Commuting by Car or Plane: Who Has It Worse?

Car vs. Plane

As everyone comes home from the holiday weekend, many of you are likely to be getting into a car or plane to get to work.

I spent about two and a half years commuting by air to glamorous destinations like Seattle, Minneapolis and Denver, while spending two more commuting more than an hour and twenty minutes each way from San Francisco to various locations around San Jose. How do they stack up?

Getting up at the crack of dawn

When I flew, I set my alarm for 4:30am, hopped into a cab by 4:50am and made it to the airport by 5. Traffic? Hah! I didn’t miss the fact that even on my worst days driving, I never had to get up that early, even for 6am East Coast conference calls (Are they aware there are other timezones? - it’s ok, I’ll just schedule a 4pm meeting on Friday!)

Edge - Driving


Constantly having to pay attention

The bright side of flying was that once on the plane, I could pass out. It was still well before 6am and even with another two hours of sleep, I could still answer all of my email, prepare any materials for the week and have my morning coffee well before landing. Compare that to eighty full minutes staring straight ahead on the road (into the blinding sun half the year), trying to avoid all the crazy folks racing to make it in before that 8:30 or 9am meeting. The caffeinated road rage or eccentric habits, I do not miss.

Edge - Flying


Sleeping in your own bed

While business travel sounds glamorous, the allure wears off pretty quickly when you’re checking into the same hotel for the third or fourth time and the staff now knows you by name. Tuesday Trivia Night? 2nd Date Plans? Nope, you’re heading from the office park to Panera to the hotel lounge, where they may throw you a bone with a cash bar happy hour in the lounge. You really feel like you’re getting the most out of your life at the exact moment you peel bruschetta off the tray and realize that it’s actually pasta that’s been sitting there too long.

Edge - Driving


Pumping Gas or Buying Plane Tickets

One nice perk of the air travel was some modicum of recognition by the airlines. Not during ANY of my commutes mind you (hit status on three different airlines and never, not once, got an upgrade while flying for work) but if I booked a vacation overseas, I got to sit at the airline lounge with big kids! Vegas? I get to fly up front and pass out drink tickets. At least I felt like sort of a baller on the few chances I could steal away. Shell rewards never got me that far.

Edge - Flying


Flexibility to leave when you want

Some days when I commuted to South Bay, my meetings would be over by 2 or 3pm. I had some work to finish or maybe was starting a long weekend, but all I had to do was pack up and drive home. On the other hand, I once arrived at a client on Monday to find out it was a company holiday and all of my meetings were cancelled for the week. Take the next flight back? Nope, $2000 more. Stayed till Thursday.

Edge - Driving


The ability to go full nomad

I only did this after I left my job, but I knew a few consultants who leased out their apartment, sold or rented their car and went full nomad, flying anywhere that was cheaper than their home city (as was our policy) every weekend and crashing on friends’ couches or staying in hotels or hostels. If you commuted far enough, this could get you anywhere in North America and parts of Europe in slow season. This was a pretty rad perk, though I could see it getting pretty exhausting over time. You could also forget about maintaining friendships or relationships at home, but for some people this was their moment and they’d come back with half a hangover and crazy stories from their weekend.

Edge - Flying


Time you will never get back

This one netted out for me pretty evenly surprisingly, with about 10 hours per week on a plane when commuting to other regions and 10.4 hours a week commuting by car (we usually worked from home on Fridays), but I could see it being drastically different if you drive further or fly transcontinental on a weekly basis.

Edge - Working from Home



No matter how you get to work, nobody wants to spend undue time commuting. I always used the convenient reasons above to justify how much time I was spending, but was also always looking for ways to become more efficient (like literally dumping my work clothes straight into the laundry and right back into my bag, or scheduling a car service with the same driver via text the night before - more tips like this to come).

So given all the reasons above, which side has it better? Is flying all it’s cracked up to be? Do you do anything to make driving more bearable? What’s your craziest commute story?

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