12 Steps to Calculate the Cost of Driving vs. Flying to Walt Disney World (including the hidden cost)

Written by Sue Nowicki


Every year since my daughter was 12-years-old we have gone to Walt Disney World in June so her team can participate in the AAU Volleyball National Championships. When planning this trip we have the same conversation every year: Is it cheaper to fly or drive? This year I thought we would have that conversation right here for everyone to see step-by-step how we make the decision to calculate the cost of driving vs. flying.

Step 1: Map a route to Orlando. How long is the drive from where you live?

The quickest, and easiest, way to map a route to Florida is on Google Maps. Another option is AAA, they offer a service called TripTik where they map your route and include any hazards such as construction areas. Both of these typically include several options (ie. fastest, shortest, etc.).

Our trip is anywhere from 16 to 18 hours depending on traffic in the majors cities along our route which includes Indianapolis, Louisville, Nashville and Atlanta.

Step 2: How many travelers? Of those travelers how many are drivers?

Our trips usually just include my husband, my daughter and myself with my husband and I being the drivers. Having more than one driver makes our 16-18 hour trip a one day affair. When we first started driving to Florida six years ago my Hubby went with us making it possible to leave VERY early (like midnight) and arrive mid- to late- afternoon. I typically took the first shift then my hubby took over around Chattanooga. An advantage of leaving at this time is that you skip most of the rush hour traffic congestion as you are doing most of your big city driving at night.

The past few years Hubby has not gone on our annual pilgrimage. By not having that additional driver this means we would require an overnight stay somewhere during the trip (see Step 5).

Step 3: Do you have enough time?

Driving to Florida for most people willing to attempt it typically means adding one day on either side of your vacation to devote completely to traveling. This would make a seven day vacation nine days. The alternative is to shorten the time you are at Disney by two days taking seven days of park time down to five. If you have two or more drivers you can do the traveling during the nighttime hours possibly lessening the amount of time you are actually taking away from your vacation but you might have some very tired folks.

Step 4: Do you have a vehicle able to make the trip?

If you don’t have a vehicle you feel comfortable driving for long distances then you will have to add in the cost of a rental car which is more expensive than renting a car from Orlando International or Sanford (depending on which airport you fly into). It could also mean additional rental day if you are adding travel days on each end of your trip.

For the first five years we drove. However, our vehicle now has over 180,000 miles making it a more difficult decision.

Step 5: Is the trip so long you will need to break it up with an overnight stay somewhere along the route?

Adding an overnight stay will add the expense of a hotel going to and coming home from Disney. Researching hotels along the route is quite easy. Both Hotels.com and Expedia have a map feature which allows you to move your cursor along your route to find hotels. Being that I travel with just my teenage daughter, I do not like to venture too far off the highway to a hotel so consulting the map feature allows me to see exactly where the hotels are located.

We create a spreadsheet with one or two hotels in each of the major cities after Atlanta on the southbound trip and after Chattanooga on the northbound trip. After creating the list we DO NOT reserve a hotel. This list is for reference when we are on the road.

We like to drive as far as possible the first day and we don’t know how far that might be. The first year my daughter and I drove without Hubby we reserved a hotel in Macon, GA on our southbound trip. However, we made really good time and ended up in Macon around 7pm. I wasn’t tired at all but I had pre-paid for the hotel. We could easier have made it to at least Lake City, FL leaving us with only two hours remaining to Orlando. The next year we didn’t make a reservation and found that we could indeed make it all the way to Lake City, FL. (In all honestly, I wasn’t even tired when we stopped. I could have easily gone the rest of the way but Hubby thought I should stop.)

When searching out hotels, your hotel budget will depend on your taste. You can easily find hotels for $100 or less per night, if you are willing to give up some amenities such as free breakfast, inside hallways, etc. Before deciding you need deluxe accommodations remember, you really only need a place to lay your head for a few hours.

Step 6: When are you traveling?

This time of year you are traveling can weigh heavily on your decision. For example, the past two years we also traveled to Disney early November and early December. Given that my daughter is in school (let the debate begin) we knew we would not have a day on each side of our vacation to travel. Therefore, flying was our only option. We have also found during certain times of year you can sometimes find VERY cheap flights. This could easily sway your decision to on whether to fly or drive.

Step 7: Are there airports near you?

This step is multi-layered. In my area of the country there are several airports I could can from. There is a large regional (South Bend) and two hubs (Chicago – Midway and Chicago – O’Hare). Flying out of regional airports is typically more expensive than flying out of hubs. However, I have to factor in the hidden cost of gas and parking (possibly even Park, Sleep & Fly) when I travel to Midway or O’Hare.

There is another factor to consider here is that the larger airports typically have a wider variety of airlines to choose from. This includes some of the low cost alternative such as Spirit, JetBlue, Frontier and Southwest (where ‘bags fly free’). On the other hand our regional airport does have Allegiant Airlines which flies into Orlando-Sanford Airport but charges an arm and a leg for luggage.

Step 8: Research your vehicle details.

