One perennial question for Walt Disney World visitors is the question: Should I drive or fly to my vacation?
In typical times, the answer to this primarily hinged on two factors, cost and time requirements. Now that we’re in the time of Coronavirus, there are a host of other elements to consider as you make this decision.
Disclaimer: Walt Disney World is taking numerous steps to ensure the health and safety of guests and employees. That said, the current economic and COVID situations mean that now may not be a prudent time to visit the parks, depending on your personal situation. This post assumes that you have assessed your own risk factors and already decided to vacation at Disney World.
I live in the New York City area. I’ve been to Walt Disney World in the ballpark of 100 times. Of those times, I’ve driven exactly twice. The drive itself takes approximately 16-18 hours, plus stops for gas/bathrooms/fuel/etc., making the journey a two-day affair, at a minimum. Contrast this with a two and a half hour flight and, for me, the choice had always been clear.
But now that Coronavirus is a factor in any travel situation, and my personal situation has changed a bit, the calculus is not as easy. For the first time in well over a decade, I’m seriously considering driving from the Northeast to Florida rather than flying. These are some of the things I’m thinking about, as well as some things that could play a role in your decision process.
The price of flights may be different than you’re used to.
In the past few years, I’ve typically encountered round-trip flight prices from the major NYC airports to Orlando International in the range of about $250 (for off-hours flights in the low season) to about $700 (for peak hour flight during holiday weekends). Airline pricing is now incredibly volatile, I recently saw a rate from Newark to Orlando, round trip, for about $100. That’s tough to pass up. You’d be hard pressed to find a mid-drive hotel for less than that, not to mention several tanks of gas and wear and tear on your vehicle.
Airline safety protocols vary.
Not all airlines are using the same standards of cleaning and mask enforcement. Delta’s mask policy is quite strict and is being strenuously enforced. On the down side of the safety spectrum, Southwest Airlines is no longer sanitizing seatbelt latches between all flights. Other airlines may have different issues. Additionally, you could book a flight and then a few days later their entire COVID procedure profile could change. Your personal health and your tolerance for risk will impact how you feel about these factors.
The science of COVID safety on airlines is still developing.
Early in the pandemic, airplanes were assumed to be the very definition of an unsafe environment. More recently, I’ve seen articles that air travel is not the disease vector it was once assumed to be. And of course much of your personal risk on an airplane depends on your own behavior. Wear multiple masks, don’t take them off to eat, sanitize your seat area, wash your hands thoroughly, sit away from others, and you’re likely in the safe travel zone. Sit maskless in an uncleaned middle seat and you’re exposing yourself to more risk. Nevertheless, we still don’t have all the answers on how to best fly safely. And of course, any exploration of air safety will have to be compared to factors of safety related to auto travel.
What are the COVID-related risks associated with driving?
If you’re driving for a number of hours, you will likely have to stop for food, fuel, and bathroom breaks. In each of those situations, you’ll be exposing yourself to untold numbers of people at rest stops and gas stations, any of whom could have questionable COVID safety habits.
You can mitigate some of these issues by bringing a cooler with your own food and by wearing a mask and sanitizing at fuel stops. I’ve even read more than one article about travelers avoiding public restrooms while road tripping by bringing an adult-size portable toilet, plastic bags, and a pop-up solo tent. This seems extreme to me, especially considering that once you get to Disney World you’ll almost certainly be using public facilities, but if you’re the wary sort, it is an option.
Depending on the distance you’re traveling, a drive may also involve an overnight hotel or campsite stay, each of which has myriad safety considerations of its own.
Unrelated to Coronavirus, there are general considerations about accident rates and other dangers of driving vs. flying that you may want to consider.
How many people are in your travel party? (Financial version)
When I visit Walt Disney World for research trips, I typically travel alone. That means I’m only paying for one flight. However, with a larger party, you’ll obviously need to pay for additional airfare. When driving, the cost of gas is only minimally impacted by adding an additional traveler, or two, or three. The larger your group, the more likely it is that, from a financial perspective, the transportation equation will fall on the side of driving.
How many people are in your party? (Workload version)
As I mentioned, I often travel to Walt Disney World on my own, mostly because my kids are in college and my husband’s work has limited vacation.
Driving alone could be tough for 4+ full days (2 there, 2 back), with no respite. However, with COVID modifying everyone’s schedules, my husband and at least one of my daughters are working fully remotely for the foreseeable future. This means they could work from almost anywhere, including a Disney World hotel room. They could drive with me! And more drivers equals an easier drive. (Though if more people are coming that increases the cost of food and park tickets, and it poses more opportunities for someone to pick up germs along the way.)
How much family bonding time do you need/want at this point?
If you had asked me in February if I’d want to go on a long road trip with my family, I’d have jumped at the chance to work in some unexpected bonding time. But, like many families, we’ve had a lot of togetherness lately (like, a lot, a lot) while stuck in quarantine. Depending on your dynamic, at this point in the pandemic, being captive with several people in a small space for days on end could be tantamount to torture. Flying for the win on that front.
How long is your trip?
If you only have a five-day vacation, then spending nearly that much time traveling in the car likely does not make sense. If you’re planning a three-week stay in Florida, then maybe car time doesn’t sound so bad.
A corollary of this is your distance from Florida. A two-day drive from New York is one thing. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, the 4-6 day drive on both sides of the trip would be a non-starter for most.
What is the COVID situation like along your route?
Disney is taking many COVID precautions (masks, temperature checks, etc.) making it a relatively safer spot than much of the Southeastern United States. If you live in a current safe zone (say, Vermont), you may feel that a few hours on a plane is less problematic than a days-long drive through COVID hotspots.
How will you get around Disney World once you’re there?
Pre-pandemic, when flying to Disney World, I rented a car about 25% of the time, usually when the trip was short or when I was going for a runDisney event with an early wake-up time. During most visits, I prefer to use Disney’s free transportation system. Despite Disney’s transportation social distancing precautions, I’m still not sure I want to be riding buses during the pandemic. During my next trip, I’ll want to have access to a private vehicle. This could be a rental car, but that’s an added expense and there are potential cleanliness issues. But if I drive, then I’ll obviously have my own car that’s occupied by only known people.
What other elements go into your fly/drive equation? How is your decision different now vs. your pre-pandemic?