Spikes in gasoline prices occur so regularly that ways to combat them should be almost second nature to car owners.
But the latest surge brings worries of the highest price yet at the pumps, underscoring the urgency of really following up on those money-saving moves this time.
The average price for regular gasoline has jumped to $3.76 a gallon nationwide, up 28.5 cents since Feb. 1, and already tops $4 in some markets. It may be on pace to shatter the all-time record of $4.11 in July 2008 by next month, according to some experts.
Could $5 gas loom in the not-too-distant future?
If higher prices stick, drivers may have to take more drastic steps. Using public transportation is one option to consider. Making the long-term investment to buy a high-mileage hybrid car is another.
"People can cut their gasoline bills by a lot by moving to fuel-efficient vehicles," says Brian Castelli, executive vice president of the Alliance to Save Energy, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that promotes energy efficiency. "When you've got $4 gasoline, you can save a lot of money by going to the gas station once every two or three weeks instead of once every week.
The average U.S. household is on track to spend more than $3,300 this year on gasoline for its vehicles, according to the alliance. That could jump significantly depending on how much pump prices rise.
Short of buying a new vehicle, here are some tips on ways to shave your costs regardless of how high prices climb:
_ 1. Drive slower and smarter.
Easing your foot off the accelerator is a guaranteed way to reduce expenses. Every 5 mph you drive over 60 costs you an additional 24 cents per gallon, the Department of Energy estimates. That's because the faster you go, the more work your engine has to do to propel your vehicle.
The sweet spot for fuel efficiency on the highway is about 55 mph. But slowing from 70 to 60 can help a lot. Doing so on an average 20-mile highway commute saves about 1.3 gallons of gas in a five-day work week, according to the American Automobile Association.
Drive more smoothly around town, too _ avoid fast acceleration and quick stops. Aggressive driving can lower a car's fuel economy significantly.
_ 2. Reduce idling.
Warming up a car engine in cold weather is one thing. Letting it idle needlessly outside stores, in front of a friend's house or at railroad crossings is another. That wastes fuel, costs money and pollutes the air. Cut the engine if you will be at a standstill for more than a minute.
If there's a line of cars in the drivethru at Starbucks or McDonald's, just park and go inside. The line inside is often much shorter anyway.
While you're at it, combine errands to conserve fuel. Several short trips from a cold start can consume twice as much gas as one over the same distance when the engine is warm, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
_ 3. Shop smarter.
Smartphones make it easier than in past years to find the best prices in a given location. Websites like GasBuddy.com and some GPS devices also help. Apps from AAA, GasBuddy and CheapGas all can guide you to the cheapest options on your route.
Just be wary of ads hawking products that can improve your mileage. The Environmental Protection Agency says it has tested more than 100 purported gas-saving products _ automotive devices and oil and gas additives _ and found that very few provided any fuel economy benefits. Some can even damage your car's engine or cause it to spew more exhaust.
Track your gasoline expenses and miles driven and view your trends at http://www.FuelFrog.com.
_ 4. Fill up the tank midweek.
Gas up on Wednesday, or first thing Thursday. Prices are raised on Thursdays in anticipation of weekend travel. And 10 a.m. is roughly when most station owners make their price change for the day, according to CEO Chris Faulkner of Dallas-based Breitling Oil & Gas Corp.
"Unless it is an emergency, do not buy gas Friday, Saturday or Sunday," Faulkner says.
_ 5. Do regular maintenance.
Keep your vehicle running smoothly to get maximum fuel economy. Stick to the manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedule. Taking the car in for tuneups based on the owner's manual's timetable can improve mileage by an average of 4 percent, according to the Energy Department.
A simple but often overlooked part of maintenance is keeping tires properly inflated and aligned. Under-inflated tires add resistance, requiring more effort from your engine.
Using the recommended grade of motor oil also can make a difference.
_ 6. Skip premium fuel.
Unless your vehicle absolutely requires premium gas, don't spend the additional 15 to 30 cents per gallon. Consumer Reports says motorists should not waste money on premium if their owner's manual says the vehicle takes regular _ the car won't run better. The higher-octane fuel is designed to improve performance.
"In most cases, using a higher-octane gasoline than your owner's manual recommends offers absolutely no benefit," according to the Federal Trade Commission. "It won't make your car perform better, go faster, get better mileage or run cleaner."
An exception would be if your engine starts to knock or ping when using a lower-grade fuel.
For more details, see "Five Facts of Using Premium vs. Regular Gas" at http://blog.truecar.com/2011/03/03/premium-vs-regular-gas.
_ 7. Use gas cards.
Gasoline cards can cut your costs by providing rewards, incentives or cash back. There are many types: prepaid cards or certificates, credit cards issued by gasoline companies and cards issued by credit card companies.
Companies such as BP, ExxonMobil and Shell issue their own cards. They can offer the most savings to customers who are loyal to a particular brand. Shop carefully and pay close attention to the fine print, however. Station-branded cards are known for their high interest rates, which can range from 21 percent to 26.99 percent, according to card comparison site LowCards.com. Consider one only if you pay off your balance in full every month.
Another option is a cash-back credit card with an extra bonus for gasoline purchases. Some cards can save you up to 5 percent.
Personal Finance Writer Dave Carpenter can be reached at www.twitter.com/scribblerdave.