Which Gas Station Has the Best Cheap Coffee? We Tried 10 and Ranked Them
Coffee is important to caffeine fiends like me. And for those of us who drive around a lot, gas station coffee is especially important — because it’s cheaper than the alternative, which is usually Starbucks. Or, as we like to call it, $tarbuck$.
What makes good gas station coffee? Well, here are the extremes of good and bad:
- The bad: Burnt coffee that’s been left neglected and thickening in the coffee pot, served lukewarm or at near-room temperature in a chintzy Styrofoam cup. You can see coffee grounds floating around in it, for extra flavor. Maybe there’s a big old shaker of powdered creamer to cut the taste a little. It tastes like cigarette butts and despair.
- The good: Freshly ground single-origin coffee, all from the same richly fertile spot in Central or South America, served piping hot with a bold, rich taste and an underlying nutty flavor with perhaps the subtlest notes of cocoa or caramel, or is that just your imagination? Suddenly life is good again. Based solely on this one cup of coffee, you decide that life is worth living.
When we decided to taste-test cheap gas station coffee, we approached both extremes.
Judging the Coffee at 10 Gas Station Chains
Who has the best gas station coffee? To find out, we sampled the coffee at 10 different gas stations from 10 different national and regional gas station chains.
We’re judging the coffee by:
- Price. We’re cheap.
- The number of options we have to customize our beverage to our liking.
- Taste. This is entirely subjective.
Now, is it fair to judge an entire national gas station chain based on our one personal experience? Well, whoever said life was fair?
We should note that franchised gas stations are often privately owned, and those owners might invest more or less into their store’s coffee offerings — so your mileage may vary, so to speak. But a lot of the big national chains can be fairly consistent in how they present themselves to customers, and that includes what kind of coffee they’re serving.
In any case, we found a huge gulf between the top end of our rankings and the bottom end.
Here Are Our Findings
This was an eye-opening experience. We mean that literally, because we’re still wide awake days after this big coffee taste-testing tour.
Among our findings:
Big Chains, High Prices
The two biggest national convenience store chains, 7-Eleven and Circle K, charged the most for coffee. The highest price came from 7-Eleven, which charged us $2.29 for a small coffee — noticeably more than anyplace else.
Smaller Stations Can Be Shaky
While some of the larger places had elaborate coffee-dispensing setups, your average gas station with a little store attached might be relying on a single pot of coffee — maybe two pots sitting on burners. The later in the morning it gets, the more likely it is that this coffee has just been sitting there getting old and bad.
Several gas stations had no coffee at all! We had to go to more than one Sunoco, Chevron and BP station before we could find a little java.
One big takeaway is that if you’re getting gas station coffee after noon or maybe even after 11 a.m., make the effort to go to a station with a larger store attached. You’re more likely to find good, fresh-brewed coffee. The alternative tastes terrible, but we’ll get to that.
Regional Chains Rule
We found our favorite coffee in regional gas station chains. Apparently they’re trying harder. (Also a lot of these stores are bigger.) Since we’re located in Florida, we’re talking about:
- Speedway, which has 4,000 gas stations on the East Coast and in the Midwest and Southwest
- Wawa, which has 950 stations in the mid-Atlantic and Florida
- RaceTrac, which has 550 stations in the Southeast
Unfortunately, our rankings are missing out on proud regional chains like QuikTrip in the Midwest and South; Cumberland Farms in the Northeast; Buc-ee’s in Texas and the South; and Sheetz in and around Pennsylvania.
When the GasBuddy app reviewed 2 million gas station coffee ratings in the app, each of those chains was the top-rated brand in several states.
The Harsh Truth
Worst deal: 7-Eleven was the biggest disappointment. We paid $2.29 for lukewarm coffee.
Best deal: Speedway had the cheapest coffee of all, and it was tasty.
Our Ranking from Worst to First
Videographer Chris Zuppa and I drove around town, following a map we’d made of 10 gas stations from 10 different chains.
It was surprisingly hard to find coffee sometimes. In the end, it took going to 15 places to try coffee from all 10 chains.
Here’s what we found out about the taste, customization options and cost of gas station coffee, with stations ranked in order from worst to best. We’re giving each a total score of zero to 5 coffee beans, because it’s super scientific that way.
The highest score for taste is two beans, the highest score for price is one bean, and the highest score for options is two beans, for a maximum total score of five beans.
