Memorial Day travel: myth-busting tips to save gas

Memorial Day weekend means taking to the road for many Americans and an estimated $1.4 billion spent to fuel up. Here are tips on how to save gas on your Memorial Day travel.

Reed Saxon/AP/File
Traffic piles up on Interstate 405 on the Westside of Los Angeles as commuters and vacationers hit the road. There are plenty of tips drivers can follow to save gas and save money this Memorial Day weekend.

If you must schlepp through America's congested, construction-riddled roadways this Memorial Day weekend, you may as well save gas while you're at it.

Many Americans will take to the road this Memorial Day weekend. Although fuel prices are down in most of the nation compared with last summer, Americans will still spend more than $1.4 billion filling up during their Memorial Day travels, according to a new analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). In the Midwest, refinery outages and maintenance have pushed prices up as much as 68 cents in the past two weeks.

So how can you save money on gas?

"Automakers are churning out more models that are making it easier than ever for consumers to choose fuel efficiency, save money on gasoline, and reduce our oil use,” Josh Goldman, policy analyst for UCS’s Clean Vehicles program, said in a statement. “When Americans begin planning for their next Memorial Day adventure, they should remember that a great way to have more money to spend on ice cream and sunscreen is to use less gasoline by investing in a fuel-efficient vehicle.” 

But not everyone drives a Toyota Prius or a Nissan Leaf or is in a position to rush out and buy one. Here are three of the most common gas-saving tips: 

Drive the speed limit

There's a reason the speed limit is what it is. "Not only is it safe, but you can also save a lot of money going the speed limit," Michael Green, a spokesman for AAA, said in a telephone interview.

Gas mileage dips dramatically for most cars after 50 miles per hour. You can assume that each 5 m.p.h. you drive over 50 is like paying an additional 25 cents a gallon for gas, according to the Department of Energy.

That's why, in the throes of America's first oil embargo, President Nixon signed a law in 1974 imposing a national speed limit of 55 m.p.h. Ir was eventually repealed, but the wisdom of the so-called "double nickel," still remains. Of course, for safety reasons, it's best to maintain the speed limit even when it requires driving at faster but less-economic speeds. Maintaining a constant speed will help as well.

"If you’re on cruise control and you’re not changing your speed, your car finds a sweet spot," Mr. Green said.  

Open the windows

Many challenge the conventional wisdom about shutting off the air conditioner and rolling down the windows to keep cool. They argue it creates drag and wastes gas more than a running A/C. Consumer Reports put those theories to the test. They drove 65 m.p.h. in a Honda Accord while using the A/C with the windows closed, and then opening the windows and shutting off the A/C.

Their findings? The air conditioner took 3 m.p.g. off the Accord's fuel efficiency. The open windows had no measurable effect.

Shop around

"The myth is that everybody’s price is relatively the same," David Zahn, vice president of marketing at FuelQuest, a fuel management technology company, said in a telephone interview. "There can be multiple penny differences between stations."

Those seemingly small savings add up over time, so it's worth it to plan ahead of time to know what stations have the best prices. Mr. Zahn recommends using and other websites that allow you to compare gas prices in your region. Comparison shopping is especially important in a volatile market where the prices for retailers can swing as much as five cents or more in a day.

"That volatility is going to continue and be reflected at the pump," Zahn said. "What the price is today is not necessarily what the price will be tomorrow."

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