Sign up for the BETTER newsletter

You have been successfully added to our newsletter.

NBC News BETTER brings you wellness news and tips to make the most of your mind, your body and your life.

How to save money on gas this summer

Gas prices are going up, but before you blame the attendant, know this: The biggest impact on your fuel economy is the way you drive.
by Herb Weisbaum /  / Updated 
Image: A woman holds a nozzle as she refuels her car
Do you really need premium fuel? Most cars are designed to run on regular gas. Check the owner’s manual or the sticker on the fuel-filler door to see if it says premium “recommended."Gene J. Puskar / AP file
Get the Better newsletter.

Summer road trips are going to cost significantly more this year as gasoline prices continue to climb. The national average for regular is now $2.96 — that’s 59 cents a gallon more than last year and the highest price going into a Memorial Day weekend since 2014 when the national average was $3.65 a gallon, according to AAA.

“Regardless of where you live, it is going to be an expensive summer for gas,” said AAA’s Jeanette Casselano.

AAA expects the national average to hit $3 a gallon in June. And it could go higher, depending on crude prices and demand levels, Casselano said. The average price for regular is already $3 a gallon or more in 17 states and the District of Columbia. Click here to find the average price where you live or where you’ll be travelling.

For some people, this pain at the pump will put a crimp in their summer travel plans. More Americans plan to drive less and stay home or close to home this year, according to GasBuddy’s 2018 Summer Travel survey released this week.

Only 58 percent of GasBuddy’s members said they planned to take a road trip this summer — a 24 percent decrease from last year. Of those, 39 percent said gas prices had an impact on their travel decisions.

How to squeeze more miles out of every gallon

Automotive experts agree: The biggest impact on your fuel economy is the way you drive.

“Our tests show that a 37 percent fuel savings is possible, if you slow down your driving, don't accelerate as hard and brake easier,” said Ron Montoya, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds.

When driving on the highway, try to maintain a steady pace and watch your speed. Consumer Reports says going from 55 mph to 75 is like “moving from a compact car to a large SUV,” in terms of fuel consumption.

The magazine did real-life road tests with a Honda Accord, Toyota RAV4 and three models of the Ford Fusion (including a hybrid). They found that going faster than 55 mph will drain your gas tank faster.

“When going from 55 to 65 mph, we lost between four and eight mpg. Increasing to 75 mph cut fuel economy an additional 5 to 7 miles per gallon,” said Jon Linkov, deputy automotive editor at Consumer Reports. “If you're driving 55 and you go 20 miles an hour faster, you can lose as much as 15 miles per gallon.”

Other simple ways to cut your fuel costs

The auto editors at Consumer Reports suggest a few more things you can do:

  • Don’t carry cargo on the roof unless necessary: Anything that increases the car’s aerodynamic drag will make the engine work harder and burn more fuel — even an empty bike rack. “Around town, it's not going to be a huge difference, but for highway driving, really try to eliminate having anything on the roof,” Linkov said.Consumer Reports tested a 2013 Honda Accord at a steady 65 mph. With nothing on the roof, the car got 43 mpg. An empty bike rack cut that to 38. The fuel economy dropped to 27 mpg when two bikes were attached to the rack.
  • Don’t warm up the car before driving: That was important when cars had carburetors. Today’s electronically controlled, fuel-injected engines don’t need to be warmed up. Your vehicle’s engine is most efficient when it’s at regular operating temperature and the quickest way to do that is to start driving.
  • Keep tires properly inflated: Under-inflated tires will have a modest impact on mileage, but they can greatly compromise the car’s handling and braking. Tires also run hotter and wear faster when under-inflated, which can lead to tire failure.
  • Don’t waste money on premium gas, if your car doesn’t need it: Most cars are designed to run on regular gas. Premium fuel is for sports cars and luxury vehicles with high-performance engines. Not sure what your car needs? Check the owner’s manual or the sticker on the fuel-filler door. If it says premium “recommended,” you can use regular. If it says premium “required,” use a higher-octane fuel. (Consumer Reports tested fuel economy and acceleration on different grades of gasoline)If you use regular and hear the engine ping or knock and it bothers you, switch to premium for a few fill-ups. “The pinging is not going to damage the engine,” Linkov said. “It’s just the way the fuel is burning in the engine.”

