When it’s time to fuel up, you obviously want to choose the cheapest possible option.
As far as gas goes, that’s fairly simple: You can use apps like Gas Buddy to figure out which station offers the best prices, or choose the station you know consistently offers the cheapest fill-up — here’s a map that breaks it down by state.
But sometimes, it’s not just your vehicle that needs a pick-me-up. And coffee comes in a lot more varieties than just regular and high-octane.
Cheap java can be a lifesaver, but it can also be a really bad experience.
One time, I almost choked when I swigged what had to be day-old coffee from a styrofoam cup in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico (yes, that’s a real place). It had been on the burner so long it was actually viscous… and the texture wasn’t helped by the swirl of coffee grounds that had found their way through the filter.
To help you avoid the same situation, we took to the streets — literally — to figure out which gas stations boast the best cheap coffee. We compared the number of options, customizability and, of course, taste… while always keeping an eye on the price tag.
The Best — and Worst — Gas Station Coffee for Your Buck
One quick caveat before we begin: This information comes from investigating our specific area of central Florida.
Franchised gas stations are often privately owned, and those owners might invest more or less into their store’s coffee offerings — so, obviously, your mileage (pun 100% intended) may vary.
It’s also important to note that not all gas stations of any given brand are attached to a single store, and coffee quality may depend more directly on the latter.
For instance, although the Exxon closest to my home is attached to something called “Tiger Mart,” whose coffee game could use some serious upping, I’ve seen Exxons with Kangaroo stores instead — and that company’s coffee might leave a bit less to be desired.
All right, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get rolling. (Yep, that pun was intended too.)
Here’s what we found out about the options, taste and cost of gas station coffee — with each factor scored out of a possible 10 points, and stores ranked in order from worst to best.
My local Exxon’s attached to a nondescript “Tiger Mart” where every single item, amazingly, still bears a hand-stuck yellow price tag.
The coffee comes out of a single tap, which simply says “New England,” and is decorated with a scene that aspires to be considered “idyllic,” complete with farmhouses and a guy in a top hat driving a horse-drawn carriage.
It is not very good. The coffee, I mean.
Or the farm scene, to be honest.
There’s powdered Coffee-Mate creamer and Sweet’N Low.
That’s it. Like, there’s not even sugar.
Pure Taste: 1/10
My first impression about this coffee was a note on its temperature (not hot enough), rather than its flavor, which should say something.
This coffee tasted like absolutely nothing. It was basically a $2 cup of hot water. No, thank you.
Not only was the coffee awful, it also wasn’t even competitively priced: My 16-ounce medium was about 20 cents more than I paid at other venues, ringing in at $1.69.
Verdict: Please keep it away from me.
Far, far away from me. Like, farther away than New England.
My local Mobil station doesn’t have the average snacks-and-coffee stand attached.
Rather, I opened the door to discover myself in a diner — complete with the overwhelming scent of frying bacon and an aggressively nostalgic black-and-white checkered backsplash throughout the open-air kitchen.
I asked the (incredibly friendly) man behind the counter for a cup of coffee, and he served it up pronto, telling me that “lids are in the top drawer of that toolbox over there” and adding that the diner’s open for dinner, too, if I’d like to come back.
After he generously charged me the minimal cost of a single, small cup of coffee, I heard him tell the lady behind me in line he would fresh-brew her a pot.
He was so nice I ended up tipping almost the entire cost of my cup.
Not many — “Do you take cream or sugar?” he asked.
That said, he did let me add my own cream, which was nice, and I opened the drawer of the aforementioned toolbox to find a selection of artificial sweeteners like Splenda.
Pure Taste: 3/10
I wish I could say something better about this place since it was so friendly (and honestly a little surreal)…
… but the coffee itself was nothing to write home about. Not as bad as some of the standing gunk I’ve gotten at other gas stations, but I can definitely do better at home.
The coffee at this place was pricy for what it is: $1.60 for a small and $2.68 for a large.
