How to save money on fuel

While petrol and diesel costs have dropped since their peak last year, drivers have been warned to watch out for “scandalous” pricing practices

Diesel, super unleaded and unleaded fuel pumps
(Image credit: Getty images)

Drivers are on the receiving end of “scandalous” behaviour from forecourts, meaning it may cost more than it should to fill up your car, according to the RAC.

The cost of petrol and diesel has fallen from the record highs seen last year. According to the RAC’s “fuel watch” monitor, the average price of a litre of petrol has dropped from 191.43p last July to 147.28p today, while the price of a litre of diesel has moved from 199.07p to 165.89p on average.

That means the cost of filling up a typical 55-litre car will set you back £80.50 for petrol and £91 for diesel.

However, the motoring body argues that while both of these costs are too high given the price of fuel on the wholesale markets, the profit margins on diesel in particular are little short of a scandal.

The firm points out that both fuels are selling for around 114.5p a litre on the wholesale markets currently, while on two days last week diesel was actually cheaper than petrol. However, this is not being reflected in the price we have to pay to fill up.

Simon Williams, fuel spokesman at the RAC, says the price disparity is “absolutely shocking” given the wholesale prices of petrol and diesel are near identical.

He adds: “The price of a litre of diesel should have already come down to around 152p, and now the wholesale price is the same as petrol at 114p we really should soon be seeing forecourts displaying prices of 147p. 

“Sadly, this seems unlikely given current retailer behaviour. Instead, the big four supermarkets, which dominate UK fuel retailing, are charging an outrageous 162p a litre on average.”

Electric car drivers are also paying more

Even if you opt for an electric motor, chances are you are also paying more for your fuel needs.

The RAC monitors the prices drivers have to pay to charge their electric cars, and it’s clear prices have risen significantly over the past year.

For example, right now a “rapid charge” option will set you back 70.46p per kWh, compared with an average price of just 44.55p in May last year. Based on a typical 64kWh battery, that means you will pay around £45 for a full charge.

If you want the speedier charge offered through an “ultra rapid” service, then the price has jumped from 50.97p per kWh to 73p over the same period.

Given these rising costs, and the ongoing cost of living crisis, getting a better deal on your fuel costs has never been so important. So what can you do to cut the cost of filling up your car?

Find the cheapest petrol and diesel

Forget wasting time along with precious fuel driving the streets to track down the cheapest petrol station, websites and apps can help you pay less for fuel.

Take a look at our sister site GoCompare and use the tool to help you find the best petrol or diesel prices in your area. Simply enter your postcode and the fuel type you’re buying to find the best price. 

You can also try for the best price, which claims to save motorists over £225 a year on petrol and £158 on diesel - based on filling up with 40 litres of fuel a week. You can choose between a five and 20-mile radius, while pump prices are checked across 8,490 UK forecourts daily.

If you’re a member of the AA, you can download its app that highlights the cheapest petrol and diesel locally if you enter your location. 

Avoid premium unleaded

Not all unleaded is the same, at least when it comes to the price. You’ll pay significantly more to fill your motor up with premium or super unleaded, so by switching to normal unleaded you could make a real saving.

For example, according to the RAC data the average cost of a litre of super unleaded today is 162.11 pence, compared to 146.38 pence for traditional unleaded. For a typical 55-litre car, that’s the difference between paying £89.16 to fill up and £80.50. Over time, that saving will really add up as filling up once a week with super unleaded can hike your annual fuel bill by over £450.

You’re unlikely to notice a difference between normal unleaded and super unleaded, unless you happen to drive a high-performance car.

Save money by being more fuel efficient

Many of us have bulky items in the boot of our car, such as a pram, sports equipment or even bags of things to take to the charity shop. However, you can save on fuel costs by clearing out your car. 

Ryan Fulthorpe, GoCompare’s motoring expert, says: “Your car burns more fuel the more weight it carries, so remove the roof rack and empty the boot."

According to the Energy Saving Trust, a roof box adds 39% to a car’s fuel consumption when driving at 75mph, while a large roof rack can add about 16%.

And instead of making several short trips in one day, combining them in one mini road trip can save cash, according to the RAC’s Simon Williams.

“Once the engine is warm, it will operate at its most efficient, whereas several cold starts will increase fuel consumption, even though the total mileage could be the same”.

Also, use the automatic stop/start function - if your car has one - so it isn’t left idling unnecessarily in traffic. This improves fuel efficiency and reduces carbon dioxide emissions. If you don’t have an auto stop/start, just switch the engine off when the vehicle isn’t moving.

Improve your driving to use less fuel

Many of us develop driving habits over the years that may not be very cost-effective. 

RAC's Simon Williams says: “The best tip for fuel-efficient driving is getting rid of the heavy right-foot habit because that leads to filling up far more frequently and spending far more at the pumps than is necessary. 

“There is no one driving speed that is optimum for fuel economy, but gentle acceleration and deceleration, and keeping a consistent speed within the speed limit makes for fuel-efficient and safe driving."

