Cars line up to get into Zion National Park

This year, we’ve gone on a lot of road trips. We drove the Florida Keys, the Columbia River Gorge, much of Southern California, the Pacific Coast Highway, and Iceland, to name a few. Thanks to these trips, along with several for work (and the fact that we sold our own car recently), I’ve rented more vehicles in 2015 than ever before.

We’ve also flown a lot, and continued using trains. And gradually I’ve come to realize something that should’ve been obvious but nevertheless surprised me: Trains almost always encourage longer trips, while cars do the opposite.

Here’s why:

When you travel by train, you mostly pay for your transportation up front. So, if you’re traveling from Rome to Paris, getting there basically costs the same thing whether you’re gone for three days, or 30. As a result, you get more bang for your buck by extending the trip.


But if you drive and have to rent a car, the exact opposite happens because car rentals are usually charged by the day. So, the faster you travel and the quicker the trip is over, the less money you spend. It’s exactly the opposite of what happens when buying a point to point train ticket.

Of course there are exceptions to this rule, but the general concept remains: If you’re paying for transportation by the day, it always makes economic sense to shorten a trip, but if you’re pay a lump sum up front it makes sense to extend.

Planes, of course, offer a slight complication. Often they function like trains because their tickets are expensive. Keep in mind, however, that plenty of people fly to a destination, then rent a car. The fact that planes don’t connect to smaller cities and towns — the way trains do in Europe — also means they almost always require some additional form of transportation.

All of this might seem pretty obvious, but I think it plays out in subtle ways that aren’t immediately apparent. For example, Americans — who have an abysmal domestic rail system — infamously don’t travel as much as their counterparts in other countries. They also get fewer vacation days and often don’t even use them.

There are a lot of factors that shape Americans’ vacation habits, but it seems possible that the underlying culture is being influenced by an economic system that incentivizes short trips over long ones.

Sometimes these economic forces also have very immediate impacts. This summer while in Iceland, Laura and I cut our trip short because, among other things, the costs were adding up more quickly than we expected. That was in (large) part due to the expense of renting a car and getting around.

By contrast, on other European trips when exclusively using trains, we’ve actually extended trips midway through.

I had never really compared the underlying economics of extending or cutting short trips. I knew money was one reason I made these decisions, but it wasn’t until I looked back that I began to really understand the built-in structural ways that transportation encourages one type of travel over another. In other words, cars and trains seem likely to consistently prompt different sets of decisions, and to set in motion a domino effect that shapes the larger culture.

— Jim Dalrymple II


Written by Jim Dalrymple II

Urbanism and travel writer. Also a journalist covering the news.


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