Cars

How to avoid rental car toll pass charges

How to avoid getting dinged for rental car toll fees.

My story this week for CNBC is about those irritating and outrageous fees rental car companies charge for using their toll transponders. Here is a slightly updated version of the posted story.

If you are a fearless flier but break out into a cold sweat at the airport car rental counter, you’re not alone.

Pre-paid gas plans, unnecessary or duplicate insurance coverage and post-rental charges for imaginary scratches are just some of the many ways car rental companies can trip up even the savviest traveler.

Now, as more bridges and highways shift to cashless, electronic toll collections, customers are increasingly getting dinged with surprise, hard to decipher and/or exorbitant fees for the “convenience” of driving a rental vehicle on a tolled road. 

Here’s how rental car customers get caught:

On cashless toll roads, drivers can’t stop to pay with cash at a booth. Instead, electronic sensors scan cars for passes or transponders, such as E-ZPass. And cameras snap photos of license plates on cars without passes and send toll bills to car owners in the mail.

If regularly drive your car on a toll road, you likely have a transponder or pay the tolls by mail.

But Rental car companies not only charge renters for the tolls they incur, they also add charges for using the transponders in the cars. Renters who skip paying transponder fees up front and travel on a toll road anyway can be dinged with even higher charges and added administrative fees.

“Here’s where the fun begins,” said Chris White of RentalCarTransponders.com, a website that sells activated Tolltraxx transponders to rental car customers for use in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina, “Depending on which rental company you got your car from, different charges will be applied.”

In some cases, one rental car company will charge different fees in different states. And companies that own several car rental brands will have different programs and fees for each brand.

What are the extra charges?

In addition to non-discounted toll fees, for example, Avis and Budget charge renters a $3.95 per day “convenience” fee for the transponder, including days the transponder isn’t used. The fee is capped at $19.75/month.

The Hertz PlatePass program charges tolls at the highest, undiscounted toll rate plus a $5.95 convenience fee each day tolls are incurred, with no convenience fee cap.

With Dollar and Thrifty, if you don’t get the transponder at the time of rental and end up on a toll road, you not only you pay for the transponder and the tolls but get charged a $15 administrative fee for each toll, with a $90 cap per rental.  

Not all companies charge high fees: Silvercar charges a one-time administrative fee of $4.95, in addition to tolls. And travelers who rent from Zipcar don’t pay anything for using a toll pass, although they are still responsible for paying the toll fees.

Finding what a company will charge for tolls and transponders is rarely easy. A few clearly state the toll and transponder fees on their websites. But others bury the information or make it very confusing. And some don’t reveal the charges until bookings are made, if at all.

Worse, man rental customers don’t learn about the transponder fees until they’re at the rental counter being asked (or pressured) to sign multiple “accept” or “decline” lines on a contract.

Even calling ahead to a customer service line may not be much help.

After searching in vain for toll and transponder fees on one company’s website, a customer service agent on the phone tallied them up, laughed and said, “My advice, if you think you’ll be going through tolls, don’t rent this car.”

Workarounds

There are other options. With some pre-planning and extra effort, you can avoid many of the “convenience” fees for tolling when renting a car.

Avoid toll roads

It may mean a slower trip and some round-about routes, but if you plot your journey ahead of time it may be possible to decline the transponder rental and get from here to there without traveling on toll roads altogether. Google Maps, Waze and other mapping programs have an “avoid tolls” option that can be turned on for searches.   

Bring a transponder from home

A transponder you have in your personal car can be used in many rental car situations.

E-ZPass transponders, for example, can be used on bridges and highways in more than 15 states, from Maine to Illinois and down south as far as North Carolina. Florida’s SunPass can also be used on toll roads in Georgia and North Carolina.

If you do bring your own transponder, just be sure the transponder in the rental car is turned off. Snap a photo in case the rental car company charges you anyway. And call or go online to add your rental car’s license plate number to your account for the dates of your rental.

Buy a travel transponder to use on the road

Frequent traveler or not, you can save a lot of money and avoid surprise fees by buying an extra or new transponder or toll pass to use in any state you’ll be traveling to or through. In many cases the fee you pay for the pass goes into your account as credit for tolls.

For the E-ZPass program, out-of-state drivers can purchase from any participating state’s E-ZPass program. So do a little homework and opt for a state, such as Massachusetts, that won’t add any extra fees. And be sure to add your rental car license plate and dates of travel to your account.

IS life a highway? Art exhibit on car culture says it is.

By Claes Oldenburg. Courtesy Toledo Museum of Art.

Here at StuckatTheAirport.com we love airports and air travel, but cars and road trips are a close second.

And we’re delighted to learn about the new exhibit at the Ohio’s Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) exploring the  automobile as a popular visual symbol of American culture.

Work by Don Eddy. Courtesy Toledo Museum of Art

Life Is a Highway: Art and American Car Culture includes about 125 pieces of art by 20th-century artists in a wide variety of media – including painting, sculpture, photography, film, prints and drawings.

The show will be on view at the museum through September 15, 2019.

