Tool$ Tuesday: Tips For Lessening the Pinch at the Pump

BY Paul Solman  March 8, 2011 at 9:48 AM EDT

You may have noticed that gas prices are up rather dramatically, in tandem with the drama in the Middle East and North Africa. No coincidence, obviously. The fear of supply disruptions, sabotaged wells, turmoil in general, has driven up the price of oil, from which gasoline, of course, is refined. The average cost of a gallon of gas rose 14 cents last week to $3.51.

But oil isn’t the only component of the price at the pump. Differing state taxes, local distribution costs, environmental requirements and competition among local gas stations all make for a range of prices from one place to another. So for this Tool$ Tuesday, we’ve compiled a few tools to help you locate the cheapest gas in your area. It’s the least we can do.

MapQuest Gas Prices: Type in your address or intersection and what type of fuel your vehicle needs and voila: a map with local gas stations and the price they charge. You can sort by price, distance or alphabetically, and then use the MapQuest directions feature to plot your path to the pump.

MapQuest warns that though the gas prices are updated seven times a day, “not every station sends in updates every day. We found out that sometimes the lowest price was just an old price. That can be a real bummer if you drive there to purchase cheap gas. Any price older than 48 hours is displayed in grey color in the search results and is not factored in when we show the lowest prices on the map.”

Given this possible disparity between what’s posted on the site and what’s posted on the gas price sign at the station, we recommend checking around at a few sites or calling the station to confirm the price before you drive over, if you’re intent on price shopping and the difference seems big enough. Remember, though: a savings of 10 cents a gallon represents the equivalent of something like 1 mile of gas for a fuel efficient (35 mpg) car. So don’t drive too far.

GasBuddy: By typing in your city, state or zip code this tool will show you the cheapest gas price in your area. GasBuddy regulars update the prices listed. It’s probably a good idea to cross-check or call the station to confirm these prices too.

Have a smart phone? GasBuddy has an app that lets you check gas prices while on the go.

Automotive.com: Type in your address or zip code and you’re given a color-coded table of local stations and what they’re charging for regular, plus, premium and diesel fuel. You can then use an embedded Google map to figure out how to get to the station.

And just like the other tools listed above, Automotive.com has a disclaimer that there may be a lag in price information. Again, check around before you head out.

If you’re planning a road trip, check out AAA’s Fuel Cost Calculator. Enter a few details about your trip and your vehicle, and AAA will give you an idea of what you can expect to pay for gas along the way.

Have a gas tool you rely on but didn’t see here? Let us know in the comments.

To read about the impact of higher gas prices on different kinds of communities see the recent post “Pain at the Pump Across Patchwork Nation” by our friend, Dante Chinni of the Patchwork Nation Project.