerations

As the old song says, there is no place like home to vacation. But judging by the statistics, for millions of Americans, “home” means somewhere other than where they live year-round.

Nationwide, the number of long-distance trips (at least 50 miles each way) increases 54% on Thanksgiving weekend and 23% on Christmas Day, according to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics. of the New Year. Most of this increase comes from people traveling to visit friends and family.

For Americans, driving is by far the most popular way to get home on vacation. More than nine out of ten long-distance trips for Thanksgiving and Christmas are made by car. Air travel accounts for only 5-6% of all trips, and trains and buses represent less than 3%.

Driving is an attractive option for vacation travel because it is cheap and convenient. Gasoline and tolls are much cheaper than plane tickets, especially for the whole family. Plus, you can go out at your own pace and carry all the luggage the trunk can hold. Still, driving is a fairly slow and uncomfortable way to travel, especially on long trips with children.

Of course, many vacationers don’t really have a choice in this regard. If you live in San Francisco and your family lives in Boston, you either have to fly to visit them or spend several days in transit. And for short trips of 100 miles or less, flying isn’t really an option at all. Even if you could get such a short flight, you would spend more time getting to the airport and checking in than it would take to get straight to your destination.

But for trips of moderate duration, say between 100 and 1,000 miles, the choice is a little more murky. There are a lot of different factors to balance: the cost of the trip, the time involved, safety and convenience. And for environmentally conscious travelers, there’s also the question of how much air pollution it produces.

So, given all of this, what really is the best way to travel?

To answer this question, let’s take a look at two different vacation trips. The first is a couple who take a weeklong trip from New Jersey to Indianapolis, just like my husband and I do every Christmas. And the second is a family of four who travel from Boston to New Jersey for the weekend, just like my sister’s family does on Thanksgiving. Comparing how the different methods compare to us can give you an idea of ​​how they are likely to compare to you.


The cost of a dollar trip is fairly easy to calculate. For travel by plane, train or bus, you can consult the price of a ticket. To drive, you can multiply the number of miles by $ 0.54, the standard rate per mile set by the Internal Revenue Service. This rate takes into account the cost of gasoline and the wear and tear of the car.

However, a long trip has other costs besides the actual transportation. For example, most people cannot travel several hours without stopping to eat. Air travel may also include charges for “extras” such as checked baggage. And road trips often involve road tolls.

So let’s see how all of these costs add up for our two sample trips. We will take each mode of transport in order: flight, car, bus and train.

Flight costs

New Jersey to Indianapolis
To calculate how much it would cost me and my husband to fly to Indianapolis for a week, I used BeFrugal’s Fly or Drive calculator. He estimated the total cost of the trip to be approximately $ 1,249, including $ 1,024 for two round-trip tickets, $ 100 for baggage fees and $ 125 for parking and airport transportation.

However, this does not include the cost of food. We would pay about $ 8 each for a meal or snack on each leg of the trip, bringing the total cost of the trip to $ 1,281.

Boston to New Jersey
The trip from Boston to New Jersey is shorter, so the cost per ticket is lower. But my sister’s family is four, so tickets for this short trip would still be $ 1,206. They would also pay $ 200 for luggage and $ 80 for airport parking and transportation.

Getting back from the airport is another expense. Since there are four of them, two of whom have to get into car seats, they couldn’t just get into my dad’s little car. They would need a rental car, which would cost an additional $ 200.

Finally, there is the cost of meals. With two young children, even a small jump is too much to go without food. They would therefore have to add about $ 64 for these, which would bring the cost of the trip to $ 1,750. In total, this short trip for four costs significantly more than my husband and I would pay to cover more than twice the distance.

Savings on air travel
Of course, there are ways to reduce the cost of both trips. For example, we could:

  • Find cheaper flights. Both families could probably travel more cheaply by taking a less direct route or passing through a different airport. However, this would also lengthen the journey. It could be good for me and my husband, but it would be difficult for my sister’s family. With young children, a longer trip only increases the risk of breakdown.
  • Avoid checking the bags. Airlines charge around $ 25 per trip for each piece of checked baggage. So, by traveling only with hand luggage, you can save around $ 50 per person. You can also skip baggage claim at the airport and avoid any risk of baggage loss. However, traveling light can be difficult when you have kids (or holiday gifts).
  • Bring food. Food on planes is notoriously expensive. By packing our own snacks for the trip, we could save $ 30-60. But unfortunately that’s only a drop in the bucket compared to the total cost of the trip.