Options: These all used to be Amoco stations. Remember Amoco? Anyway, our first BP station didn’t have any coffee. We hit a number of other stations until we came across another BP station, and by that time it was after noon. There was a single coffee pot with just enough coffee to fill a Styrofoam cup. The Last Coffee. The coffee was so old it had a learner’s permit. It was so sludgy, I couldn’t even get the powdered creamer to mix into it. Score: Zero coffee beans.
Taste: It was foul. Sorry, BP. Score: Zero coffee beans.
Price: $1.59 for a small coffee. With BP’s Bean Counter rewards program, you get a stamp for each hot drink you buy, and every eighth drink is free. Score: Half a coffee bean.
Total: Half a coffee bean.
Options: Like BP, we had to hit two Chevron stations before we found coffee. Again, there was a single coffee pot featuring coffee that had been there too long. There were big sugar dispensers but no packets of artificial sweeteners. There were a few creamers in those little bitty cups. There were white Styrofoam cups with plastic lids that didn’t fit. Score: Zero coffee beans.
Taste: Let’s put it this way: I tasted it and immediately made a face. Score: Half a coffee bean.
Price: According to my receipt, I paid $1.29 for a small coffee, plus some kind of unexplained “nontax” fee of 25 cents, plus 9 cents in sales tax, for a total of $1.63. With Chevron’s ExtraMile rewards program, purchases earn you credit toward free food and drinks. Score: Half a coffee bean.
Total: One coffee bean.
Options: We had to go to three Sunocos to get coffee. Score: Half a coffee bean.
Taste: We finally got a surprisingly good cup of coffee. That’s what it says in my notes, at least. Score: One and a half coffee beans.
Price: All sizes were priced at $1.87. Sunoco appears to have a gas rewards plan but no coffee rewards plan. Score: Half a coffee bean.
Total: Two and a half coffee beans.
(We considered going to a Mobil station too, but Exxon and Mobil are basically the same company.)
Options: This was the first gas station we tried. There was a single coffee pot, but it was empty. Luckily, the store’s sole employee (maybe a manager?) popped out from behind the register and brewed a fresh pot for me. It took four to five minutes to brew. At least I wasn’t in a hurry. On the positive side, the guy was super friendly about it. This is another place with only sugar and no sweeteners. Score: One coffee bean.
Taste: It was hot! It was kind of generic-tasting coffee — New England Coffee brand — but it was the hottest coffee we had all day. Score: One and a half coffee beans.
Price: $1.49 for a medium coffee. The Exxon Mobil Rewards+ program saves you 2 cents per dollar you spend in the store. Score: Half a coffee bean.
Total: Three coffee beans.
Options: So many choices! Coffee was on tap from big urns of vanilla, blueberry and Brazilian coffees, along with a house blend. Lots of creamers and sweeteners on tap, and mini marshmallows! Chocolate topping! Flavored syrups! Oh, the decadence! They also had iced coffee and cold brew coffee on tap. Score: Two coffee beans.
Taste: The nation’s biggest convenience store chain was our biggest disappointment. After all that buildup, our coffee was lukewarm! Oh, the betrayal! It was like finding out there’s no Santa Claus.
Coffee is tricky, people. Piping hot coffee tastes great, ice cold coffee tastes great, and room temperature coffee tastes like bad memories and regret. Score: One coffee bean. 7-Eleven is ranked this high only because we vaguely recall having had decent coffee there before.
Price: The prices were $2.29 for small and medium, $2.99 for large and $3.29 for extra large. Not only that, but $2.29 was the highest price we paid all day. Also, the 7Rewards program on 7-Eleven’s app earns you points that you can eventually redeem for free drinks and snacks. Score: Zero coffee beans.
Total: Three coffee beans.
5. Circle K
Options: Now we’re getting somewhere. You’re no doubt familiar with Circle K, which is in nearly every state. Ours had coffee brewing machines with big glass hoppers full of coffee beans on top, although we suspect the beans in the glass cases are just for show. In any case, the machines fresh-brew your coffee on command. I had my choice of a house blend, decaf, hazelnut, Colombian and “Machu Picchu,” a single-origin coffee from a particular region of Peru.
There were flavored syrups. There were four kinds of creamer on tap — hazelnut, vanilla, half-and-half and whole milk. And they had decadent-sounding cappuccinos like “white chocolate caramel,” if you’re into that kind of thing. Score: Two coffee beans.
Taste: After sampling lots of small coffees at lots of small gas stations, we were a little burned out, no pun intended. We cheated this time and got a salted caramel toffee cappuccino — basically hot liquid candy. It’s not what we would get every time, but it was sweet and it did the trick. Score: One and a half coffee beans.
