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Is it better to fly or drive when you travel in Canada?

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We Canadians live in a big country. The second biggest in the world, in fact. And while there are many things to love about this expansive land—from its gorgeous varied landscapes to the wealth of fresh water and natural resources to its range of climates to more—there is one fact of life that’s just a bit harder to have affection for. And that’s how hard it is to get anywhere.

Every Canadian knows the struggle. Whether you’re trying to get from Victoria to St. John’s or Toronto to Hamilton, it’s expensive to traverse the Great White North. In this article, we’ll talk about the different costs of driving vs. flying in Canada, and which method of travel comes out on top between the two.

Flying in Canada: An Expensive Endeavour

After all, while some may feel comfortable with a few months’ worth of savings, others may sleep better at night if they have closer to an entire year accounted for. Again, this is personal.

The reality supports this anecdotal evidence. From data compiled on flyvsdrive.com, we can see that the lowest airfare available from Toronto to Vancouver was $782. Halifax to Vancouver was a whopping $1,023. Neither of these prices are exactly pocket change. It’s no wonder that these high prices have Canadians feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place when they’re deciding whether to drive vs fly.

Fly Vs Drive Score for Popular Routes in Canada

*Graph comparing the fly score and the drive score of the most popular routes in Canada. These scores were compiled using flyvsdrive.com. The fly score takes into account the airfare cost, distance, flight time, and transportation time to and from each airport. The drive score takes into account the driving distance, gas, vehicle wear and tear, tolls, and time spent driving

Why is flying in Canada so expensive?

Lack of competition

Lack of competition contributes to high airfare prices in Canada. Despite handling nearly 30 million airline passengers per year, Canada has few airlines compared to other countries with this passenger volume. For context, 80% of domestic flights in Canada are handled by either Air Canada or WestJet. For a country like Spain, who have a similar volume of passengers per year, the largest airline handles only 21% of flights, with the second largest provider handling 15%.

Taxes and fees

In a study from the World Economic Forum, Canada ranked 78th out of 117 for ticket taxes and airport charges. These fees vary from airline to airline, but almost all airports in Canada will charge an airport improvement fee. This is charged per passenger, and goes directly to the airport you are departing from. These can vary from $5 – $46. In comparison, the USA charges a similar fee, but it’s capped at $4.50 per passenger. This is surprising when you consider the fact that Canada actually ranks pretty poorly in terms of the quality of airport infrastructure.

Lack of ultra-low-cost carriers

The low-cost carrier business model is simple: offer fewer amenities (if any at all) in return for a lower ticket price. Then, allow customers to purchase add-ons that suit their needs, such as checked or even carry-on bags.

There’s been an uptick of low-cost carriers in Canada within recent years, but we still lag behind over countries. The International Civil Aviation Organization lists only four active low-cost carriers in Canada (and two of these are Westjet and Westjet Encore). This is much lower than the United States, where there are at least nine separate entities.

Low population density

Canada is the world’s second largest country by land area. But when it comes to population, it ranks 37th. Research has shown that when the distance between destinations increase, the frequency of passengers decrease. There simply isn’t a large customer base here relative to the extensive routes that we require.

Operational costs

It’s not often at the forefront of the mind of customers, but every airline is subject to something called a “landing fee” each trip that they take. They vary greatly by airport and are often calculated very differently depending on the airport, so it’s a hard cost to compare.

However, one thing is certain, and it’s that Canada has a reputation for expensive landing fees. This is partially due to the fact that the Government of Canada owns the country’s airports and collects rent from them —an abnormal situation compared with the rest of the world, where many airports are at least privately-owned.

Global connectivity

Canada is less connected to international airline routes compared to its counterparts. According to the World Economic Forum, we rank 13th in the world, behind countries like China, the United States, the UK, France, and Germany. We rank even more poorly when it comes to bilateral air service agreements, which allows airlines to share route operation for the sake of availability. All of the aforementioned countries rank in the top 10, while Canada ranks a measly 19th.

Is driving in Canada any cheaper?

Thanks to the Trans-Canada Highway—which is, by the way, one of the world’s longest roads—the country is set up well for travel by vehicle. It’s possible to drive from one side of it to another with little issue, except for the risk of running into wildlife or inclement weather or running out of gas.

