Pain at the pump is nothing new, yet every few years, Americans have to wrestle with high gas prices and the nausea that comes with watching that digital dial go up and up, topping $4 a gallon at many local stations. “People have a growing sense of powerlessness,” said John Townsend, manager of public affairs at AAA Mid-Atlantic. “But you have to practice psychological warfare, along with gas-saving tips. Most importantly, you have to remember that as bad as it is, it has been this bad before. We’re going to come out of it . . . by mid-summer at the latest.”
But mid-summer seems far away when prices must go up before they come down. This month, gas stations will switch to the “summer-blend” formula, a federally and locally mandated product used to cut smog in the summer, which could cause gas to jump another 10 or 20 cents per gallon.
But because worrying and irritation won’t help our sanity or save us money, Townsend offers some practical tips — from tracking down cheap gas online to driving the speed limit — to ease the pain.
First things first
Make sure your tires are inflated. “We have just come through winter, and tires are probably underinflated,” Townsend said. “Inflated tires save 3.3 percent in terms of fuel economy.” Also, plan your errands and be sure to lighten the load. Extra weight costs fuel, so take those golf clubs and moving boxes out of your car.
Never let your gas tank go below the halfway mark. “Filling up more often will make you feel like you have control,” Townsend said. Instead of paying $70, you’re spending $35. It helps you say, ‘I’m not going to have a visceral reaction to things I can’t control.’ ”
Alter your driving style
Small changes to the way you drive can save you money in the long run. Townsend recommends minimizing the need to brake by anticipating traffic stops. “Be alert for slow downs, and decelerate by coasting whenever possible,” he said. Another tactic is to avoid the left lane. “When you’re sitting in the turning lane you’re just waiting and wasting gas. UPS and FedEx tell their drivers to avoid the left lane, and you should, too.”
The need for speed
Speed limits are there for a reason. Traveling at higher speeds requires more fuel to overcome air resistance. “Even if that car is aerodynamically designed, traveling fast uses more fuel,” Townsend said. “Don’t drive so slow you become a traffic hazard, but drive at a moderate speed.”
The air-conditioning debate
It’s a common question: Should you use the air conditioner? Townsend tells people to be a smart user, not to avoid it completely. “If you live in D.C., it’s probably smarter to roll down the windows in stop-and-go traffic,” he said. “But if you’re driving 55 miles per hour, you’re creating a drag on your car if your windows are down.” Also, it’s allergy season. Why roll down the windows and let the pollen in at the expense of health? Allergy medications will cost you more than you save in gas.
Brand loyalty? Think again
Many people think brand loyalty pays off, especially if you have a gas card. But Townsend says you should consider using unbranded gas stations. “Around 85 percent of gas in the country is unbranded at convenience stores,” he said. “Using Sam’s Club, Safeway, or generic gas stations will save 3 or 4 cents at the pump.” Also some stations offer one price for cash and one for credit. Paying cash can save you about 4 cents a gallon at some stations.
Rewards credit cards for gas
Credit card companies know you have it tough, and many rewards programs are offering cash back on gas. You have to master the system, but there are some credit cards that will give you 5 to 10 cents back per gallon. If you’re good at following the rules and don’t ever carry a balance, this is a good time to get a card that gives you a gas rebate.
Should you shop around?
On average, if you’re aiming to save 10 cents per gallon, you shouldn’t drive more than four miles out of your way to get gas. “If you drive further than four [miles] every 10 cents, you’re losing money,” Townsend said. So the people from the District driving to suburban areas to get cheap gas — are they wasting money? “Gas in Frederick may be 40 cents cheaper, but you need to do the calculations first. Also, remember you’re driving round-trip.” Use AAA’s Fuel Finder Web site (www.aaa.com/fuelfinder) to find real-time prices for gas in your Zip code. If you’re driving out of town, Townsend recommends using the Web site to locate cheap gas along your route. “That way you can fill up as much as you need to get you to the cheapest gas station,” Townsend said.
THE BOTTOM LINE There’s little we can do about the price of gas, but you can save by planning your trips in advance, altering your driving style and using AAA’s Fuel Finder Web site to find the cheapest gas near you.
ON SALE THIS WEEK
On Saturday, the Salvation Army Women’s Auxiliary of Washington, D.C., will host a sale of personal treasures and sundries donated from its members and several estates. The goods include collectibles, artwork, home furnishings, china, crystal, silver, garden accessories, sports equipment, Christmas decorations, kitchenware and jewelry. Proceeds will benefit the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center, a residential treatment program that helps the homeless overcome drug and alcohol addiction. 9 a.m.-3 p.m., The Salvation Army Fairfax Corps, 4915 Ox Rd., Fairfax, 703-893-1113.
During April, the antiques, vintage and collectibles at Adams-Byrd Fine Arts & Antiques are marked down 40 to 50 percent. Sale items include a 19th-century slant-top desk (originally $2,500, now $1,250) and a 1971 silk-screen print by D.C. artist Terry Parmelee (formerly $3,000, now $1,800). 11 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. Mount Vernon Antique Center, 8101 Richmond Hwy., Alexandria. 703-799-8700.
The end of winter means fewer cozy fires, but it’s the ideal time for substantial savings if you’d like to exchange that smoky, wood-burning hearth for gas. At Offenbacher’s clearance center, Peterson log sets (with propane or gas burners) in several sizes (19-, 24- and 30-inch) are selling for 70 percent off. A 24-inch set of rugged split oak logs, originally $897, is $317. 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday, Offenbacher’s Lanham Clearance Center, 10001 Aerospace Rd., Lanham, 301-794-8794. www.offenbachers.com.
— Janet Bennett Kelly