Driving Vs. Flying: How Recent Trends Are Impacting Travel in 2023
It is no news that airports are increasingly becoming a hassling experience for travelers — long check-in and security lines, lost luggage and flight cancellations, delays or total meltdowns. Airline ticket prices are soaring; the St. Louis Federal Reserve’s Consumer Price Index for airline tickets hit an all-time high last July.
Even some airlines concede that travelers should expect more of the same woes in 2023. The turmoil has some aviation experts declaring the end days of flying merriment as the bar lowers and we strive merely for uneventful transit. Considering all this, is driving the better way to get to our vacations in 2023?
From recent statistics to surveys and a few tips for travel in 2023, here is a breakdown of everything you will learn about on this page:
- Recent Flying and Driving Trends
- Recent RV Trends
- Recent Traveler Sentiments
- Tips for Flying and Driving in 2023
Recent Flying and Driving Trends
The latest data from AAA forecasts nearly 102 million Americans drove to their destinations for end-of-year holiday celebrations in 2022. Only about seven million flew. That is two million more drivers and one million more fliers than in 2021. However, flying had a percentage growth rate that was seven times higher than that of driving. Flying also hit closer to 2019 levels than driving; AAA forecasts 2022 year-end holiday air travel was roughly 2% less than in 2019 and driving nearly 6% less.
Higher gas prices in 2022 curbed driving enthusiasm and recovery. Initially, the outlook for retail gasoline in the U.S. looked optimistic for 2023. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) lasted forecast predicted national average nominal gas prices at $3.36 per gallon this year, nearly 60 cents less than in 2022 — a year that saw record inflation-adjusted gas prices not seen since 2014.
However, a supply shock to the oil market this year nullifies the EIA’s latest forecast. A massive Saudi-led OPEC production cut announced in early April has shrunk global oil supplies by over a million barrels per day. The news sent U.S. crude oil prices soaring by 6% in a single day but have since held steady at the new premium. National average gas prices hit $3.60/gallon by Easter this year, and some analysts predict averages are likely to hit above $4/gallon this summer, as reported by the Associated Press.
For perspective, a year ago, gas was already averaging $4.11/gallon, according to AAA. Even with the production cut, we’re still 60 cents behind that average, and although we will likely see $4/gallon this year, it’s a long shot that gas will reach close to $5/gallon like last summer.
With gas prices projected to be high but relatively lower than last year and airline headaches still in recent memory, will we see a surge in terrestrial travel in 2023? RV trends are one indicator of what to expect.
Recent RV Trends
Total manufacturer RV shipments in 2022 were the third-highest on record, according to the RV Industry Association. However, shipments are falling compared to the all-time high of 2021 and early 2022; total RV shipments were down nearly 54% in February 2023 compared to February 2022.
New RV shipments are one metric, but since 2021 saw a roughly 21% rise in shipments over 2019, it’s crucial to see if travelers are actually taking their RVs on the road more.
Miles driven by long wheelbase light duty vehicles and single-unit 3-axle trucks were up only around 3% in 2021 compared to 2019, according to the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) annual Highway Statistics Series Report. While these two vehicle types are not exclusive to motorhomes and travel trailers, they capture most RV miles and are a barometer of modestly rising RV enthusiasm. However, the FHWA has not released 2022 data (the record gas price year), which could reveal a significant cooling off of RV miles driven.
Of course, gas is not the only cost of RV travel, especially if you want to buy a new RV in 2023.
The cost of a loan on a new RV is beginning to compound. Inflation is still unchecked, and the Federal Reserve hiked interest rates for the ninth time in a row. Yearly price increases on new RVs already dramatically outpace inflation. These economic developments could wind up backsliding some of the industry’s recent ownership and diversity growth.
Recent Traveler Sentiments
So, driving and flying numbers are increasing, but flying is recovering faster. Gas prices are climbing but lower than last year; airfare and air hassles are growing. RV ownership has exploded recently but could be pulling back. Which of these factors will have the most influence on travel in 2023? Will travelers choose journey over destination and start their vacation in a car or RV rather than a plane?