Speaking of gas, it wouldn’t be possible to talk about the state of driving in Canada without talking about the price of gas. As of June  2022, the average cost for a litre of gasoline across Canada was 187.8. This isn’t even the highest that it’s gotten this year—the average hit 207.2 in June. Compare this with a country average of 117.7 per litre in March 2022 and 124.40 per litre in July 2019, and there’s no denying there has been a drastic change in gas prices since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Why are gas prices so expensive in Canada?

Let’s start this off with saying it’s not a uniquely Canadian phenomenon. Gasoline prices have been on a steep incline around the world. Reasons for this include the conflict in Europe, lingering effects of the pandemic, and supply chain issues.

Gas prices in Canada are also subject to a federal carbon tax as well as a provincial fuel tax. The federal carbon tax adds a cost of an additional 10 cents per litre while provincial tax amounts vary from 27 cents in the Vancouver area of British Columbia to no tax at all in the province of Alberta.

Gas prices vs. jet fuel: are they the same thing?

Of course, automobiles aren’t the only mode of transportation affected by high gasoline prices. But the correlation isn’t as simple as you’d think.

Car gasoline and airplane jet fuel are not the same thing, though they both come from the same place (oil). It’s not the same thing as diesel either, as all of these gasoline types will have different chemical makeup.

Still, because they’re both oil-derived, you’ll see their price fluctuations follow a similar pattern. The current increase in gas prices haven’t done the aviation industry any favours. Airlines across the world are facing the same high costs and shortages as drivers are seeing.

And they’re not thrilled about the idea of these high costs eating into their profit, which means that the price increase is transferred onto the consumer. Not great news for anyone hoping that flying in Canada will soon be less expensive.

Driving vs. flying: what’s actually better?

As you can probably already tell, our answer to this is a resounding “it depends”.

If we look at the data from flyvsdrive.com, we can unearth a clear pattern. Driving is the more economical option for trips covering less than 400 miles (640 km). For trips of over 400 miles, however, flying allows for better bang for your buck.

Take, for example, trips that include Toronto as the starting point. If you’re traveling to Halifax, which is 1118 miles (km) away by car, it would cost you $568.02 in gas for a one way trip. The cheapest airfare that we found for this trip was $294.

However, there are other less-obvious costs to driving. When driving, you need to take into consideration depreciation of your car. According to the CAA, depreciation is the most expensive part of owning a car — not gas or maintenance, but depreciation. While the highway driving associated with roadtrips is usually less harsh on your vehicle than city driving, it still contributes to the depreciation of your vehicle.

There are also some trip attributes that make driving impractical. One thing to consider is that most flying vs. driving costs are calculated for one passenger with one piece of luggage. If you’re traveling with equipment, or even moving, it will be likely more cost effective

to travel in a vehicle (instead of shipping your items with an airline).

That being said, there are also additional “hidden costs” to flying. Transportation to and from an airport can add up to be a considerable expense.

Time is also money. While it may be more expensive to fly, it takes considerably less time than driving. This could be a fair trade-off for some travelers.

Driving vs. flying: the bottom line

With the price increases all around, it would be safe to assume that travel has stalled in Canada. Surprisingly, the data is actually showing us that the opposite is happening. And while the unemployment rate across the country remains low, our wages are not keeping up with the cost of consumption. Nonetheless, Canadians have proven themselves to be a bunch that values traveling and will continue to do so despite the economic challenges.

The question is will they fly or drive? Let’s leave you with a checklist of questions you can ask yourself should you find you’re faced with this decision:

  • What are current gas prices? How much do I see myself spending at the pumps if I choose to drive?
  • Am I willing to take on the cost of vehicular depreciation?
  • Are any airlines running a promotion that will score me a cheaper ticket?
  • How much time will I save by driving vs. flying?
  • Do you have an affordable way to get to and from an airport?
  • How much luggage am I bringing with me?

There is no right or wrong answer — just what works for you. And whether you’re taking to the open skies or hitting the open road, you’ll have a more satisfying trip if you put some thought into the cost of traveling beforehand. Your wallet will be sure to thank you.

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