When I was growing up, my family road tripped to our vacation destinations. That usually meant getting in the Aerostar and driving west on I-40 to Albuquerque.
I didn’t fly on a plane until I was nineteen years old.
I married into a family of flyers. Kate’s dad worked for American Airlines, so they got to fly for near-free on stand-by. Kate spent her childhood crisscrossing the country on an airplane, and could pop home from college in Utah whenever she wanted (sometimes in first class; she says she felt like a real baller sitting up there as a twenty-year-old, watching people file past her into coach).
When we married, we adopted Kate’s childhood vacation method and flew to our destinations (not in first class, though, alas). My kids have been cruising on planes since they were babies. I like to regularly remind them that their dear old dad didn’t fly on a plane until he was nineteen. “Nineteen, kids! Nineteen!” It’s my version of “When I was your age, I walked five miles to school uphill in the snow barefoot.”
But these past few years, flying has lost its enchantment. Even for Kate. This started happening even before COVID upended the airline industry.
Here’s why we’ve been driving a lot more than flying these days.
Why Flying Stinks (And Driving Is Better)
The biggest benefit of flying over driving is obvious: it’s faster. A quicker mode of transportation gives you more time to enjoy your destination. We’ve driven to Vermont before. It takes two long days in the car to get there from Tulsa. Flying there takes half a day. We can enjoy more time in the Green Mountain State instead of staring out the window as we cruise through Terre Haute, Indiana.
But outside this benefit, flying has a bunch of distinct drawbacks:
Flying is stressful. The stakes are high when you fly. If you’re late or missing your ID, you’re hosed. You don’t get to go to your destination, and in wasting your ticket, you’ve just put your money in a paper shredder.
Because the stakes are so high when you fly, I become Nervous Travel Dad.
I check and double-check (and triple-check and quadruple-check) that Kate and I have our driver’s licenses so we can get through TSA. This annoys Kate. I think I’m just being prudent. Again, if you don’t have your ID, you’re not getting through. This is do-or-die stuff.
To ensure we don’t miss our flight, I want to get to the airport as early as possible. So I’m constantly harassing my family to get out the door. This also annoys Kate, who would prefer we made it on the plane with a razor-thin margin of time to spare (she enjoys the rush, or something). Our approaches to travel time management are diametrically opposed, and this creates tension before we’ve even left home. Not a great way to begin a vacation.
When we drive, the stress of traveling is largely eliminated. We no longer have to worry about leaving the house at a specific time. Kate can dawdle in getting ready, as she is wont to do. I’m no longer haranguing everyone to get moving. Nervous Travel Dad disappears on road trips. Well, he’ll still make appearances when we’ve got a quarter of a tank of gas left and he thinks we should pull over immediately at the next Love’s. But that only happens on occasion.
Not only do Kate and I find road trips less stressful, we actually find driving to be actively relaxing. There’s something about watching the landscape go by that does good things to your brain. Kate often finds she does some of her best Sunday Fireside writing while riding shotgun as I drive. I often do nothing — no listening to music, no listening to podcasts — except stare out the windshield. I love looking toward the horizon and gazing at those giant clouds that hover over the New Mexican desert. My mind empties out. It’s meditative.
Flying forces you together with the mass of humanity. Get to the crowded airport. Wait in line with a bunch of people to check in. Then wait in line with a bunch of people to go through security. Then wait at the gate with a bunch of people to board the plane. Then squeeze together with a bunch of people in a tin can hurtling through the sky. Then make your way through another crowded airport. Then stand in line with a bunch of people to rent a car.
I don’t like bunches of people. You feel like cattle being herded through a chute.
Driving has a degree of solitude I much prefer. When you’re in your car, it’s just you. Or you and your spouse. Or you, your spouse, and your kids. Yes, in the case of the latter scenario, your kids can be annoying, but they’re a familiar annoying, and an annoying you can do something about. As opposed to having to silently tolerate the stranger who’s berating the ticket counter agent, or picking at their toenails (yes, I’ve sat next to this person on a plane). In a car, you feel more like a human being, and less like a cow.
Flying puts you at the mercy of forces outside your control. Flight was canceled? There’s some malfunction on the plane and now you have to sit on the tarmac for an hour while your kid screams? The plane’s about to crash into a mountain? Ain’t nothing you can do about it.
Air travel is an exercise in learned helplessness and quiet (yet seething) desperation.
When you drive, everything from your departure time to your pace is almost entirely within your control. Sure, sometimes accidents happen, and your car can potentially break down, but even then, rather than having to passively stand by, with no knowledge of what’s happening and if/how things are being remedied, the solution to fixing the problem lies entirely in your hands.
Flying is uncomfortable. Planes have gotten more cramped over the years in order for airlines to pack more people on a flight. Because we live in Tulsa, most of the planes we initially take are those little puddle jumpers that shuttle you to bigger connecting airports. Those things are tiny. I’m not a big dude, but even I feel cramped on an airplane. I can’t imagine what it’s like if you’re a bigger person. Damn.
Accordingly, you have to sort of contort yourself so you don’t spill over into other people’s space. Sometimes you have to sit in that cramped position for hours at a time. The worst!
Road trips are comfortable. My seat is nice and spacious, and I’ve got plenty of compartments for all my stuff. I’ve got a cup holder for my Diet Mountain Dew, and I don’t have to worry about battling for the armrest because I have my own.
If you have to pee, you can pull over to a rest stop and go pee in a room that’s larger than a broom closet. You can walk around and stretch your legs and arms. You can be leisurely and expansive with your breaks.
Flying requires you to pack light. Sure, trying to squeeze a week’s worth of stuff in a little carry-on bag is an edifying exercise in creative minimalism. But it’s nice to bring whatever you want on a trip without worrying about being clipped $35 to bring another bag.
Don’t want to run to the store for travel-size toiletries? Throw the whole dang shampoo bottle in your suitcase. Not sure if you’ll need a rain jacket? Might as well bring one. Want to keep up with your workouts while you’re away? Heck, you can even throw a set of dumbbells or kettlebells in your trunk.
Flying is expensive. Airfare has been outrageously expensive of late. Even with higher gas prices, driving is significantly cheaper. Rather than paying a bunch of money for the privilege of all the annoyances listed above, you can put it towards having more fun at your destination.
All Hail the Road Trip!
Thanks to our increasing disenchantment with flying, our family has been taking more road trips. In fact, I’m writing this from the mountains of New Mexico, having escaped by car from the searing Oklahoma heat.
Now, I’m not entirely opposed to flying. I’ll do it if the payoff is big enough. If I were going to Japan for two weeks, I’d put up with a not-so-pleasant flight to get there, definitely.
But if given a choice between driving and flying these days, I’m more apt to pick a destination that will allow me to get there via road trip.
I’m quite happy to leave flying to the birds.
Are you taking a road trip this summer? Listen to this podcast on how to make it the best possible experience: