Driving Versus Flying

Glenn Reynolds and John Hinderaker headed from their homes near Knoxville, Tennessee and Apple Valley, Minnesota, respectively, yesterday for an event in D.C. Reynolds went by plane, Hinderaker by car. The latter got there first leaving the former to observe, “I’m beginning to think that air travel is overrated.”

As a wise man once observed, Indeed.

Pre-9/11 overreaction, my rule of thumb was that, if airfare were reasonably cheap, I’d fly if the trip by car was more than five hours. Now, I’ve upped it to seven. Frankly, I’m not sure that’s enough.

Aside from the fact that, as Hinderaker notes, “In a car, you can always make some progress toward your destination,” it’s simply less aggravating. Aside from Thanksgiving weekend-type traffic jams, driving is relatively pleasant given all the creature comforts one can bring along. The ability to stop for food or whatever pretty much whenver it strikes one’s fancy is nice as well.

Morever, even aside from security waits and the seemingly more frequent mechanical, weather, and idiocy delays (i.e., it’s not storming at your location, destination, or in between but is where your plane is coming from) flying is just awful unless one can spring for First Class. Being crammed into tiny seats next to some fat guy; having waitresses coming down the aisle ramming you with their carts so they might dispense three onces of soft drink; screaming kids; incessant announcements about how to put on a seatbelt, whether the seatbelt light is on or off (making me wonder why there are lights at all), what mountain range one is crossing, what time it is at your destination, the 37 gates where any given passenger might be transferring, and so on and so forth would probably raise the ire of John McCain and Lindsey Graham if done to an al Qaeda detainee.

Flying only makes sense if one is going a long way for a short time or if driving is not feasible. If you’re flying from Boston to L.A. for a meeting or event and need to be back in a day or two, then enduring commercial flight is your only real option. My wife and I are flying to Nashville to see some friends and watch a football game this weekend. We’ll have to fly, since work ends late Friday and starts early Monday. The five hour Knoxville to D.C. drive, on the other hand, is infinitely preferable to flying since, at best, it’s about break even timewise.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Frank says:

    my new rule of thumb is if there are roads I drive and if there is water I sail. Indeed flying has become a really unpleasant experience.

  2. Triumph says:

    idiocy delays (i.e., it’s not storming at your location, destination, or in between but is where your plane is coming from)

    These so-called idiocy delays are the price for absurdly low airfares.

  3. James Joyner says:

    These so-called idiocy delays are the price for absurdly low airfares.

    Maybe in some cases but mostly they’re just from mismanagement. There’s no reason not to simply use a shuttle system between major repetitive routes between major cities. If an airline has 10 flights a day going from, say, DC to Atlanta, it makes no sense to rely on planes coming from Minnesota.

  4. Frank says:

    absurdly low airfares…so, on top of being unpleasant to fly, it should also be more expensive?

  5. Boyd says:

    If you can make it from Knoxville to DC in five hours, James, you’d better hope that the police have abandoned their radar traps on I-81. You’d have to average almost 100 mph, including stops for gas, food, hydraulic relief, etc.

  6. M1EK says:

    This kind of trip is what saner countries build intercity rail for.

  7. James Joyner says:

    Boyd: You’re right–I’m thinking of Bristol/Tri-Cities. It’s about 6 hours from Knoxville.

    When I’ve taken the trip, I did it from/to Ashburn, VA rather than DC proper so it cut 40 minutes or so off the trip. Still, I typically make it from my parent’s house in Jacksonville, AL to Knoxville, TN in about 4-1/2 hours and then from Knoxville to Northern Virginia in another 6-6-1/2.

  8. James Joyner says:

    M1EK: The “saner” countries of which you speak are tiny. Rail makes little sense when you’re traveling 1500 miles one way.

  9. M1EK says:


    The distances we’re talking about are ones which make sense in this country. The distance from the Pacific to the Atlantic is completely irrelevant here – the trip under discussion was one of a length which Europeans take via rail all the time.

    At least, we ought to be able to get rail service to a major airline hub instead of having to waste time on these 45 minute flights just to connect.

  10. James Joyner says:

    MIEK: There’s pretty decent commuter rail from DC to NYC and Philly and NYC to Boston. Not so much NYC to Chicago or DC to Atlanta.

  11. Rodney Dill says:

    I have a trip to China and Korea next month. I think I’ll choose flying


  12. Frank says:

    Rodney, your choice means that you don’t mind flying. Fair enough.
    Alternatively, one could opt to not travel to places where the means for transportation is unacceptable. For some, and especially those who are of the opinion that air travel has lost all the charm it once had, perhaps boat,car or even rail( yuk! ) might be a better choice. Even to China.

  13. M1EK says:


    And in Europe, there would be. You could overlay a map of Western Europe alone, and it pretty much matches where most Americans live, if we omit California. The distance most of us travel on most trips is, in fact, within the boundaries of good interurban rail. DC to Atlanta is a real good example – were we not excessively subsidizing highways, it would make extremely good business sense for a Euro-style train.

  14. James Joyner says:

    M1EK: I don’t know what the numbers are. The Eastern seaboard may well be able to support that sort of thing. Otherwise, US population density is tiny compared to that in most of Western Europe.

