Using the Web to Find Low Gas Prices
Gasoline hasn't been expensive enough to make Americans drive less, but fast-changing pump prices have convinced many drivers they ought to shop more before filling up. In fact, 20 percent of motorists say they would drive five minutes out of their way to save just a penny per gallon, even though such a detour for savings so scant would almost never pay off. But plenty of Internet and mobile-device tools can help consumers search for the best gas price without burning fuel.
Prices change rapidly at the nation's 167,000 gas stations, so the challenge for search sites has been to provide not only accurate and timely information but also broad coverage. At least five gas price search sites on the Web employ two different data-gathering approaches: using automated data from credit card swipes or relying on a community of gas price spotters who send in reports from the field. Since each method has merits and drawbacks, you should test which keeps the best tabs on gas stations along your daily commute. Since they're all free, you can try them all often.
GasBuddy is the most popular site. It was started seven years ago by two childhood friends who were then recent college graduates in Brooklyn Park, Minn. Over the past 18 months, the siteactually a collection of 180 sites covering every state and most metro areasaveraged 500,000 unique visitors per month, says comScore Media Metrix. Traffic peaked at 1.8 million during the gas price spikes right after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. GasBuddy has about 1.1 million members, who log in prices for about 120,000 gas stations a day, says cofounder Jason Toews.
To ensure the prices are up to date, GasBuddy data is wiped out of the system after 24 to 48 hours. Accuracy checks gradually have been built into the softwaregiving higher confidence ratings to the prices reported by well-known users and flagging prices as suspect if they depart significantly from historic patterns. GasBuddy has a helpful new map feature that allows you to scan prices over a wide area before clicking the best of the lot for the station address.
GasPriceWatch, another site using volunteer spotters, also started seven years ago, in Dayton, Ohio. The site has about 380,000 members. It color-codes prices to indicate how fresh they are and allows searchers to filter out old entries. Currently, it links users to outside map sites, but there are plans for an integrated map at the site soon. Like GasBuddy, it relies on a point system to spur its volunteers to report gas prices.
But neither site offers any prize but bragging rights. "It never fails to amaze me," says GasPriceWatch founder Brad Proctor. "There's no reward, but people fight over points." He has even had to refine his system to identify "price pirates," users who steal prices that have already been reported by other members in order to rack up points.
AAA is one of the sites that gather data more methodically, to avoid the vagaries of the volunteer system. "In the very early days, we used visual inspection of stations and log sheets and snail mail and later faxes, and we simply found that the [information] was not as trustworthy as we wanted it to be," says Geoff Sundstrom, spokesman for the American Automobile Association, which has kept tabs on gas prices for 30 years.