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Road Tripping in the Age of High Gas Prices

Tips for Saving on Gas at the Pump and on the Road

The spring and summer are prime seasons to take a road trip — and no doubt some folks in our area already have their routes planned, their cars and campers ready and can’t wait to hit the open road after another long winter. Roadtrippers, however, face a challenge right now: Gas prices have never been higher in the United States.

Normally the price of gas climbs when summer fuel blends that reduce emissions are introduced in the spring. But last year, crude oil and gas prices failed to dip at all before the spring run up. Plus, right now, the war in Ukraine and sanctions on major oil exporter Russia, the accompanying global supply shortages and general inflation have caused gas prices to skyrocket.

There are many ways for you to save money on the overall cost of any road trip, including by adjusting your itinerary, where you stay and eat out, etc. But aside from that, there are simple ways to directly save money on gas.

Be Strategic

First, be strategic about where you fill up your tank. Gas prices have risen everywhere, but the retail cost of fuel can vary significantly, even at stations across the road from each other. Fuel prices also differ by region, state-to-state and within states. In Washington state, for example, drivers filling up in the Seattle-Tacoma metro area pay some of the highest gas prices in the country, but gas tends to be cheaper in central and eastern Washington.

There are always exceptions on the road. The price of gas is usually higher in a remote area that sees a big influx of seasonal tourists — such as a small gateway community to a national park or popular attraction. The reasons for local gas-price differences are complex, but the key point is that prepared road trippers can give themselves a choice to fill up where the cost is the lowest.

So, plan to fill your tank (or top up) in areas where the average cost fuel is cheaper. Go to AAA’s gas prices tracker page, which publishes the daily average cost of fuel by county. Mark out the area along your route where the average cost is lowest and aim to fill up there. Alternatively, check for the cheapest gas near you on the AAA Auto Club app. Plus, AAA members can receive a discount on gas at Shell stations.

Another way to save money on fuel is to buy regular gas. Most cars, SUVs and trucks run just fine on regular and gain no extra benefit from higher-cost premium fuels. In a 2016 study, AAA estimated that 16.5 million U.S. drivers annually unnecessarily purchase premium without gaining any measurable benefits in horsepower, fuel economy or emissions. Only use higher grades when it is recommended by the manufacturer.

Plan Your Route

Planning your route is another way to save money on gas. This is not to say that you should stay on the highway or take the most direct route to your destination. Part of the joy of road tripping is exploring back roads and small towns off the highway.

It is, however, possible to do back-road exploration while keeping fuel efficiency by planning your route ahead and understanding what attractions and sites you want to see. This holds true when you are about to embark on a day of running errands in the city. If you have several places to go, you’ll save money on fuel if you plan a logical route where you will hit each store or location in order rather than doubling back and making several side trips in traffic.

Use this same concept in planning your road trip: It is more efficient to visit attractions and sites when you reach them on the route. AAA can help here as well. Check out TripTik, which provide numerous tips, maps and places of interest on classic road trips —all along with gas prices.

It is also wise to avoid driving at peak traffic travel times or during the hottest part of the day. As the temperature rises outside, you are much more likely to crank up your air conditioning.

Car Maintenance

The condition of your car and tires greatly affects fuel efficiency on the road. Most newer vehicles do not require frequent tune-ups, but you should maintain your vehicle by the manufacturer’s recommendations to get optimal fuel performance and avoid problems on the road.

One inexpensive way to save money on fuel, however, is to keep your tires properly inflated, says Kelly Just, public relations manager for AAA Washington.

“Anything that is wrong with your car can contribute to a drop in fuel economy or lead to a breakdown, but inflating your tires is probably the easiest thing you can do to improve fuel economy,” Just says.

Underinflated tires have increased rolling resistance that reduces fuel economy. The tires can also overheat and blow out. So, proper tire inflation is important not only for saving money on fuel, but for safety on the road.

Slow Down

Driving habits can have a big impact on fuel efficiency. Drive the speed limit. On the highway, aerodynamic drag causes fuel economy to drop significantly as speeds increase above 50 mph. In addition, while on a highway, consider using cruise control when appropriate. This feature can improve fuel efficiency; however, never use cruise control on slippery roads. And, of course, try to avoid using air conditioning as much as possible if you want to save money on fuel.

Avoid so-called “jackrabbit” starts and hard accelerations in stop-and-go traffic and at lights. Studies suggest that aggressive driving involving rapid accelerations and braking lowers fuel economy by 15% to 30% at highway speeds and 10% to 40% in stop-and-go traffic.

Fuel efficiency improves with smooth accelerations between stops, as automatic transmissions can upshift into higher gears sooner, reducing engine rpm and saving fuel. Plus, avoid leaving your car idling. If you expect to sit at one location for more than 60 seconds, consider turning the engine off.

One last tip can save a tremendous amount of money on fuel: Hit the road in your most fuel-efficient vehicle. If a gas-guzzling truck or SUV shares space in your garage with a fuel-efficient car or a hybrid, take the smaller car or hybrid on the road trip. If you don’t own a fuel-efficient vehicle, consider renting one for your trip.

The one silver lining of higher gas prices is that it may convince more drivers to adopt better driving and planning habits that will save money and make their road trips safer— and, regardless of the global fluctuations in oil prices, AAA offers many tips and advice on how to save money on fuel, keep your car well maintained and make road tripping fun and safe.

– Written by Victor Whitman
– Top photo by artegorov3@gmail/AdobeStock

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