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No-one likes paying over the odds for gas, particularly when it is so expensive to start with.

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GPS Based Realtime Gas Prices

Use this to save money every time you buy gas
 

Very expensive gas prices

At a time when the going price for gas was $3.75 - $3.80, this gas station close to Orlando Airport was selling gas for $5.80.

If you didn't know there were stations nearby at normal prices, you'd end up (like me) trapped into buying this overpriced gas.

 

 

We've all experienced the pin-prick of annoyance when discovering either that we drove past a cheaper gas station and ended up buying gas at a more expensive location, or perhaps after filling up with what we thought was the best priced gas nearby, we then drive past another station and see their price is lower.

When we're traveling out of town, our local knowledge no longer applies and buying gas well becomes even more difficult.

Fortunately, these days there are easy and convenient solutions that tell us where gas stations are and how much they are currently charging for gas.


The Problem - Lack of Up to Date Knowledge

I was recently tricked/trapped into spending $5.80/gallon for gas (the going rate everywhere else was $3.80 or less) when returning a rental car to Orlando Airport.

I had three problems - I didn't know what the prices were at the two stations nearby before I got to them, I didn't know where other gas stations were, and I didn't know what prices they would charge.

Notice the common denominator - lack of knowledge, lack of knowledge, and lack of knowledge.

Add to that a fourth problem - not a lot of spare time to go driving around suburban Orlando in hopeful search of cheaper fuel - and I ended up buying close on ten gallons of gas at $2+ more per gallon than I needed to pay.  Yuck.

Most of the time, of course, our challenges aren't quite so severe, and the price differential is more like 10c a gallon, not $2.00.  But add all the gallons of gas you buy each year up (an average driver travels over 12,000 miles - at 25 mpg that would be 480 gallons; at 20 mpg that would be 600 gallons) and then calculate how much money you could save if you shaved a mere 5c or 10c a gallon off what you pay.  Yes, that could be $60 or more you save each year.

There's another thing as well.  If you're at all like me, you hate paying over the odds and 'rewarding the bad behavior' of the gas stations that charge more for gas than their competitors.  It is always a small pinprick of annoyance to drive out of the way, going past one gas station to what you believe to be a cheaper gas station, only to find that today the formerly cheaper station is now the same price or higher.  Or perhaps to fill up at what you thought to be the cheapest station, and then to drive past a station only to find that its gas price is cheaper than what you just paid.

In my local area there are a couple of gas stations a block or so apart that leapfrog over each other in pricing such that usually one is 5c more or less than the other; but I'm never sure which until I've driven past them both.

There's got to be a better way.  And, yes, there is.  The good news is that the relentless march of modern technology increasingly offers us solutions to such problems.

Near Real-Time Petrol Pricing Information

We can now get the up to date knowledge we need so we can make informed decisions about local gas pricing.

Just as it is possible to get information about the movies showing at local theatre complexes, so too can we now get information about the price of gas at local gas stations.

Basically there are two different type of service.

OPIS - Oil Price Information Service

The more common system uses a commercial service to get information from local gas stations, usually by way of the Oil Price Information Service - a company that gets pricing information from about 120,000 gas stations in the US, and which updates its pricing information every 25 minutes.

Note that although OPIS updates its database every 25 minutes, not all the companies buying OPIS data choose this deluxe highest frequency of update option, and no matter what the frequency of new data coming in, the intermediary that passes the data on to you might be updating/refreshing their own data base on a much less frequent schedule.

Note also that only about a quarter of the gas stations that OPIS gets data from provide 'real time' data (based on analysis of credit card sales transactions which show the number of gallons sold, the price per gallon, the grade of fuel, and various other information).  This number is increasing, but the majority of stations provide less instantaneous data, generally up to three days out of date but occasionally dating back as far as five days.

OPIS data is used by companies such as Garmin, AOL, Microsoft, AAA and many others.

Crowd Sourced Data

With the growth of smart cell phones with data connections, it is now becoming possible to supplement or supplant commercially sourced data such as that from OPIS with information supplied direct by motorists.

The positive aspect of this information is that it is free, so a service using information sourced this way can in turn be very low priced or free (ie advertiser supported).  The not so positive aspect is that it is harder to quality control voluntary driver submissions (one time I entered incorrect information myself by mistake), and depending on the ongoing and voluntary levels of driver participation, not all gas stations may be regularly sampled and their information sent in to the central service.

Clearly the downtown area of major cities will have lots of drivers who may potentially report data to the consolidator, but small country towns might have only occasional samples provided, and possibly not all gas stations listed.

Where and How to Get Fuel Price Information

There are basically four ways you can get gas price information while traveling.

GPS

If you are considering buying a GPS, you should consider getting a unit that has a gas price service built in to it.

However, sometimes these services can be quite pricey and only available on the more expensive models of GPS units, meaning you're paying more than perhaps $100 extra up front to get a more fully featured model, and then you could be paying as much as $5/month for a subscription to the data services option.

These data services will include other things too (such as real time traffic information) so it isn't as though you're paying $5/month (ie $60/year) only for the gas price information, but you are still paying this money - probably the same amount as you'd save from buying your gas wisely with the information you've bought.

Gas price aware GPS units will usually have some sort of option that will call up a list of gas stations close to you and showing the price for gas at each station.  You can then simply choose which station you want to go to, select it, and the GPS will then navigate you there.

