Gas stations: then and now

gas stationsOnce upon a time, gas stations gave away all kinds of cool stuff, most of it targeted at kids. As a child of the 70’s, I clearly recall of our Exxon “NFL Helmets” drinking glass collection, and my miniature Noah’s Ark collectible series (What genius ad team decided that was the perfect gas station promo?). The point is, these giveaways worked. My parents would bribe me not to annoy my older brother on road trips by promising me a new plastic animal for my Ark. My brother didn’t have to punch me in retaliation, my parents didn’t have to pull over; everyone was happy.

I’m not exactly sure when the freebies stopped, but that’s not the only thing that’s changed in American gas station culture over the years. Prior to the opening of the world’s first dedicated gas (or “filling”) station in St. Louis in 1905, hardware stores and mercantiles had gas pumps. The price of gas when the first “drive-in” filling station opened in 1913? Twenty-seven cents a gallon.

As I write this, I’m in Oregon, on the final leg of a 10-day road trip from my home in Seattle to San Francisco and Lake Tahoe. The cost of gas in Truckee, California, where my brother lives is $4.09 a gallon. I paid $3.59 in Mt. Shasta today, and thought myself lucky. Oregon also reminds me of another way gas stations have changed between then and now.

[Photo credit: Flickr user iboy_daniel]gas stationThere were still full-service station attendants when I was a kid: clean, smiling, uniformed pumpers of gas who cleaned the windshield and checked the oil for free. Today, however, Oregon is one of the few states that prohibits the pumping of gas by motorists. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been yelled at in this state for absentmindedly getting out of my car and touching the pump. I actually enjoy pumping gas, but I’m not going to fight about it. I just think southern Oregon might want to look into hiring gas jockeys who look as though they haven’t spent time in a federal prison or crawled out of a meth lab, especially when they don’t even bother to wipe down my windshield. “Here, take my debit card, please.”

I think the trend toward enclosing urban attendants in bullet-proof booths is something that’s fairly recent. That makes me kind of sad. No one should really have to risk their life working the graveyard shift for close to minimum wage, but being a gas station attendant is definitely a high-risk occupation in a lot of places. If nothing else, the temptation to snack on the plethora of chemically-enhanced food and beverages in the workplace creates a hazardous environment.

Although a dying breed, I’ve seen some pretty sweet, old-school gas stations in the rural Southwest, South, and California’s Central Coast that sell regional bbq, Indian fry bread, or biscuits and country ham. I once visited a gas station in Tasmania that sold artisan bread, local cheese, butter, and milk (in bottles, no less), and local wine, jam, and honey. I really wish gas stations/local food markets would catch on the States…it would make getting gas less painful, even if it further depleted my bank account.
gas station
Gas station design has changed drastically over the years. Many rural stations in the fifties and sixties sported kitschy themes, such as dinosaurs or teepees, and were roadside attractions in their own right. Today, we have mega-stations like the Sheetz chain, which is wildly popular in the northeast for made-to-order food, all of it annoyingly spelled with “z’s” (If you need coffeez to go with your wrapz and cheezburgerz, you should check it out). There is something to be said for one-stop mega-station road shopping, however. It’s incredibly convienient when you’re short on time or in the middle of nowhere, and in need a random item.

I love dilapidated old filling stations, but I’m also lazy, so it throws me when I can’t use my debit card at the pump. It’s kind of a moot point, because I possess a bladder the size of a walnut. The cleanliness of gas station restrooms, while still an advertising hook, used to be a point of pride. These days, I feel like I should be wearing a hazmat suit when I use most small chain station toilets. Seriously, if you’re not going to going to clean or restock your bathroom, ever, please don’t post a sign telling me to report to the management if it needs “servicing.”

As for those fun giveaways disguised as advertising? I think that maybe the Happy Meal is what killed it for gas stations. Once fast food outlets started giving kids toys, the ad execs had to come up with a new plan. Which I suppose is why most gas companies target grown-ups now, even if they still use cartoon graphics. Does the sight of anthropomorphized cars dancing atop the pump actually sell gas and credit cards? I’d rather have a set of drinking glasses.

[Photo credits: Magnolia, Flickr user jimbowen0306; DX, Flickr user Chuck “Caveman” Coker;

Calculate your fuel cost – Road trip tip

An essential ingredient for any road trip is fuel. While you know the cost of your accommodations, you may not always know how much gas will cost for the length of your road trip.