Driving costs

According to the Fly or Drive calculator, a round trip from New Jersey to Indianapolis costs around $ 189. This includes about $ 95 for gasoline, $ 67 for wear and tear on our car, and $ 27 for tolls. The tolls are a little cheaper for us because we get a discount for our E-ZPass. Without this, the total cost of the trip would be $ 293. Again, this does not include meal expenses, which add about $ 20 for each leg of the trip, bringing our total to $ 229.

The shorter trip from Boston to New Jersey is also cheaper. It costs around $ 50 for gasoline, $ 33 for normal wear and tear, and $ 12 for tolls. This is the price with an E-ZPass. Without one, the tolls would cost an additional $ 7.

A shorter trip also allows you to drive without stopping to eat. All the family needs is about $ 5 worth of snacks to eat in the car. In total, the car ride costs $ 100, much less than the plane.

Again, there are steps that could make these two trips even cheaper. For example, we could take our own food in the car so that we don’t have to stop to eat. We could also borrow different

Travel costs by bus or train

New Jersey to Indianapolis
To find information on bus and train travel from New Jersey to Indianapolis, I looked to Wanderu, a travel site that searches for deals from bus and train companies. He found a way to get there on a series of Amtrak trains for $ 528 round trip.

However, we had to take our train from a parking lot and walk about nine miles from our house. To get there, you would have to take a separate commuter train with a fare of $ 2.25 one way. This would add a total of $ 9 to the cost of the trip.

In addition, to take the commuter train, we had to go to the nearest station. We couldn’t just drive and leave our car there as there is no long term parking. So if a friend couldn’t drive us, we had to use Uber for $ 6.55 each way.

Finally, there is the cost of meals. Many long-distance trains have a cafeteria car where you can purchase meals for around $ 10 per person. For such a long trip, we had to have at least three meals each way. This would bring the total cost of the trip to around $ 670.

As for the buses, Wanderu could not find any. However, when I checked out Greyhound, I found a bus that could take us from Newark to Indianapolis for $ 348 round trip. We also had to take a separate train to Newark for $ 36 round trip, plus an Uber to the station for $ 13 one way. Add $ 60 for checked baggage and about $ 80 for meals, and the trip would cost $ 537 in total.

Boston to New Jersey
For the trip from Boston to New Jersey, Wanderu was able to find many more options. One route involved taking an Amtrak train from Boston to New York, then taking a Megabus from there to Princeton.

At that point, someone would have to come and pick up the family for the return trip to my parents. In fact, they should be put together in two separate cars, as they could not all fit into one with the driver. Fortunately, it’s only a short drive, so taking two cars wouldn’t be too convenient.

This route would cost $ 117 per person, one way. They would also have to pay a total of $ 9 each way for the subway ride to and from Boston station. And in New York, they would have to take a cab between stations, which would add about $ 8 more. So for the four of us, the round trip would cost $ 970.

Wanderu also found a route that only Megabus used. It was cheaper: $ 36 per person, one way. However, they are still expected to change stations in New York and should still arrive at Boston station. The total round trip would therefore be $ 322.

The bottom line of cost

For both journeys, driving is by far the cheapest option. For us from New Jersey to Indianapolis, the cost of driving is less than one-fifth the cost of the flight. For my sister’s family, who travel from Boston to New Jersey, the price difference is even more dramatic. They can make the trip by car for about 6% of what it would cost to fly.

Train and bus travel fall somewhere in between. For us, traveling by train would cost about half the price of the plane, but almost three times as much as the car. The bus would cost around 42% more than the plane, but more than twice as much as driving.

For my sister’s family, the train plus bus trip costs 55% more than the plane, a little more expensive than for us. The route of all buses is much better, at 18% of the cost of the flight. However, it still costs more than three times as much as driving.


