Running on Empty: A Cost Analysis of Movie Road Trips

According to the American Road and Transportation Builders Association there are more than 4 million miles of road in the United States, and if you’re an adventurous motorist, they can take you to some pretty exciting places. Maybe that’s why the great American road trip has become such a staple of American cinema; there are endless stories to be told on the open road, from men trying to return to their families like “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” to women trying to escape theirs, like in “Thelma and Louise,” or from two friends searching for the perfect trip in “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” to two friends searching for the perfect cure for the munchies in “Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle.” Movies have reminded us time and time again that if you want something, it’s out there somewhere; you just have to put some serious time behind the wheel to get it.

Of course, movies also like to remind us that these trips almost always come with their fair share of unforeseen accidents, adventures and incidents, and most of them will end up costing you a lot more than your time. Travel can be awfully expensive, so that’s why we’ve put together a list of our favorite movie road trips and compared them by cost. Hopefully this will help you out next time you end up on the highway with a dead relative strapped to your roof or stuffed in your trunk.

Movie Road Trips Infographic


For our analysis, we started with 10 of the most popular road trip movies ever made:

  • National Lampoon’s Vacation
  • Tommy Boy
  • Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
  • Easy Rider
  • Road Trip
  • Planes, Trains and Automobiles
  • Little Miss Sunshine
  • Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle
  • Thelma and Louise

Right away, it seems that a good way to cut costs on a road trip is to make it a two-person affair. Seven out of these 10 movies only feature two protagonists — usually best friends like Harold and Kumar or Thelma and Louise, but sometimes they’re forced together like Neal and Del in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” The only trips to feature more than two travelers are “Vacation,” “Road Trip” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” And while these all turned out to be amazing bonding experiences for friends or families, the effort of moving multiple people really blew up the cost. Nowhere is this more clear than in the types of vehicles used. Harry and Lloyd from “Dumb and Dumber” managed to travel 700 miles on a mini bike that got 70 miles to the gallon. They may have looked silly scrunched up on a bike meant for one, but they saved some serious cash. Clark Griswold, on the other hand, needed an entire Queen Wagon Family Truckster to transport his clan from Chicago to Los Angeles. This gas-guzzling station wagon ran at a measly 17 miles to the gallon. Add that to the fact the movie was released at the height of the OPEC oil crisis in the early 1980s and you have to wonder if that trip to Wally World was really worth it.

The Griswolds also traveled the longest distance to reach their destination, trekking a grand total of 2,395 miles. But they’re trailed closely by Harry and Lloyd, who traveled all the way from New Jersey to Aspen in order to return Mary Swanson’s forgotten briefcase. Those 2,144 miles are a long way to go for a random act of kindness (and to screw up a kidnapping ransom!). The other trips on our list don’t come anywhere near the distance covered by these two, with most of them falling well under 1,000 total miles. But that doesn’t mean they’re any less eventful. Harold and Kumar’s trip was by far the shortest, only 70 miles from Hoboken to New Brunswick in search of their favorite hamburgers. But in that relatively short span of road, they encountered everything from an escaped cheetah to Neil Patrick Harris. Or look at Neal Page in “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.” What started as a two-hour plane trip from New York City to Chicago turned into a multi-day journey into a pit of human frustration, complete with derailed trains, disappearing rental cars and an annoying travel companion who followed him every step of the way. At the end of the day, distance barely seems to matter on these trips; it’s all the obstacles in the way that you’ll really remember.

And if any of these movies are even the slightest bit true, you will face a lot of obstacles too. Some of them might be really bad; hopefully you don’t end your road trip getting blown up by angry hillbillies like in “Easy Rider” or flying off a cliff like in “Thelma and Louise.” But you could end up losing your hubcaps like Clark Griswold when he was giving directions to a group of duplicitous strangers, an extra expense that tagged an additional $160 to the price of his trip. Or you could blow your budget by accidentally running up a charge of $1,560 worth of Las Vegas room service, like the heroes of “Fear and Loathing.”

Of course, some additional expenses might be totally worth it. Harold and Kumar may not have been planning on spending $86 on fast food at the start of their trip, but by the end of it, they had certainly earned it. Or you could spend $257,000 on a brand new Lamborghini like Harry and Lloyd did. OK, it was probably a tad expensive, but perfect for blending into an affluent town like Aspen. Plus, it’s easy to spend that kind of cash when it’s coming out of someone else’s briefcase. (Just make sure you include an IOU.)

Road trips can be costly propositions, but whatever you end up spending, you always make up for it in amazing memories. So next time you want to bond with your family or friends, see some amazing places or chow down on the perfect burger, remember that the open road is out there waiting for you. You just have to get in your car and drive.

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