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Summer vacation: To fly or drive?

Holiday Travelers Brave Thanksgiving Exodus
Passengers check the arrivals and departures monitors in Terminal 4 at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Arizona.Jeff Topping / Getty Images
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The days of packing the kids in the station wagon and driving off for summer vacation may soon be just a fond memory. With gas prices nudging the $3-a-gallon mark, families are now sharpening their pencils and doing some math. This summer’s big vacation question is this: Should you drive or should you fly?

Summer is around the corner and families are looking forward to their vacations. In summers past, families would load up the station wagon, pack a cooler, fill up the gas tank and head down the road for hours of quality family time on the way to Grandma’s, a national park or some faraway historical attraction.

But the annual road trip doesn’t make as much sense these days.

For one thing, the old highway pastimes — license plate contests and family singalongs — have given way to the more private enjoyments of iPods and Game Boys, so there’s less real family time on the road. But the biggest problem is skyrocketing gasoline prices. According to a of 7,000 gas stations, the average price of gasoline in mid April was $2.91 per gallon.

Which raises a question for all summer travelers: Should you fly or should you drive?

Let’s consider a few scenarios that are typical of many family summer trips.

The Price family wants to visit the historic city of Philadelphia from their home in Miami, a distance of 2,404 miles round trip. That’s a big trip and it sounds exciting — until the Prices do the math. Their SUV gets only 17 miles per gallon, so gas will cost them $411. Then there’s the cost of food and lodging. It’s a 19-hour drive, so figure three days, two nights, each way, allowing for a couple of stops on the way. Let’s say the Prices can get hotel rooms for around $125 a night (everyone in one room), and they can keep their food costs to $50 a day.

Here’s the total: $411 for gas, $500 for lodging and $300 for food, for a total of $1,211.

How much would it cost to fly? $138 per person, round trip on , or $552, for a savings of $659.

Here’s another example. The Anderson family of four wants to head out from Chicago to visit Grandma and Grandpa in Salt Lake City. The drive is a total of 2,800 miles. The Andersons have a minivan that gets about 24 miles per gallon, highway, so their gas will cost about $340. Since it is a long trip and the kids are small and squirmy, they plan to spend 3 days out, 3 days back days and nights driving round trip. This puts their total driving cost (using $175 for hotel and food per day) at a whopping $1390. To fly they would spend $198 per person on the American Airlines summer fares for a total of $792. For the Andersons, air transportations saves $598.

The Portillo family wants to take their dream trip to southern California. They are a family of five living in Austin, Texas, which is 1,400 miles from Los Angeles. Their fuel-efficient car gets about 26 miles per gallon on the highway, so they would spend $313 on gas round trip. Not bad.

Since Mr. Portillo is heavy on the pedal, he figures he will spend only four days and nights on the road. Like the Prices, the Portillos are thrifty and willing to sleep in one room, at $125 a night, but their food costs average $75 a day because the family is bigger and the kids are older. Here’s the math: $313 for gas, $500 for lodging, and $300 for food for a total driving cost of $1,113.

How much would it cost the Portillos to fly to Los Angeles? $270 per person round trip on American, or $1,350 for the family. For the Portillos, driving is the cheaper alternative by more than $200. But what’s really going to cost them is the dead time they spend on the road. Staring out the window mile after mile isn’t much fun (ask any kid). The Portillo family can maximize their vacation time by spending the extra $237, flying to Los Angeles and getting a two-day jump on their vacation.

Three families, three different calculations, but in each case flying is clearly a good alternative to driving. Sure, there are other things to consider. The fares I quote today may be gone tomorrow. The price of gasoline may go down. There are airport taxes and fees to add on (but there’s vehicle depreciation, too), and if you fly, you may need to rent a car at your destination (and that will cost you about $20 a day from Hertz if you rent a compact).

The point is: You need to think carefully about transportation for you summer vacation. To me, flying is almost always a no-brainer. It gets me where I want to be faster and with far less hassle than driving. I get to spend more time sightseeing, relaxing and enjoying my companions. Plus it saves me money.

It’s your vacation. You do the math.

Joel Widzer is an expert on loyalty and frequent flier programs. He is the author of "The Penny Pincher's Passport to Luxury Travel," a guidebook on traveling in high style at budget-friendly prices. or . Want to sound off about one of his columns? Try visiting .