Taking a road trip across the United States offers an alternative to flying that can be more fun and, sometimes, less expensive. If your point of origin and destination are not located near major airports that offer an abundance of cheap flights, then the price of an airline ticket can be steep. Although oil prices affect both flying and driving costs, their correlation with the price of filling up your vehicle is much more pronounced. With the price of oil low, it might be a good time to get behind the wheel and explore the United States.
The following analysis compares the cost of a road trip from New York City to Los Angeles five years ago, in 2015, to the cost of making the same trip in 2020. Expenses considered include gas, food, and lodging.
- When gas prices are low, it's an especially good time to take a driving trip.
- The cost of a hypothetical road trip from New York to Los Angeles did not change materially from 2015 to 2020—because the decrease in gas prices compensated for increases in food and lodging.
New York to Los Angeles covers 2,800 miles. Even if you're driving a hybrid, the trip requires many stops at gas stations to fill up. To make things simple, assume that you are driving a Toyota Camry, which gets about 35 miles per gallon on the highway and 25 in the city. Since the trip is almost all on the highway, also assume that you'll get 35 miles per gallon. In this case, the trip requires 80 gallons of gas.
The price of gas varies in different parts of the country, so national averages must suffice to estimate fuel costs for a cross-country trip. In March 2015, the average cost for a gallon of regular-grade gasoline was $2.79. As of March 2020, its average cost was $2.17. Therefore, the cost of gas to drive from New York to Los Angeles in a Camry had dropped from $223.20 to $173.60.
The cost of food can vary greatly on a cross-country trip. Stopping for meals at expensive steakhouses, for instance, imposes much steeper costs than packing coolers full of sandwiches and making an occasional splurge at McDonald's.
Regardless of whether you are fine dining or filling your belly on a budget, food costs in the United States are 5.76% higher in 2020 versus 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Assuming a seven-day drive—easily enough time to get from New York to Los Angeles and make some stops along the way—and three meals per day at a base price of $10 per meal, your food costs for the trip rose from $210 in 2015 to $222.09 in 2020.
The biggest determinant of lodging prices is how you pace the trip. Putting the pedal to the metal and rotating drivers so that you make progress around the clock and arrive in two days without stopping yields lower lodging costs than stopping at landmarks every day and turning in for a good night's sleep.
For an apples-to-apples comparison from 2015 to 2020, again consider a seven-day trip in which you spend six nights at hotels. The average hotel room cost 120 per night in March 2015 and $126 per night in March 2020. Your lodging costs, then, increased from $720 to $756.
Frugal cross-country road-trippers can mitigate lodging costs by staying at discount motel chains, such as Motel 6, or camping along the way. You can control what you pay for lodging to a large degree by choosing your accommodations carefully.
Total Trip Costs
Adding up the cost of gas, food, and lodging, a typical road trip from New York to Los Angeles actually has decreased slightly in price, from $1,159.20 to $1,151.69 between 2015 and 2020. A moderate decrease in gas prices more than canceled out slight increases in food and lodging costs.
Again, dozens of variables exist that determine the cost of a road trip across the United States, and they change every year. The analysis above considers a hypothetical trip with a familiar starting and ending point and uses broad averages for common costs incurred along the way. The most important takeaway is that the cost of a road trip did not change materially from 2015 to 2020. When gas prices are low, it is a good time to drive or ride, around the United States.