At the intersection of Highway 20 and Highway 101 in Willits, Calif., you'll find three service stations. But look closely before you pump gas, otherwise you could pay a lot more than you expect.
What follows is a cautionary tale about junk fees, from an industry that journalists like me tend to ignore, unless it's spilling hundreds of millions of gallons of unprocessed petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico.
But the cost of a product, both perceived and real, are very much in the news today, with a key part of the Affordable Care Act scheduled to kick in Oct. 1. Fees are a hot topic in my neck of the woods, with some industry apologists spinning the absurd argument that junk fees such as the ones I ran into are good for consumers, because it gives them choices.
Here's what happened to me. On a recent morning, as we drove from Mendocino, Calif., to Neskowin, Ore., I congratulated myself for steering clear of the Chevron station, where gas was a few pennies more than the Arco across the street. But when I slid my card into the Arco "PayQuick" terminal, it demanded a 35 cent transaction fee before I could refuel. Arco explains the fee on its site.
"Forget it," I muttered, looking across the 101 to the Safeway service station, where gas cost the same -- minus the deceptive transaction fee.
Or at least that's what I thought it claimed.
Safeway "reduces" the price of your groceries and gas when you show your membership card, and although I'm skeptical of clubs where members are offered preferential treatment, I carry a Safeway card. I was given the impression that I'd pay $3.77 per gallon after my Safeway discount, and would save the 35 cent transaction fee.
Yes, I crossed the road to save 35 cents. It was the principle.
The other side
I presented the Safeway terminal with my card and my credit card and started to pump gas. And that's when I noticed it was charging me 10 cents a gallon more than the Arco station.
I asked the woman at the counter if the $3.87 price was a pre-discount rate that Safeway was showing me so that I could fully appreciate the savings I was getting as a Safeway "member."
She laughed at me. And it wasn't the kind of laugh from telling a funny joke, either. Perhaps "mocked" would be a better word.
She told me, as a teacher explains to a new student, how earlier this year "the credit card companies" had raised their fees, and that Safeway had to pass the costs along to customers.
The 10 cent "discount" was available only if I paid by cash. I could wave my Safeway card around all I wanted, it would not affect the price. Worse, I couldn't cancel my transaction and change my payment method.
I was confused.
I checked to see if others had been snookered by Safeway's policy and found a story about "accidental" overcharges at another California gas station. Its website, which tries to explain the apparent bait-and-switch discount, makes me want to cut up my "rewards" card in disgust. Does Safeway think it's an airline?
Junk fees and price deceptions
As we drove north with a full tank of overpriced gas, we did the math. Even after paying the 35 cent "fee," Arco had the cheapest gas. Safeway's fuel was the costliest if you paid by credit card, which we did.
The most honest price? The Chevron station.
Looking back, I wish we'd refueled at Chevron. Like many customers, I'm willing to pay more to be treated as an adult, instead of receiving an unwanted lecture about the cost of accepting credit cards, which is absolutely no concern of mine.
But it's also a warning about fees, which can pop up anytime without notice. We don't have a lot of Arco stations back East, and I normally buy my gas at the local Hess station, which offers a fair, gimmick-free price for fuel. I can't be the only person who feels these pricing tricks are wrong and shouldn't be allowed.
Now, I'm sure some of you reading this rant are saying to yourself, "Come on Chris, people are sophisticated. In a free market, shouldn't a business be able to pass its costs along to a consumer, as long as it's disclosed at some point?"
I get it. If I were an advocate for the oil companies -- not that they need another advocate -- I would twist the facts around to justify the fees and their problematic disclosure. But the last time I checked, I still had the title "Consumer Advocate" on my business card.
Aren't we entitled to an unambiguous price for fuel? Don't we have the right to be unhappy when we don't get it?
After you've left a comment here telling me to read the fine print the next time I pump gas, let's continue the discussion on my consumer advocacy site or on Twitter, Facebook and Google. I also have a free newsletter and you'll definitely want to pre-order my new, amazingly helpful and subversive book called How to Be the World's Smartest Traveler (and Save Time, Money, and Hassle). Photo: Anna Lurye/Shutterstock