By Kelli B. Grant
Early forecasts for holiday travel indicated fewer Americans will be hitting the road over the holiday weekend — but that was when gas prices were 4% higher. Now, drivers should plan for a few more cars on the road, and more deals at the pump.
On June 22, AAA announced it expects 39 million Americans to drive 50 miles or more from home from June 30 to July 4, based on survey responses collected during the week of June 13. That’s a 2.5% fewer travelers than last year, in part from an 8% drop in drivers with a household income of $50,000 or less. “In lower-income families, gas prices are consuming a larger part of the budget,” says Heather Hunter, a spokeswoman for AAA.
But respondents were reacting to gas prices of $3.70 a gallon, which have since dropped over the past two weeks to a current average $3.54. (Crude oil prices have since rebounded, but analysts say they expect gas prices to stay near current levels for the remainder of the summer.) That 16-cent difference works out to roughly $4.50 for someone filling up a Ford Expedition. It’s not a make-or-break amount on a short-road trip, but the prospect of a break on fuel bills for the rest of the summer could be enough to convince more people to travel. “We may perhaps see some lower income families that gas prices have kept them off the road, decide to travel at the last-minute,” Hunter says.
For drivers braving the road this weekend, use these five tactics to find the best prices along your route:
Use a gas-price app. Look at tools to help you find cheaper gas along the way, Hunter says. AAA has mobile and web versions of its TripTik Travel Planner, which includes gas stations and prices along your route. Other free phone apps to try: Cheap Gas and GasBuddy. Check to see when prices were last updated – in less-frequented areas, the latest update may be a few days old.
Go off-road. If you don’t have a smartphone, the most reliable way to find cheap gas is to drive a block or two in from the highway, says Jason Toews, a co-founder of Gasbuddy.com. Stations close to major highways typically pay more in rent and other overhead, which results in prices that are a few cents more per gallon.
Pick up store rewards. Wal-Mart announced Wednesday that participating stores in 20 states will offer a 10-cent discount per gallon to shoppers who pay with its branded credit card, gift card or prepaid card. The offer runs until Sept. 30. Supermarkets are increasingly offering similar discounts, which can range as high as 40 cents off per gallon for frequent grocery shoppers who fill up there.
Look for a warehouse club. “They typically sell gas really cheaply to try to drive traffic into their stores,” he says. You don’t need to be a member to buy, but it’s not necessary to actually pull into the club’s station, either. Warehouse clubs’ low prices often mean other stations in the area get cheaper, too, to compete.
Carry cash. More merchants — especially gas stations — are offering cash discounts to avoid the expensive fees issuers charge them for each credit or debit transaction. “There are lots of stations around the country that have a cash and credit price,” says Toews. The cash price might save you an extra 6 or 7 cents per gallon, he says.