NEW YORK — Little things can add up to big savings when driving your car — especially on the cusp of the spring travel season and with gas prices again heading for the roof.
Practical steps such as keeping tires properly inflated, combining trips, driving at off-peak hours to avoid stop-and-go traffic and following the maintenance schedule in the owner's manual will help ease the pain at the pump.
"When you add these little factors together, it can make a big difference in your gas mileage," says Roy Cox, manager of technical training and research for AAA's National Office in Heathrow, Fla., and author of "Improving Fuel Economy: Money In Your Pocket." "Buy gasoline on price and convenience. The differences in additives between one brand and another are minimal."
Crude oil futures have climbed above $65 per barrel amid strong demand created by the upcoming driving season and continued concern about supplies from Iran and Nigeria. This means higher prices at the pump and provides additional incentive to drive economically — unless you feel it's your duty to enrich ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips and others.
Conservation has three basic parts: driving habits, vehicle maintenance and vehicle selection. For many, the toughest thing about saving gas is breaking old habits.
Obeying the speed limit is the most basic step in boosting your mileage. The U.S. Department of Energy says that every five miles per hour that you drive in excess of 60 is about the same as adding ten cents to each gallon of gas. Lead-footed drivers might also consider the matter of the cop with the radar gun.
Using cruise control is a good way to maintain a constant speed on the open highway. In most cases, this will save you gas.
Use a high gear or overdrive when driving at highway speeds. The high gear will reduce engine speed, saving gas and cutting engine wear.
Aggressive driving such as jackrabbit starts followed by screeching stops can cut your highway and city mileage. Such teenage-style driving also puts unnecessary wear and tear on your tires and car.
"Every time you tap the brake, you're giving up fuel economy," Cox says.
In city driving, the flip side is chugging around in second gear. Starting in second gear strains the engine, eats gas and puts extra wear on your clutch. Revving the engine at high speeds rather than shifting into third of fourth gear also wastes gas.
Here's an obvious point that many overlook: When idling, you're getting zero miles per gallon. Shut the engine off if you expect to be waiting for even a short period. The ignition system is built to start the car, so don't fret about wearing it out. And contrary to what your car-nut friend says, it's not more efficient to simply let the engine run for several minutes.
Check the owner's manual and be sure to buy the right grade of gasoline for your vehicle. If your baby is designed to run on 87-octane regular, filling the tank with midgrade 89-octane or supreme 91- or 92-octane fuel is tossing money out the window. The more expensive gasoline won't make your car run any better.
Cox says the differences in additives are minimal and most perform the same functions: preventing carbon buildup, lubricating the valves and piston rings and cleaning the fuel injectors.
In many cases, the basic fuel stock is the same; the only differences between brands come from mixing in additives at the terminal before the delivery truck leaves the gate. Remember: Gasoline is a commodity product, and one brand is as good as another. So buy on price and convenience.
The higher-priced fuel may have more of this or that additive than the regular grade, but not enough to make a difference in your car's performance. So it's a waste of money to buy premium gas on every third fill-up on the theory that the additives will clean the car's fuel system.
Follow the recommended service schedule listed in the owner's manual and change oil, engine coolant, filters and spark plugs at recommended intervals.
And keep the engine tuned. This will reduce emissions and can save about 5 percent on gas. Check and replace the air filter regularly because a fouled filter can reduce your gas mileage by as much as 10 percent, according to the Department of Energy.
Also use the recommended grade of engine oil. Using heavy oil in an engine designed for light oil can reduce mileage by 1 percent to 2 percent. And if possible, use oil with friction-reducing additives.
Buy a tire gauge and use it once a week to be sure your tires are properly inflated. The Department of Energy says under-inflated tires can lower gas mileage by as much as 0.4 percent for every one-psi drop in pressure in all four tires. Properly inflated tires also will improve handling and last longer.
It's easy to make several short trips each day, but with a little planning, it's possible to combine trips and save gas.
If you drive to work, see if you can go in a little early or late to avoid the morning and evening crush. This means spending less time in bumper-to-bumper traffic and saving gas. At the same time, try to avoid long waits for left turns. UPS, which worries a lot about saving fuel, finds that constant waits for opposing traffic can eat up gas.
When on vacation, remember that anything you put on the roof adds weight and increases wind resistance. The Department of Energy says a loaded roof rack can cut fuel economy by about 5 percent. Put as much stuff as possible inside your car. And be sure to remove the rack when not in use because, even when empty, it increases aerodynamic drag, chewing into your mpg.
Heavy use of your air conditioner can increase gas consumption 10 percent to 20 percent. Roll down the windows instead. Amazing, eh?
You don't need to shove a tank around town. When prices were low, few cared that behemoths gobbled gas. Assuming a price of $2.20 per gallon and driving 15,000 miles per year, the difference in fuel cost between a car that gets 20 mpg and one that gets 30 mpg is $550 annually. If your car doesn't match the way you use it, consider getting another one if the replacement cost pencils out.
Honda Motor, Toyota Motor, General Motors, Ford Motor and DaimlerChrysler all offer vehicles that get good gas mileage. So shop around.
Finally, "I check under my hood weekly, and I recommend everybody do the same," Cox says.
© 2012 Forbes.com