Parking Strategies

I’m amazed at how much time people are willing to spend driving around a parking lot looking for a space to park. I’m not talking about places where it is snowing and there are only limited slots in covered parking. I’m talking about the people who will drive around the lot for 15 minutes trying to avoid a 2 minute walk from the empty spaces just beyond the spots everyone is fighting for.

In this post, I want to talk about optimal parking strategies, because people seem to waste so much time on the activity. But first a story:

I knew someone who would occasionally go to the mall around Christmas. He would walk toward a car in the prime parking spot and invariably be followed by a crazy-eyed parking spot hunter. He’d go stand next to the car for a few moments. The hunter began to drool at the prospect of capturing such a marvelous prize. The cars would start backing up behind the first car–everyone envious of the spot they were about to get, then he would simply walk off to his car parked on the far side of the lot.

Ok, so on to parking strategies:

It isn’t that far of a walk

First of all, in most situations, the time it takes to walk from the empty spots to the spots next to the store is minimal–only a few minutes. If you want a spot that is close to the store, try a reasonable strategy and then just take a spot. You don’t “win” by driving around again and again looking for an even better spot.

Sometimes the most productive thing to do is to pick a spot a reasonable distance from the store and walk. It is good for your health, keeps your car away from where it is likely to get hit and scratched, and often saves time.

Shopping cart returns matter

If you get a close spot, but it requires that you return the cart clear across the lot, you haven’t really gained anything. People don’t think about this because they don’t have a cart when coming to the store, only when leaving. A spot that doesn’t seem as close, but is right next to a cart return, can save you quite a bit of time over a close spot where you have to actually go back into the store with the empty cart and then back to your car.

Start at the store and work out

If you are looking for a spot headed toward the store, it can be hard to see if an empty one is the best available or if there is another one just ahead.  I’m sure everyone has driven just a bit further to discover that the “empty” spot actually had a Geo Metro in it, and the one three spaces back (which was just taken by an SUV) was actually the closest available.

If you start your search at the store side and work out, you can just take the first available slot. And don’t be tempted by a closer slot you see in another lane headed back to the store. If space is at a premium, it will be gone by the time you get there.

Think about the speed of leaving

Not every slot is equal when it comes to exiting the parking lot. Some will dump you out into a flow of pedestrian traffic and can waste considerable time.  This is one of the advantages of picking a side lane and taking the first space you find while moving away from the store. Also, watch out for things like pharmacy pick-up spots that are likely to have a high rate of vehicle changes and thus can make it difficult for you to get out of the parking lot if others are pulling in and out when you need to leave.

And there you have it. Some great strategies for getting in and out of parking lots. As I said, I feel a bit silly even writing about this, but little things matter, and from what I saw going on at the grocery store today, there are a lot of people spending a significant portion of their lives looking for a parking spot.


  1. Brett says

    Another thing to notice is one way lanes. At a local grocery store, the parking lanes are one way and have angled slots. Nothing wastes more time for everyone than a person who sees a spot, only to charge the wrong direction down the lane and then block traffic as they work their car back and forth to get into the backward facing slot, which they invariably wind up sideways in. This also happens at the local mall, only there they just ignore the gigantic yellow arrows and fishbone painted slots and drive wherever. Don’t be that person.

  2. Samantha says

    I always think about ease of backing out of a spot and try to pick one that I can back straight out of. Any spot that’s easy to get into but will require serious skill to maneuver out of isn’t worth it.

  3. says

    Once when I was Christmas shopping, I had acquired too many bags to keep carrying but was not finished shopping. I went out to drop my packages in my trunk and cars immediately began to follow me. I tried to wave them away but they paid no attention. When I had unloaded my stuff and started walking back to the store, one of them actually honked at me as if I owed him my parking space!

  4. Timmy says

    I tend to look for shady spots as far away from the store as possible. Also back into parking spaces whenever possible, it makes it easier to exit when you are sandwiched in between a couple of SUVs and you can’t see if anyone is coming from either direction.

  5. frank says

    maybe park across from a cart return but definitely not next to it unless you don’t mind a dinged up car.

    • says

      I guess it depends. If someone is conscientious enough to return the cart, it seems like they are going to avoid hitting cars. Its the people who leave the cart out in the middle of no where that I’m concerned about.

  6. says

    Timmy made a good point about reversing into spaces – this is doubled up by the fact that you might save a small amount of gas money over time as a warm engine uses considerably less gas than a cold one when in reverse gear.

    • says

      I doubt if the gas usage would be noticeable, but that’s a very interesting point. I hadn’t realized that.

      I prefer to pull through to leave the car in an outward facing position because backing up (at least for me) involves a greater risk of hitting something.

  7. Mark says

    I used to park wherever until my (then) brand new car had a massive dent in it from a cart. I figured I was safe since it was actually the second to the last spot, but there was a slight hill to the parking lot. After I threw the cart like the Hulk & had it fixed, I now park as strategically as possible. My advice: always take more steps. It’s cheaper than fixing a dent.

  8. Andy says

    I prefer leave car little bit far away from crowd by number of reasons:
    – It is faster do not spend time for looking empty spot and cruising around.
    – I don’t want my new car to be damaged by lazy people on large track and SUV who pick any spot close to enterace.
    – It is good to walk little bit
    – You can leave parking lot much faster.

    When I park car far away I preferred spot near lamp pole. It give more protection from cars going across parking lot – just in case :) and people most likely avoid lamp pole too.

    One more trick – when you park leave more space at right side of car , you are most likely control your left door to hit then somebody else from right side of your car…

  9. says

    Another tip when dealing with parking is to go directly to the first floor marked with available spots, instead of trying to find one in the zero floor. I see lots of people wasting their time there instead of finding an easy spot two floors down.
    Nice tips!

  10. Carl says

    Parking farther from the store to get some exercise is a valid point, but up here in Canada one must consider that when it’s -30 degrees, a shorter walk to the store is desirable. I’d rather spend some time looking than end up with a five minute walk in that weather.

  11. JB says

    Another know it all. Sigh. “It isn’t that far of a walk” might work for you, but how many children do you have, and what is the weather like where you live? It’s human nature to park nearer the mall/store entrance if it’s raining, snowing, freezing cold out, and when you add young children into the mix, yes it really does help not to have to drag them through the whole parking lot. It’s much safer too. Haven’t you noticed the “please save this parking spot for pregnant women or families with young children” signs that have gone up in the last few years?

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