A full tank and an empty wallet — if you’ve got one, chances are you’ve got both. And with gas prices at record levels these days, you should probably get used to the condition.
Retail gas prices continue to hit their highest levels ever — now sitting at an average of $3.23 per gallon , according to the Department of Energy — and it’s unlikely that they’ll come down any time soon.
And they surely didn't come down in time for the recent great American “gas out.” As MSNBC.com’s John Schoen recently wrote , such one-day boycotts have “exactly zero chance of having an impact on gas prices.”
So, what’s a road-tripping traveler to do? Make sure you’re getting the most out of every drop by driving smarter, maintaining your car better and knowing whose pumps have the best prices. You won’t take a dime out of Big Oil’s pocket, but you can save yourself hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars per year. Here’s how:
Saving at the pump
Know before you go: Gas prices at nearby stations can vary by $.20 or more per gallon. Web sites, such as GasBuddy.com and GasPriceWatch.com provide current prices at more than 100,000 stations. Planning a summer road trip? Using the TripTik Trip Planner at AAA, you can create an interactive map that shows recent prices from start to finish.
Know while you’re on the go: Already on the move? That’s OK. GasBuddy lets you get current gas prices via cell phone or text message. And if you’ve got a nüvi 680 or StreetPilot c580 GPS unit from Garmin, you can bring up an interactive map of gas-station prices in approximately 100 cities across the country.
Use the card: Discover, American Express and other credit card companies offer cards that provide cash rebates for gas purchases. Most give rebates of around five percent, although there are often restrictions on where and when you’ll get the full discount. Check out CardTrak.com for more information.
Use the other card: Several grocery chains, including Safeway and Kroger, offer fuel discounts to shoppers who join their loyalty programs. At my local Safeway store, I receive $.03 off per gallon every time I fill up and $.10 off when I spend $50 or more in the store.
Use common sense: Do use the right octane — higher grades rarely provide any benefit. Don’t top off your tank — you'll lose less to evaporation.
Saving on the road
Turns out your parents were right — you should lay off the jackrabbit starts and skid-mark stops. According to the federal government, aggressive driving can cut your fuel efficiency by as much as 33 percent. You don’t have to drive like Grandma, but with the typical fill-up costing $30–$50, Mom and Dad’s old advice takes on new relevance.
Slow down: Gas mileage decreases rapidly at speeds above 60 mph. At 65, the average car loses five to seven percent in fuel economy; at 70, as much as 15 percent. Drive 75 at today’s gas prices and you’re essentially paying an extra $.60 per gallon.
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Lighten up: Stop-and-go traffic will always be annoying, but you can minimize the frustration by going with the flow instead of racing and braking every time the line inches forward. You’ll also improve in-town gas mileage by up to five percent.
Lose the load: A little junk in the trunk is one thing, but an extra 100 pounds of gear can reduce your fuel economy by up to two percent. If you don’t need it, leave it in the garage. The same goes for the roof rack: If you’re not actually using it, all it’s doing is increasing aerodynamic drag and lowering your gas mileage.
Saving every day
According to the Department of Energy, keeping your engine tuned correctly can increase gas mileage by up to four percent. For most of us, tune-ups are best left to the pros, but there are some easy steps you can take that don’t require a trip to the mechanic.
Up the airflow: A clogged or dirty air filter can cut 10 percent off your gas mileage. Fortunately, most are easily replaced.
Get pumped: Keeping your tires properly inflated can improve your fuel economy by three percent or more. They’ll last longer, too.
Be oil aware: Clean oil improves performance by reducing friction. Using the right grade can also improve gas mileage by one to two percent.
Drive less: I’m not suggesting you stay home, but if you make your trips around town more efficient (combining errands, driving during off-peak hours, etc.), you’ll have that much more money to spend when you’re ready to hit the open road.
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