As gas prices rise, driving for business changes

Even though he drives a fuel-efficient car, real estate agent Harlan Comee of Yorba Linda, Calif., says that unrelenting gas-price increases are forcing him to rethink his sales strategy.

He's narrowed his geographic focus when looking for new homes to represent. And when with clients, he tries to show as many properties in one area as possible to curb some of the back-and-forth trips he used to make. "Now, I try to say, 'We're going to concentrate on the north today,' " he says.

Soaring gas prices are forcing employees — and employers — to adjust the way they plan and execute business trips within the USA.

A typical 100-mile sales call costs about $3 more than a year ago, says Lee Czarapata of Runzheimer International, a management consulting firm that tracks travel costs. (The $3 figure assumes the sales representative is driving a midsize, four-door sedan partly in the city and partly on the freeway and gets about 21.5 miles per gallon.) "That doesn't seem like a lot," he says. "But when you've got hundreds or thousands of drivers out there doing it every day, it adds up."

More companies are buying smaller vehicles — a four-cylinder sedan instead of a six-cylinder one, for instance — and more are asking about hybrid vehicles that run partly on electricity, says Gregory Corrigan, a vice president of PHH Arval, a Baltimore-based company that manages corporate fleets.

"They're trying to turn every rock they can to cut fuel costs," he says.

Some companies are also postponing the replacement of fleet vehicles because they're spending more money on operations, says Ruth Alfson, a fleet manager at Serco, which manages corporate and government fleets.

But most business travelers are making smaller adjustments to their routines, such as consolidating trips, replacing some visits with e-mails or conference calls, or driving out of their way to find the cheapest pumps.

Some ways that companies and travelers are changing business travel behavior:

Buying cheaper gas.

Some companies are telling their travelers to fill up at less-expensive retailers such as Sheetz, Wal-Mart and 7-Eleven, Corrigan says.

Ellen Tyler, a saleswoman from Vallejo, Calif., goes out of her way to fill up at Costco pumps instead of filling up at the closest gas stations. Her employer is based in New Jersey, where gas generally costs less, so she's asking management to boost its reimbursement rate. Until they do, she'll drive to Costco: "It's not as convenient, but the money saved is worth it."

Art Pushkin, a sales manager from Dix Hills, N.Y., says he's increasingly buying regular gas instead of premium for his Infiniti, though the owner's manual recommends it. He says he saves at least 20 cents a gallon, and the regular gas "doesn't make that big of a difference."

Consolidating or eliminating trips.

Employers are increasingly telling employees to "make sure you do all can do so you don't have to go back next week" when driving long distances, Czarapata says.

Chuck Riley of Findlay, Ohio, has driven to his company's home office 80 miles away once in the last six months, instead of monthly. The round-trip drive at today's prices would cost him about $20, he says. Instead of having his company's technology specialists fix his laptop last week, he instead arranged to have it done via a Web conference.

Howard Rubinfeld of Austin drives about 700 miles a week selling health care uniforms in five states. He says he's skipping visits to some clients and instead calling, mailing and e-mailing them more often. "I am being more selective in who I see," he says.

Planning travel more efficiently.

Businesses are increasingly relying on sophisticated Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and mapping software, which monitor a car's speed, fuel consumption and distance, Corrigan says.

The technology lets drivers squeeze out excess driving from their trips and determine the most fuel-efficient routes.

Denny Stafford, a salesman for supplements company Nature's Way who drives about 1,100 miles a week, says gas prices have forced him to better plan his sales trips and — ultimately — better service customers.

Curbing exploration.

Because traveling salespeople have plenty of down time when on the road for days or weeks at a time, they often explore the community they're in that day. Stafford says he used to drive up to an hour to find an inviting local restaurant for dinner — but no more. He now limits his restaurant choices to those nearest the hotel to save about 15 miles, he says.

Buying more fuel-efficient vehicles.

Insurance giant State Farm is aggressively revamping its fleet, which is one of the largest in the USA. Today, 22% of its 14,000-vehicle fleet are hybrid or flex-fuel vehicles, such as a Toyota Camry, Dodge Caravan, Ford Escape, Toyota Prius or Chevrolet Impala, says Jeff McCollum, a company spokesman. Claim representatives use most of State Farm's vehicles.

Some companies, however, remain reluctant because they have questions about maintenance or they can't get an attractive discount because retail sales are so strong, Corrigan says.

Many companies reimburse travelers at the federal mileage reimbursement rate, which this year went from 48.5 cents per mile to 50.5 cents. But the almost daily upticks in pump prices, and price fluctuations across the USA, can make setting reimbursement rates a hassle, Czarapata says. "More companies are looking for help because drivers are complaining."