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Soaring gas prices don't have to take a toll on your summer road trip--armed with our tips, you can hit the highways and save

Today's gas crisis looks nothing like that of the 1970's, when inflation was a dirty word and pump lines stretched for blocks. The "I" word is hardly used (thanks to low interest rates), and gas stations are eerily vacant, with many avoiding stops at the pump for fear of emptying bank accounts. On Tuesday gas prices hit a 13-year high of $1.84/gallon. But, that's not the end of the bad news. Industry analysts say the cost could rise to as high as $3/gallon in the coming months, a time of year when half of America's households hit the road. How this dire situation will affect summer road trippers remains to be seen, but there are ways to enjoy a car trip and still manage to save.

Turn to the web

Once again, the Internet proves to be a great resource for budget-conscious travelers. GasPriceWatch.com, a consumer advocacy website that tells you where you'll find the best gas bargains. You just plug in the zip code of where you're headed and you get a search results page with stations and their locations and current gas prices. As of today, the most expensive gas per gallon in the country can be found in Bridgeport, CA ($2.69/gallon), and the least expensive in Clifton, NJ ($1.58/gallon). How does GasPriceWatch.com keep track of all these fluctuating numbers? They use a team of volunteer "spotters" who call in rates on a regular basis. Of course, this also works in your home town. Gaswars.com does the same thing, but also covers gas prices in other countries. Gasbuddy.com is another helpful site which provides links to local sites that track gas. Check all three and see which works best for your proposed route.

If you want to figure out before you go just how much you'll spend on gas (perhaps to balance out how much you want to spend on lodging), AAA has a useful site called Fuel Cost Calculator which will estimate for you the fuel costs of a particular trip. You input your starting and ending destinations plus the type of car you have and it calculates how many gallons of fuel you'll need and how much they'll cost. While it doesn't clue you in on where to find the cheaper gas, like the sites above do, it is helpful for figuring out your budget in advance.

Rules of the Road

Whether you plan to rent a car or will be using your own set of wheels, there are some handy dandy tricks for maximizing fuel efficiency on the road:

 

  • Pack light--heavier cars drag, and use more fuel
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  • Avoid high speeds--use the 55 Stay Alive rule for safety and gas efficiency
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  • Use cruise control--stable speeds mean less gas used
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  • Avoid jackrabbit starts and stops--they tend to gobble up gas
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  • Use over-drive gears--they'll slow you down and you'll use less gas
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  • Keep tires full--softer tires are harder on the car, and drive-up gas use
  • "It's good to get minor tune-ups, where you check your car's belts and hoses, every 30,000 miles and a major tune-up every 60,000 miles," says David Kelly, a mechanic at Ron's Auto Repair in Jamaica Plain, MA.

    Another way to save on the inevitable wear and tear on your car is to stick, if possible, to well-maintained roads and car-only lanes. That may be hard to do as Congress' $275 billion highway bill, which mandates much needed improvements on our nation's most trafficked arteries, is still caught in legislative limbo. So, finding perfectly smooth roads may be a challenge. We suggest asking locals before you head out.

    And the big issue, of course, what to fill your tank with. "The best thing to do to save money on the road is to use "regular" gas. "Super" doesn't actually make your car run better, unless you're driving a Ferrari, in which case you probably won't be worried about the high price of gas," says Kelly.

    Little things add up on road trips

    Shopping at local grocery stores and packing your meals is a good way to save money (and time) when you consider the inflated fast-food prices at highway rest stops. Or, if you have to stop for a bite mid-drive, truck plazas are sure bets for decently priced meals. Many also offer cheap Internet access, if you can't live without checking your email. For a list of more authentic, and often inexpensive local restaurants, surf over to Roadfood, a highly useful site detailing local eats around the country.

    The early bird catches the discount

    Planning ahead and making reservations may be your best strategy for avoiding inflated summer rates on two important elements of your trip: hotels and (possibly) car rentals. Many spring rates are still in effect right now for bookings through summer, but prices are expected to rise this year as we get closer to summer. Analysts are predicting a very busy summer travel season and, as with all things in travel, prices are tied to availability.

    "If you wait until June, you may have a hard time getting a minivan or SUV," warns Ted Deutsch, a spokesman for the Cendant Car Rental Group, which owns Budget and Avis, agencies that just increased its prices by $5 for summer rentals beginning Jul. 1. This rate increase will bring prices back up to where they were last summer, and is part of the "seasonal cycle," says Deutsch. (While Avis' and Budget's rates will remain lower through June, a similar rate hike last summer had a domino effect with competitors, with everyone hopping on the increase bandwagon.)

    Good planning also comes in the form of knowing where you're going, what you're doing, and doing your best at mapping out routes ahead of time. With a little advance research, you can find not only the fastest and most direct routes to your destination, but today's mapping software and resources can actually clue you in to where to expect, and avoid, construction delays. As the old expression goes, time is money, and who wants to sit in a hot car for hours? Also, setting out at off-peak times--i.e. no Friday afternoon departures, you're guaranteed to make better time. The upshot is that you'll spend less time in your time in the car, and actually enjoying your hard-earned vacation.

    "Alternative" ways to save

    It's true that the vast majority of Americans own their own cars, and that car rental agencies see most of their activity at their airport counters. But if you are planning to rent, it makes sense to consider renting a hybrid vehicle. While most major car rental agencies have yet to get on board the hybrid train and fill their lots with super-efficient Toyota Priuses (that get 50 miles to the gallon/600 to the tank), there are a few companies, like EV, the country's only environmental rental car company, that are making in-roads in weening the nation of its dependency on oil. EV, which only offers electric, natural gas or hybrid vehicles for rent, operates mainly in California but is branching out rapidly. EV average daily rental is $35, so what you might spend at EV, you most certainly save on gas. To rent with EV, call: 877-EV-RENTAL.

    Flying vs. driving

    With gas prices sky-rocketing, will it be cheaper to skip the road and simply fly to your destination this summer? In most cases, the answer is no. We picked a sample roundtrip going from New York City to West Palm Beach, FL and back (2,460 miles in all), and priced both the airfares and the fueling up costs. For mid-July, the lowest round-trip fare we could find $205 on AirTran. OK, not bad. When we looked at gas prices alone, the equation got very interesting. We discovered it would cost approximately $185 in gas assuming the average car on the roads gets about 24 miles to the gallon, with fuel at its current average of $1.84. So, if two people were sharing the trip, they'd save about $225.

    The difference is far less in a gas-guzzling SUV, of course, or for solo travelers. And the equation gets even more skewed when we consider cross-country travel. Thanks to a raft of near-continuous sales, it's become commonplace to fly coast to coast for approximately $200 plus tax. On such routes, flying clearly beats driving.

    But for the quintessential family road trip, driving remains the money saver. And hopefully with the tips in this article, you'll still be able to make that classic family vacation this year.

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