How to Drive Economically

By: Zolton Cohen

Planning Your Route

Planning and modifying where you drive and how you get there can make a big difference in the number of times you have to stop for fuel every week.

What's the point of leaving the house half a dozen times in the course of a day when a little planning will allow you to do everything in one or two trips?


Particularly in winter, short trips are hard on an engine, which might never fully warm up. Cold engines guzzle a lot more fuel than properly warmed engines.

Drive to the farthest locale first, so the engine completely warms up before you shut it off. Stop-and-go driving with a cold engine puts an even greater strain on its parts.

Drivers who use their cars for business can also learn to plan their trips for the shortest total distance and greatest efficiency, as can families planning medical appointments and school activities. The following guidelines can help you plan your route for any destination.

Use the Multi-Car Family Advantage

Survey the vehicles available to you, and choose the one that's most fuel efficient. Why take the luxury car or heavyweight SUV on a quick trek to the supermarket when you could slip into your subcompact instead?

Another way to save fuel is to take the vehicle that's been driven most recently. As stated above, engines are grossly inefficient when cold. Start-ups are hard on the car and drastically cut into fuel mileage for the first few miles -- all the more so in cold weather. If you have at your disposal a vehicle whose engine isn't stone-cold, consider that one for your errand.

Investigate Alternative Routes

It's easy to get into a rut, taking the same route day after day, never pondering an alternative that might prove more economical -- and even more pleasant.

Experimenting pays. It doesn't hurt to study a map of the region you travel daily. Consider the number of stoplights along the way and the extent of traffic jams and slowdowns. Use your odometer to measure the distance covered by each route.

Sometimes, it's even wise to travel a little farther if that helps you avoid excess traffic. Whenever feasible, choose highway travel rather than city routes. Avoid routes that pass through school zones or follow school bus pickup points, which often require slowing to an uneconomical speed and perhaps stopping frequently.

Drive When Others Are Not Driving

Plan your time so you're traveling when most other people are not. Ask your employer about flexible work hours that keep you out of the morning and evening rush. Run errands at midday rather than 8:00 a.m. or 4:30 p.m.

Off-peak travel saves fuel and aggravation. Leave rush hours to those who have no choice in the matter.

Drive Where Others Are Not Driving

In the city, look for through streets with a minimum of stoplights. You might think you're saving time by darting down side streets and alleys in rush hour, but you're more likely wasting fuel from all the start-and-stop motion.

Tune into local radio and TV programs for up-to-the-minute reports on traffic conditions and accidents. Staying tuned is most vital in bad weather.

Consider Weather Conditions

Naturally, you can't change the weather, but the fact is that you'll burn considerably less fuel driving when the temperature is 70 degrees versus 20 degrees. In cold weather, try to travel in daylight rather than at night when it's chillier.

Wind also makes a big difference. A strong headwind, even a crosswind, cuts mileage drastically, as your engine fights its way forward. A tailwind can do the opposite.

Heavy rain and snow also hurt gas mileage, as well as making the travel experience less pleasant. So if you must drive in stormy weather, slow down when the wind is not at your back.

Dress Right

Running the heat burns more fuel. Keep that coat zipped and turn the heater blower down a notch or two.

In warm weather, dress lightly to avoid using the air conditioner until absolutely necessary. Even opening the windows creates aerodynamic drag, so proper dress can help you regulate your body temperature to stay comfortable and save fuel.

Explore Alternative Forms of Transportation

In a society that values private transportation, going without a car may seem like heresy. Yet surprising numbers of people do exactly that -- especially those who live in urban areas. Walking, after all, is excellent exercise and costs absolutely nothing.

Most cities have better bus service than many nonriders may realize. And in some urban areas, commuter rail service efficiently transports thousands of people to and from work each day. You'll give up some travel-time flexibility, but the duration of your commute may shrink, and you'll be free from the burden of locating and paying for in-town parking.

Lifelong rush-hour motorists may be amazed to discover how relaxing it can be to sit back on the bus or commuter train and read or doze. Train and bus schedules are readily available, usually online. If you can't see giving up the car commute entirely, what about taking mass transit once or twice per week?

Don't overlook the possibility of riding a bicycle instead of traveling by car. It's fine exercise. You won't have parking hassles. Many cities have bike lanes. And in rush-hour congestion, you may find that the maneuverability of a bike allows you to travel more quickly than by car. Approach this alternative with due caution, of course. The right bike, proper safety attire, and an alert mindset are essential.

A moped or motorcycle won't free you from all of the costs and burdens of motorized travel, but they afford many of the same advantages as a bicycle, with the obvious ability to go faster and cover longer distances. No matter how far you want to travel, the following tips can help you explore your alternative transportation options.

The Online Advantage

Finding the lowest gas prices in your area is just a mouse-click away. Several Web sites allow you to type in your zip code and view a roster of pump prices for your region. Just go to your search engine and type in "gas prices."

The Web also offers a universe of service options from the comfort of your home. Shop online instead of driving to the mall. Bank online instead of idling in a drive-up bank-window line. Conduct research via the Web instead of driving to the library. You can order videos, have digital photos developed, and even buy a car online.

Vacation Sensibly

Look into holiday spots where the need to drive after you arrive is minimal or nonexistent. Consider a self-contained resort where you'll enjoy a break from the stress of traffic congestion. Visit an exciting big city, where restaurants, shopping, entertainment, and museums are within walking distance.

If you prefer to take a driving vacation, do a little research on attractions close to home. You might have overlooked some great destinations.

Whether traveling near or far, start out when traffic is light. Plan meals and rest stops to coincide with peak traffic times in the area. There's no point in feeling like a commuter when you're on vacation.

Car Pool

Share the ride, share the costs. Talk with neighbors and coworkers about car-pool opportunities, even for just a couple days per week. You'll save on gas, parking, and wear and tear on your car since you will skip a day or two of stop-and-go driving.

You'll save time, too. Many highway systems around big cities have car-pool lanes, otherwise known as High Occupancy Vehicle (HOV) lanes, dedicated to vehicles carrying more than one occupant. While the regular lanes are clogged with crawling peak-travel-time traffic, the HOV lanes are often flowing freely. In rural areas, lots may be set aside as car-pool gathering points near a freeway on-ramp.

Sometimes, there's just no way around driving. On the next page, we'll give you some gas-saving tips for when you do need to get behind the wheel.