With summer driving season just around the corner, gas prices are climbing. According to the short-term energy outlook released this month by the Energy Information Administration, this summer consumers will pay an average $2.62 per gallon for regular gasoline, 25 cents more than last year. Retail diesel prices are also expected to hit $2.62, up 8.6 percent from last summer. Higher-priced markets such as California (and, yes, parts of New York) will see prices close to $3.
Admittedly, it's not as bad as it was last fall. These prices top what we paid last summer, but they fall short of the record prices hit last fall following Hurricane Katrina (if we have another active hurricane season, how far prices skyrocket is anybody's guess). As for now, the energy department blames the higher prices on soaring oil prices, growing demand and the additional cost of meeting domestic fuel quality requirements. But it still stands to cost you a pretty penny. If you fill up once a week with 30 gallons, that an extra $30 per month onto your gas bill. Going on vacation? That increase can quickly add up to hundreds of dollars.
Personally, I've already crossed the $3 threshold several times in Westchester County, New York. You know you're in trouble when it costs $45 to fill up a car that is mid-sized at best. What's a consumer to do? You don't have to cancel your vacation and fake one on the terrace or in Central Park. You do have to pay a little more attention to your driving habits. Maintaining steady speeds — which means accelerating slower and braking more gently — will cut down on your gasoline expenses. So will carpooling and running fewer errands. You can also do the following:
- The best, and most often overlooked, conservation method is to drive with properly inflated tires. According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study, more than one-fourth of passenger car tires and one-third of light truck vehicles have at least one under-inflated tire. For every pound per square inch that your tires are under-inflated, you lose 1 to 2 percent of your gas mileage, says Robert Sinclair Jr., manager of media relations for AAA New York. That is per tire. Look on the inside of the driver's side door of your car for a sticker that lists its proper tire inflation. And check your tires at least twice a month, and always before and after long trips.
A dirty air filter is another culprit. It can add several cents per gallon to the price of gas. If you live in a normal climate, clean it every 5,000 to 7,000 miles. A dusty region means clearing it of debris every 3,000 to 4,000 miles. Finally, old, dirty spark plugs can decrease fuel economy by 30 percent. Ouch!
- Say goodbye to the days of cruising with open windows and the air conditioner off to save gas. "You can actually get better mileage in highway speeds by having your windows rolled up and the air conditioner on," says Bradley Proctor, founder of GasPriceWatch.com. Driving with open windows creates greater air drag, which makes the engine work harder. This drag reduces your mileage by 10 percent. Plus, newer vehicles generally do not lose as much gas as older models did when you turn the air conditioner on.
- The best time to buy gas is the coolest time of the day, which is generally in the early morning or late evening. This is when the gasoline is densest. You pay for gas according to volume of measurement, and gas pumps measure volumes of gasoline, not how dense it is. "So you can get more bang for your buck at this time," says Proctor. Also be aware that most stations change prices (depending on the movements in the price of gasoline itself) around 10 in the morning. Of course that can help or hurt you depending on the direction prices move.
- Use Web sites such as GasPriceWatch.com, FuelMeUp.com or NewYorkGasPrices.com to find the stations with the lowest prices in your area. For example, GasPriceWatch.com uses thousands of volunteers to spot and report prices at more than 129,000 stations around the country. Your can search by zip code, street name, station name or latitude/longitude coordinates to find the lowest prices in that area. Prices on some Web sites may lag by a day or two.
- Do you haul golf clubs in your trunk when you play only once a month? It's time to stop. Extra weight decreases your car's mileage, especially when you drive up hills. So remove any unnecessary items from the trunk or inside of the car. Consider leaving your roomier, but gas hog, SUV at home in favor of a smaller more fuel efficient car. You may feel slightly more cramped, but the trade off is you can save five to ten miles more per gallon. Do not, however, drive your smaller car and attach a roof top carrier. This outer luggage can cause serious drag on the car and reduce your mileage by up to 15 percent.
Jean Chatzky is an editor-at-large at Money magazine and serves as AOL's official Money Coach. She is the personal finance editor for NBC's "Today Show" and is also a columnist for Life magazine. She is the author of four books, including "Pay It Down! From Debt to Wealth on $10 a Day" (Portfolio, 2004). To find out more, visit her Web site, .