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On the road? Save money and fuel up with mobile payment apps

If you’re still driving a gasoline-based vehicle, that means fueling up at the pump. Here's how to do it contactless while finding the best deals on gas.

Summer is in full swing, and everyone wants to get on the road to visit their friends and family and return to their favorite places. If you're still driving a gasoline-based vehicle, that means fueling up at the pump.

If you're like me, the idea of pulling out a credit card or using cash at a gas station to pay for anything is now anathema to you -- even though you may now be vaccinated, there's the risk of credit card fraud from the widespread use of "skimmer" devices that can lift data from the magnetic strip.

Even if the pump has an RFID reader and your credit cards support it, you still have to remove it from your wallet and wave it over to the payment terminal. It's just not as secure.

Fortunately, most, if not all, of the major gasoline chains now support fully contactless app-based payment when fueling at the pump. But there are some slight differences between the big brands, and depending on which credit card you have, it may make sense to use one chain rather than another.

Gasbuddy

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Jason Perlow/ZDNet

This is an app that is used to find the best deals on gasoline prices. The data is crowdsourced, so the information is pretty accurate on a day-to-day basis. In addition to searching for the best gas prices based on your geolocation, the app has a coupon book to get the best deals on apps, services, and chain restaurants and retailers. You can also subscribe to service advisories (recalls) on your vehicles.

View Now at GasBuddy

Costco

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It's no secret that Costco has some of the best gas prices anywhere -- I've seen it as low as 50 cents lower per gallon than from other stations when I'm buying premium, 93 octane fuel. But you have to be a Costco member to use their pumps. And unfortunately, Costco does not currently support app-based, contactless payment -- they do have RFID-based payment, but that requires pulling out your RFID-enabled credit card and waving it over the terminal.

While you do not have to use Costco's credit card for payment, Costco Anywhere Visa by Citi credit card members get 4% cash back on eligible gas purchases, including gas at Costco stations. The 4% cash back is for the first $7,000 in gasoline purchases each year, after which it drops to 1% cash back.

BJ's and Sam's Club also have discount fuel programs for their members, as well.

View Now at Costco

Exxon Mobil

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Jason Perlow/ZDNet

If you have an Apple Card, then Exxon Mobil is the app and chain to use because it now features unlimited 3% daily cash back when you get fuel, convenience store, and car wash purchases -- in addition to building up points on Exxon Mobil's Rewards+ program, which gives you additional savings.

Exxon Mobil was the first app I tried to use for contactless fuel payments because I got a mailing direct from Apple Card at the end of June and was the inspiration for this piece. Overall, I think it is a very well-designed app from a UX standpoint, and the best of the three I tested. For Apple Card members, the app is preconfigured to use Apple Pay. There's no setup required, you just log in with your Apple ID and it's ready to use -- no keying in user account details, nothing.

You simply pull up to the pump, and the app automatically detects that you have arrived, presumably based on your GPS position. You can also use the app to navigate to the nearest Exxon or Mobil station using your preferred navigation app (Maps, Google Maps, or Waze).

Once you've arrived, the app prompts you to select the pump you've reached. There appears to be some intelligence or sensor at play here because it knew, for example, I was in proximity of pump #8, and it used a scroll selector to let me choose #8, #9, or #10. Once I selected the pump, there was perhaps a five-second delay before I was asked to begin fueling -- at this point, you select your grade of fuel at the pump and fuel away. 

Once you're done, you hang up the pump, the app shows you your receipt, and you're on your way. If there's a data communications issue for some reason, you can pay with a QR code -- if the pump can display it -- but I haven't encountered any problems yet.

View Now at Exxon Mobil

Shell

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Jason Perlow/ZDNet

Shell was the second service station I tested, and overall, I liked it the least of the three major chains in the local area. The account setup took longer -- it wanted an email address, and it also required a payment PIN to set up. This app is not tightly integrated with Apple Pay, even though you can set Apple Card up as a payment method. Additionally, when pulling up to the pump, the app didn't understand my proximity to the pump, so I had to key in the pump number manually.

As with Exxon Mobil, you can use the app to route to the station using either Apple Maps or Google Maps (but not Waze). If you elect to use the car wash, the app will display codes you can use to enter at the wash if you've pre-paid at the pump. Shell also allows you to choose fuel in $5 and $10 increments, so you don't have to fill the entire tank. There's also a section for receipts. For frequent Shell customers, you might want to check out their Fuel Rewards Program, which gives you additional savings of 5 cents per gallon.

View Now at Shell

Chevron/Texaco

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Jason Perlow/ZDNet

Next to Exxon Mobil, I liked Chevron's app the most, and it works in a very similar fashion. Signup was easy -- you just give them your phone number, and it texts you a confirmation code, and then you then sign in. Apple Pay is already configured as a payment method, but you can add alternative cards if you want.

The app will navigate you to a station with your default nav app -- in my case, it was set to Apple Maps. As with Exxon Mobil, the app seemed to have some intelligent proximity sensing capabilities, because it knew I was close to a specific pump. I only had to choose one of four pumps in an aisle using my thumb selector. The fueling process is slightly different with Exxon, as there is a 45-second timer that it puts you on during which you have to begin fueling, or it times out. Once you select and start to fuel, the timer ends. When the pump is done fueling, it goes directly to the receipt display screen.

Chevron is less rewards-oriented than either Exxon or Shell. Still, the company has its own Auto Club similar to AAA, and they have some partnerships in place for Gas Rewards, such as with Albertsons, Safeway, and United Supermarkets. 

Although they publish two separate apps, Chevron and Texaco are the same company and have nearly identical apps except for their branding -- you can see receipts and transactions from both stations, and it will find you fuel at both brands. It doesn't matter if you log into one or the other -- the back-end database is identical, so you don't need both apps on your phone.

View Now at Chevron/Texaco

What other fuel brands offer mobile payment?

While I did not get to try these out for myself, the following companies also have mobile payment solutions:

What features to look for in mobile payment apps for fueling?

In our research into fueling apps, particularly as it related to service stations in the United States, we looked for apps that had easy setup for credit cards (such as Apple Card) and did not necessarily require a unique user account setup -- although some of the apps we looked at required additional authentication mechanisms, such as needing a phone number for login. Most of the apps we looked at had the ability to sign in as Apple, Google, or Facebook.

We also looked for apps that did not require proximity to the fuel tank to initiate the transaction (such as via NFC or RFID) and had some type of intelligence (GPS, WiFi) to determine which bank of pumps was being accessed. 

How to maximize rewards programs from credit card providers and fuel companies?

Rewards programs are also something to consider when using a fueling provider or a credit card. Some, such as Apple Card, provide rewards as a direct cashback. Cashback rewards from the credit card company may also be provided with additional rewards (such as additional fuel discounts) in combination with the fuel provider, and there may be specific partnerships (such as in the case with Apple and Exxon Mobil) that increases the reward bonus, so you will want to check with your credit card provider and desired fuel provider to maximize your rewards.