The biggest advantage of flying is that it is much faster than traveling by car, bus or train. However, when you fly, your time in the air is only part of your trip. You also need to get to and from the airport, go through check-in, wait between flights, and collect your luggage. Add all that up and traveling by plane can take longer than driving, at least for short trips.

Of course, the same delays also apply to buses and trains. Also, trains and buses often make many stops, so you spend more time waiting for other people to get on and off. Also, unless you live near a train station or stop, it is impossible to find a train or bus that goes directly from your home to your destination. Most take a roundabout route that costs you extra time.

It’s time to go

According to the Fly or Drive calculator, a flight from Newark Airport to Indianapolis takes just over two hours. However, my husband and I would also need two hours to get to the airport and check in. At the other extreme, it would take us a little over an hour to collect our luggage and travel from the airport to his parents’ house. That puts our total travel time at five hours and 12 minutes.

My sister and her family have a shorter flight, a little over an hour. But it would take an hour and 40 minutes to get to the airport and check in, and it would take over two and a half hours to get out of the airport, get a rental car, and drive to my house. parents. . In total, your journey time would be five hours and 24 minutes. So your short trip would actually take longer than ours

It’s time to drive

The Fly or Drive calculator says it takes 10 hours and 29 minutes to get from New Jersey to Indianapolis. But in our experience, it’s a bit optimistic. Usually we run into traffic jams at some point in the trip which adds about half an hour to our driving time. Add an extra hour for meal and toilet breaks, and the trip typically lasts 12 hours in total.

For my sister’s family, the total driving time is 4 hours 43 minutes door to door. They need to make a few stops along the way, but only briefly. Thus, with a half hour break, the total journey time is 5 hours and 13 minutes. In fact, it takes a little less time to drive than to fly.

Time by bus or train

This is where we start to see the real downside of traveling long distances by train. Our trip to Indianapolis would involve four separate trains, plus a cab ride to the station, plus an elevator to the house at the other end. The total door-to-door time would be 26 hours. It’s true, it would take more than a full day for a trip that could be done by car in 12 hours.

The bus ride is almost as bad. We would spend 18 hours and 35 minutes on the bus, each way. We would also spend 30 minutes on the connecting train, plus another 10 minutes to get to the station. Add 20 minutes for the return trip at the end, and the trip would take a total of 19 hours and 35 minutes.

For the shorter trip from Boston, traveling by train seems a bit better. The train and bus ride would take seven hours and 25 minutes, including a two-hour layover in New York City. The bus ride only takes the same time.

However, the family should also take the metro to get to the train or bus station. Counting the time to walk to the station and wait for trains at both ends would add about 30 minutes to the journey. There would also be a 20 minute car ride at the end. In total, the door-to-door trip would take eight hours and 15 minutes.

The end result on time

Plane is clearly the fastest way to get from New Jersey to Indianapolis. It takes less than half the time to drive and less than a quarter to travel by train.

However, for the shorter trip from Boston to New Jersey, the plane has no real driving advantage. It takes about the same time in both cases. But even for this shorter trip, the train or bus is clearly the slower trip. Add three more hours to the trip, increasing its duration by over 50%.


Comparing the cost of the trip and the time is pretty straightforward. Either way, it boils down to a single number: the total cost of the trip in dollars and cents or the total time in hours and minutes.

But the convenience is much more difficult to understand. Rather than just a number, it is a combination of many different factors, such as time of travel, your level of comfort, and the stress involved. How much weight you give to each of these factors is in part a matter of personal preference. Some people want to be comfortable at all costs, while others are willing to sacrifice comfort in order to control their


To compare the convenience of our two sample trips, I looked at each of these factors separately. Then I added them all up to decide which form of travel is most convenient for each trip. However, keep in mind that this is an area where your mileage may vary.

While the train ride from New Jersey to Indianapolis takes more than a full day, weather isn’t my biggest issue. The real problem is how this time is distributed.

To begin with, you would have to get to the station before 9 a.m. M. To catch the train from 9:07 am. Then we had to take a second train at Park-and-Ride station. This train would take us to Philadelphia, where we will have to wait an hour and 40 minutes for our next connection. This third train would leave us around 8 p.m. in Pittsburgh, where we’ll have to wait over seven hours to catch our last train, at 3:40 a.m.

