Should You Head Outside the City for Cheaper Gas?

Have you ever made a U-turn to reach the gas station on the other side of the street because the price is cheaper than at the one straight ahead? But is driving out of the way in search of cheap gasoline really productive? After all, a penny less per gallon will save you maybe 25 cents.

Using recent data on gas prices from GasBuddy and Mapquest, we gathered information on the five largest cities in the country (based on population). The results were somewhat surprising. As expected, the highest gasoline prices usually are posted in cities, but we found that the trajectory away from a city is important and fuel costs in nearby areas may actually be higher. Some lucky motorists can harvest the greatest savings over the border in a state with a lower tax rate.

For the five cities below, we estimated how much you can save by driving to particular neighborhoods or nearby locales, which routes into or out of the city are cheapest, and when it makes sense to fill up within city bounds.

New York, N.Y.

The difference in state taxes between New York and New Jersey (a whopping 36 cents per gallon in 2014, according to the American Petroleum Institute) means drivers can save by heading west. Mapquest's data shows a savings of up to 80 cents and 75 cents per gallon, respectively, on the New Jersey side of the Lincoln Tunnel and the George Washington Bridge. Prices drop another 10 to 15 cents the farther you venture into the state. Bear in mind that hefty cross-river tolls quickly offset any savings, so this tactic is only worthwhile for drivers passing through the Garden State.

Travelers heading towards Long Island will find prices about on par with those in the city. But going all the way to the Hamptons on the island's far southeastern tip merits a pit stop in Calverton. Gas prices in the upscale beach towns are among the highest on Long Island but among the lowest in Calverton. Heading north? Fuel costs are higher in the region north of White Plains than in most of New York City. Hold out for a few miles and they'll drop back down.

Los Angeles, Calif.

We found gas prices to be pretty consistent throughout the city. Folks driving into LA from the north on Highway 101 will come across cheaper gasoline after crossing into the city. Per gallon charges at service stations along the highway are often 10 to 30 cents higher than those in the city proper. Culver City, Montebello, and parts of West Hollywood enjoy the lowest prices; Gardena, Rancho Palos Verdes, and parts of Glendale are the most costly.

Chicago, Ill.

The mental image of gasoline prices in the Chicagoland area is like a ripple of lower prices spreading away from downtown. Sadly, motorists don't hit the cheap zones for a while. Per gallon prices drop by about 1 cent per mile moving away from the city and max out at savings of 60 cents per gallon heading east or west and 85 cents per gallon heading south. Northbound travelers should use every last drop in the tank until crossing into Wisconsin. Prices remain relatively high along Lake Michigan's Illinois shore.

Houston, Texas.

Texas generally boasts low gas prices compared with much of the country. And while Houston is one of the highest-cost locales in the state, residents still get to enjoy relatively cheap gas prices. Downtown Houston is the local epicenter of expensive fuel, although drivers can save 20 to 80 cents per gallon in the west-central Neartown area compared with other Houston neighborhoods. Prices drop slightly when heading west and then fall again past the Sam Houston Parkway. Drivers going south or southwest will encounter only small dips in gas prices until the Loop Freeway. Traveling along routes pointed in any other direction will yield savings of 20 cents per gallon just outside the city and 30 cents per gallon farther along. The most immediate savings accrue to drivers on the East Freeway or heading up Route 69.

Philadelphia, Pa.

Gasoline prices in Philadelphia are surprisingly reasonable for a big city. Posted prices are about the same as in many suburban communities and even cheaper in South Philly. Newtown Square stands out as one urban neighborhood with higher prices. As in New York, Philadelphians can score big time by taking a short three-mile drive over the river to fill up in New Jersey, where savings can be as high as 80 cents per gallon. But again, tolls make this worthwhile only for motorists with a reason to drive through the state.