Price: A sign said a small coffee cost $1.89, a medium $1.99, large $2.09 and extra large $2.19. But according to my receipt, I was quietly charged an extra dime — $2.09 — for a medium. Hmmm. We’re taking points off for the sneaky price increase. Also, Circle K has a Sip and Save beverage subscription for $5.99 a month that gets you one drink a day. Score: Zero coffee beans.
Total: Three and a half coffee beans.
Options: Shell is the biggest gas station chain in the U.S., so the quality of its coffee is clearly a national priority. Our Shell station was attached to a Rally store, although we’ve seen locations with generic “food marts” as well.
Inside was a big counter just for coffee, with 10 steaming pots of java in flavors ranging from vanilla to “bold.” All the creamers and artificial sweeteners you could want. They also had six of those pre-blended, sugary coffee-and-cream options you push a button for, including English toffee, hazelnut and vanilla latte. They’ve got iced coffee on tap. Score: Two coffee beans.
Taste: I tried the “bold” blend, a Perks brand coffee. I wish I could tell you that I tasted notes of toffee and burnt sugar or something like that, but my palate just isn’t that keen. Score: One and a half coffee beans.
Price: The prices were $1.59 for a 16-ounce coffee, $1.69 for a 20-ounce and $1.79 for a 24-ounce, with refills costing $1.29. Shell/Rally has a number of rewards programs, including a coffee/fountain drink club card that gets you every ninth drink for free. Score: Half a coffee bean.
Total: Four coffee beans.
Options: RaceTrac and Speedway, two regional chains, have similar elaborate coffee setups and are virtually tied in our book, except that Speedway was cheaper.
They had a row of 12 glass hoppers of coffee beans ready to be ground, including regular, Colombian, Guatemalan, hazelnut, dark roast and decaf. They had chilled cream on tap — half-and-half, French vanilla (apparently all vanilla in gas station coffee is automatically French vanilla), low-cal French vanilla and whole milk. Score: Two coffee beans.
Taste: RaceTrac’s coffee cups say “Crazy Good Coffee,” and they’re not lying — not for gas station coffee, anyway. Score: One and a half coffee beans.
Price: $1.79 for a small coffee. The RaceTrac Rewards program allows you to earn points toward eventually scoring free drinks. Score: Half a coffee bean.
Total: Four coffee beans.
Speedway’s a big, sprawling chain of gas stations, with 4,000 on the East Coast and in the Midwest and Southwest.
Options: Our Speedway had basically the same machines as our RaceTrac. It also had a ton of those pre-blended, sugary coffee-and-cream options you push a button to dispense. We’re not too sure about some of these — caramel macchiato? cinnamon roll cappuccino? It seems like a lot, but hey, if that’s what sells. Score: Two coffee beans.
Taste: Robust and delightful. Score: One and a half coffee beans.
Price: We paid $1.19 for a 12-ounce coffee — the best price we got all day! The other prices were $1.59 for a medium and $1.79 for a large. The Speedy Rewards program allows you to earn points toward eventually scoring free snacks and drinks. Score: One whole coffee bean!
Total: Four and a half coffee beans.
Wawa has nearly 1,000 locations on the East Coast, in Delaware, Florida, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington, D.C. If you don’t live on the East Coast but you’re just visiting, you might consider gassing up at Wawa just for the coffee. (They’re famous for fresh-made hoagies too.)
Options: They have urns of hot coffee in an abundance 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, hazelnut and fat-free French vanilla. They also have every sweetener possible, including honey and ground cinnamon. You can also order more elaborate coffee drinks at a coffee bar if you want. Score: Two coffee beans.
Taste: The coffee we fixed for ourselves was the best coffee we had all day, mainly due to the maximum customization capability we were given. (In our case, Colombian coffee cut with Irish cream happens to be a fave.) Score: Two coffee beans.
Price: We paid $1.79 for a small coffee. Also, you get a free drink the first time you scan your Wawa Rewards app at the register. Score: Half a coffee bean.
Total: Four and a half coffee beans.
Why do we care so much about gas station coffee? Compare all these prices to Starbucks, where you can easily spend nearly five bucks on a “grande” or “venti” mocha or macchiato or latte.
Five bucks at a time — that really adds up, especially if you’re a daily coffee drinker on the go.
On the other hand: We may be cheap, but life is too short to drink bad coffee.
Mike Brassfield ([email protected]) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. He likes coffee.