The schedule for the shortest trip from Boston to New Jersey isn’t that bad, but it’s still inconvenient. To begin with, the family had to leave the house at 7:00 am to make sure they got to the station in time to catch a train at 8:05 am Then, when they got to New York, they had to jump in a cab. to go to another station and take the bus.

Once at the other station, they would have to wait over an hour for the bus to be ready to leave. And when they finally got to Princeton, everyone would have to wait a little longer for someone to come and pick them up. Looking at these timetables, it’s easy to see why trains and buses are the least popular way to travel long distances in this country.

This is probably the biggest advantage of taking a long road trip – you have full control over your schedule. You can get up and hit the road whenever you want, instead of waking up at dawn to catch an early train. If you leave a few minutes late, it just means you are a few minutes late; there is no chance that you will miss your trip and not arrive at all. And on the road, you can stop and take a break whenever you want instead of waiting to get to the next station.


In many parts of this country there is simply no train or bus station. They are fairly common in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest, but in the middle of the country you will only find them in the larger cities. So if you don’t live near one of these cities, taking a train or bus anywhere is totally impractical.

Even between large cities, there are a very limited number of bus and train lines. So if you want to travel from, say, Cleveland to Detroit, you might have to go all the way to Chicago and then go back. Of course, many small towns don’t have an airport either, but there is often some sort of shuttle service that can get you to the nearest one.

For me and my husband, it’s technically possible to get to Indianapolis by bus or train, but it’s not easy. For my sister’s family, it’s easier, but still a lot more complicated than traveling by car. On the other hand, air travel is easy to book for both of you.


Spending time in a train is much more comfortable than sitting in a car. Unless the train is unusually full, you have a lot more room to lie down and relax. You can also get up at any time to stretch your legs, go to the bathroom or have a snack in the cafeteria car. It is even possible to book a “roomette” with a bed for a long distance trip.

Buses and planes, on the other hand, are even less comfortable than a car. Not only are you stuck on your set, but you’re stuck with a bunch of strangers instead of your own family. If you want to get up you have to wait for the seat belt signal and then climb over a group of people to get to the small

Baggage limits

When you have a lot of Christmas presents to carry, space is important. If you are traveling by car, you can take whatever is in the trunk. On trains, you can usually check one piece of baggage for free and more if you’re willing to pay more. Buses and planes are the most restrictive, typically charging more for more than just a purse.

In addition, planes have an additional problem: there is always the risk that your checked baggage will be lost or damaged. On a bus or train, you can usually keep an eye on the loading of your bags and make sure everything ends up in its place.

For me and my husband, this is one of the biggest benefits of driving. Traveling by bus, train or plane would require us to send most of our Christmas presents separately rather than taking them with us.

My sister’s family doesn’t need to bring Thanksgiving gifts, but they do need to bring enough things for four, including child safety seats. When they take their own car, the seats accompany them automatically. If they had to take a bus, train or plane, they would have to transport them separately, which would be very complicated.


When you are driving a car, there is not much else that you can do at the same time. You can listen to the radio or chat with your passengers if you have one, but there is nothing you can do to take your gaze or attention away from the road.

But when you travel by bus, train, or plane, you can do a lot of other things with your time. You can read a book, take a nap, check your emails, or even bring a laptop and get to work. Traveling by train gives you the most options to keep you busy, as trains tend to have many outlets and in many cases free Wi-Fi. It’s harder to connect your devices on a bus and on an airplane, you can’t use your cellular connection at all when you’re in the air.

For our long trip to Indiana, being able to play cards or check emails would certainly pass the time faster. But even in the car, we can chat or play conversation games like “twenty questions”, so it’s not that important. It would probably be more useful for my sister’s family as the children could play with their toys on the train. Still, they had to make sure all those toys were put away before they arrived, which would add to the stress of the trip.


Each type of trip has its own sources of stress. In a car, the main source is the driving itself. You have to fight your way through traffic, avoid accidents, and put up with other drivers’ speakers and radios.

