When Jan Mignone, a Richmond resident who recently weathered a spell of unemployment, needs gas, she has to make sure she spends as little money as possible. So she whips out her iPhone and uses a free "app," or application, to locate the least expensive gas in her immediate vicinity.

With gas prices zooming 48 cents a gallon in the Bay Area over the past month, to an average of $3.96 per gallon, almost any motorist can benefit from one of these apps, which include GasBuddy.com, AAA's TripTik and Cheap Gas!, all of which are free. The apps use GPS technology or information from volunteer spotters to identify the lowest-priced gas stations in a given area throughout the country and, in some cases, Canada.

"I save 15, 20 cents a gallon on gas, easy, and between $3 and $5 per fill-up" with the app, said Mignone, now an administrative assistant at UC Press, who has been using the app for about eight months.

Here's a guide to three of the most popular apps:

  • AAA's TripTik app can be downloaded from the iPhone's App Store. This virtual "store" appears as an icon on the iPhone and contains thousands of applications. Open the App Store, hit the search button, then type in "AAA." Double-click and it downloads in seconds. Currently, the TripTik is only available on iPhones. The TripTik displays not only gas prices but hotels, restaurants, mechanics and more, so it's probably the best app for drivers going on trips. Clicking the "Map" button on the top right side of the TripTik list brings up a map of all the gas station in the area and, with a click on a given gas station, the prices. It also gives directions to the stations. AAA's data is based on records of credit card transactions gathered by the Oil Price Information Service.

  • The no-frills Cheap Gas! app is also available free from the iPhone's App Store. It displays a list of stations sorted in the order of the lowest prices, and that's about it. While it shows the current location of the phone and that of the gas station, it doesn't give directions. A nifty feature: It launches the iPhone's cameras and shows station logos and their associated gas prices superimposed on the nearby landscape, to give an idea where they are. CheapGas! gets its prices from GasBuddy.com. The app can be unstable, as it crashed twice during Bay Area News Group tests.

  • GasBuddy.com is the rock star of cheap gas applications. Also available free from the App Store, it can be configured to list the gas stations closest to you or by the price. If you want to learn more about a specific gas station on the list, just tap on it, and a page dedicated to that gas station will open, with details such as the prices of all the different grades of gas, whether the station has a convenience store and when the prices were most recently reported. GasBuddy gets its prices from volunteer spotters who enter the information about the lowest prices in their areas. Those who have registered on the site can hit a button on the gas station page and report the most recent price at that station. This app also is available for Android, and Windows Phone devices.

    "I'm really happy with the app," said Mignone, who uses Cheap Gas! "I don't have to drive around looking at gas station prices. I can just pick up my phone and, whoops! That's where I'm going to get gas. It's a timesaver and a gas saver."

    Contact Janis Mara at jmara@bayareanewsgroup.com.