Just because gasoline prices are dropping to the $2-per-gallon "comfort zone," you aren't buying into the fantasy that all is well now at the gas pump, are you? Puh-leeze! Try not inhaling so many fumes the next time you fill up! This is no time to get slap-happy at the gas station.
But the time is right to catch up with the Consummate Consumer's savvy traveling salesman, Ira Stoller, whose job survival demands that he stay on top of ways to save on the punishing price of gas.
When last we visited Stoller, more than a year ago, he was crisscrossing New Jersey's turnpiked terrain selling telecommunications equipment, putting 40,000 miles a year on his car and calling gas prices that, like now, were hovering above $2 a gallon "highway robbery!"
One of his methods of cutting travel costs was to upgrade his gas-rebate credit cards whenever necessary to get the best deal. He has saved hundreds of dollars shuffling his gas-rebate credit cards like a poker player in search of card issuers who up the ante.
Now the 69-year-old Stoller has cut back his annual mileage to closer to 26,000 miles. But, still, "I'm concerned about gas prices," he says, reporting that last week he found regular in central Jersey for $1.91 a gallon, "the lowest we've seen since Katrina!"
So what's in his wallet these days? Stoller says he still uses the trusty Citi Dividend Platinum Select card from Citibank that he switched to last year. The no-annual-fee card has several upsides, offering 5 percent cash rebates on gas, grocery and drugstore purchases from stand-alone stations and stores (not warehouse clubs, discount stores, department stores and convenience stores) and a 1 percent rebate on other purchases. Only downsides are that rebates are capped annually at $300 and it takes good credit to get one.
"Not to be outdone, Chase has a card which also gives 5 percent on gas and grocery purchases," says Stoller, referring to the Chase Cash Plus Rewards Visa card.
Several other gas-rebate cards offer 6 percent or more in rebates on gas purchases -- but usually with a hitch, such as the good deal lasts for 60 days before going back to a so-so deal, or it's good only for a specific brand of gas. Among those, says Stoller, is Chase's Hess credit card, offering a 10 percent rebate on Hess gas purchases for the first 90 days and 5 percent thereafter.
"The champion," he says, of those short-term deals for now is the Shell MasterCard that offers a 15 percent rebate on subsequent purchases of Shell gas for the first 60 days and 5 percent thereafter.
Shell MasterCard spokeswoman Elizabeth Hudson says the card has offered the core deal of a 5 percent rebate on Shell gas purchases since it began in 1993. But its current introductory promotion triples rebates for the first 60 days on any new account through Jan. 15. "That's not just for gasoline," says Hudson. "For all other everyday purchases, you get a 1 percent rebate applied toward your future Shell gasoline purchases, and for the first 60 days that triples. . . . You can imagine the savings."
Hudson calculates that with the 15 percent rebate, if gas is an average $2.35 a gallon, you save about 35 cents a gallon -- on 20 gallons that's $7. "It can really help you cut your driving expenses," she says. "We wanted a bold, in-your-face offer."
But this caveat: To make a gas-rebate credit card valuable, do as Ira Stoller does and pay off the monthly balance every month on time.
"That's crucial," says credit-card expert Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com, an independent consumer resource that rates credit cards. "The interest rates on these gas-rebate cards aren't particularly bad -- like 11.9 to 16.9 -- but if you are planning to carry a balance, you can do better than that" with a low-interest-rate card.
Arnold has his favorites, including the Citi Dividend Platinum Select card. He calls the Shell MasterCard's 15 percent introductory deal "obviously phenomenal," but he doesn't like having to buy a specific brand of gas. Too limiting when scouting around for better gas prices.
One poster on CardRatings.com's forums reports that his Speedway SuperAmerica gas station sells $50 gift certificates for $48, an ongoing promotion. He buys the gift certificate to pay for gas. He uses his 5 percent-rebate Citi Dividend card to buy the gift certificate -- which, in the end, adds up to an 8.8 percent savings on gas.
Arnold says if you play your cards smart, there are significant savings available. "The main thing is paying it off in full," he says. "And understanding how the particular card works. You need to pore over the terms of the offer."
Car Repairs Repaired
That reference to "$100-an-hour mechanics" in a recent column ("An Overheated Car-Repair Bill," Nov. 20) threw a wrench in the Sunday afternoon of several auto mechanics who protested that the service charge may be $100 an hour, but the mechanic is lucky to see $10 to $20 an hour of that. Point taken.
Car repair tends to be a provocative topic. Everyone has a story to tell. Frank Camp of Potomac offers this tip on finding ethical and competent car repair shops: "I have had good luck with the recommendations of Click and Clack" (www.cartalk.com/content/mechx/).
Hal Lewis, president of International Automotive Technicians' Network, Chapter 18, a trade group that represents 49,225 automotive technicians in 136 countries, offers this insider tip: Search for reliable auto repairs at IATN's Web site "shop finder" feature at www.iatn.net (just key in the Zip code). A 30-year veteran of auto repairs from Kennett Square, Pa., Lewis says IATN members sign on to the organization's high standards of professionalism, competence and integrity.
And Rockville reader R. Berman advises that a better resource than AAA's approved repair-shop list is Consumer's Checkbook (a two-year subscription costs $30), the nonprofit consumer group that rates companies, stores and services based on the experiences of consumers who are surveyed. "I certainly would avoid shops that have low satisfaction ratings in Consumer's Checkbook," he says.
Ever wish that customer service reps, stores, manufacturers on online retailers would do things differently? Maybe make "caring about the customer" business as usual? Deadline for New Year's resolutions you think should be on their list is Dec. 21 -- so send 'em now! E-mail details to email@example.com or write to Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Because of the volume of mail, personal replies are not always possible.