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High gas prices putting brakes on travel

High gas prices are putting a damper on spring travel for Texans, according to a survey released Friday by AAA Texas.

While 54 percent of Texans surveyed said they expect to take a trip over the next two months, that's down from 61 percent last year.

More Texans will be traveling within the state this year -- 58 percent versus 47 percent in 2011, the survey said. The most popular destinations are Austin and San Antonio, with nearby states like New Mexico, Louisiana and Oklahoma accounting for most of the out-of-state trips.

Gasoline prices are up 18 cents statewide over a year ago, averaging $3.59, said Sarah Schimmer, spokeswoman for AAA of Texas. Fort Worth has some of the highest prices in the state, averaging $3.62 a gallon, up 22 cents from last year.

Austin's average gas prices are up 17 cents, while Houston and San Antonio are up 16 cents.

Among the main reasons for the increase are turmoil in Iran and the financial uncertainty of Europe, Schimmer said.

But the higher price can also be attributed to regular occurrences that happen at this time of the year, she said: The spring/summer blend of gasoline is more expensive than its winter counterpart; and scheduled maintenance takes refineries off line for short periods, causing less supply.

Barring any international crisis next week, the current price has already absorbed these costs and there shouldn't be a big spike for spring break travelers, said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst with GasBuddy.com, a website that provides up-to-date gas prices for most gas stations in the country.

"Things have stabilized for the time being," he said. "You may see a bit of an increase, maybe a few cents, but nothing too significant."

There are a number of ways to try and beat the higher gas prices, from downloading smartphone apps to simply letting up on the lead foot. Here are some ideas.

Track gas prices along your journey . GasBuddy.com and AAA.com provide gas prices at thousands of stations sorted by city that can be used on trips. A check of gas prices in Fort Worth at GasBuddy.com this week showed a 60-cent difference from $3.39 at three stations in Burleson to $3.99 for a station in Euless.

"A lot can depend on location and competition," said DeHaan.

GasBuddy provides free apps for iPhones, Blackberry, Android and Windows phones to check prices, or access m.GasBuddy.com on any phone or device with an Internet connection. AAA also has an app for the iPhone, Android and Blackberry and offers an online version of gas prices at www.AAA.com/TripTik.

Prices can also be found through Mapquest at www.gasprices.mapquest.com.

Identify your stations before you go. If you don't have a smartphone, GasBuddy has a Trip Cost Calculator that will identify the cheapest gas prices along your route. Print the information to use on your journey.

Budget gas for your trip. AAA offers a Fuel Cost Calculator at www.FuelCostCalculator.com. Input your start and end point and your type of vehicle, and it will tell you how much you can expect to spend on gas for the round trip.

Get a new credit card . Cardhub.com, a consumer resource for credit card offers, has identified four cards that offer the best deals for gas rebates. No. 1 are the Pentagon Federal Credit Union cards, which offer 5 percent cash back on gas purchases at any station (as long as cardholders pay at the pump). There is no annual fee, but you do have to become a PenFed member, which costs $15. Membership is open to the public -- you do not have to be a member of the military.

Other cards Cardhub likes include Blue Cash Every Day from American Express, which gives 2 percent back; the True Earnings card from Costco and American Express, which gives 3 percent back on gas purchases up to $1,000 (1 percent after that); and the Exxon Mobil credit card, which gives a 15-cent rebate per gallon, roughly 4 percent of a fill-up. None of these cards have annual fees or other costs associated with them.

Cardhub advises consumers to avoid other gas cards, such as Chevron, Shell, Citgo, Texaco and Conoco, because of limitations on their rebates.

Ease up on the gas pedal . Test drivers at Edmunds.com have calculated the effect of changing driving habits over a 55-mile route in California. Turns out that driving aggressively -- mashing the gas pedal and smashing the brakes -- will cost you on average 31 percent more than easy acceleration and braking, according to their tests.

Use your cruise control . Edmunds drivers set the cruise control to 70 mph, and then drove with varied speeds between 65 mph and 75 mph. The results surprised the drivers -- an average savings of 7 percent.

Avoid idling . My kids will tell you that I never go through a fast-food drive-through, mostly because of the pollution it causes. Now I have another reason: Excessive idling of more than one minute wastes a lot of gas.

The Edmunds drivers took two cars and drove a 10-mile route stopping 10 times for two minutes, shutting off the car each time. When they didn't shut off the engine in the second test, they used up to 16 percent more gasoline.

Teresa McUsic's column appears Saturdays.

tmcusic@SavvyConsumer.net

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