It is less common to have this data overlaid on a map.  If you're in an unfamiliar area, the addresses by themselves might not mean much to you, but if you could see the locations on a map, that would be more helpful.

Other helpful features include a chance to choose between gas stations close to where you are, gas stations close to where you're going, and - especially clever - gas stations close to the route you'll be traveling from where you are to where you want to get to.

I like being able to quickly compare gas prices at my destination with local gas prices.  That helps me decide 'should I fill the tank before leaving home, or should I plan to top it up at the destination because prices are lower there?'.

Cell Phone GPS Apps

If you have a smart phone such as an iPhone or Android powered phone, it probably has a built in GPS capability and all you need is to buy a GPS program to run on your phone, and you have something that is almost as good as (some people would say even better than) a regular dedicated GPS device.

Whereas a separate GPS unit will cost you somewhere between perhaps $100 and $300 (and closer to $300 if you want a unit with built in gas price capabilities) a GPS program for your cell phone can cost as little as $5.

Furthermore, while you could pay $5/month, every month, for data services on a GPS receiver, you might pay little more than $5 - but every year rather than every month - for similar services on a GPS.

If you're like me, you'll find the value proposition so compellingly weighed in favor of a cell phone GPS program, you'll happily buy the app for your phone, even if you already have a data-capable GPS unit in your car.

I use the CoPilot product (as little as $5 to buy the program, and $8/year for the gas pricing option).

One important caveat.  If you're buying a GPS app for your phone, be sure it is one that has local mapping data, rather than one which downloads the maps as and when it needs them through the phone's data connection.

The latter type of service will chew through your precious data allocation, and won't work where there's no data connection available.  The former type of service will work everywhere, even with no cell phone service at all, and doesn't use any data at all (until you add extra features such as gas station pricing and real time traffic updates).

Gas price information display options on a cell phone tends to be at least as good as on a dedicated GPS unit, and sometimes more flexible and better than on a standalone GPS unit - probably because these days it seems that smart phones generally have more powerful processors in them than do GPS units.

Dedicated Gas Price Apps

There is an amazing program that operates on both Android and iOS (ie iPhones) based phones - Gas Buddy.  (It also runs on Blackberries too, but does anyone really care about Blackberries any more?)

Gas Buddy is free, and relies on crowd-sourcing for the information it provides.  It offers inducements to its users to encourage them to report gas prices, and has a very well written app that makes it very simple and quick to enter gas pricing.

As best we can tell, there are no other similar programs.  Gas Buddy seems to be in a league of its own.

Gas Price Websites

Lastly, there is the option to open a website on your cell phone's web browser and access data from the website.

This is probably the slowest and least convenient option, but it is free and would work with a phone that doesn't have GPS.

An example of this type of service would be www.fuelmeup.com.  Another one is AAA's Trip Tik Travel Planner, which also uses OPIS data.

Testing the Different Services

I tested an OPIS based service (fuelmeup.com), a smartphone GPS service (CoPilot- probably also OPIS based) and Gas Buddy with its unique crowd sourced data, plus AAA's Trip Tik website too, and used them to provide data in the local suburban area in which I live (Redmond/Bellevue, WA) and also for a small country town with less traffic (Leavenworth, WA).

Local suburban data

All services seemed to provide information for all the local gas stations in my general area.

Fuelmeup.com provided the date of last update.  This varied from today's date (data was collected at 2.30pm) to two day old data.  One grouping of 10 stations showed one with today's data, four with data from yesterday, and five with two day old data.

The CoPilot data did not show how recently it was updated.

The Gas Buddy data showed not just the date but also the time it was updated, and its similar page of data showed updates ranging from 55 minutes earlier to as long ago as 10 hours ago.

Clearly this information was massively more up to date than the OPIS data.

Low density country town data

Turning the focus now to Leavenworth, there are three gas stations in the small town (population about 2500 people).

Fuelmeup, Trip Tik and CoPilot both reported data on two of the stations.  Fuelmeup's (and Trip Tik's) information was two days out of date for one of the stations and one day out of date for the other.

Earlier in the day Gas Buddy reported price data on only one of the stations with information that was going towards two days old, but it did at least show all three stations, and if you drilled down in the displays, you could get the most recent pricing information too, even though it was just over two days old.

Which is Best

We really like the concept embodied in the Gas Buddy app.  In high density areas, its information is likely to be more uptodate than from OPIS based services, although in lower density areas, its information may not be as current.

The Gas Buddy app has a simple easy interface that - assuming it is legal and safe to operate a cell phone while driving - makes it easy to interactively use as you drive around.  And, with zero cost associated (other than for data transferred through your cell phone) the price is definitely right too.  See www.gasbuddy.com for more information or download it from the iTunes app store or Android market.

If you don't yet have a GPS unit, and you do have a smartphone, we'd recommend the CoPilot software due to its low price and flexible capabilities (it also has realtime traffic data for $10/year) and adding its $8/yr gas price option to it.

We didn't like the website and map interface at AAA's Trip Tik site at all, and consider the upfront and ongoing costs associated with dedicated GPS units to be hard to justify. 

 

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Originally published 28 Mar 2012, last update 02 Jul 2017

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

 
 

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