NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- With gas prices hitting record levels, the traditional family road trip has become a source of dread. It now costs some serious money to drive a few hundred miles.
But there are some things you can do to cut the cost and still arrive with your sanity intact and your armpits dry.
Pick the right tool for the job:
If you have more than one car to choose from, don't just try to squeeze everyone into the one - or two - that go the furthest on a gallon. First of all, if you think you're saving gas by splitting the crew into two small cars rather than taking the big SUV, you're not. Remember, two small cars will burn gas twice as fast as one, and that's probably faster than your SUV.
Also, packing too much into a small car can lead to the use of roof-top racks and bins, which seriously undermine fuel economy. (More on that in a moment.) Besides that, jamming everyone and everything into a too-small car can be just plain uncomfortable on a long trip and the point is to have fun, not start fights.
Pack light and smooth:
Extra weight cuts fuel economy, so try to pack as light as possible. The savings are slight, but every extra 100 pounds cuts your fuel economy by about 2%, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
More importantly, don't pack more than you can fit inside the vehicle. This is especially important. Packing stuff on roof-top bins and racks cut fuel economy by about 21%, according to tests done by Edmunds.com.
And those roof-top racks with crossbars, even if left empty, also cut fuel efficiency. Take them off. Leaving them in place can reduce fuel economy by about 1%, according to Edmunds.com.
Don't buy the high-priced stuff:
Check your owner's manual for the kind of fuel your car needs. If the manual recommends Regular gas, use it. Putting in Premium will do nothing but waste money.
If the manual says Premium fuel is "recommended," but not "required," fill up with Regular. It won't hurt anything and all you'll lose is such a slight amount of peak power that you'll never notice. (How often do you drive with the gas pedal pressed all the way to the floor?) With modern engine sensors, cars can adjust immediately to lower octane fuel without missing a beat. And it will save you about 10% on the price of a fill-up, according to AAA.
Use your cruise control:
There are times when cruise control isn't appropriate, such as in areas with heavy traffic or in bad weather. Also, using cruise control on hilly roads can actually use more fuel, not less, as your vehicle struggles to maintain speed while driving up hills.
But if you're driving over relatively even terrain, cruise control can prevent unnecessary speed changes which waste gas. In tests by Edmunds.com, using cruise control at 77 mph improved fuel economy by 10 to 15 percent.
As an added benefit, cruise control prevents speed creep - the tendency to gradually increase your speed the longer you drive - and that can keep you from getting a costly speeding ticket.
Stay to the right:
Even if you're driving at a constant speed, going too fast wastes gas. Within the range of normal highway speeds, each 10 miles per hour faster will reduce your fuel economy by 15% to 20%, according to tests by Consumer Reports and Edmunds.com.
Going too slow isn't safe either but at least try to stay out of the left lane where the traffic is fastest, unless you really need to pass someone. Again, this can also keep you from getting a ticket.
Calm down in town:
When not in highway traffic, take it easy on the pedals. Aggressive acceleration and hard braking waste an amazing amount of fuel. In testing by Edmunds.com, aggressive driving cut fuel economy by about 25%.
Don't worry about AC:
It's debatable whether it uses more fuel to drive with your windows down on the highway or with the windows rolled up and the air conditioner on. In tests by Consumer Reports and Edmunds.com, it depended on the vehicle and speed. At 65 mph, using the air conditioner was slightly more draining. At higher speeds, it probably wouldn't be.
In any case, the difference is small either way and one thing isn't debatable. Driving with the windows down on the highway is noisy, distracting and possibly dangerous. Road debris can enter the car and the wind can catch items in the vehicle and blow them around. Given that, just roll up your windows and enjoy the cool air.
Avoid getting stuck:
This is something you'll probably want to do anyway, but really try not to get stuck in traffic. Idling and slow driving wastes a lot of fuel, so plan to drive at times when few others are. Also, plan alternate routes ahead of time in case you hit unexpected snarls. Driving a little bit out of your way can use less fuel than crawling down the straight-and-narrow.
GPS satellite navigation tools can help by making it easier to change routes on the fly. Some newer models even include traffic warnings on the screen so you can see what you're getting into.
For reasons of both safety and fuel economy, you should give your car a good once-over before setting off. Make sure tire pressure is set correctly, your filters are clear, your fluids are fresh and the engine is running well. These things will make only a slight difference to your fuel economy, but you should do them anyway to prevent wasting time waiting for a tow truck.
Keep all this in mind and you might still be able to take that summer trip without blowing the kids' college fund.
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