I actually tried to race a plane in my tiny little car. Talk about reenacting the tortoise and the hare.
Some flights are so super, super short that they've become commuter flights. By the time all that time waiting at the airport is factored in, is it just easier to drive?
Recently, we had the chance to race a car against a plane, along the well-tread LAX-SFO commuter route, which routinely clocks in at an 1 hour and 30 minutes.
The rental car needed to returned in Los Angeles but a friend I had been traveling with had already bought a ticket back to LAX. So I was going to drop him off... and see if I could beat him back to LAX. 🏎️
Some distances are so short like Philadelphia to Newark that its a no-brainer. For longer trips like Los Angeles to San Francisco, the lines blur a bit more, as to whether flying would be more efficient. In general, the sweet spot is at the five-hour mark1 where most drives and flights break even.
This doesn't account for the "hassle" factor, though it is tempting to browse the terminal, read a book and wander off the plane*. (*This is a lot of the time.)
Keeping the drive and flight real with delays and breaks
To make things fair, we kept conditions as realistic as possible.
For us, that included a Starbucks break (caffeine!), bathroom break (i.e. ok, I wanted Taco Bell) and a final gas break. There was no way I was missing out on an opportunity for some required fast-food, road-trip eating for this one.
This particular drive avoided peak L.A. traffic and included a detour around a section of the 5 that was involved in some serious construction work in Kettleman City, Calif. This deviation took about 40 minutes instead of the estimated 1-hour and 37-minute slowdown Google Maps estimated.
QF 3232 also suffered a 56-minute flight delay at SFO, so as far as I'm concerned, the delays canceled each other out.
Here's how the timing of the race unfolded
To start off, I dropped M* off at 2:19 p.m., which was just about two hours before his Qantas 3232 flight departed at 4:45 p.m. We would begin our journey at exactly the same time.
Though the flight was the ultimate winner, it was ultimately surprising the margins were somewhat close as they were.
The flight took a total of 4 hours and 17 minutes [257 minutes] from the minute I dropped him off to the minute touchdown was reached on the tarmac. (This doesn't include the time to reach the gate, which is usually another 10-15 minutes.)
Meanwhile, it took me 6 hours and 42 minutes (402 minutes) to reach the LAX terminals. If we're going to put a time on it, I rolled in at 9:01 p.m. The plane arrived at 6:36 p.m.
That means the plane beat the car by 2 hours and 25 minutes or 145 minutes.
Visualizing the drive and flight from SFO to LAX
The interactive Google Maps shows the exact driving route of the svelte red Kia Soul I drove and the exact flight route of QF 3232 as it took off.
It is worth clicking around on the map to see the exact flight path the plane took but the markers of plane departure and arrival are listed out on the driving path for easy visualization. (So are the driving stops, if that's of interest.)
The flight departed just after I reached Coalinga, Calif.—more importantly, just as I finished stuffing down a spicy potato taco and was swinging back on the I-5 ramp—and arrived 55 minutes later before I reached the gas station in Buttonwillow, Calif., right outside of Bakersfield.
The cost of flying versus driving to LAX from SFO
It wasn't fair to do just a flying or driving comparison without taking into account the cost of each transportation method.
The most interesting thing was that it wasn't cheaper to drive rather than flying. One-way flights between the two cities can go for as little as $59 and the gas alone for this particular trip cost $51.79.
Once I factored in the daily cost of the rental car, it jumped up to $69.33. Driving is only worth it if there are at least two people in the car.
So, basically, the consensus of all of this is that next time, I'm flying.