It’s hard to find a movie for this time of year. I’m not talking about Christmas movies. Lord knows, Hollywood is lousy with Christmas movies. Instead, I’m talking about Thanksgiving movies. Usually Hollywood skips Turkey Day altogether and starts releasing Christmas movies in early November (including relatively recent releases like A Christmas Carol in 2009, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas in 2011, and The Best Man Holiday just this year). Still, there are a few Thanksgiving movies knocking around, and they’re not all as bad as Free Birds.
One of the most loveable and endearing Thanksgiving movies is John Hughes’ 1987 comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles. The film follows businessman Neal Page (Steve Martin) trying to get home to Chicago from New York City two days before Thanksgiving. He stumbles into an unlikely travel buddy in Del Griffith (John Candy) and ends up on a three-day misadventure using almost every known form of ground transportation.
As a traveler myself, I know it can be extremely costly as much as it is time consuming, and that got me thinking: How much would a trip like this actually set Neal and Del back?
The Answer: Enough to buy a really kick-ass home theater system (complete with a PS4 or XboxOne).
For the purposes of this article, let’s consider how much this trip would cost in today’s dollars. Neal Page starts on Park Avenue in Midtown Manhattan.
Plane ticket: Neal originally had a first-class ticket on a flight from New York to Chicago. A similar ticket today ranges from $400 to $1000, depending on various factors. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say he got the lowest-price deal for this flight. But let’s not give him the benefit of the doubt on travel insurance.
Cab bribe: Neal is trying to hail a cab to catch a first-class flight out of LaGuardia and ends up paying a scuzzy lawyer $75 for his cab. With average annual income in 2013 about double that of 1987, let’s assume he has to pay $150 for a similar cab.
Bus to LaGuardia: Neal ends up taking a bus to the airport, which would cost $13 for the airport shuttle in New York.
Cab in Wichita: After being diverted to Wichita, Neal and Del take a cab to a motel. While the exact location of the motel is not given in the film, a cab ride in that city will cost between $20 and $30. Let’s assume the higher number because in the film, Neal is annoyed that the cabbie is taking the “scenic” route.
Motel in Wichita: The average price for lodging in Wichita is $84 a night.
Stolen money: Though not actually a travel expense (yet certainly a hazard of the territory), the $700 stolen from Neal’s wallet and the $263 stolen from Dell’s wallet count toward the totals. Adjusted for inflation, this would be $1439.10 for Neal and $540.69 for Dell. But who carries $700 in cash on them?
Train to Chicago: Neal and Dell then hop a train from Stubville to Chicago. Because there are no trains out of a place called Stubville (or Wichita, for that matter), the closest city would be Kansas City. A train ticket from Kansas City to Chicago runs $141.
Bus to St. Louis: When their train breaks down, Neal and Dell hoof it to a bus depot and catch a bus from Jefferson City to St. Louis. This would cost $63 for the standard fare.
Rental car in St. Louis: Once in St. Louis, Neal attempts to rent a car to drive home, only to find out the car is missing from the parking lot, leading him to launch into a famous rant that earned the film an R rating. Today, it costs $156.58 to rent a standard-sized car and return it to a different city.
Motel in Illinois: After Dell picks up Neal in his rented car, they get another motel somewhere in Illinois. Lodging in this area runs from about $50 to $90. The motel room in the film runs $42.50, so let’s assume inflation doubled the price in the past 26 years to $85.
Speeding ticket in Illinois: After leaving the motel, Dell gets a speeding ticket from the Illinois State Highway Patrol (as well as getting the burned-out rental car impounded). An average speeding ticket in Illinois for going 78 mph in a 55 mph zone would be $95.
L train fare: After securing a final stretch of the trip in an ice truck (for free), Neal takes the L train home in Chicago, which has a fare of $2.25.
Add all these numbers together (minus Dell’s stolen money and his speeding ticket) and the trip costs:
$400 (plane ticket) + $150 (cab bribe) + $13 (airport shuttle for Neal) + $30 (Wichita cab) + $84 (Wichita motel) + $1439.10 (Neal’s stolen money) + $141 (train ticket) + $63 (bus fare) + 156.58 (car rental in St. Louis) + $85 (Illinois motel) + $2.25 (L train fare) = $2,563.93.
Or, enough to buy a nice flat screen, 3D Blu-ray player, and video gaming system. That’s doesn’t even include meals.
And it’s just for one person, so…
What about Dell?
In the film, Neal actually picks up the tab for most of the expenses, including many hotel rooms and cab fare. He also buys Dell a train ticket in Stubville. Traveling with two people is always more expensive than just traveling with one and part of the purpose of the film is to put the odd couple characters together into a traveling powder keg.
So, how much would it cost for both of them to make this trip? The answer is less than double the original cost, but still huge:
$800 (two plane tickets) + $150 (cab bribe) + $27 (Dell’s cab to airport) + $13 (airport shuttle for Neal) + $30 (Wichita cab) + $84 (Wichita motel) + $1439.10 (Neal’s stolen money) + $540.69 (Dell’s stolen money) + $282 (two train tickets) + $126 (two bus fares) + $313.16 (two car rentals in St. Louis) + $85 (Illinois motel) + $95 (Dell’s speeding ticket) + $6.75 (three L train fares) = $3,991.70
Were there any other options?
Sure, this makes a fun film, but there had to be a better choice for travel. In fact, few trips from one major city to another would be this difficult. In fact, had Neal simply managed to hail a cab in New York City, he could have paid the cab fare to drive him to his home in Chicago for less than what he ended up shelling out.
Standard cab fare to Chicago from New York City, while never used for this purpose, would be just under $1600, which is a $1000 savings on Neal’s trip alone. It would have cost the same for both he and Dell to cab it to Chicago, which means the entire trip would cost less than half of what it did for both to make their misadventure.
It would have also been quicker. The drive from New York City to Chicago is about 12 hours long, which would have put them in Chicago early on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Even if they tipped the cabbie $1000 and sent him on his way, they would have spent less money, been home early for Thanksgiving, and the driver could have been home with his family before the sun set on Wednesday night.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20. Happy Thanksgiving.