You will need to gather a couple of stats before we can start comparing cost:

  1. How many miles is your round trip? (From Step 1)
  2. How many gallons of gas does your vehicle hold?
  3. How many miles/gallon does your vehicle get?
  4. What is the estimated gas price when you will be traveling? (Check the AAA website or GasBuddy for info on gas prices.)

Step 9: Calculate the cost of driving.

(1) Total Round Trip Mileage 2,581
(3) Mileage/Gallon your vehicle averages 19.00
# of Gallons used round trip 133.00
(2) 1 Additional Fill-up while at WDW +20.00
Total Gallons of Gas Needed 153.00
(4) Average Gas Prices  X $2.50
Total Gas Cost $382.50

*The number relates to the answers from the questions in Step 8.

Step 10: Calculate the cost of flights including luggage.

Look for flights at all of the airports in your area. Don’t be afraid to look at the nearest hub airport even if it is a few hours away.

Departure Airport Chicago O’Hare Chicago Midway South Bend South Bend
Arrival Airport Orlando Orlando Sanford Orlando
Cheapest Airline Frontier Southwest Allegiant Delta
Fare $135.20pp $193.97pp $199.50 $289.20pp
Luggage Cost $25/bag $0 $50/bag $25/bag
Total Cost (7 days) $320.40 $387.94 $499.00 $628.40
Other items to consider This assumes each person would have one bag. On Southwest each person gets two bags free.

Step 11: Research the cost of rental cars for all scenarios (renting a car to drive, Sanford and Orlando).

Rental Car From Home** Rental Car From Orlando Rental Car From Sanford
$337.78 $207.39 $216.05

*I used Expedia.com to get these prices. They will be lower if you have a discount code, are a AAA member or work for a company which offers discounts.
**When renting from home I added day before and after for travel

Step 12: Compare the costs (including hidden cost)

Option #1 Option #2 Option #3 Option #4 Option #5 Option #6
Driving My Car Driving a Rental Flying from ORD Flying from MDW Flying from SBN (Allegiant) Flying from SBN (Delta)
Gas/Flight Cost

(2 travelers)

$382.50 $382.50 $320.40 $387.94 $499.00 $628.40
Hotel $300.00 $300.00 $0 $0 $0 $0
Airport Parking* $0 $0 $52/week $77/week $0** $0**
Round Trip Gas to Airport* $26.58 $20.00 $3.94 $3.94
Rental Car $0 $337.78 $207.39 $207.39 $216.05 $207.39
Total Cost $682.50 $1,020.28 $606.37 $692.33 $718.99 $839.73

*When calculating the cost of flying don’t forget to add the hidden cost of parking and traveling to the airport.
**I am lucky enough that I have family willing to either take me to the airport or pick up my car from short term parking.

Now that we have crunched all the numbers it’s time to analyze each option:

Option #1 – While driving my own car is the cheapest option, my car now has over 180,000 miles. Even though it still drives like a dream I don’t want to put anymore wear and tear on it if I don’t have to. So this is not an option for me.

Option #2 – This is the most expensive option by far and requires an additional day on each side of your vacation to travel. It’s a no-brainer to not pick this option.

Option #3 & #4 – These two options are the cheapest but both require a two hour drive to Chicago from my home. While two hours typically isn’t a big deal when departing, it is a totally different story when your flight arrives back in Chicago at 10:00pm and you still have a two hour drive ahead of you and you get to your car and find your battery is dead (yes, that did happen to me – Thankful for AAA membership!). For now, let’s keep Option #3 on the table because it’s the cheapest of all the choices.

Option #5 & #6 – These two options are the most expensive. However, the airport is only 15 minutes from my house. That’s pretty appealing. Given the $120 difference in these two flights let’s take the most expensive option off the table.

We are now down to Option #3 and Option #5. Drive to Chicago and fly Frontier or fly Allegiant from South Bend?

I like saving money more than anything so we chose Option #3, flying from Chicago to Orlando on Frontier, saving us $112. (That’s two quick service meals and a couple of Mickey Bars!)


  • If airline prices change and the Chicago prices come more in line with South Bend, this would definitely give us more to think about.
  • If you have a flight that leaves very early and you are driving to a hub airport I suggest Park, Sleep and Fly. It typically costs $30-50 more than offsite parking but well worth it.
  • Another hidden cost I didn’t include here comes into play if you are staying off-property. If you are staying at one of the hundreds of condos in the Walt Disney World area (which are the cheapest option be far in all of Orlando) you will need to bring your own supplies and buy food. By driving you can save yourself as much as $100 by bringing your own non-perishable food, toiletries, laundry detergent, etc.

Well, what would your choice be? Tweet us @MQPod with your decision.

Sue Nowicki is an alumnae of the 2014/15 Disney Parks Moms Panel. She splits her time between planning her next Walt Disney World vacation and being team mom to ten high-energy volleyball players where she fills the roles of secretary, navigator, head cheerleader, treasurer, athletic trainer and team psychologist. You can follow her on Twitter @JazzinDisneyMom.

Calculate the Cost of Driving vs. Flying to Disney

Calculating Cost of Driving vs. Flying

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