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As a car commuter who travels daily between Baltimore and the District, I don’t have time to shop; I am too busy sitting on my ass, polluting the environment.
It’s been years, for instance, since I’ve done a serious clothing shop. My profession—and my employment at this alt-weekly in particular—enable me: I don’t need to dress up. My jeans can go as threadbare as is decent, and perhaps even beyond, and if I wear a just do it T-shirt I bought in 1993 no one is going to say anything. Well, not no one: My husband, whose wardrobe is only slightly less outdated than mine, will eye me after I’ve dressed in the morning and say, “Do you want me to buy you some clothes?”
But the expertise I lack in shopping for clothing and other consumer durables I more than make up for in the fuel market. I travel 90 miles each day, roundtrip. Depending on how much time I sit idling in traffic, wasting gas, I need to fill up my 2008 Acura every four commuting days. In November, I bought $216.31, or about 82 gallons worth, of gas (only a few went to non-commuter-related driving). Do the math: That’s $2,596 a year, assuming prices don’t go up. $2,596! Since driving is all I do outside of working hours, and gas has become the most important commodity in my life, I take fueling very seriously—and, in that spirit, offer this buyer’s guide to filling up and loving it.
Market Survey. We all know the Washington metropolitan area is one of the country’s most congested, which means a lot of fuel is burned here. If you buy it in the District, you’re probably paying a bit more than the national average: $2.77 for a gallon of regular unleaded versus $2.63. There are loads of conspiracy theories about quality and superiority (“BP uses too much sulfur in their gas and it makes my car smell,” “Shell gas made my truck run crappy”), but AAA says all gases, from Big Oil brand name to generic, are pretty much created equal.
Price. No matter where you’re coming from or going to, your first step is to steer clear of the Exxon near the Watergate. As of last week, that outfit was charging $3.49 for regular unleaded. Only Hawaii and Alaska have gas price averages above $3 right now, which seems somewhat more reasonable as they need to employ ships and Ice Road Truckers to bring the fuel in. I would rather sputter to a stop on Rock Creek Parkway, call to enroll in AAA, and wait hours for the tow-truck man to bring me a gas can than fill up there. (Says Mo Haidery, the manager: “What they tell me to put, I have to put. It’s the company, it’s not me.” He claims to fuel there himself: “I have to give the money to my own business.”)
With the Watergate Exxon out of the way, you’re free to explore the rest of the playing field. Cheapgas.com, Gas Buddy, and a slew of other Web sites will pinpoint the cheapest gas by Zip code, if you want to be that anal about it. But if you have a fixed route, you may not want to go out of your way to save a penny. OK—if you want to know if it’s worth going out of your way to save a penny, there’s a site for that, too: bankrate.com/calculators/auto/gas-price-calculator.aspx.
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My route—out of Baltimore to I-95 to 495 to Georgia Avenue to 16th Street to Washington City Paper’s offices in Adams Morgan, with Route 29 as an alternate—allows me to be moderately picky about price. On Gas Station Row in Silver Spring, the .4-mile stretch of Georgia between the Beltway and the exit for 16th, there are five stations: three northbound and two southbound—a veritable laboratory for research! I buy much of my fuel here, for convenience’s sake. Four of the five stations are usually within two pennies of each other; lately, a gallon of regular unleaded is $2.69. But the southbound Exxon has been charging 6 cents more—6 cents more even than the Exxon directly across the street (this week the price dropped).
Local Shell stations, including the one on Georgia, have a promotion offering 5 cents (per gallon) off all gas, all day, on Thursdays—somehow, I never seem to need fuel on Thursdays. (Note: I’ve seen this Shell raise the price before it lowers it, so your saving isn’t really 5 cents.)
But the larger lesson here is this: Count pennies! They matter! Take my commute: If I skipped Silver Spring and filled up all the time in perennially cheaper Baltimore, where I can get $2.55 a gallon by deviating slightly from my customary route, I could save $11.50 a month—about $140 a year. There are plenty of other ways to waste that money.
Pumps/Services. While you’re counting pennies, also count pumps—this varies from station to station. I have an unofficial eight-pump minimum on commuting days. Waiting for gas is so, like, 1970s! (The “World’s Largest Gas Station” on I-80 in Little America, Wyo., used to have over 100 pumps. A woman there says it now has 48, a bounty I feel is being wasted in the middle of nowhere.)
Speed of fueling is another consideration; there’s nothing worse than a slow fill. If you spy a big fuel truck refilling the underground tanks, go elsewhere.
Paying at the pump is a must in my book—and about 60 percent of gas-buyers opt to pay outside, according to Ben Woolsey of CreditCards.com. About 700,000 of the country’s 1.36 million gas pumps allow an on-the-spot transaction, he notes, but that means almost the same number don’t. Credit card fraud can be an issue because of “skimming”—electronic devices set up to surreptitiously capture your card or PIN information. In fact, don’t put your PIN in at all, says Avivah Litan, a security
analyst at the Connecticut-based research firm Gartner Inc.; it could be used later to drain your bank account at an ATM. “Gas stations are more dangerous than the Internet” in terms of fraud because they’re largely unmanned and the older ones are easy to unlock, Litan says. “I’ll stop where the gas is cheapest, frankly, but I like it when I see these new modern gas pumps because I know they have better security technology.” More pumps now ask for your zip code after your card swipe; the zip has to match what’s on file. Whether they do varies from state to state and franchise to franchise.
Also, find a station that reliably has squeegees. A gas station cannot reach its full potential if it doesn’t have squeegees.
Ambience/Experience. When you pull into a gas station, you know you’re not there for a candlelit six-course dinner at the Inn at Little Washington. Still, if you commute enough to fuel every few days, you’re likely spending at least six hours total doing it per year. It affects you.
There’s a gas station in Minnesota designed by Frank Lloyd Wright—I’d be happy to fill up there any time. Around here, you’ll have to set your sights lower. I frequent a Royal Farms station in Baltimore with overhead speakers that allow me to boogie down (in my head, all right?) while I fill. The soundtrack is pleasantly unpredictable: I recently heard “99 Red Balloons” and “Why Can’t We Be Friends.”
Lighting. A gas station doesn’t get extra points for having bright nighttime lighting, but it loses points if it doesn’t.
Loiterers. Bad. I stopped visiting one BP because there was often a guy sitting on a milk crate outside the attendant’s booth who wanted to know if I had dropped something (an obvious precursor to asking for money “for the bus”). If you’re like me, you prefer not to get hit up for cash while you’re filling.
Extras. I won’t go inside to pay for gas, but I will go in to get a Zero bar. So a filling station with a convenience store (Exxon TigerMart) trumps one without (plain old Exxon).
Royal Farms stations generally have sweet stores and the coffee is surprisingly good, not to mention cheap ($1.37 in Maryland, including tax, for a medium). The milk/creamer area is a little sketchy, as people don’t always put the dairy products back on ice. But whatever.
The Beltway Chevron, though, is tops for what I consider its finest offering: personal inspiration. It has a placard with sayings you might see outside churches: forgiveness doesn’t make them right it makes you free; consume too many things and you will be consumed; the greatest of earth is but a shadow of heaven; real friends stab you in the front. I gave up the church thing long ago, but I feel good about being a better person—or pretending for a moment that I am—just before I venture out onto the Beltway to curse people.