So it looks like a good stop to add to your summer road trip.

By John Baeder. Courtesy Toledo Museum of Art.

Car culture is not only a key element of the country’s postwar boom economy of the 1950s and a symbol of freedom, individualism, renewal and middle-class prosperity, the TMA notes that cars are an inextricable part of the region’s identity:

“A significant portion of Toledo’s economy has been related to the automotive industry since the beginning of the 20th century. It is the home of two production facilities known as the Toledo Complex, an automobile factory that began assembling Willys-Overland vehicles as early as 1910. Since 1940, Jeeps have been assembled in the plant, which is now owned by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Powertrain Toledo, a General Motors (GM) transmission factory, was founded in 1916 and has been the production site for many of GM’s transmissions.”

By Edward Burtynsky. Courtesy Toledo Museum of Art.

Artists with car-centric work in the show range from Thomas Hart Benton and Walker Evans to Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, Judy Chicago, George Segal and more than 100 others.

Stuart Davis: Landscape with Garage Lights, courtesy Toledo Museum of Art

Bonus events

In addition to the exhibition, the TMA is hosting some cool car-themed events.

There’s a film series featuring movies exploring the role of cars in American culture that includes a showing of the George Lucas classic American Graffiti in the museum parking lot on August 23. And throughout the summer, there will also be occasional car shows in front of the museum. More details here.

Work by Robert Indiana. Courtesy Toledo Museum of Art

Testing National Car Rental’s Premier Selection

If you’re a member of National Car Rental’s loyalty program, the Emerald Club, you know that membership includes the time-saving perk of being able to bypass the counter and go directly to the “Emerald Aisle” to pick out your car if you’ve booked at least a mid-size car.

The options there are enticing, but back in 2013, National began been rolling out another quite tempting option: a “Premier Selection” section where renters can upgrade (for a fee, of course) to far more fancy cars from the likes of BMW, Audi, Cadillac, Lincoln and Maserati.

National Indulg

“Premier Selection” sections are now offered at 25 airport locations and, at National Car Rental’s invitation, I had the chance to test out the process of choosing this upgrade option in Seattle, at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, and driving one of the cars around.

SEA-TAC Airport Rental Car Center has some great art.

SEA-TAC Airport Rental Car Center has some great art.

To be honest, as someone who drives an older, small car and who has had to deal with the aftermath of a small fender bender in a rental car, I was quite nervous about participating in the project.

But once I reconfirmed that my current credit card offers primary coverage on a rental car, I felt a bit better about it and booked a mid-size car for a day trip in my home-base of Seattle – in part to experience the airport’s still-new consolidated rental car center experience.

National Car Rental options

Here’s a report:

From airport to rental car center: A breeze! The wait for a bus from the terminal to the rental car center was less than 4 minutes and the ride there, less than ten minutes. Once in the door, the counters for all the rental car agencies are lined up along a wide corridor. There’s even a coffee stand there.

Getting the car: As an Emerald Club member, I could have gone straight to National’s lot and upgraded from the Premier Selection there, but I stopped to do my paperwork at the main counter. Customer agent Maribel checked me in for my mid-size car reservation and explained the Premier Selection option when she noticed my husband leafing through the binder with the pictures of cars available.

The Premier Selection cars aren’t even in the binder, she explained “You pick those out once you get downstairs.” She also said, even with the extra fees charged, the Premier Selection is very popular. “On the first day we had them available, we had one guy who rented a Corvette for the day and brought it back having driven 800 miles,” she said.

Once at the car selection aisle, another customer agent stepped in to help me choose my Premier Selection car. The choices: A Corvette, a BMW 7 Series, and a really big SUV. (I think it was a Maserati, but I got distracted by all the shiny cars…)

The upgrade price – right there on a little tag in the window – was $100 (it varies by vehicle) – and the customer service agent helping us out said the Premier Selection options get rented nearly every day.

The agent also said the Premier Selection cars get special treatment. “Only the managers can drive them in the lot and only a few employees are allowed to clean them,” she said.

That made me nervous again about renting one of these special cars, but we chose the BMW, got instructions on how to hook up the Bluetooth for tunes, and were off.

Into a driving rainstorm.

That wasn’t the most enjoyable way to test drive a fancy car, but it was a good way to experience the performance. Which was, as promised, excellent.

And being in stuck in highway traffic in a fancy BMW sure beats the same experience in my little Honda.

Returning the car: No special drop-off necessary. The person checking us in asked twice how we liked the car and ride. Was it because we didn’t put 800 miles on the BMW?

Here’s a list of airports where you can upgrade to a Premier Selection: Atlanta, Denver, Miami, San Francisco, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Fort Lauderdale, Tampa, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Chicago O’Hare, Seattle, Boston, Minneapolis, San Diego, Houston Intercontinental, Baltimore, Detroit, Philadelphia, Charlotte, Raleigh Durham, Portland, Nashville, St. Louis, Los Angeles and Orlando.

Please note: I partnered with National Car Rental on this project; all opinions/observations are my own.