How to Save Money at the Gas Pump

Gas prices are up, but there are still ways to pay less

person pumping gas Photo: iStock

Fuel prices are higher than they have been in several years, but experts say there’s a chance they could drop slightly in the weeks to come. The national average price of regular unleaded gasoline rose more than a dollar per gallon to $3.42 since last year, according to AAA. Prices at the pump vary by region, trending higher in the West and Northeast, and lower in the Midwest and Southeast. 

Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst at GasBuddy, a website and smartphone app that helps drivers find the best deals, says that it’s unlikely that Americans will see prices approach the record highs they hit during the 2008 financial crisis in the months ahead. But they also aren’t likely to drop to the lows seen during the darkest days of the pandemic, when fewer people were driving and demand was low.

“There’s a good chance of a slight downward trend in prices over the next few weeks, although it could come up again around Christmas,” he says. “I don’t see prices rising much above the current national average.”

More on Car Fueling

DeHaan cautioned that fuel price forecasting tends to be less precise longer than a few weeks out, and that decisions made by OPEC are the big wild card in figuring out which way prices will swing.

“You never know when OPEC is going to cut production and raise prices,” he says, adding that regardless of prices, Americans are still likely to travel this year after many people’s plans were foiled by the pandemic over the past two winter holiday seasons. 

The amount you’ll pay depends, of course, on the gas station where you fill up. The highest average prices are in California, at $4.66 per gallon, and the lowest are in Oklahoma, at $3.02 per gallon. But there can also be significant price disparities among prices at filling stations in the same town. The 76 station at 1800 State Street in Santa Barbara, Calif., for example, is charging $4.30 per gallon for regular right now, while only a few miles away, the Chevron station at 1085 Coast Village Road in Montecito, is charging $5 per gallon. 

That means that choosing carefully where you fill up can make a big difference in how much you’re spending to fuel your vehicle. Putting 15 gallons of regular gasoline into a small SUV would cost $10.50 more at the Montecito Chevron than at the 76 station 5 miles away. If you fill up every week or more, that kind of difference can really pile up and cost you money—to the tune of more than $45 each month and close to $550 after a year.

There are also drivers who buy higher-cost premium gasoline unnecessarily for cars designed for regular fuel, according to a study by AAA. Based on current national average gasoline prices, midgrade gasoline costs almost 28 cents per gallon more than what you’d pay for regular, and premium gas costs 52 cents more than regular on average, according to AAA. So if your car can operate on regular but you opt for midgrade or premium gas, you could be paying anywhere from $8 to almost $20 more to fill that same SUV’s tank.

How to Spend Less on Gas

“If you’re just looking at the price from the street, you’re leaving money on the table,” DeHaan says. There are things you can do to keep your gas expenses down. Among them:

Use a gas station app or website. Smartphone apps, such as those from GasBuddy, AAA, and Gas Guru, are particularly convenient when you’re traveling and away from your computer. They’re available for Apple and Android devices. Many are free. You can filter results by fuel grade and sort by distance and price, as well as get GPS-guided directions to the station you choose.

GasBuddy and Fuel Finder also let you check stations for amenities such as ATMs, restaurants, and car washes. GasBuddy has station reviews, which might tell you, for instance, which restrooms to avoid. And Gas Guru lets you save your favorite stations, so you can remember where to stop on your way back.

The Google Maps and Waze apps, which many people use for real-time traffic alerts and driving directions, also offer gas-price info.

You’re likely to find that you may be able to get a better deal at stations that are not located on major highways, says Michael Calkins, a manager at AAA. Of course, making a big detour to pay less might not make sense.

Calkins also says to make sure that when you compare prices you consider buying only top-tier detergent gasoline, which is better for your car. 

Check the prices in the different states you’ll visit. Prices can vary significantly among states, often because of differences in state gas taxes. On Interstate 90, for example, DeHaan found gas prices to be around significantly cheaper on the Ohio side of the border with Pennsylvania.

Think about how best to pay. Some stations offer a lower price if you pay with cash instead of a credit card. The difference between the cash and credit price usually ranges from around 10 to 15 cents per gallon, DeHaan says, though he adds that it can be as much as a dollar.

Another option is to pay with a cash-back credit card. While the credit card price may be higher than the cash price, the reward you receive could make using the credit card a better deal.

It’s worth noting that a rewards credit card could even provide greater savings than a gas credit card from a big oil company (such as Texaco or Chevron), DeHaan says. Some cards offer introductory cash or points bonuses for signing up, and others offer discounts at the pump. The Bank of America Customized Cash Rewards credit card, for example, offers a $200 bonus to people who spend $1,000 on purchases during the first nine days of card ownership. The ExxonMobile Smart Card, by contrast, gives a 6-cent discount per gallon of fuel purchased.

If you plan to pay by debit card, don’t assume that you are getting the cash price. Some stations could actually charge you the credit card rate instead. Check the posted prices at the pump. Selecting the debit option and entering a pin when you pump your gas is often a good indication that your transaction will be handled as cash, says Lyle Beckwith, senior vice president of the National Association of Convenience Stores, based in Alexandria, Va.

Regular Gas vs. Premium Gas

Think expensive gas means increased power and better fuel economy? On the “Consumer 101” TV show, Consumer Reports expert Mike Monticello reveals to host Jack Rico what to know before filling up at the pump.

Head shot of CR Autos Editor, Benjamin Preston

Benjamin Preston

My reporting has taken me everywhere from Baghdad, Iraq, to the Detroit auto show, along the U.S.-Mexico border and everywhere in between. If my travels have taught me anything, it's that stuff—consumer products—is at the center of daily life all over the world. That's why I'm so jazzed to be shining light on what works, what doesn't, and how people can enrich their lives by being smarter consumers. When I'm not reporting, I can usually be found at home with my family, at the beach surfing, or in my driveway, wrenching on my hot rod '74 Olds sedan.