  15. I have flown a lot of places with a lot of frequency over the last 20 years, but now I only fly if the flight is over four hours. A month ago, I went on a 20 hour drive to visit three customers in two differnt non-adjacent states. Five years ago, maybe even two years ago, I would have flown to at least two of those sites, but not any longer. The delays and aggravation have added too much to the real cost of flying.

    Choosing driving over flying yielded three significant benefits. First, because of my itinerary, driving was substantially cheaper. getting a rental car for a week cost me $150. With gas and extras it was still under $300. Trying to get three non-round trip flights on short notice was close to $2,000. Second, I was able to travel with more luggage that was always more readily accesible and less difficult to transport. Third, and perhaps most important, I was on my own schedule. I was not beholden to the airlines, airline delays, TSA, traffic snarls, rental car checkins and shuttle buses, or anything else. An extra side benefit to this was that I did not have to eat airline or airport food at any time.

    All in all, unless I have to travel to either coast or overseas (I live in St. Louis now), I no longer fly.

  16. Ha! If we didn’t subsidize Amtrak to a ridiculous cost per passenger mile we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. The comparisons of the US to Europe are frankly silly due to distances, population density, culture, standard of living, etc.

    Time is money. Business travel is substantially different than leisure travel. Which is one of the reasons I drive to Chicago (4.5 hours) on business rather than fly (4.5 hours with TSA et al built in) or take the train (8 hours and then I still need a car or a cab to get around).

    Any fetishism towards a condemnation of the US for its lack of a European style public transportation system usually seems to indicate either a “damn the freedom the proles want because I know what’s better for them” attitude or a lack of actual experience with European public transportation vis-a-vis American business travel.

  17. Kenny says:

    “take the train (8 hours and then I still need a car or a cab to get around).”

    Wow it takes 8 hours to get from St louis to chicago by train ?

    That’s what 250 miles ?

    Hmm amtraks suggests that’ll take 5 and a bit hours so add on getting to the station etc , yeah i can see 8 hours.

    But 5 and a half hours for a 250 mile journey ?

    Even in the UK, that sort of distance should be around 2 and a half hours on a direct line.

  18. DC Loser says:


    Unlike Europe, most passenger rail service in the US operate on tracks owned by freight rail companies. The only dedicated passenger rail lines I know of is in the NE Corridor between Washington DC and Boston. The freight rail tracks are in such poor condition from the weight of the freight cars that often the maximum speed of the trains cannot exceed 40-50 mph in many places. On top of that, the freight companies control the tracks, and the passenger trains have lower priority than freight trains.

    A couple of years ago, I took my family to Florida from DC on the Auto-Train. There was an accident in SC that caused us to detour through the western part of SC, and the train was 18 HOURS late getting into Orlando. We were stalled outside of Jacksonville stacked behind two or three freight trains. This is symptomatic of the state of American rail. Unless you’re a rail buff, you’d best stay off Amtrak (except in the Northeast) if you want to get anywhere in a decent amount of time.

  19. Well, I can only speak from experience, rather than the published Amtrak schedules. Stupid reality.

  20. Oh yeah, and if the air conditioning breaks down in the rental car in August, I can get a new one immediately. Amtrak was somewhat less accomodating when it happened on the train.

  21. M1EK says:

    Once again: nationwide population density is irrelevant to this discussion. The parts of the US where most people LIVE are much, much, much smaller. (Cut out the entire Mountain Time Zone, for instance).

    Overlay a map of Western Europe on the US, and you can cover essentially all of the US east of the Mississippi and a bit of the rest.

    (The same argument is also frequently used against intracity rail transit, ignoring the fact that even though we all know we COULD drive to Wyoming, most of us never do; so including it in our supposedly so-low population density is kind of misleading in this context).

  22. Once again, population density is entirely relevant to this discussion, but why waste the pixels trying to explain the obvious? It will come as quite a shock to all the people in the Mountain Time Zone that no one lives there. Hey, what if we cut out all the areas of Europe where people don’t live? Wow, just imagine how dense it will be there then!

    One note, the US east of the Mississippi has a whole lot fewer people than the population of Europe you just laid over it. Maybe that’s why you want to believe the population density is unimportant. Of course, I suppose it would also be unfair to note the relative difference in the standard of living between the US and Europe as well. Stupid reality.

  23. Ray says:

    To add fuel to the train fire, so to speak, I one rode Amtrak in 1988 from Seattle to St. Paul. The trip took over 70 hours. The same trip by car would take less than 60 hours, the way I drive anyways, and a flight would be about 6 hours. The cost of the train ticket was $173 (in 1988), actually higher than a late night flight would have been! Although I road the train because I wanted to experience it, I wouldn’t repeat the trip unless I had no other choice.

    I also road trains in Germany in the mid 80’s, I was stationed there while in the Army, and the trains were frequently late due to breakdowns, congested rails lines, etc. The same trip by car via the autobahn would have been less than half the time as trains have regularly scheduled stops along the route and on the autobahn the choice to stop was mine. Europe has a better managed rail systems than America, but I would hardly call it an improvement over the US highway system.

  24. M1EK says:


    No, the eastern time zone and a chunk of the central time zone of the US have roughly similar area to Western Europe, and the population is close enough (similar numbers of very large cities). Once again: just because Wyoming exists doesn’t mean many of us ever drive there, even once.