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I drove 4 hours to find a nonstop flight (and saved $450). Was it clever, or foolish? - Saving You Money

The Plain Dealer  Cleveland logo The Plain Dealer Cleveland 3/30/2023 Sean McDonnell,
Health officials advise against traveling to large Thanksgiving gatherings this year due to the coronavirus. In this image, baggage is loaded on to a Delta Airlines jet at Cleveland Hopkins Airport. © Gus Chan/ Health officials advise against traveling to large Thanksgiving gatherings this year due to the coronavirus. In this image, baggage is loaded on to a Delta Airlines jet at Cleveland Hopkins Airport.

CLEVELAND, Ohio — Most frugal vacations start with finding a cheap plane ticket. If you can’t find one in Cleveland, is driving to an airport in Akron, Detroit or even Cincinnati worth saving a couple hundred dollars?

Oddly enough, yes, because driving to a faraway airport isn’t just a money saver. It can also be a time saver — and help you avoid delay-related headaches — under the right circumstances.

Instead of using Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, I made the four-hour drive to the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport.

Was it unconventional? Yes. And to be fair, having friends in the Northern Kentucky area made it much easier. But I didn’t it only to be a penny-pincher. It was also more convenient.

Flight options and prices change depending on when and where you’re flying, so it’s hard to give you an apples-to-apples comparison. But here’s how it worked out for me.

Driving to fly: Is it cheaper?

For two people traveling to New Orleans, flying out of Cincinnati instead of Cleveland saved me at least $450, even after adding in the cost for gasoline.

Pickings were slim when it came to flights. My travel dates were flexible. But I had no options for nonstop flights from Cleveland to New Orleans in March.

Breeze Airways has a nonstop flight out of the Akron-Canton Airport, and it would have been my first choice, but the “seasonal” flight was only available for a limited time.

The cheapest option from Cleveland was a $130 roundtrip ticket on Spirit. But for a variety of reasons — like landing in New Orleans at midnight and 11 hours of traveling on the return flights — it wasn’t a great option.

Southwest was the best option from Cleveland for price and practicality. A ticket with one layover, depending on which day you flew, was about $400 roundtrip.

Allegiant, meanwhile, had a nonstop flight out of Cincinnati for $120 roundtrip.

After it was all said and done — including taxes, fees and luggage costs — I spent $340 for two round-trip tickets and a checked-bag on Allegiant. Add in $50 of gasoline for the drive, and traveling cost me roughly $450.

Southwest would have let us avoid the drive. But it would have cost anywhere from $850 to $950, depending on when we left.

Is it time-consuming?

Time is money. But in this particular case, flying out of Cincinnati didn’t cost me much time.

I spent four hours driving each way, and since my flight was a nonstop, it was under two hours each way; so, 12 hours of travel time roundtrip.

The cheap Spirit flight would have taken 4½ hours one way, and a whopping 11 hours to get home, once layovers were included. Let’s mark it at 16 hours.

Southwest is a little harder to calculate because we had options for morning, afternoon or evening flights. Each flight had slightly different ticket prices.

Flights leaving and coming back averaged out to about 4½ hours with layovers accounted for — about nine hours of travel time.

I’m not accounting for delays, time getting through airport security or other travel mishaps. I can’t say if Cleveland or Cincinnati has the “quicker” airport. And I don’t have any reason to believe that either Spirit, Allegiant or Southwest are immune from delays.

But when accounting for just travel time — driving, flying and layovers — using Allegiant took three extra hours or so compared to Southwest.

Is driving to another airport practical?

If it was a pain in the you-know-what, I wouldn’t recommend driving across the state just to save money. But in a lot of ways, it’s also practical.

Let’s say each time you fly, you consider a host of airports: Cleveland, Akron-Canton, Columbus, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Detroit. That gives flyers a lot more choice. Which means better prices, but also better flights.

This is especially true with nonstop flights. Because avoiding layovers is avoiding potential problems.

Flying Southwest would have meant a layover, and changing planes, in another airport like Denver, Baltimore or Nashville. If my flight out of Cleveland is late, I risk missing my second plane in Nashville. All of a sudden, the “quicker” route is taking longer.

If you’re flying internationally, or just have an important trip, I imagine a nonstop flight is worth driving for. You probably don’t want to risk getting stuck somewhere.

Of course, there are plenty of variables that are personal to you.

If I didn’t have friends in the Cincinnati area, I wouldn’t have had a place to park my car or a place to stay. I would have spent anywhere from $20 to $80 on parking, and about $120 for a hotel room. But scheduling the right flight can avoid any need to stay in Cincinnati.

Want to try it yourself? Here’s what to keep in mind:

Thinking of driving just to fly? There are a couple obvious things to keep in mind and some not so obvious ones.

The first things I’d look at are ticket prices, time traveling (driving, flying, layovers included), baggage fees, parking and whether you’ll need a hotel.

Another thing to think about is time off, which is limited for most employees. I’d pay another $50 for a flight if it meant not having to use PTO on a travel day.

It’s also true that avoiding flying altogether might make sense, but consider everything.

Let’s take Nashville, for instance. I was looking for a flight because I wanted to avoid the eight-hour drive, finding a hotel with parking included, and burning a vacation day. But I couldn’t find my desired flight out of Cleveland.

I could book two $176 tickets the Akron-Canton Airport, letting me leave Friday and return Monday. Or I could drive for $105 in gasoline. I lose the convenience of flying; I gain the ability to leave whenever I want — which potentially means missing less work and burning less vacation time.

To be fair, it also means putting more miles on your vehicle, paying for parking, meals on the road, etc. My thought is that anything eight hours or under is worth considering. But that’s more personal preference and less dollars and cents.

Should you try it?

To be clear, I think flying out of other cities’ airports is the exception and not the rule.

I wouldn’t make Cincinnati or Detroit the first airport I check. But when I can’t find a cheap, convenient ticket out of Cleveland, then I’ll look at other airports.

For example. If you’re flying to Seattle, Alaska Airlines is the only option for a direct flight. It’s about $310 for a weekend trip right now — cheaper than usual. But when I look at nearby airports, they have an almost identical flight.

There’s a few destinations where this could work. Other than a seasonal flight that Frontier just announced on Tuesday, there aren’t any nonstop flights from Cleveland to San Diego. Currently, an average of 106 people travel from Cleveland Hopkins to San Diego daily, taking connecting flights.

But Detroit has options. At the time of writing, the pricing is similar. But it’s an option I’ll be keeping my eye on, and I’ll set up email alerts to keep an eye on prices.

The top unserved markets, according to airport officials, are San Antonio and Austin, Texas; Milwaukee; Kansas City; Salt Lake City; Portland. All could be targets for this strategy.

Looking at more airports will give you more options as a consumer. That should, at least in some cases, save you money. If you’re lucky, it’ll save you from having a layover too.

Saving You Money is and The Plain Dealer’s column about saving money. We want to know how we can help you save money. Send your questions and comments to

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