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Gas prices

Getting more bang for your buck at the pump Add to ...

More than 25 cars sit idling in a long, slow line that feeds into an even bigger lineup. They then inch their way into several neat queues and continue to idle. This isn't a highway toll station on a long weekend - these cars are waiting for cheap gas.

It is a familiar scene to anyone who has been to the Costco stores in the Etobicoke or Scarborough areas of Toronto, or in Barrie, Ont. It may take more than an hour for a car to get its turn at the pump, but the lure of Costco's prices are too tantalizing for these bargain hunters to pass up.

Prices at pumps across the country spiked last week, reaching highs last seen in 2008 . Yesterday, the price of regular fuel was logged at almost $1.40 a litre at a service station in Richmond, B.C., according to GasBuddy.com.

While hurricane Ike was the culprit three years ago, Libya's unrest is cited with driving oil prices as high as almost $106 (U.S.) a barrel, which has sent drivers into a tizzy as they search for strategies to cope with higher monthly expenses.

Whether they're driving a Ford Escape or a Lexus IS, drivers who normally frequent the same station are now checking websites to find the best prices in the city, driving across town to save $5 (Canadian) on a fill-up and doing complex arithmetic to determine which points card to use to maximize savings. If you can't beat the system, you can at least ease your losses.

Most popular among deal-seekers are sites such as GasTicker and GasBuddy, which aggregate fuel prices in Canadian cities and highlight the best deals of the day. Tomorrow's Gas Price Today projects weekly trends for prices by city. Some drivers harness the GPS capabilities of their smart phones, using apps to determine the prices at nearby service stations.

"I think everybody reaches a point where they say gas prices are just too high. [I'm]going to need to shop at a cheap price station or I need to limit my driving or get a different vehicle," says Jason Toews, the Regina-based co-founder of GasBuddy.

As of yesterday, GasBuddy was the 18th-most downloaded free app in the iTunes store. Mr. Toews says it has averaged three million downloads a month since its December release.

Tracking prices on GasBuddy is only one of the ways Reda Fayek has managed to game the gas pricing system. The 44-year-old Guelph, Ont.-based engineer logs every fill-up, price differences among various stations and the timing of hikes on spreadsheets.

"I have this engineering mind, so I'm trying to optimize everything in life," he says.

Since he puts about 40,000 km on his Pontiac Grand Prix each year, it's worth the time spent to save on fuel, he says. When he notices a few stations registering higher-than-usual prices, he hits the road, regardless of how full his gas tank is. "If I can find one [station]that has not hit this superimmediate spike, I just fill up the car … If it's hit it, I lick my wounds and come back."

When he's prepping for the weekend (where he often logs 200 to 300 km for his job), he tries to fill up on Thursday night. Last week, he noticed the price at one Kitchener, Ont., service station rose from $1.18 a litre on a Thursday night to $1.23 the next morning.

Fridays are when stations jack up their prices, he says, a theory echoed by many other consumers who closely follow industry pricing. He also goes at night, when some stations reduce their prices.

For Johnny Mo, a 42-year-old energy facility project manager in Calgary, surveying the numbers on the marquee at gas stations or through GasBuddy is just one step in figuring out which place has the cheapest price for his thirsty BMW 335xi.

"There's one thing you cannot deny that's black and white in savings," he says: the loyalty card.

Near his home, one of his preferred stations is Safeway. When he spends $35 or more on groceries, he gets an electronic coupon for 5 cents off a litre on his next fill-up.

Other times he'll fill his tank at Costco (which already has the lowest prices in the area most of the time) using his American Express Costco platinum cash rebate card. A portion of the total is paid back to him in the form of a cash rebate. Or he may choose a station based on opportunities to accumulate Air Miles or Aeroplan points.

If you don't want to bother with Mr. Mo's or Mr. Fayek's complex calculations, GasBuddy's Mr. Toews says the safest bet for the lowest neighbourhood price is at big department stores, supermarkets or wholesale clubs. "Some areas, they use it as a loss leader or they sell it close to cost. The rationale is … get them coming to the store, filling up with gas and they'll come inside and they'll buy a shirt or a chicken," he says.

Ron Damiani, a spokesman for Costco Wholesale Canada Ltd., says the company doesn't post low prices to lure customers to its warehouse - more like the other way around.

"If that would be the case, we would have a price sign on the side of the road," he says from the company's head office in Ottawa. "You have to walk up to the station to the gas pump [to see the price]"

The company's no-frills approach - it only offers regular or supergrades of fuel and does not accept credit card payments (unless they're Costco-branded cards) - is what allows for low prices at the pump, he says.

But since discount gas stations are few and far between in some parts of the country, drivers must account for time and fuel burned to reach the lowest-priced pump.

Some of Vancouverite Hibiki Shibuya's SUV-driving friends with 60- to 80-litre gas tanks cross the border into Washington to fill up, where prices are below the equivalent of $1 per litre.

Mr. Shibuya, 37, says it wouldn't be worth the trek for him to fill the 17-litre tank on his motorcycle.

Sometimes, he says, if he knows he's heading out of the city to a nearby suburb, "I plan to arrive there with an empty tank and come back with a full tank." It's his way of avoiding Vancouver's 15-cent-a-litre TransLink transit tax.

But spending the time and fuel to travel 30 to 40 km to the nearest suburb for the sole purpose of filling up wouldn't be worth it, he says.

It was the gas obsessives - the ones who were happy to drive across the city and wait in line for half an hour to save a few bucks a litre - that Vancouver film production assistant Samantha Stewart, 25, once scoffed at.

"I thought, 'Wow, that's kind of extreme,' " she says.

But after a Sunday night fill-up at Shell where the price was $1.29 a litre (she's used to paying $1.15), she's thinking of ditching her brand loyalty and becoming a comparison shopper.

"As soon as it gets to half a tank, it's going to be an issue to make sure I look for the best bang for my buck," she says.

With a report from Dave McGinn

Follow on Twitter: @DakGlobe

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