On a bus, someone else takes care of the actual driving, but you still have to deal with traffic noise and delays. On top of that, you have to worry about taking your bus and making your connections on time. On a train, you can avoid traffic altogether, but you still have all the problems keeping to a schedule.

When traveling, you have the same concerns about planning, plus the added hassle of getting into (and getting around) the airport, checking baggage, checking security, and more. For many people, this makes the flight the most stressful of all.

For my family, driving is the least stressful form of transportation. The freedom to be able to set your own hours and stop when you like best compensates for the inconvenience of driving. For my sister’s family, the benefits of driving are even greater. The hassle of traveling by plane, train and bus is quite painful with just two people. With two children in line, the trip would be even more stressful.

The end result of convenience

In terms of comfort, traveling by car has many advantages. First of all, you can travel from any point on the map to any other without having to worry about the routes available. You can also set your own schedules and carry all the luggage your car can hold.

On the other hand, driving is not as comfortable as traveling by train. It also doesn’t give you as much freedom during the trip. Traveling by train allows you to do more with your commute time, while driving time is practically a waste of time.

Overall, it feels like a switch between driving and traveling by train. It’s basically whether you can get a train that goes straight from your


Flying makes a lot of people nervous. They can’t get on a plane without worrying about the idea that it might crash. Driving, on the other hand, is something most of us do every day without a second thought. We’re so used to it that we don’t see it as a threat.

But if you look at the actual statistics, that way of thinking is completely reversed. Mile for mile, it is actually much safer to travel by plane than by car.

Comparison of safety rates

The best way to compare the safety of different forms of travel is to count the number of fatalities per passenger and per kilometer. A passenger mile is a mile traveled by a person. So if 1,000 people make a 1,000 mile trip, that makes a total of one million passenger miles. If any of those 100 people are killed in an accident, the trip fatality rate is one death for every million kilometers traveled.

A 2013 study in Research in Transportation Economics calculated this figure for several different modes of travel. Here’s how they stack up:

  • Flight. Flying in a commercial aircraft is without a doubt the safest way to travel. The fatality rate is 0.07 for every billion passenger miles flown. In other words, for every 100 billion people who travel by plane, there is less than one death. If you drove 500 miles a day for an entire year, your risk of dying would be only 1 in 85,000.
  • Bus trip. Bus crashes kill around 40 people a year, and 10 of those 40 are drivers and others who work for the bus company. This represents a total of 0.11 fatalities per billion miles per passenger. This makes bus travel 65% more dangerous than flying, but it’s still very safe overall.
  • Train journey. Most of those killed by trains in this country are pedestrians, drivers or railway workers who are struck by trains. If you count all of these deaths, the fatality rate for long-haul trains is 0.43 per billion passengers and miles. However, if you only look at the people who take the trains, the fatality rate drops to 0.15 per billion passenger-miles. This makes train travel almost, but not entirely, as safe as bus travel.
  • Conduct. Traveling by car or truck is the most dangerous way to travel. Drivers and passengers have a fatality rate of 7.3 per billion passenger-miles. That’s 67 times the risk of traveling by bus and over 100 times the risk of flying. Only motorcycles are riskier, causing 212 deaths per billion kilometers per passenger.

Stay safe on the road

While driving is riskier than other modes of travel, it is still fairly safe. As a 2013 study by the U.S. Department of Transportation noted, the car travel fatality rate in 2010 was less than a third of what it was in 1975.

The study also notes that some types of driving are more risky than others. Ways to stay safer on the road include:

  • Stay in urban areas. It may seem that busy city streets should be more dangerous than rural roads. But according to the study, car commuters are actually 2.7 times more likely to die in rural areas. Rural roads tend to have higher speed limits, poorer lighting and fewer curves and other devices to slow down drivers. Therefore, a well traveled route is a safer route for your road trip.
  • Have an experienced driver. People between the ages of 18 and 29 are 50-90% more likely to die in car accidents than older people. So if you are traveling with your family, it makes sense to put an older, more experienced driver behind the wheel as much as possible.
  • Wear seat belts. Almost half of all people who die in car crashes are adults who do not use a seat belt or children who do not use a car seat. So, just by fastening your seat belt, you can instantly cut your risk in half.
  • Stay sober. It goes without saying that no one who has been drinking should ever get behind the wheel of a car. But the study sheds a clearer light on the real danger of drinking and driving. It shows that alcohol is a factor in about one in three deaths in traffic accidents, and that at least one person involved has a blood alcohol level above the legal limit.
  • Stay focused. Distractions like cell phones can be just as bad for driving as alcohol. A 2004 Brookings Institution study used a driving simulator to compare the performance of legally drunk drivers to that of drivers who spoke on a cell phone. He found that phone users were even more debilitated than drunks, even when the cell phone was hands-free.

