Driving a Hard Bargin

With gas prices soaring, is it cheaper to fly? A traveler compares the ride, from a seat on an airplane vs. behind the wheel of a car

May 03, 2006|By ABIGAIL TUCKER | ABIGAIL TUCKER,SUN REPORTER

Even without counting the $1 demanded by the surly squeegee man on 37th Street in Manhattan, the $5.50 in chicken fingers and Coke consumed at the Walt Whitman rest stop, and the value of the years that dodging a careening Entenmann's truck on the New Jersey Turnpike takes off a human life, it's cheaper to fly than drive to Islip.

That's the conclusion reached by The Sun, whose editors -- noting the rising price of gas -- dispatched a reporter last week to fly from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport to the Long Island MacArthur Airport near Islip, N.Y., then drive back, comparing costs.

The flight cost $39.30, including tax.

The drive cost $41.26, including tolls. Gas at an Exxon near the Islip airport cost $3.20 a gallon that day.

Settling into their seats, fellow passengers on Southwest Airlines flight 426 -- mostly business people whose bosses allowed them to purchase a return ticket -- expressed mild horror at the assignment.

"Can't you just Mapquest it?" they asked.

No, was the sorrowful reply.

Several of them previously had undertaken the 250-mile road trip themselves -- much of it on the notorious New Jersey Turnpike -- before discovering the 221-mile direct flight, which was a $29 special on the airlines' Web site, with a seven-day advance purchase. (That's why The Sun picked Islip -- along with the fact that the drive is short enough to be done in a day.)

"I ended up turning around one time, by Trenton," N.J., said Kevin Dowd, who lives on Long Island but whose software company has a Baltimore office. "Overturned tractor-trailer. I sat in traffic for four hours."

Apparently the only other person on board with the trials of a return drive ahead of him was Earl Wilson of Jacksonville, Fla., whose brother, a preacher, has a side business buying cars off eBay. Wilson's job is to fly to the car (in this case, a 1998 Oldsmobile parked somewhere in Manhattan), then drive it back.

It's an improvement on his previous line of work -- transporting dead bodies from nursing homes to funeral parlors -- but only slightly. "I've seen some things on I-95," he said, with a shudder.

After the plane lifted off the runway, passengers fiddled with iPods, leafed through the SkyMall magazine (thatched-roof tiki bar with four stools, anyone?) and gazed down at the pretty patchwork of farmers' fields.

About 787 gallons of jet fuel (about $1,588 worth) and one hour later -- not even enough time for the ice in the complimentary drink to melt -- the Boeing 737 touched down on Long Island.

Ah, Islip, a municipality whose charms include the Long Island Ducks' baseball stadium and proximity to an arboretum with an extensive collection of conifers.

But there was little time to explore these delights. A 2006 maroon Toyota Camry awaited.

At the Hertz rental car counter, a saleswoman mapped directions for travelers, blazing a path in yellow highlighter. But when she heard the destination was Baltimore, the highlighter veered off toward Long Island Sound.

"Baltimore?" she asked, then called over a fellow employee, who looked as though he'd been asked to plot the swiftest route to Mordor. After much contemplation, he arrived at these directions: Take the Long Island Expressway to the Meadowbrook State Parkway to the Southern State Parkway to the Belt Parkway to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge to the Staten Island Expressway to the Goethals Bridge, then look for signs to Interstate 95.

Right.

A quick study of the map revealed a more direct approach: straight though the heart of Manhattan. Zipping in by way of the Midtown Tunnel and out through the Lincoln -- what was that, 10 or 12 blocks across town?

First, though, gas. The Camry's tank held 18.5 gallons; it was topped off at an Exxon near the highway where, one pump away, Auddie Simmons of Coram, N.Y., filled up his monster sport utility vehicle. He stroked its glossy black exterior like the coat of a favorite pet that soon would be put to sleep.

"One hundred dollars a tank," he said. "If I can't sell it, I'm just going to park it somewhere."

And he didn't mean on the Long Island Expressway, often called the World's Largest Parking Lot, which was the next stretch of the homeward journey. In a bizarre twist, the LIE was flowing fine, with only a slight delay around Exit 48, where there was a fuel spill. The driver of the leaking truck looked on glumly from the side of the road as the gas seeped back into the earth from which it was previously sucked, at exorbitant expense.

The Meadowbrook State Parkway (the point of no return, according the Hertz man's highlighter) passed unnoticed, and about an hour after leaving the airport -- it was a little past noon at that point -- the sandy Long Island countryside gave way to skyscrapers. The Empire State Building pierced the horizon, and then the whole skyline loomed, as impassable as the Sierra Nevadas must have looked to the Donner party.

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