In a very unscientific poll, I've discovered that while many drivers are groaning about the high price of gasoline these days, many don't have a clue that there are some things they can do to cut their fuel bill.
Although the average retail price of gas has been dropping, it still makes me weak in the knees when I have to pay at the pump. On a nationwide average, gas prices are still 44.1 cents a gallon more than they were a year ago.
And goodness knows, those of us who will be driving to our vacation destination could use all the savings we can get.
I think we all know that if we drive less, we spend less on gas. But what else can we all do besides parking the car to increase our fuel savings? The experts at Money Management International, a nonprofit credit-counseling agency, offered these suggestions:
* Before you hit the road, plan your vacation route so that you drive past gas stations with the lowest prices. Visit www.gaspricewatch.com to compare prices. You can search for deals by Zip code or by street, city and state. You can even sort prices by the grade of gasoline.
* Check your car's manual. If your car does not require premium-grade gas, get regular unleaded.
* Don't let brand loyalty cheat you out of savings. Gas is gas. I know that the little gas station may look fishy and you may wonder if the gas is good, but all companies have to comply with the same federal regulations. They use the same refineries. The stations without a well-known brand may be able to offer lower prices because they don't have the same expenses as the larger brand-name stations.
Here are a few gas-savings tips from the Alliance to Save Energy, which recently teamed up with the U.S. Department of Energy for a year-long "Powerful Savings" program (www.ase.org/powerfulsavings) to help consumers reduce their energy bills and cut energy use:
* Stop speeding. The faster you drive, the more gas you use, the more money you spend. Each 5 mph over 60 is equivalent to paying an extra 10 cents per gallon for gas.
* Replace air filters regularly. Replacing a clogged air filter can improve your vehicle's gas mileage by as much as 10 percent, according to the Department of Energy. And while you're having the air filter replaced, change your oil and fuel filters. I'll admit I'm pretty bad about remembering to do this myself. If it weren't for my husband, my oil would have the consistency of mud.
* When renting a car, ask for a model that gets better fuel economy.
* If you're buying a new or used car, pay attention to the mileage the vehicle gets. Check out the DOE's Web site, www.fueleconomy.gov, to find the most gas-efficient vehicles.
The Texas Department of Transportation and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality suggest you:
* Keep your tires properly inflated and balanced. This prevents excess drag on your engine and can improve your fuel economy by up to a mile per gallon. Depending on the size of your gas tank, you could get an extra 20 miles per tank.
* Stop pumping when you hear the "click." Don't top off your tank. Spilled gasoline pollutes the air when it evaporates. Not to mention that wasted gas is wasted money.
* Avoid aggressive driving and quick starts and stops. At highway speeds, you'll lower your gas mileage by about 33 percent. By maintaining a constant speed and driving sensibly, you could save as much as 50 cents a gallon.
* At fast-food restaurants or at the bank, get out of your car instead of using the drive-through. You will get some exercise and save. Idling in a drive-through burns more gas than restarting the engine. But if you must use a drive-through and are stuck in a long line, turn off the engine.
* Travel light. Okay, this is a hard one for me. Whenever I go on vacation, I always pack too much stuff. I can never decide what to take, so I take it all. It drives my husband crazy. But carrying an extra 100 pounds in your car makes the engine work harder, and that means more gas is being used. A loaded roof rack can decrease your fuel economy by up to 5 percent.
In some ways, rising gas prices can be a good thing. They're a wake-up call to all of us to drive more slowly and conserve energy. And maybe it will spare the backs of all those poor men (sorry, honey) who have to load and unload overstuffed suitcases while on vacation.
Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program or online at www.npr.org. Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.