Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

You're More Likely to Overpay at Pump When Average Price Is Low

  • Washington has biggest spread on gasoline prices, report finds
  • Smart consumers in larger U.S. cities can save $60 a month

The spread between the most and the least being charged for gasoline at the pump is headed toward the highest level in 7 years in U.S. cities, suggesting motorists need to shop wisely to keep from overpaying.

That’s the message from GasBuddy Organization Inc., which tracks fuel prices nationally. The average price of gasoline now sits at $2.31 a gallon. That’s up slightly over last year, but lower than 2010 through 2015. The spread between local stations tends to grow as the average price falls, analysts at GasBuddy said in a report on the first three months of the year.

Price variation is the highest in the nation’s capital with a difference of $1.21 per gallon, the report found. Rounding out the top four were San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego, all at more than 90 cents. New York City’s spread was 73 cents. The wide spread is likely to continue into 2017 as average prices are expected to remain low, the organization said.

“We noticed some commonalities among the cities ranked the highest: they tend to be sprawling with a major connecting highway running through them,” said Patrick DeHaan, senior petroleum analyst for GasBuddy. “The good news for drivers in these areas is that there are opportunities to save money if you know where to look and choose to shop wisely.”

DeHaan said it’s difficult to determine what percentage of motorists are regularly paying higher than the average price because individual stations carefully safeguard their sales data on fuels.

In the past, the organization has monitored individual stations at times when the average price was low, DeHaan said. The finding: Motorists seem to be less price sensitive during such times.

“I monitored two gas stations in a city in Michigan when prices at one station were $2.45 and a station across the street $2.25 and the station selling at the higher price was actually busier," he said in an e-mail. “There’s generally a false sense of security when prices are low. but it’s during those times motorists are wasting the most."

In the nation’s capital, for instance, drivers who opted for the cheapest gas would save about $63 a month, according to the report.

"The data suggests Americans are at particular risk right now of overspending on gasoline,” DeHaan said. "The good news for drivers in these areas is that there are opportunities to save money if you know where to look and choose to shop wisely.”

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