A Cars.com survey last Fall revealed that 80% of those who intended to travel for Thanksgiving chose to drive. However, that is a 4% drop from 2021. When asked in 2021 ($3.02/gallon) if gas prices affect their travel plans, only half of the respondents said yes; when asked in 2022 ($3.97/gallon), that number jumped to 63%.
But consider this: only a quarter of respondents who drove for Thanksgiving in 2021 said they preferred to fly, but COVID-19 disruptions made them change plans. In 2022, only 20% of respondents let recent flight disruptions sway them to drive instead — however, that was before the 2022 winter holidays and the most significant airline meltdown of the year.
Higher oil prices also affect airline costs, but not as directly to consumers and can also lag significantly behind the price at the pump for motorists. Globally, fuel represents about 30% of airline operating costs, and fuel cost increases don’t usually raise airline prices dollar for dollar.
So which economic factor has the most significant impact? That will remain to be seen in 2023.
We know that airfare and gas prices are rising. Traveling by car is cheaper than flying. The economy is tightening. However, airline disruptions weigh less on travelers each year as we grow habituated to them.
So what travel behavior should we expect in 2023? Since flying and driving will be more expensive this year, we’ll have to wait and see which transportation method fairs marginally better at cost and the degree to which that shifts travel behaviors.
With higher overall prices, this summer could look like the last. And just like last summer, we’ll be testing travel demand elasticity. Has the post-pandemic demand shock, aka “revenge travel,” worn out or will vacationers largely ignore higher-than-average prices like last year proving travel costs are still relatively inelastic?
As of April 10, TSA passenger volumes for 2023 are up 18% over 2022, signaling revenge travel is far from over. However, gains have slowed since mid-February to only roughly 11% higher on any given day. Still, 2023 flight prices are averaging 20% higher than 2022, according to Hopper.
The air travel market is unlikely to cool down. Gas prices are unlikely to hit the record $5/gallon average we saw last year, so the stage is set for a mild increase in vacationers traveling by car this year.
RV rental platforms like Outdoorsy are positioned for an RV rental supply increase from owners seeking to hedge against rising ownership costs. These platforms are also set for increased RV rental demand from potential new RV owners who might reconsider their purchase plans this year. With high but relatively lower gas prices, rising airline headaches, inflation and interest rates, renting an RV could be the optimal vacation plan for many Americans in 2023.
Tips for Flying and Driving in 2023
If you plan to fly this year, it will differ from a few years ago. Here are a few tips to remember as you plan that vacation.
- Use scouting apps like Hopper (Available on iOS and Android) to time booking right.
- Plan extra time at the airport this year; our guide breaks down when to arrive.
- Avoid traveling around major holidays when airline meltdown chances are higher.
- TSA PreCheck just set a new record for the most active users — join the club.
- Booking separate one-way tickets can save you on domestic flights.
As more of us likely head back on the road this year, here are a few suggestions to make your cross-country travel easier.
- Plan itineraries based on your speed and comfort; consider itinerary apps like Roadtrippers (available on iOS and Android).
- Service your vehicle, especially your oil, tires, filters and air flow/oxygen sensors. Also, consider additional roadside assistance options like AAA.
- Use GasBuddy (Available on iOS and Android) to find the cheapest gas stations along your route. Save even more fuel (up to 25 cents/gallon) when you sign up for their free gas card, which functions like a debit card, pulling funds from a linked bank account.
- Download offline maps for areas with spotty reception; instructions for Google and Apple. Better yet, buy a paper map just in case.
- If you are navigationally apt and followed the tips above, try to get yourself lost on purpose!
- Plan your vacations before or after major holidays, especially visiting National Parks with limited RV space.
- Locate hidden gem campsites using the tent and RV camping app, The Dyrt (Available on iOS and Android).