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gas prices high higher highway signOver the last few years, average gas prices in the U.S. have ranged from just over $3 a gallon to well over $4 a gallon -- meaning that the cost of gas could have a major impact (either positive or negative) on your next trip budget. No matter what you're paying at the pump, we've come up with a few ways to help you trim your gas expenses.

Simple Stuff
1) Buy gas the day before you travel. You already know where the best gas deals are near your house or office, so you might as well purchase the first tank of your trip at a price you know and can control.

2) Empty out your ride. Leaving the 50-pound bag of dog food, the sack of grass seed or the immovable box of magazines headed for recycling in your car on long trips adds weight to your car and gobbles up fuel at a rate of 1 - 2 percent per 100 pounds. Lighten your load before traveling to save money.

Slideshow: The Eight Best U.S. Road Trips

On the Highways
3) Choose an exit with several gas stations. You can usually tell these from the amenity signs on the highway leading up to the exit -- the ones that list several fast food joints, local diners, hotels and gas stations. If the sign lists two or more stations, you will often benefit from the simple fact that there is competition for your business.

Upon exiting, you'll typically see a sign that looks something like:

Brand A - 0.1 mi -->
Brand B - 0.1 mi <--
Brand C - 0.8 mi -->

In this case, you may want to choose the station that is farthest from the exit ramp. Typically, Brand C will have the lowest prices, simply due to the inability to gouge outsiders looking for a quick off-and-on fill-up (the locals often use this station).

Two things happen. First, it's cheaper. Second, it is often less crowded. The extra mile's drive will cost you a few cents, but you can sometimes recover that in the first few gallons, and ultimately save quite a bit if you are running on empty and fill your tank.

4) Use "official" rest stops -- like those named after founding fathers, football coaches, nurses, mythical figures and others surely lost to memory were it not for Wikipedia and New Jersey Turnpike rest areas. (Quick -- who is Joyce Kilmer? Anyone? Anyone?) Oddly enough, these official rest stops tend to have fairly competitive prices; perhaps it would be unseemly for a station enjoying the considerable benefits of a government highway contract to soak us with high gas prices while trapped on the costly side of toll booths.

Five Features of a Fantastic Road Trip

When Renting a Car
Anyone who has filled the tank of their rental car at the station just outside the cluster of car rental companies knows that you can get truly soaked by waiting until the last minute. These folks know they are your Last Chance Texaco, and price-gouge accordingly. There are a couple of ways to win this game.

5) Your most reliable tactic is to check nearby gas prices on your way out of the airport/car rental zone just after you pick up the car -- this is when you should be thinking about saving money, not when you are returning the car and are under time pressure to make a flight. Then, when returning the car, consider purchasing your gas some distance from the rental return counter.

6) You can even pick the exact station at which you will purchase your gas on the way back in. Most rental companies require only that you fill the tank within 10 miles of the return lot; you will typically find much cheaper gas at this distance, out where real people buy gas for daily life. If you do this, get a receipt and take it with you to the counter as proof of purchase.

7) Got a smartphone or laptop with you? There are countless apps and online sources for checking gas prices; the best-known is GasBuddy.com, which lists gas prices in the U.S. and Canada, and offers mobile apps for many common platforms.

8) Even before getting in the car -- in fact, even before booking the rental -- you may want to make the fuel efficiency of your chosen vehicle a priority. You can research fuel efficiency by car class, model, year and more at www.fueleconomy.gov. The dollar amounts aren't nothing -- the site explains that "a vehicle that gets 30 m.p.g. will cost you $990 less to fuel each year than one that gets 20 m.p.g. (assuming 15,000 miles of driving annually and a fuel cost of $3.96)."

Driving Around
There are a gazillion ways to keep fuel consumption down when driving; here are just a few.

open road trip car travel mountains9) Only use the grade of fuel you need. If your car does not require premium fuel, don't get it. Check your owner's manual before the next time you fill up -- if your car only requires regular fuel, stick to that.

10) Use your cruise control -- especially on stretches of flat road. This will stop you from unconsciously speeding up and losing fuel.

11) Ease into a stop. Slamming on your brakes wastes gas. When you see that you need to slow down, ease off the gas and onto the brakes smoothly.

12) Use your air-conditioning. It is a popular myth that a car's air-conditioning wastes gas -- though at slower speeds or in stop-and-go traffic, this is true. However, having the windows open while driving on the highway will actually increase the drag on your car and force it to use more fuel to compensate.

13) Keep your tires inflated. Letting the air get low will force your car to work harder and use more gas.

14) Slow down. Most cars become less fuel-efficient once you reach speeds higher than 60 miles per hour. According to www.fueleconomy.gov, "Each 5 m.p.h. you drive over 50 m.p.h. is like paying an additional $0.25 per gallon for gas."

Tell Us About Your Favorite Road Trip!

15) A recent study found that, when searching for parking spaces, people lose the most time and burn up the most fuel by trying too hard to get too close to the entrance of the store, restaurant or hotel they are visiting. Not only that, they found that the harder you tried to park up close, the longer you waited overall.

The results found that:
  • * People who drove to the first obviously available spot and walked, no matter how far from the entrance, tended to get to the entrance first and burn the least fuel.
  • * People who drove around looking for the best spot, then parked when they found one, tended to get to the entrance next, and burned more fuel.
  • * People who waited to see someone who was about to pull out of their spot, then sat and waited for them to pull out and pulled into the spot, tended to get to the entrance last, and burned the most fuel.

    So park a little further away and save yourself time, burn less fuel and burn more calories.

    Create a budget for gas and other travel expenses with our comprehensive Travel Budget Calculator!

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    --written by Ed Hewitt and Genevieve S. Brown

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