Ridiculous or not? Going out of your way to avoid planes

By | September 7th, 2011

We’re a nation of drivers, no doubt about it.

Don’t believe me? During the first five months of the year, Americans flew 321 billion miles. They drove 1.1 trillion miles. (It’s not a perfect comparison, since these are calculated slightly differently, but you get the idea.)

Last holiday weekend, less than eight percent of travelers flew to their destination. Almost 9 out of 10 drove.

You might not arrive at that conclusion from reading most travel blogs or magazines, but it’s true. For all the fretting we do about the indignities of flying, we sure don’t do very much of it.

All of which made me wonder: How far would you go to avoid a plane?

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Full disclosure: I’m spending the better part of next year in a car with my family. We’re going to see America from ground level and, hopefully, learn a thing or two while we’re crisscrossing the country.

I’m not afraid of flying. But let’s just say I have reason to believe I won’t be welcome on a plane anytime soon.

The conventional wisdom is that for longer trips – anything over 12 hours – flying should be your first choice. And that’s fine when you’re traveling solo. But for a family of five, and even with gas prices hovering around $4 a gallon, that rule gets tossed out the window.

Flying isn’t just a hassle – it’s also too expensive.

Ann Azevedo and her husband once drove from eastern Oklahoma to California – 1,114 miles – in a straight shot. They passed the 19 hours talking, looking for radio stations, reading and sleeping (the latter two as passengers, of course).

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“It helps to switch off every couple of hours,” she says.

What if you can’t? Grant Petty remembers a road trip from South Florida to Louisville that he did solo.

“When I hit the Georgia border about eight hours later, I felt good, so I thought I’d drive a little further,” he says. “When I hit Atlanta, I still felt fine, and decided to drive a little further. When I hit Nashville at 11 p.m., I began to feel tired, but decided to drive through since by this time I was so close to home.”

By the time he arrived in Louisville – 20 hours and 1,207 miles later – “I had the air conditioner on full blast, the windows down, and the radio at max volume,” he remembers.

Incidentally, the world record for driving long distances belongs to a Swiss couple, Emil and Liliana Schmid, who crossed the globe in a Toyota Landcruiser. Now that’s some road trip!

I’ve done a few long drives, myself, but nothing like the Schmids. Back in the 80s, in an effort to save a few bucks, we decided to Go Greyhound across the country instead of flying. It took 3 ½ days to get from New York to San Francisco. I’ll never do that again.

Another memorable road trip: New Orleans to Los Angeles nonstop, with two college friends. I took the night shift driving through West Texas and New Mexico. It was spring, and I had plenty of company even when my friends were asleep in the back. Rabbit, deer and coyote randomly jumped across the road for miles on end.

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I think there’s a point where flying makes so much more sense, and New York-to-San Francisco is definitely one of those times. Also, when you have to get to Europe or Asia. West Texas in spring? I wouldn’t give that up for anything.

Here in North America, the only negative road trip experiences have happened when I violated the 10-hour rule (never more than 10 hours of driving in a 24-hour period) or failed to stop every few hours for meals or stretch-breaks.

I remember one family road trip in Texas, where my parents were so anxious to reach their destination that they skipped a meal. The kids became cranky in the back and started smacking each other, as young children are known to do from time to time.

“We should have stopped for dinner,” my mother said in her “I-told-you-so” voice.

I have to ask, though: Are we going a little too far in our effort to save little money?

In an effort to avoid the relatively brief discomfort of air travel, are we adding even more misery to the trip? Or is the American road trip an incomparable experience that has to be savored slowly, like all good things in life?

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