As a business owner, you’re probably considering using a fleet fuel card to monitor and lower spending, especially when fuel is your largest expense. But with hundreds of fuel cards on the market, it’s hard to know which one is the best for your fleet.
This article covers everything you need to know about fuel cards, from the benefits to the major considerations that you face when deciding which fuel card to go with.
How Does A Fuel Card Work?
A fuel card is basically a charge card that allows vehicles to pay for fuel and some maintenance expenses. Some cards have to be used within a certain network of fueling stations, while others can be used across different gas stations.
Although fuel cards look and function similarly to credit cards, they are very different. For one thing, fuel cards are mostly limited to fuel and vehicle-related purchases, whereas a credit card can be used for practically any purchase.
Fuel cards also differ from credit cards in that a fuel card can capture more information about a purchase than a credit card is able to. Because of this information-capture, fuel cards are considered to be more secure than a credit card, permitting lower processing fees.
Corporate Credit Cards vs Fuel Cards
There are plenty of corporate credit cards that offer rebates for fuel purchases. Some fleet managers are drawn to the convenience of giving their drivers a general-purpose card that can be used for all business-related purchases.
Why should your business use a fuel card over a credit card for fuel purchases? Because fuel cards are more intelligent – and in turn more secure – than general-purpose credit cards. Security translates to savings, especially in industries that have high rates of internal and external fraud.
What Type Business Should Use a Fuel Card?
Fuel cards aren’t just for the trucking industry. Almost any business that relies on vehicles can benefit from the security and discounts of a fuel card, including all hauling and transporting services. Of course, you have to make sure that you choose the right fuel card for your industry. If you have a small fleet, a fuel card meant for a large fleet will probably incur more fees than savings.
The Three Types of Fuel Cards
There are three general types of fuel cards. Not all fuel cards are created equal, but they each have thier pros and their cons.
Branded Fuel Cards
Branded fuel cards are issued by a company that franchises the fueling stations or is directly associated with the fueling station. With most branded cards, you will get cost savings when you use the card at the associated fueling stations. However, you won’t get savings outside of the card’s network, and you possibly won’t be able to use the card outside of the network at all.
That said, branded cards often have purchase incentives and the ability to set basic limits and controls on the location and spending on the card. And because of the low or no fee structure, branded cards an excellent fuel card option for smaller fleets.
Commercial Fuel Cards
Commercial fleet cards are a popular fuel card option for small, medium, and large commercial fleets. Commercial fleet cards can be used at a wider range of fueling stations, and offer various discounts based on purchased fuel volume. These fleet cards are also more likely to grant access to purchases at gas station shops, auto shops, and car washes.
Moreover, commercial fuel cards have more comprehensive security features than branded fuel cards. This is important if you have a larger fleet or a fleet that travels across large geographic areas. Transaction limits and alerts can usually be set and monitored through an online portal by the fleet manager.
Universal Fuel Cards
As the name implies, universal fuel cards can be used at almost any fueling station. They are customizable, and typically include the best lineup of analytics software that can help optimize efficiency. Such fuel cards are the best option for large fleets. However, some universal fuel card providers have created universal cards tailored to smaller fleets.
Universal fuel cards have the longest list of benefits, but they also come with the highest fees. In fact, universal fuel cards are relatively similar to a credit card. They can be used to make many non-fuel-related purchases at a wide variety of locations and may allow you to carry a balance.
Benefits of a Fuel Card
One of the best selling points of fuel cards are the fuel discounts, which can save up to five percent on fuel purchases.
Typically, fuel discounts are categorized into cost-plus savings or retail-minus savings. With cost-plus fuel pricing, the fuel card user will pay an amount more than the wholesale cost of fuel, which fluctuates far less than the retail price. Because of this, users of cost-plus fuel cards are better able to forecast their fuel expenditures.
Fuel card users may also get discounts from card-affiliated merchants, including tire shops, hotels, GPS systems, and fleet management systems.
If you’re transitioning to an electric fleet, some fuel cards may give you points when you use the card at an affiliated charging station, while allowing you to monitor both fuel and EV vehicles from one account.
Credit cards collect information about the “when” and “where” of a purchase. Fuel cards collect Level III Data about spending, which goes beyond the when and where of purchase by also asking “what”, “how”, and “who”.
Some of the purchase information that a fuel card can collect may include:
- Odometer readings
- Quantity purchased
- What product was purchased
- Driver identification
Because these aspects of a purchase are monitored, they can also be controlled at the point-of-sale. Fuel cards allow the manager to limit what the card is used for, and how much is spent on each transaction. Many cards also provide real-time e-receipts and an alert system for possibly-fraudulent transactions.
In the past, managers had to collect receipts and refund drivers for their personal expenses. This meant a lot of time spent on bookkeeping and administrative tasks. Today, fuel cards eliminate the need for reimbursement processing.
Fuel cards also help with the tracking of vehicle maintenance. By requiring a driver to enter the vehicle’s odometer reading, managers will know when oil changes or tire replacements are due. Additionally, odometer reporting can help calculate vehicle depreciation when tax season comes around.
What gets measured gets managed. If you choose a fuel card that provides analytics, the information will empower you to improve operational efficiency overall.
Fuel Card Considerations
So how do you know which fuel card is the best for your fleet? Take into consideration the following factors when exploring fuel cards.
The regional coverage is the most important consideration to make when choosing a fleet fuel card. If you can’t actually use the card in the location that you operate, then it won’t do you any good. Think about whether your fleet operates nationally, statewide, or only locally.
You should also consider the routes that your fleet runs regularly, and make sure that the card’s associated fueling stations are at convenient access points. If you plan to eventually expand your fleet, make sure that you choose a card that will have fueling stations along your future routes. Plan ahead so that you don’t have to deal with switching costs.
Besides the location that your fleet operates, think about the size of your fleet and its requirements. If you have a small fleet that operates locally, you don’t need to pay the higher fees of a universal fuel card. If your fleet doesn’t have an issue with theft, you might not need a card that has an extensive set of controls.
Related: 101 Mobile Fleet Fueling Companies
The type of fuel your fleet takes can also weigh on your fuel card choice. Some cards achieve greater savings per gallon for diesel than for gasoline. But many cards will give discounts and points for both gasoline and diesel purchases.
Fuel Card Benefits
It’s definitely worth considering the benefits and rebates associated with the fuel card, as these can amount to large savings. Does the fuel card offer scaled savings, in which you get a greater discount when you hit a certain level of fuel purchases? Do you get points for purchases from certain merchants?
Also take note as to whether the fuel discounts are retail-minus or cost-plus. Cost-plus pricing is more predictable. But in some cases, retail-minus can provide more savings. Some cards give the better price of the two.
Fuel cards often come with fees that you might not know about until you’ve incurred them. Most universal cards have setup fees and monthly fees. But you could face out-of-network fees, failed payment fees, and charges for fraud protection with every tier of fuel card. Ask your fuel card provider about hidden costs before you find out the hard way.
Final Thoughts on Choosing a Fuel Card
While discounts and reward programs may be the most exciting part of choosing a fuel card, the most important consideration is your fleet and its regional coverage. As soon as you adopt a fuel card, you can work towards improving your fleet’s spending and security.
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