Verdict: Would definitely go back… but maybe not for coffee.
I mean, it’s a diner! Even if the coffee sucks, bacon is available — and that counts for a pretty hefty boost in my book.
At Sunoco’s unbranded food mart, you only have one coffee option. My local store didn’t even have decaf available.
As far as mix-ins, you’re looking at diner-style jars of sugar and a couple of outdated powdered creamers. I think I may have seen a (and I do mean a) packet of Splenda, but to be honest, I just wanted to get out of there as quickly as possible.
Pure Taste: 3/10
The splash of half-and-half I usually take in my coffee was unavailable, but I don’t mind good coffee black.
This place, however, did not have good coffee. The first two words I wrote in my tasting note were “burnt” and “watery.”
It seemed as if the coffee might have an underlying nutty flavor had it been kept and brewed with more care, but my overall impression was so poor, I poured out my cup on the street moments later.
One place I can’t fault Sunoco’s coffee? Cost: It’s just 99 cents for a 12-ounce small cup, or $1.49 for 16 ounces.
That said, I might pay that much to not drink this coffee.
Sure, it’s cheap — but unless you are in danger of getting into a car accident if you don’t get coffee RIGHT NOW, I’d steer clear.
If you want actual coffee, your customization options look pretty thin at the BP convenience store — there’s one unbranded dispenser, and if you want to alter your joe, you can choose between sugar and Splenda. There was no creamer in sight.
That said, if faux-fancy, pre-made options like Coffee-Mate French vanilla (or its vague “original” flavor, whose label bore a faded-to-green wafer cookie and nothing else), you’re in luck.
You could also get something that someone is willing to call a cappuccino — even if that someone is just the marketing director for whatever coffee machine company that is.
Pure Taste: 5/10
Although I had to, again, take the coffee black, it wasn’t awful. I even convinced myself it had notes of toffee nut, according to my journal.
The 16-ounce medium was $1.19 before tax — not a bad deal if you’re getting one of those sugary beverages in place of Starbucks.
If Gas Buddy’s showing you BP as the cheapest option, the coffee’s not horrible — but it’s not fantastic, either.
My local Chevron station didn’t have much to say for itself as far as coffee goes: There was a single automatic machine that was something like a glorified Keurig, and cups only came in one size.
That said, I was surprised at the actual quality.
Although all the coffee at this location came out of one automatic machine, you could at least choose if you wanted “strong,” “normal” or “mild” coffee.
Although there wasn’t any cream, there were tons of powdered sugar options — although a seemingly disproportionate number of them were sugar-free, perhaps owing to the octogenarian-friendly north Florida neighborhood of the location I visited.
Pure Taste: 7.5/10
The coffee was, surprisingly, not bad at all. It was a little bit too hot, but it was strong and flavorful, and the extra heat means it’ll last you a while on the road.
I did, however, knock some points since I had so little ability to customize my drink.
No free refills — and you don’t even get to pick your size — but at $1.29 per cup, you can’t complain too much.
You can also get a free coffee with the purchase of a $1.99 reusable mug. Not bad!
Verdict: I’d definitely swing by if I needed a boost.
While it’s nothing fancy and not the best I’ve ever had, the coffee here was solid and cheap — and that’s what frugal road trips are all about, am I right?
This company’s namesake is no longer accurate — my local pit stop is open 24 hours, so +1 for round-the-clock coffee.
7-Eleven also offers a get-the-seventh-free rewards program through a downloadable app, and the first thing I noticed as I walked in the door was a sign advertising “Free Coffee Week” (!!) from Oct. 3 through 9.
This place scores some serious Penny Hoarder points.
I was really surprised at how many different coffees 7-Eleven offered. I counted 10 dispensers.
That said, it was also surprising how many of them were not anything like plain old coffee, ranging from French vanilla to one called “Big Energy” to an unsweetened blueberry coffee I was curious enough to try.
It was, unfortunately, lukewarm. Not a good look.
