The Moneywise travel challenge
Plane, train or automobile? Or even National Express? We tend to make our big-trip transport decisions based on a mix of semi-facts, fears and prejudices, then end up resigning ourselves to once again shelling out and arriving late.
But now, in a Moneywise 'Sliding Doors' scenario, we have decided to find out the real costs in time and money of making the same journey from London to Manchester using different forms of transport.
Starting from a suburb in south London and finishing in a Manchester suburb, 30 minutes by bus from the town centre, the course is clear. Let the challenge begin.
Position (by cost): FOURTH.
The starting gun fires at 8am on a Saturday morning. Just under six weeks ago, I booked tickets for Manchester, snagging the cheapest flight on Opodo (opodo.co.uk) at £103.80 return.
Kayak (kayak.co.uk) searched more sites, including Opodo, but was fractionally more expensive. Had I booked six months in advance the price would have been £74.
My cheapest option for getting to the airport is to take the train from Streatham Hill to Gatwick, ready for the 10.25am take-off. The flight itself is only an hour, and I didn't have to dash to the gate.
As I checked-in beforehand and have no luggage, I can go straight through to the departure lounge - leaving me with the usual time to kill. It's not cheap here, and the complimentary onboard drinks and snacks don't sound too sustaining, but breakfast at Wetherspoons sets me up for the journey and helps keep costs down.
It's a BA flight - the cheapest on offer, even when taking into consideration budget flights. Thankfully, the plane takes off on time, and I've barely straightened up before we're heading earthward again. It's "cabin-crew 10 minutes to landing" and I'm at Manchester Airport.
With no bag to pick up, I whiz through the airport and out to the taxi rank - as it's only seven and a half miles to my destination in Whalley Range, to do anything else seems unnecessarily tortuous. Lighter by £16.40, I arrive and check the clock: 12.30pm.
My total spend comes to £129.40. Manageable for one maybe, but a family of four would feel winded by an overall cost of £468.
Position (by cost): SECOND.
The 9.20am train I've booked to Manchester Piccadilly is one of about four every hour from London Euston on Virgin Trains, but I don't want to pay same-day prices by missing my designated train.
Fares go on sale 12 weeks in advance, but my six-week headstart still snagged me a first-leg ticket for just £11.50 from Virgin Fare Finder. That was a better deal than thetrainline.com, where the best price was £23.50. A return on the Sunday was £17.
The bus and tube to the station on London's Oyster card costs me £3.20 and takes 42 minutes, and I buy brunch at the M&S shop instead of patronising a pricey takeaway.
The timetable says the journey takes two hours and seven minutes - just over double that of the plane but under half of that for the car. Papers scanned, emails checked, using Virgin's Wi-Fi connection (£4 for 60 minutes but free for first-class passengers), BLT sandwich demolished, and it's time for a snooze.
Getting into Piccadilly at 11.30am means I've kept to the schedule. It's 34 minutes to Whalley Range by bus - and after 10 minutes or so of toe-tapping, one comes along. I could have taken a taxi, but the £3.30 PlusBus deal on the train ticket gives me unlimited bus travel for the day. I arrive at 12.26pm, moments before the air passenger's taxi.
The journey cost me just £39.70 return, including travel at both ends, which emphatically gives the train the lead. Had our family of four secured all the child discounts on the buses it would have cost just over £150 for four - even less if either of the kids were under five, as they would travel for free on Virgin.
Position (by cost): FIRST.
I feel a distinct lack of enthusiasm for the 8am start on this trip. But if cost is your number-one priority then coach travel really can't be beaten. National Express quoted a one-way fare of just £6.50 from London to Manchester - that's 3p a mile. And the Megabus option knocked an extra 50p off the fare.
The early start is necessary if I want to make the 9.30am coach from Victoria, given it takes 41 minutes to get there from south London. Almost 80 years old now, the coach station is a place to board your bus, not hang about. And if you've got kids, the annoying 12-minute walk from Victoria tube is a pain.
But the National Express website dubs the 9.30am bus the 'fastest' of the day at four hours 45 minutes. Unlike the 8am bus, there are no stops, and traffic at the weekend isn't bad. If you leave on Friday at 2pm, you'll hit the Birmingham rush hour, and the quoted time climbs to 6 hours 35 minutes.
Bus and coach travel is in decline (down 0.5% in 2010 compared with the year before), and on the journey you can see why. It smacks of a school coach trip, and these days, with no onboard refreshments available, you've got to take a packed lunch.
There's no Wi-Fi, no seat-back videos, just a better view of the accident on the M6 that caused that last tailback. But it's all down to cost. There's even a night bus option from Manchester or London that will save you the equivalent of the price of a hotel room.
I arrive at Manchester's central coach station at the scheduled time of 2.15pm and look for a bus to Whalley Range.
Arriving at just after 3pm, I haven't won the time race, but comfort myself with the thought that it can't be done cheaper - I paid just £24.90 for a return trip, including travel at both ends. Children under three travel free (one per adult), but an older family of four would pay just £62 return.
Position (by cost): THIRD.
I balk a little at the enforced 8am start time. If you travel by car, goes the argument, you have the flexibility to leave whenever you like - but only up to a point. Anything much past 9am on a Saturday and suburban London traffic is worse than in the rush hour.
Google Maps predicts the 201-mile journey to Whalley Range will take just under four hours, taking the M1 followed by the M6. I take a gamble that the Birmingham M6 traffic won't be so bad, thus avoiding the whopping £4.80 charge to use the M6 relief road.
The best bit about the car is the lack of faff in the morning. No walking, no tube dash, no waiting at a terminal (half my journey by train was spent this way). Crawling through Archway in north London has cost me time and as usual, Google's over-ambitious city driving estimate has put me behind schedule. With no problems on the M1, though, I should get back on track.
Fuel is obviously the big expense. Google Maps now has a fuel estimate on its directions page and it tells me that for a standard diesel car at £1.42 a litre, it'll cost just over £40 to get to Manchester. That price looks OK, and it wouldn't increase substantially with a family of four on board, so suddenly I'm now beating even the £79 coach trip on price.
But of course the cost of car travel isn't all about the fuel. The AA calculates the per mile cost of running a diesel car at 10,000 miles a year is 21.92p, including tax, depreciation and the cost of a car loan. On top of that, there's almost another 8p per mile for servicing and maintenance. This is getting expensive.
After adding fuel, my journey is now costing £185.90 (and that's not to mention the potential cost of parking). This means, unless you've got a family on board, it's looking very pricey indeed.
Of course, most of these costs occur simply through owning a car, but it's a sobering reminder of how much your tin box picks your pocket in return for getting you from A to B.
I'm lucky: there are no serious problems in Birmingham and I'm now driving through Whalley Range's grand Victorian streets. After a 20-minute service station stop, I pull in just before 12.15pm, beating the plane by 18 minutes and the train by 14.