National gas prices are back on the rise: The average price of a gallon gained nearly 25 cents in the past four weeks, according to survey publisher Trilby Lundberg. Regular-grade gas now costs $2.02 per gallon, up from $1.77 on Feb. 19, according to the March 20 survey. The latest AAA Fuel Gauge Survey finds a similar bump of 27 cents over the last month.
What's behind it? Rising oil costs, as well as the change of seasons, said AAA spokesman Michael Green.
"As weather improves, people are hitting the road and using more fuel, while refineries are producing less gasoline," he said.
Spring is refinery maintenance season, when gasoline companies check and upgrade equipment to get ready for the busy summer driving period, Green said. That means production tends be lower. Plus, during the summer, federal regulation requires many fuel sellers to switch over to more environmentally friendly — and costlier — summer-blend gasoline, he said.
So, while today's prices are still 50 cents cheaper than a year ago, consumers should prepare to start paying more as the year progresses.
"Unfortunately there's still room for prices to go even higher," Green said, "as past spring increases have been 50 cents or more."
Alas, this means the party that started when national average gas prices dipped below $2 a gallon back in December — then for the first time since 2009 — might be over soon. Analysts predict average U.S. gas prices could peak this year somewhere between , though costs could be even higher in markets like Los Angeles where gas is already $2.72 per gallon.
Here are three easy ways to make sure you're saving as much as possible at the pump, no matter where gas prices head.
Free apps like GasBuddy's use GPS to help you find the cheapest gas station near you, while others like Parker and Parkarr help you find cheap or free parking nearby. Other apps, like Waze and Google Maps, use real-time traffic information to make sure you choose the most efficient route to your destination. Less time driving around or idling in traffic means lower fuel costs.
Many drivers prefer to drive a little farther to gas stations they know are cheap; 64 percent of consumers say they would drive five minutes out of their way to save 5 cents per gallon, according to a new survey by the National Association of Convenience Stores.
While that can be a savvy move, make sure the extra miles you're driving won't actually negate the cost benefits: You can use Bankrate's free gas station calculator to see whether it's worth it to go farther afield.
A few smart maintenance tweaks can make your car more fuel-efficient.
Keeping tires properly inflated increases gas mileage by more than 3 percent on average, while tuning an engine improves mileage by about 4 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
If you have a more serious problem, like a faulty oxygen sensor, fixing it can improve your mileage by as much as 40 percent, the DOE reports.
Small moves — like parking in the shade during summer and reducing drag by keeping windows and sunroofs closed while driving — can add up to a lot of savings over time.
Removing roof racks and other unnecessary weight in your vehicle can also cut your gas costs, Green said, as can driving smoothly.
"Don't store heavy stuff like golf clubs in truck of your car," he said, "and try to accelerate gradually and avoid jack rabbit starts."
Since driving at higher speeds decreases fuel efficiency, simply reducing your average speed to 60 from 70 mph can save you more than $100 on gas over the course of the year, Green said.
Finally, if you do end up saving on gas this year, consider setting aside that extra cash instead of spending it.
In 2015, consumers saved an average of $550 at the pump over the previous year. But people tend to spend — rather than save — most savings from lower gas prices, according to a study by JPMorgan Chase: They spend about 80 percent of any gas savings, shelling out for things like restaurant meals as well as entertainment and electronics.
That seems like a wasted opportunity to beef up emergency funds, given that only 38 percent of Americans have enough money in their savings accounts to pay for emergencies like an ER visit or car repair, according to Bankrate.com.