There was also a machine serving up premixed pumpkin spice, fat-free French vanilla cappuccinos and Cuban cafe con leche, just to name a few.
But even with all those options, 7-Eleven really started to shine when it came to mix-ins.
I saw a cold dispenser of cream and skim, individual creamers from half-and-half to Cold Stone sweet cream (super tempting, although I resisted), and bottled sweeteners with pumps.
There was even a canister of mini marshmallows — which I thought were mere legend outside of Wawa — and these nifty hot chocolate spoons to melt into your jolt of choice.
An impressive showing, to say the least!
Pure Taste: 6/10
After my cold blueberry experience (for which I’ve knocked off a few points), my impulse to experiment died a little bit, so I ended up going with the closest thing to my usual, beloved Cuban roasts as possible: a Brazilian blend.
It was actually pretty darn good — rich and bold, and a little earthy. It took to my swirl of cream nicely.
Not only does it have a lot to choose from and a great rewards program, 7-Eleven also boasts some of the best prices I found: $1.39 for a small, $1.79 for a large and refills for 99 cents.
Especially considering the rewards program, 7-Eleven is a great option for Penny Hoarders — especially if you’re into flavored coffees as opposed to regular house blends.
This one gets an automatic boost for me because, well, its coffee is Dunkin Donuts coffee — at least at all the locations around me.
And even if I wasn’t already obsessed with DD, I’m thrilled to have a plain iced-coffee option either way. Non-froofy iced drinks are hard to come by at gas stations!
Speedway also offers a cool rewards program that gets you free stuff, so it’s definitely Penny Hoarder-friendly.
If Dunkin just ain’t your jam for some reason, you’re out of luck at Speedway.
But since that’s pretty much impossible, you’re probably in the clear as far as the java itself: choose from regular, decaf or bold in both hot and iced varieties.
For add-ins, you’ve got a cold spigot of skim milk or cream, Dunkin Donuts’ own liquid-sugar pump and all the requisite packet options.
Bonus: They even sell the beans, so you can take your DD addiction home with you.
Pure Taste: 9/10
I’ll admit I’m biased, but I’d be hard-pressed to find a coffee drinker who doesn’t at least tolerate Dunkin’s brew.
I got my favorite: the iced dark roast. It’s nice and bold, with caramel and vanilla notes once you add cream.
Although Speedway doesn’t offer refills, I can vouch for its rewards program — I’ve definitely earned free coffee from it.
The drinks are priced similarly to, or even a little better than, the prices at an actual Dunkin storefront. The small hot drinks are $1.49, small iced $1.79, and medium and large for both varieties $1.99 and $2.19, respectively.
Verdict: Heck. Yes.
Basically, it’s a Dunkin Donuts where your car can fuel up, too.
It seems like RaceTrac consciously tries to be quirky. Perhaps to a fault.
Case in point: When I walked into the location nearest me, I discovered that the doors beckoned “guys” and “gals” into their respective restrooms.
The company’s also confident enough to proclaim itself the “eighth wonder of the world,” which is a pretty big stretch for a gas station, even in jest.
That said, I can’t fault RaceTrac on the coffee front. Although I thought its sign proclaiming “crazy good” coffee was ambitious, the company brought its A-game.
Choose from specific-origin coffees like Colombian and Costa Rican, complete with a handy roast guide — or go with the house, decaf or dark blends.
There’s also a cappuccino machine if you’re still in the drown-it-in-sugar, gateway-drug stage of your coffee addiction (been there).
Once you’ve got your cup, hit the big, beautiful cold case filled with full-sized milk options as well as individual creamer packets, and every sugar and sweetener you can imagine.
Pure Taste: 9/10
I went with the super-dark Costa Rican, and it was bold and smoky but not burnt. It was also nice and hot, but not so much so that I burned my tongue when I tasted it.
RaceTrac’s prices were good, although nothing to write home about. A small runs $1.49, medium $1.59 and large $1.69.
Definitely a good option for your road-trip fill-up.