The bottom line is that there’s probably no way to make driving as safe as getting on a plane, or even traveling by bus or train. But with a few reasonable precautions, you can keep the risk low enough that it doesn’t stop you from making your road trip.

On the other hand, if you really prefer to fly, it’s good to know that you don’t have to worry about your safety in the air. Statistically speaking, you are safer there than in your car on the ground.

Carbon footprint

For environmentally conscious travelers, there is one final factor to consider: the environmental impact of your trip. Cars, buses, trains and planes pollute the air, some much more than others.

The easiest way to compare the impact of different forms of travel on the environment is to look at your carbon footprint. It is true that CO2 is only part of the pollution produced by travel. But in many cases, a larger carbon footprint comes with other pollutants as well.

To compare the carbon costs of the flight with the driving, I used the Fly or Drive calculator from BeFrugal. Provides an estimate of the carbon impact of your trip, as well as its cost and duration.

For other types of travel, I used a 2008 report from the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). Compare the carbon impact of different types of journeys for short, medium and long journeys. It also shows how the best options change based on the number of people traveling.

New Jersey to Indianapolis

The UCS report calculates the carbon impact of trips of three different lengths: 100, 500 and 1000 miles. Our trip from New Jersey to Indianapolis is approximately 700 miles each way, making it the closest to the middle number.

According to UCS, for such a long trip with two travelers, the most environmentally friendly option is a long-haul bus, followed by a train. Driving in a “typical car” is the second best option, and flying economy class is the fourth.

These numbers match the numbers I got from the Fly or Drive calculator. According to their figures, a round-trip flight from New Jersey to Indianapolis produces 2,264 pounds of CO2. Driving in our fuel-efficient car produces 1,027 pounds, or less than half.

Boston to New Jersey

For my sister’s family, the numbers are a bit different. Their little SUV is not as efficient as our car, but they have four people on board, so they produce less carbon per person. Plus, their trip is shorter, just under 300 miles each way. This gets you one step closer to a short trip by UCS reporting standards.

UCS says that for a short trip with four travelers, a bus is still the greenest way to go. However, driving with so many people comes before taking the train. Even if you are commuting in an SUV rather than a “typical car,” driving is even more environmentally friendly. The plane remains the worst option.

In fact, according to the Fly or Drive Calculator, driving is not only greener than flying on this trip, it’s much more environmentally friendly. This site says that a return flight from Boston to New Jersey produces 2,482 pounds of CO2. In contrast, driving, even in a compact SUV, only produces 499 pounds.

Making travel greener

Most people won’t make a travel decision based solely on their carbon footprint. Therefore, the UCS report also offers general advice on how to make your trip more environmentally friendly, no matter how you travel.


  • Stick to the coaching class. Traveling in economy class is not only cheaper than flying in first class, it is also more environmentally friendly. A first-class seat takes up almost double the space on the plane, so a passenger in that seat is responsible for twice the carbon output of the plane.
  • The bigger the better. Large planes are generally more environmentally friendly than small ones. They use more fuel and produce more carbon in total. But because they have more seats, they emit less per passenger.
  • Fly straight. Non-stop flights tend to produce less carbon than multi-stop flights. The less direct your route, the more kilometers you will travel in the air. Nonstop flights also save time. Unfortunately, the downside is that they tend to be more expensive.