Staying cool: AC or open the windows?

Using the air conditioner reduces fuel economy. The impact grows as the outside temperature rises and the AC system needs to work harder. Based on its road tests, Consumer Reports says expect a drop of from 1 to 4 mpg with the AC running.

But won’t open windows create more aerodynamic drag and reduce mileage? Consumer Reports didn’t notice any effect on fuel economy when opening the windows at 65 mph.

“This may be one of those situations where your personal comfort is worth the slight drop in mileage. The AC keeps you cool, so it keeps you a little more attentive,” Linkov told NBC News BETTER. “Also, there’s no wind buffeting. You open the windows at highway speeds, even at 55, that's a lot of noise. So, not only are you possibly warm, you're also getting buffeted by the wind constantly, and that’s tiring.”

Fact or Myth? It’s better to fill-up in the morning

Automotive experts grin when they hear the advice to fill up in the morning when the air is cool, rather than later in the day. The logic behind this myth: Cooler gasoline is denser, so you’ll get more for your money.

Nearly all gas stations store their fuel in underground tanks. It’s already cool and the temperature changes very little, if at all, during the day, Linkov said. So, fill up whenever you want.

Think fuel economy when you buy your next vehicle

American car buyers are focused on size and luxury right now. Fuel-efficient compacts are being replaced with bigger SUVs and pickup trucks. No one can predict how high gasoline prices will go during the current surge, but the trend is clearly higher.

“Buying a car is an expensive multi-year commitment, which is why you need to consider fuel costs when you compare vehicles,” said Jack Gillis, author of The Car Book. “Electric vehicles are a great way to insulate yourself from rising fuel costs, and there are some excellent electric models to choose from, like the Chevrolet Bolt, Nissan Leaf, Toyota Prius and Kia Soul electric. But there are plenty of hybrid models that deliver exceptional mileage — 40 to 50 mpg,” Gillis said.

A few examples of these fuel-stingy hybrids: Toyota Camry (52 mpg combined), Honda Accord (47 mpg), Chevrolet Malibu (46 mpg) and Kia Optima (42 mpg). You can compare mileage ratings at the U.S. Department of Energy’s FuelEconomy.gov.

NBC News BETTER ran the numbers to show the long-term impact of buying a more efficient model.

We compared the yearly cost of fuel for a 2018 Toyota Tundra (4WD 8 cyl., 5.7 L, Automatic) that gets 14 mpg overall, versus a 2018 Toyota Avalon hybrid with a fuel economy ratings of 40 mpg overall. The figures are based on 12,000 miles a year (what the average American drives) with gas prices at $3 a gallon and $4 a gallon. Remember: The statewide average in California is currently $3.72.

  • 2018 Toyota Tundra: $2,571 at $3 a gallon / $3,428 at $4 a gallon
  • 2018 Toyota Avalon hybrid: $900 at $3 a gallon / $1,200 at $4 a gallon
  • The difference over the course or a year: $1,671 at $3 a gallon / $2,228 at $4 a gallon

Consumer Reports Guide to Fuel Economy has information on the best and worst models for fuel economy, plus reviews of the latest high-mpg vehicles. The Gas Mileage Savings Calculator from Edmunds shows how long it will take to pay off the balance of a vehicle purchase of a more fuel-efficient vehicle when trading in a gas guzzler.

GET MORE SIMPLE MONEY HACKS

Want more tips like these? NBC News BETTER is obsessed with finding easier, healthier and smarter ways to live. Sign up for our newsletter and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Get the Better newsletter.
MORE FROM better