The location I went to had a Rally attached, although I’ve seen Shell stations with Dailey’s — and with brandless, generic “food mart” shops as well.
Now we’re getting somewhere, as far as choices are concerned.
There was a big, beautiful counter covered with standing pots and taps holding a variety of coffee blends — from “house blend” and “bold” to the vague “wired” and sophisticated-sounding “Cafe Sumatra.”
Shell also had a variety of those pre-blended, sugary options you push a button for, including English toffee, hot chocolate and vanilla latte.
You can see the hopper full of beans on the grinder, which feels like a good sign even if it’s just for show.
As far as mix-ins, it’s got it all: liquid sweeteners with pumps, just like the ones at a fancy coffee shop, ranging from pure sugar cane to caramel and Irish cream. To round it out, you’ll find real half-and-half and 2% milk in big, silver insulated pitchers, as well as pick-up-able packages of Sugar In The Raw, Sweet’N Low, and Equal and International Delight creamers.
Pure Taste: 7.5/10
Although I chose the company’s “darkest offering,” I thought it was still a bit weak for my taste.
But as I continued to sip on it, I began to taste notes of toffee and burnt sugar.
I may have also just really, really needed coffee.
My location sells 16 ounces for $1.49, 20 ounces for $1.59 and 24 ounces for $1.69 — and offers refills of any of those sizes for 99 cents each.
That’s definitely not a bad deal, especially if you can get the refill at another station down the road.
If you’re lucky enough to live in proximity of this regional gem of a gas station, rejoice.
Not only is the coffee flavorful and fresh and accompanied by a veritable smorgasbord of cream and flavor options, it’s pretty darn cheap to boot — and the company’s been known to offer free cups on the fairly regular.
The coffees themselves come in a plethora of options, including various origins and roast levels… and that’s just the start.
You’re also greeted by a full cold case of dairy products, ranging from fat-free milk to creamers with enticing flavors like Irish Cream. I mean, there’s a jar of tiny marshmallows.
Tiny marshmallows, guys.
All this to say nothing of the fact that you can also order actual fancy beverages, hot or iced, from its cafe — and as of my Sept. 1 visit, my local Wawa already had pumpkin spice.
These drinks aren’t cheap, but at the $3 to $4 range, you’ll probably do better than you would at Starbucks — which doesn’t carry gas, let alone stuffed pretzels and cheese trays.
Wawa might actually be heaven.
Pure Taste: 9/10
I’ll be true to my coffee snob sensibilities and deny even Wawa a perfect 10.
After all, it is still gas station coffee, not some single-origin pour over made by a bespectacled, suspenders-wearing person who is totally not a hipster, thank you very much.
That said, Wawa’s Colombian coffee is one of my favorite things, and I get one every single time I drive across the state. And that happens a lot.
The 16-ounce medium sells for $1.45, but Wawa does lose a couple of affordability points since it doesn’t offer discounted refills or a rewards program for its beverages.
Verdict: Yes, please… if you can get it.
The only problem is how few and far between these locations are. If you’re not in the Northeast or Florida, you’ll probably have to go on a trek to run into one.
The Final Verdict: Cheap Coffee Doesn’t Have to Be Terrible
You’d be shocked at how much coffee we go through in the Penny Hoarder break room.
But even if we’re cheap, we’re not willing to drink bad coffee. Life’s just too short!
Wawa might be the best gas station coffee around, but as you can see from this list, there’s no shortage of cheap, palatable joe, no matter what gas stations you’re near.
So next time you get on the road, you’ll be prepared for any eventuality — even one that can only be solved with a good, strong cuppa.
We’ve always got our eyes peeled for great deals and freebies on coffee and other goodies. To stay in the know, keep your eyes on the blog, or check out our special Food page on Facebook.
Your Turn: What’s your favorite gas station coffee?
Jamie Cattanach is a coffee snob and staff writer at The Penny Hoarder. Her writing has also been featured at The Write Life, Word Riot, Nashville Review and elsewhere. Find @JamieCattanach on Twitter to wave hello.