The ultimate guide to saving on gas

Gasoline prices can swing wildly from month to month, even day to day. We’re all at the mercy of the oil companies, but you aren’t helpless. You can take steps to make your car more fuel efficient and save money, without switching to electric. In many cases, you can improve your mileage per gallon with both new technology and old tricks.

1. What You Drive

Your car is the biggest factor in fuel efficiency, so newer, lighter cars with better technology will usually get you a better MPG. You can trade up for bigger gains, or start small by making changes to your current ride.

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One of the newest options is an engine stop-start system currently used in hybrids. The system shuts down the engine when the car is idling and restarts when you hit the gas or release the brake, boosting fuel economy up to 10%. Only a handful of models use it now, but Edmunds estimates 40% of new cars and trucks sold in 2015 will have this system.

A new app called MyCarma will help you find the right car for your driving habits. It uses a plug-in to log your miles, analyze your driving and calculate your fuel costs on other cars. It even won the Apps for Vehicles Challenge, which encouraged innovation to improve efficiencies.

Even trading in for a slightly newer model, or one with clean burning diesel can increase your fuel efficiency. Review all the specs on older models stretching back to 1984 using this Department of Energy comparison chart.

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The heavier your vehicle, the less fuel efficient it will be. The FTC estimates an extra 100 pounds will reduce fuel economy by 2%, so empty your trunk and stash the golf clubs to save $0.07 a gallon every time you fill up.

Streamline the outside of your car by removing the bicycle / luggage rack on top, take the tailgate off your truck and replace those team flags for a magnet on the back.

Reduce drag by using your A/C on the highway, and opening windows on surface streets. If you are using the A/C, turn it off five minutes before you get to destination and recirculate the air to keep it cool.

2. How You Drive

Aggressive driving wastes fuel and money. The Department of Energy estimates for every 5mph you drive over 50mph, is like paying an additional $0.25 a gallon for gas. It’s not just about slowing down. Change your driving habits using the methods below to spend less time at the pump.

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Love gadgets? Try Automatic, a new FitBit for your car to track fuel economy, driving habits and speed. A simple plug-in under your steering wheel sends data to your iPhone app. Automatic tracks your trips, gives you a score and makes suggestions to increase fuel efficiency. Bonus: It will also tell you what’s wrong when your dashboard warning lights go on.

The Fuel Economy Coach app gives you immediate feedback on how efficiently you are driving, creates detailed reports and lets you set personal goals. The Apps for Vehicles Challenge winner even lets you download their beta version for free.

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Accelerating slowly and stopping gradually will boost gas mileage by 5%. The FTC also recommends maintaining a constant speed to avoid the wasteful gas-brake-gas-brake cycle. Cruise control will maintain speed, but avoid it on hills where gravity can do much of the work.

Don’t idle in the drive-thru lane, instead park and go inside to save $0.04 a minute. Constant starting and stopping can wear the starter, so don’t do this at stoplights. Only turn the car off if you will be sitting for more than 1:00.

If you have a smaller car with manual transmission, shift into neutral when idling to reduce strain on the transmission. Whenever possible, shift gears at a low RPM: Shift up early and downshift late for maximum efficiency.

Drafting is a trick used by race car drivers to reduce drag by driving directly behind another vehicle on the highway. It’s not for everyone; you need to keep a safe distance and avoid constant braking. It is easiest to achieve if you drive behind a large truck, as the airstream will be larger and you can stay back 65 feet.

3. How You Fill Up

Reward credit cards can counteract rising prices at the pump, but some have fees and exclude wholesalers like Costco. Don’t waste time searching for the right one. ConsumerFu already crunched the numbers in our Best Gas Reward Credit Cards comparison guide.

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Using a web tracking site like GasBuddy can help you find the cheapest prices in your hometown, and it updates every 30 minutes. City and county taxes can make a big difference, so compare rates in the places you drive most to find the best deals.

For travelers, AAA TripTik Travel Planner lets you map a route, compare gas station prices, and find hotels and attractions. However, the prices are updated less frequently so this is best used as a basic guide.

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Fill up your tank early in the week, no later than Wednesday morning. Gas prices rise throughout the week in anticipation of weekend travel, especially around holidays.

ARCO sells gas for about 5% lower than the competition, but you have to pay cash to get the full discount. Some bigger gas stations will give you a 2.5% discount for paying cash, but you have to ask.

Grocery chain reward programs like Safeway and Kroger also have programs to save $0.10 a gallon. For every purchase you get points towards discounted gas.

Avoid the first gas station outside a national park, the airport or the highway as they will always be higher. Always fill up your tank to avoid additional trips and reset your trip odometer as a reminder to be fuel efficient.

4. Where You Drive

Fuel costs vary significantly around the country due to supply routes, refinery outages, taxes, even state grade mandates. Those are all out of your control. However, you can control how often you drive, how many miles you drive and how much gas you use.

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Carpools can help you save money by splitting the costs of gas. Online ride share programs like eRideShare make it much easier by offering detailed lists of commuters who want to go across town or across country.

If you’re not driving your car, why not rent it out? GM owners can make up to $1,000 renting their cars through the RelayRides program. You decide prices and availability while the company handles insurance and background checks. Approved renters use their smart-phones to access the vehicle through OnStar, so you also avoid hassles.

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It sounds silly, but making right turns instead of left turns will save you fuel. Just think of how much idling you do waiting for traffic to clear in the left hand lane. It’s so efficient, UPS saved 10 million gallons of gas using this method since 2004.

Some other suggestions: Combine your errands to save time and money, map out your route and park in the first spot instead of circling for a closer one.

5. How You Maintain

Simply keeping your engine tuned will improve gas mileage by 4%. Fixing a serious problem like a faulty oxygen sensor can boost MPG up to 40%. Some drivers, however, want more from their cars – and there are ways to get it.

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Chip-tuning or ecotuning, is a way to reprogram your engine’s computer to increase fuel efficiency by 20%. The idea is that manufacturers limit performance to ensure the car will work in all conditions like extreme temperatures or altitude. Ecotuning maximizes your engine for your specific circumstances.

Another add-on is the DynoValve, a patented PCV valve that claims to regulate engine gasses, reduce emissions and improve mileage. As with any product, do your homework. The EPA warns many gas saving gadgets that promise to improve mileage are ineffective.

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Keeping your tires inflated to the right pressure can improve MPG by more than 3%, a savings of up to $0.11 a gallon. A recent survey from the Rubber Manufacturers Association showed we’re all guilty of letting it go – only 17% of vehicles on the road had properly inflated tires. If you’re replacing tires, be sure to check out the Tire Ratings Database, which contains ratings for many different brands of tire.

Regular maintenance checks are important. Simple replacements like motor oil, spark plugs and air filters can help both fuel economy and acceleration.

Keep an eye on the fuel gauge so it never drops below a quarter tank. If there is only a small amount of gas, sludge at the bottom of the tank will get sucked up into your fuel system, making it work harder. When you do fill up, tighten the gas cap until you hear three clicks to avoid evaporation.

The Future of Fuel Efficiency

Most automakers also have a fuel economy plan focusing on hybrid technology, lighter materials and aerodynamics. Some you will see in coming years. Edmunds reports designers are making big strides in wind resistance with smoother grilles, sealed undercarriages and rounded surfaces.

However, the biggest changes to maximize efficiency are under the hood. Green Car Congress reports carmakers are very focused on direct injection, smarter alternators and cylinder deactivation systems.

For those that prefer not to wait, there are also plenty of forums online that offer great tips. For the truly adventurous, there are even forums to help you convert your car into an electric model.