  • Driving is best for short trips. Driving tends to be one of the more environmentally friendly options for trips of 100 miles or less. However, the longer the journey, the shorter the car journey on the green scale. For trips of 1,000 miles or more, trains and even planes are better.
  • The more passengers the better. The more people in the car, the lower your carbon footprint per passenger. For a family of four, driving is always more environmentally friendly than taking a train or plane. For solo drivers and couples, the train is always better.
  • Energy efficiency is important. The same journey is much more environmentally friendly in a small car than in a large one. For every kilometer driven, a large, gas-guzzling SUV produces nearly four times the carbon emissions of an efficient hybrid car. If you don’t have a fuel-efficient car, UCS recommends that you hire one for long road trips.
  • Avoid traffic. A car uses more fuel in heavy traffic. According to the report, a car stuck in traffic can produce twice as much CO2 as the same car traveling at highway speeds. UCS recommends planning your trip so that you are not on the road during rush hour. He also suggests getting a GPS unit that can alert you to traffic hot spots so you can avoid them. As an added bonus, avoiding traffic means a faster, less stressful commute.

Trains and buses

  • Buses are the greenest. Long-distance buses, also known as coaches, are almost always the most environmentally friendly form of transportation. For a couple, taking the bus almost halves the carbon footprint of the trip compared to driving, even in a hybrid car. Bus travel doesn’t have to be uncomfortable either. The report notes that many newer buses come with amenities, including seat-back video, satellite radio, and free Wi-Fi.
  • Try the trains in the northeast. The Northeast Corridor, from Washington, D.C. to Boston, is the most well-developed segment of Amtrak’s rail network. Travelers to this region have more trains to choose from, including the Acela high speed trains. And because all of these trains run on electricity, they are more environmentally friendly than diesel trains used in other parts of the country.
  • Look for local train stations. For travelers outside of the North East, trains may still be an option, but that depends on whether there is a train station nearby. Most stations are located in the city center, making it easier for city dwellers to find a station at a surprisingly distance. If your city does not have a train station, check if you can get from it to a nearby city by bus. Amtrak offers a Thruway bus service to its stations from most cities.

Add all

Adding up all the different factors (cost, time, convenience, safety, and carbon footprint), it seems my husband and I make the right choice when we travel to Indiana every year. This is by far the cheapest way to do it and also the most convenient. The plane is faster and safer, but it is also the most expensive and polluting means of transport. As for trains and buses, the appalling timetables put them out of service.

For my sister’s family, the choice is even clearer. The car is the cheapest, fastest and most convenient form of transportation for this family of four. It is also the second greenest because it arrives just behind the bus. It’s not as safe as other modes of transportation, but with an experienced driver and well-traveled roads, it’s still pretty safe. So, for them, driving is the winner of a mile.

However, what works best for our families may not work best for yours. The best way to travel may change depending on the length of the trip, number of people, and departure and arrival points. Based on the results we got from our two trips, here are some general tips you can use when planning your own:

  • A complete car is better. When traveling alone, driving isn’t much cheaper than taking the bus or train, and it’s not as environmentally friendly. However, as you add more people to the car, the driving gets better and better. The cost and carbon footprint go up a bit, but the cost per person goes down dramatically.
  • The flight is only faster for long journeys. For our 700 mile trip to Indianapolis, flying would be much faster than driving. But for the shorter trip from Boston to New Jersey, the driving is just as quick. The time spent getting to the airport and the airport negates the time saved in the air.
  • Buses and trains depend on the location. For us, traveling by bus and train just wouldn’t work as there is no direct route from start to finish. Taking a bus or train means taking a long, indirect route with many stops delaying the journey. But if you are traveling between two cities that have a direct route between them, traveling by bus and train becomes much more convenient. For example, if you live in San Jose, CA and travel to Los Angeles, you can catch a train there and travel in comfort for a reasonable price.

Last word

As you can see, figuring out the best way to get home for the holidays is a complicated business. You need to consider your specific situation: the length of the trip, your time and budget constraints, what you need to bring, and how eco-friendly you want to be.

Fortunately, there are tools online to make math easier. You can enter your personal data into the Fly or Drive calculator to compare the advantages and disadvantages of traveling by plane or by car. If you also want to see bus and train trips, you can visit Wanderu or use a transit app like My TransitGuide to find available routes. Once you’ve seen all of the options, you can calculate the numbers to find out what’s best for you.

Will you be traveling during the holidays? If so, how do you plan to make the trip?

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