There are websites to help you determine that cost, however. For example, AAA‘s Fuel Cost Calculator allows you to calculate the fuel cost of your trip. Using drop-down menus, you select your starting city, destination and vehicle. The calculator determines mileage, gallons of fuel used and total fuel cost. Not all cities and destinations are listed, but you can get a general idea.

At GasBuddy.com, you can search for the best gas prices in each city or region you’re traveling through. Site visitors report what they paid for fuel at individual gas stations. You’ll learn the lowest and highest prices reported in the past 36 hours. Armed with this information, you can budget your fantastic road trip.

[Photo: Flickr | Borderfilms (Doug)]

Road tripping to be easier this summer with lower gas prices

Fill your tank, cut down a redwood and kick a polar bear in the ‘nads … gas is likely to stay cheap this summer! So, let the environment be damned, load up the Hummer and take the longest road trip of your life.

The Energy Information Administration has great news for motorists: gas is expected to hang around an average of $2.23 a gallon this summer (more if you live in New York or California, I imagine). Peak driving season – late in the summer – could see a rise to more than $2.30, but it’s still a far cry from last summer’s insanity … when the average gallon would set you back $3.81.

What’s behind this embarrassment of fossil fuel riches? A barrel of crude is likely to cost about a third of what it did last summer ($53 versus $147), and U.S. crude oil production is supposed to come back up – by 440,000 barrels a day.

But, it pays to have a backup plan. Howard Gruenspecht, acting administrator of the EIA, concedes that an early broader economic recovery could lead to more pain at the pump, though you’d probably be able to afford it.

An EIA spokesman was on hand to confirm, “We’re not in the crystal ball business.” If they were, they probably wouldn’t be talking about fuel prices anyway.

The cheapest gas ever. How about less than 50 cents a gallon?

The gas station sign might have touted $3.43 a gallon for premium, but the pump had other ideas.

According to this msnbc article, customers at a Citgo station in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin hit pay dirt when they put the nozzle in place and depressed the lever to let the gas flow.

Instead of the pricey amount they were expecting, customers were treated to a $.349 cents a gallon. That’s right. Less than one quarter and one dime.

One customer, who usually spends $100 to fill her gas tank, drove away after only spending $8.85 for 25.36 gallons.

At first, the gas station attendant had no idea why there was the sudden interest in the gas station. The party ended after 90 minutes of a pumping flurry.

At least the economy worked in some people’s favor this week, although, I’m sure the gas station owner is not too happy. I’m wondering, though, why no one told the attendant that something was amiss–or is it that people became confused and thought that gas prices were behaving just like the Dow Jones?

Hedge your gasoline purchases with MyGallons

I was JUST thinking about this on the ride in this morning when I passed the Shell station at the corner of Platt and Ellsworth when I saw regular fuel at $4.25 a gallon: “Man, I wish I could buy gas at today’s price tomorrow”.

That’s basically what oil futures are: speculators decide that they think the price of oil is going to rise, invest in futures and watch their money go through the roof. More people make money, more speculate and the price goes up. It’s the phenomenon that many economists think is leading the surge in oil prices today, beating out real market supply and demand economics and essentially crushing our transportation infrastructure.

The theory is identical to what Southwest Airlines did. Back when oil was at believable prices, that airline decided to hedge their oil purchases and lock in prices at the past rate of $51/barrel. Now that fuel is at over $140, they’re making a killing over other airlines.

Now, with gasoline at $4.25 a gallon, you can purchase as many gallons as you want at that price with MyGallons.com and watch the market fluctuate independent of your fuel consumption. If gas keeps surging to $5.00 a gallon? You’ve just saved a bunch of money. If it drops to $2.50 again? You’re out.

Based on how many gallons you buy, the service sends you a “debit” card that lets you purchase as much fuel (per gallon, not dollar) as you have stored up.

The crux of your investment is on where you think the price of the oil is going to head. If you, like many others, think that the price will keep going up, now might be a good time to buy your MyGallons card before your summer road trip.

Subscription to the MyGallons service ranges from $30-$40 per year, but if gas keeps going up that will be a drop in the bucket compared to what you could save.