Cranking up the heating burns fuel

When your first job is scraping ice and snow from your car before you can even get started,  it’s tempting to crank up the heating to help it defrost - but as with air con, this boosts the amount of fuel you use.

We’re not suggesting you sit in a freezing car for your daily commute, but turning down the heating once the car is warmed up saves fuel and money.

Driving in cold weather unavoidably piles extra pressure on your car as it means the engine’s got to put in more work, which in turn increases fuel use.

Parking your car in your garage at night if you’ve got one – or at least reversing into your drive or garage so you can drive straight off in the morning - can help with fuel efficiency.  

Try to avoid cranking up the heating to the max the minute you’ve turned the key in the engine as once again this puts more pressure on your engine.

And from an insurance perspective – never leave your car running with keys in the ignition while you nip back inside for a warming coffee as this can void your insurance if your car is pinched.

Cash in with loyalty cards and cashback

Despite the criticism from the RAC, you may find that fuel is cheaper at supermarket forecourts compared with petrol stations owned by oil companies. You can make extra savings by using a supermarket loyalty card.

With the Tesco Clubcard scheme, you can earn one point for every £2 spent on Tesco fuel. For every 150 points, you’ll get £1.50 worth of Clubcard vouchers, which you can use to cut the cost when you next fill up (or on your grocery shopping).

And you can get a point for every £3 spent at Esso stations, provided they’ve got a Tesco Express shop.

With Nectar cards, you get one point on every litre of fuel at Sainsbury’s filling stations.

Other petrol stations have loyalty schemes - Shell Go+, BPme Rewards and Texaco Star Rewards - so if there’s one you use regularly, consider signing up.

You can also get cashback on fuel. The American Express Platinum Cashback Everyday card pays 5% cashback on spending, up to a maximum of £100, over the first three months, and then up to 1%.  

If you have a Chase account you can earn 1% cashback on debit card spending.   

Based on the average cost of filling a family-sized car once a week you could earn nearly £50 a year this way.

Refuel when it's cool to cut costs

“It might sound odd but filling up first thing in the morning can save money,” says GoCompare’s Ryan Fulthorpe. 

“Petrol and diesel are dense when it’s cooler and less dense when the temperature increases, and as fuel pumps only measure the volume of fuel, not the density, it might well be worth timing your garage stop. 

“Filling up in warmer weather could mean that the gallon you’ve put in your tank might not be a full gallon after all."

Maintain your motor

“Taking good care of your car will pay dividends when it comes to fuel consumption”, says Fulthorpe. “Change the air filter regularly, ensure your fuel cap has a good seal, and check and change the oil, as well as get your fuel injectors cleaned." 

Engine oil levels are important for your vehicle to run smoothly: check your oil with the dipstick when the engine is cool, and top up if needed.

Having a valid MOT is a legal requirement to keep your vehicle on the road, but getting a regular service isn’t, and it might feel like an unnecessary expense if money is tight.

“Having your car serviced regularly can save you money in the long run”, says Luke Bosdet, the AA’s fuel price spokesperson, “as minor wear and tear that need attention can be reported early."

Halfords is currently offering a free five-point car check – which includes checking the health of your car battery, headlights and brake lights along with the condition of your wipers and windscreen. It also offers a more detailed “10-point car health check” for £15 which also checks the condition of your tyres, oil, coolant and screen wash. 

Check your tyres

Even if you don’t rate your skills as a car mechanic, it’s easy enough to check the air pressure of your tyres.  

You can find the correct tyre pressure in the car manual or on the TyreSafe website. Your car may also alert you with a warning if it thinks the tyre pressure is incorrect.

If you don’t have a pressure gauge or tyre pump at home, many fuel stations offer an air pump. You may need to pay a small amount, like £1, to check and inflate the tyres.

“Under-inflated tyres can result in higher fuel consumption and can affect your car’s handling”, says AA's Luke Bosdet. “Hitting a kerb after losing control can result in tyre damage at best as an average tyre will cost you around £80."

“When checking your tyres, make sure the tread is above the legal limit (1.6mm) all the way around the tyre. Using the outer rim of a 20p coin to measure between the tread is a handy tip."

You should also check the wheel alignment. This helps ensure the tyre spins evenly around the axle, reducing rolling resistance with the road and improving the vehicle’s fuel efficiency. Kwik Fit offers a free wheel alignment check.

In some cases during winter weather it may be worth considering switching to winter tyres but, this is more about better braking and handling performance in ice and snow than fuel efficiency. 

Sue Hayward

Sue Hayward is a personal finance and consumer journalist, broadcaster and author who regularly chats on TV and Radio on ways to get more power for your pound.  Sue’s written for a wide range of publications including the Guardian, i Paper, Good Housekeeping, Lovemoney and My Weekly. Cats, cheese and travel are Sue’s passions away from her desk!

With contributions from