As the nation's economic woes mount, many Americans plan to stay close to home this summer. Six in 10 Americans say they will spend less on vacations this summer or not take one at all, according to a new report by TrueCredit.com.
Among those rethinking travel plans, 72 percent cited fuel costs as their primary concern. Indeed, a family planning a 1,000-mile road trip, for example, can expect to pay at least $600 more than they did last year.
But paying more than $4 a gallon at the pump shouldn't be an excuse to nix the family vacation. With just a few minor changes, motorists don't have to buy a hybrid to increase fuel economy by up to 50 percent. So before hitting the road, check out these 10 tips to lower your gasoline bill:
1. Feed the Michelin Man!
One out of every 3 cars on the road in the United States has at least one underinflated tire. Pumping up your tires properly could save up to $2 every time you fill the gas tank. The US Department of Energy estimates that Americans will waste more than $1.5 billion of gasoline this summer because of low tire pressure. For best results, use the recommended p.s.i. printed on the side of the tire, not the one in the automobile's owner's manual.
2. Your car is not a moving closet.
If you like to keep golf clubs in the trunk just in case you get the urge to play 18 holes, consider that every 100 pounds you add to the trunk reduces fuel efficiency by 1 to 2 percent. That's 4 to 7 cents a gallon, or up to a $1.05 every time you fill up a 15-gallon tank. "Stop using the car as a spare bedroom. Call Goodwill, have [them] take all the stuff out of the car, and then enjoy the lighter load," says Diane MacEachern, author of "Big Green Purse: Use Your Spending Power to Create a Cleaner, Greener World."
3. Don't move the junk in your trunk to the roof.
A roof-mounted luggage carrier, roof racks, or anything else on top of your car creates wind resistance and can decrease fuel economy by up to 5 percent. Pickup truck owners, however, can make their vehicles more aerodynamic and improve fuel economy by adding a shell the same height as the cab over the truck bed. If you don't want to buy a shell, keep the tailgate closed. Leaving it open or taking it off completely creates extra drag that will cost you. And from the school of differences too small to notice, a freshly waxed car is more aerodynamic than a dirty one. You'll get better mileage, but need scientific instruments to see the difference.
4. You're not a race-car driver.
You've heard it before, but hear it again: Don't go over 60 miles per hour, and avoid quick starts and stops. Doing so can reduce your outlay for gasoline by as much as 33 percent. Remember this simple equation: For every 5 m.p.h. you drive over 60, you'll be paying the equivalent of an extra $0.20 per gallon at the pump. Whether cruising the highway or starting up at a traffic light, imagine an egg between your foot and the pedal as you push the accelerator. Conversely, unless faced with an emergency, coast before you stop, allowing your engine to idle for a few hundred yards.
5. Make peace with the A/C.
Times – and cars – have changed, so dads can loosen their grip on the air-conditioning controls. "Today most modern vehicles' air conditioners don't put nearly as much drag on the engine as older models used to do," says Christie Hyde, a AAA spokesperson. In fact, driving with the windows down on the highway creates enough wind resistance to make a noticeable difference as the engine chugs to overcome the excess drag. In the city, however, you'll get better mileage by shutting off the A/C and letting in fresh air, but the difference will be slight, about an extra mile per gallon. Ultimately, "you have to weigh your comfort versus fuel economy," says Ms. Hyde.
6. Get to know your mechanic.
If money is tight, ignoring the "check engine" light won't protect the piggy bank. Routine maintenance ensures that your car will get maximum gas mileage and avert potential mechanical problems down the road. Among other repairs, realign your tires every couple years or after hitting a crater-sized pothole. Proper wheel alignment will help keep the gas gauge leaning toward "F."
7. Forget the drive-through.
When grabbing lunch on the go, save yourself from needless idling by parking, turning off the car, going inside the restaurant, and getting your order to go. If you can't live without the drive-through, turn your engine off while waiting in line. It is not safe, however, to cut off your engine when stopped at a red light.
8. Map it twice, drive there once.
Before shopping for a weekend barbecue or running everyday errands, think about the route before starting the car. The average American makes up to a dozen trips a day, says Ms. MacEachern. Planning out what you need and where to go will save you from backtracking or, worse, second and third trips. Better yet, ask yourself: Do I even need to take the car? And if the grocery store is just a mile down the road, get some exercise and walk.
9. Say no to premium gas.
Unless your car requires it, don't buy premium gas. It will not increase your gas mileage, only your bill. Additionally, the majority of additives promising to increase fuel economy don't make a noticeable difference, says Hyde from AAA.
10. Play the market.
No official rules exist dictating when gas stations raise or lower prices. But if fuel prices are trending up, most stations post new rates just before the weekend. When prices are heading down, stations often wait until after the weekend to drop prices. And some gas gurus will tell you to pump gasoline early in the morning. Because gas expands when it's hot, they figure, filling the tank in the midday heat will give you less fuel than you would receive in the morning when the gas has already cooled and contracted overnight. Most fuel-efficiency experts consider this idea to be more folk wisdom than fact and that the difference, if there is one, may be too small to notice. Even so, it may be worth a try.