Getting the most out of that tank of gas

Shanna and Kevin Kurpe had plotted out an ambitious RV road trip that would have taken them to 48 states in 48 weeks.

That was before the Middle East turmoil drove the average price of a gallon of regular gas above $3.50 nationwide. The Kurpes crunched the numbers and reached a sad conclusion: $200 a month for gas wouldn’t take them very far. So the Florida couple gave up on their dream and hatched a new plan. They’d leave their trip to chance and see where 300 miles a month would get them.

(Peter and Maria Hoey for The Washington Post) - illustration for Nancy Trejos' gas price story

“We’re just going to have to play it by ear and see how it goes,” said Shanna.

America’s love affair with the road could be running out of gas. The road trip was once the cheapest way for families, college students and frugal travelers to vacation. Now, these road warriors are feeling the pain at the pump.

And it could get worse. The U.S. Energy Information Administration says that the average price of gas could surpass $4 per gallon this summer. In 2008, the last time there was such a dramatic spike, fewer travelers took to the roads, according to AAA.

This time, Sarah W. Caron, for one, is turning her family’s vacation into a staycation. Caron and her husband had wanted to take their two young children to Disney World this summer. But “once we figured out the cost of gas for the trip from Connecticut to Florida in our SUV, it simply became cost-prohibitive,” she said.

You don’t need to give up so easily, though, road-trippers. With a few cost-saving strategies, you can still make it to Disney World. Here’s some expert advice on the best strategies for hitting the road without taking too big a hit to the pocketbook.

Prep work

Tap into technology. The smart road-tripper uses a smart phone to find out where to get cheap gas, using apps such as Gas Buddy and AAA’s TripTik Mobile. If you don’t have a smart phone, no worries — just log on to Web sites such as GasPriceWatch.com, GasBuddy.com, FuelMeUp.com, Bill­Shrink.com and Gasprices.Mapquest.com from any computer.

Planning your route carefully is the best way to save money, says AAA Mid-Atlantic spokesman John Townsend. Log onto AAA’s Fuelcostcalculator.com to get an estimate of how much you’ll spend on gas, then use it to plan the most direct route to your destination.

Choose your vehicle carefully. Leave the gas-guzzling SUV at home. Renting a car might be cheaper. But not just any car. Carrie Meo, director of fixed operations for Darling’s, a chain of automotive dealerships, recommends working with your rental company to find the most fuel-efficient option. “Sacrificing an amenity like power-adjustable seats may be worth it if the car has a higher miles-per-gallon rating,” she said.

Consider a membership with a pay-as-you-go car company. The daily rate at Zipcar and Connect by Hertz, for instance, entitles you to 180 miles without paying for gas or insurance.

Time for a tuneup. If you take your own car, tune it up, change the oil, top off the fluids and inflate the tires.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that fixing a car that’s out of tune or has failed an emissions test can improve its gas mileage by an average of 4 percent. Keeping your tires properly inflated boosts your mileage by 3.3 percent. And using the manufacturer’s recommended grade of motor oil will cause a 1 to 2 percent jump.

Pack light. Overpacking is a drag, literally, on your car. Don’t even think about putting up that roof rack. A loaded rack can decrease your fuel economy by 5 percent, the Energy Department estimates. Put all your items in the trunk — but leave the heavy ones behind. An extra 100 pounds reduces fuel economy by 1 to 2 percent.

On the road

Watch the speed limit. You’re on the road. You’ve got miles of highway ahead of you. You want to go as fast as you can. Don’t.

Gas mileage tends to decrease at speed limits above 60 mph. Every 5 mph above 60 is like paying an additional 24 cents per gallon, according to the Energy Department.

Aggressive driving in general wreaks havoc on gas mileage. Rapid acceleration and braking can lower mileage by 33 percent on highways and 5 percent on city streets. “A smoother driving, less aggressive style will often pay dividends, even in a high-performance car,” said Robert Hills, education program manager for the Universal Technical Institute, which specializes in automotive technology education.

Using cruise control on highways to maintain a constant speed could also save gas. And using overdrive gears keeps your engine speed down, preserving fuel and also reducing engine wear.

Turn off the engine. Hills advises against idling the engine for long periods of time while stationary. “Switch it off if you can,” he said. “Your engine will generally use more fuel doing this than in normal driving situations.”

Drive at off-peak hours. This can help you avoid getting stuck in traffic. And consider getting a GPS so you’re not driving around aimlessly trying to find your way.

Don’t drive once you arrive. Park your car and take public transportation. Or rent a bike. Or walk. “You can see your destination a lot better at walking speed,” said John Wetmore, producer of the cable series “Perils for Pedestrians,” which promotes safety for walkers.

Bargains, bargains

Gas cards. Meet the new hotel amenity. Sky Hotels & Resorts in Orlando, which owns seven resorts, is offering a Fuel Fanatic gas rebate: Get a $25 gas card for a three-night stay, or a $50 gas card for four nights, through June 16. The Innisbrook, a Salamander Golf & Spa Resort in the Tampa Bay area, has a Pass on Your Gas Charges package starting at $189 per night. Show your gas receipts or airline ticket (airlines have been adding fuel surcharges to their fares), and the resort will give you a credit for up to $75. And Choice Hotels International, which owns such properties as Comfort Inn and EconoLodge, will give you a $50 gas card for two separate stays at any of its hotels until May 4.

Credit card gas rewards. Shop around for a credit card that offers rewards for gas purchases. The Capital One No Hassle Rewards card, for instance, will give you 2 percent cash back on them. Others, such as the Pentagon Federal Credit Union Visa rewards credit card, will go as high as 5 percent.

If that road trip still looks undoable, you can always ditch the car. “Look at possibilities that don’t involve driving at all, such as Amtrak and buses,” said Wetmore. “What would someone who couldn’t drive do for vacation?”

Not stay at home, probably.

 
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