Flying is for the birds

When I was growing up, my family would travel to our vacation destinations. That usually meant getting in the Aerostar and driving west on I-40 to Albuquerque.

I didn’t fly until I was nineteen.

I got married into a family of flyers. Kate’s father worked for American Airlines, so they were able to fly on standby almost for free. Kate spent her childhood flying around the country on a plane and could come home from college in Utah whenever she wanted (sometimes in first class; she says she felt like a real ballerina sitting there at twenty years, watching people zip past her in the coach).

When we got married, we adopted Kate’s childhood vacation method and flew to our destinations (not first class, alas). My children have been traveling by plane since they were babies. I like to remind them regularly that their dear old daddy didn’t fly until he was nineteen. “Nineteen, children! Nineteen!” This is my version of “When I was your age, I walked five miles to school barefoot uphill in the snow.”

But in recent years, flying has lost its appeal. Even for Kate. This started happening even before COVID disrupted the airline industry.

Here’s why we’ve been driving way more than flying these days.

Why flying stinks (and driving is better)

The biggest advantage of hovering over the ride is obvious: it’s faster. A faster mode of transportation gives you more time to enjoy your destination. We’ve already driven all the way to Vermont. It takes two long days by car to get there from Tulsa. Flying there takes half a day. We can enjoy more time in Green Mountain State instead of looking out the window as we cruise through Terre Haute, Indiana.

But aside from this advantage, flying has a bunch of distinct downsides:

Flying is stressful. The stakes are high when traveling. If you’re late or miss your ID, you get hosed. You can’t make it to your destination, and by wasting your ticket, you just put your money in a paper shredder.

Because the stakes are so high when you travel by plane, I become Nervous Travel Dad.

I check and double-check (and triple-check and quadruple-check) that Kate and I have our driver’s licenses so we can go through the TSA. This annoys Kate. I think I’m just careful. Again, if you don’t have your ID, you won’t pass. It’s a do or die thing.

To make sure I don’t miss our flight, I want to get to the airport as soon as possible. So I constantly pester my family to go out. It also annoys Kate, who would rather we do it on the plane with an extremely slim time margin (she likes the rush, or something). Our approaches to travel time management are diametrically opposed, creating tension before we’ve even left home. Not a good way to start a vacation.

When we drive, the stress of travel is largely eliminated. We no longer have to worry about leaving the house at a specific time. Kate can linger to get ready, as she usually does. I no longer harangue everyone to move. Nervous Travel Dad disappears on road trips. Well, he’ll still be making appearances when we’ve got a quarter tank of gas left, and he thinks we should stop right at the next Love’s. But that only happens occasionally.

Not only do Kate and I find car trips less stressful, we actually find driving to be actively relaxing. There’s something about watching the landscape go by that does your brain good. Kate often finds she does some of her best Sunday fireside writing while driving a shotgun while I drive. I often do nothing – not listening to music, not listening to podcasts – except staring at the windshield. I love looking out to the horizon and gazing at those giant clouds hovering over the New Mexico desert. My mind goes blank. It’s meditative.

Flying forces you to join the mass of humanity. Meet at the crowded airport. Queue with a group of people to check in. Then line up with a group of people to go through security. Then wait at the gate with a group of people to board the plane. Then, squeeze in with a bunch of people in a tin can hurtling through the sky. Then head to another crowded airport. Then line up with a group of people to rent a car.

I don’t like groups of people. You feel like cattle herded down a chute.

Driving has a degree of solitude that I much prefer. When you’re in your car, it’s just you. Or you and your spouse. Or you, your spouse and your children. Yes, in the case of this last scenario, your children may be annoying, but they are a familiar annoying and an annoying one that you can do something about. Instead of having to silently tolerate the stranger berating the counter agent or scratching their fingernails (yes, I’ve sat next to that person on a plane). In a car, you feel more like a human being, and less like a cow.

Stealing puts you at the mercy of forces beyond your control. The flight was cancelled ? There’s a malfunction on the plane and now you have to sit on the tarmac for an hour while your kid screams? The plane is about to crash into a mountain? You can’t do anything about it.

Air travel is an exercise in learned helplessness and silent (but bubbling) desperation.

When driving, everything from your start time to your pace is almost entirely in your control. Sure, sometimes accidents happen and your car can potentially break down, but even then, rather than having to sit around passively not knowing anything about what’s going on and if/how things are fixed, the solution to fix the problem lies entirely in your hands.

Flying is uncomfortable. Airplanes have become more cramped over the years so that airlines can fit more people on a flight. Because we live in Tulsa, most of the planes we initially take are those little puddle jumpers that fly you to bigger connecting airports. These things are tiny. I’m not a big guy, but even I feel cramped on a plane. I can’t imagine what it’s like if you’re a bigger person. Damn.

Therefore, you have to somehow contort yourself so as not to overflow into other people’s space. Sometimes you have to sit in that cramped position for hours at a time. The worst!

Road trips are comfortable. My seat is nice and spacious, and I have plenty of compartments for all my stuff. I have a cup holder for my Diet Mountain Dew, and I don’t have to worry about fighting for the armrest because I have my own.

If you need to pee, you can stop at a rest area and go pee in a room larger than a broom closet. You can walk around and stretch your legs and arms. You can be quiet and expansive with your breaks.

Flying forces you to pack light. Of course, trying to fit a week’s worth of stuff into a small carry-on is an uplifting exercise in creative minimalism. But it’s fine to bring whatever you want on the trip without worrying about being cut $35 to bring another bag.

Don’t want to run to the store for travel toiletries? Throw the whole bottle of shampoo in your suitcase. Not sure if you’ll need a rain jacket? Might as well bring one. Want to track your workouts while you’re away? Heck, you can even throw a set of dumbbells or kettlebells in your trunk.

Flying is expensive. Airline tickets have been outrageously expensive lately. Even with higher gas prices, driving is significantly cheaper. Rather than paying big bucks for the privilege of all the inconvenience listed above, you can use it to have more fun at your destination.

Long live the Road Trip!

Thanks to our growing disenchantment with flying, our family took more road trips. In fact, I’m writing this from the mountains of New Mexico, after escaping the scorching heat of Oklahoma by car.

Now, I’m not totally opposed to stealing. I will if the gain is big enough. If I was going to Japan for two weeks, I would put up with a not-so-nice flight to get there, definitely.

But given the choice between driving and flying these days, I’m more inclined to choose a destination that will allow me to get there by road.

I’m very happy to go back to flying birds.

Are you going on a road trip this summer? Listen to this podcast on how to make it the best experience possible:

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