Renting a Car? Beware of This Unpleasant Surprise Cost

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Motorists are astonished at how much rental companies are adding on to their bills for this "convenience." Here's what you need to know.

Car-rental companies are collecting millions in toll fees — from their customers.

When he crossed the San Mateo-Hayward Bridge in Northern California, James Kaiser expected Avis to bill him for the $5 toll. It did, then it added a “convenience fee” — of $19.75.

“I had no idea I’d be charged that much,” says Kaiser, a photographer and guidebook author who had been on assignment in Yosemite National Park. “No one explained how the system worked.”

To Kaiser, the fees seem excessive, and he wonders where all the money is going. It turns out that there are a lot of motorists like him who are also looking for answers.

They recently got one, courtesy of lawsuits and countersuits between BancPass and the Highway Toll Administration (HTA). In case you’re just tuning in, BancPass makes a smartphone app for paying tolls; HTA is a company that offers electronic toll-payment services for several large car-rental companies. BancPass claims HTA interfered with its business when it pressured Apple and Google to remove PToll from its app stores in 2014.

Court documents suggest that car-rental customers pay millions in combined fees and tolls every year. David Centner, HTA’s chief executive, says that most of the money collected covers tolls, not fees. Even so, the courtroom revelations bring up an important question: How do you avoid these fees the next time you rent a car?

Are tolls churning rental car profits?

Public court filings and statements made in open court by HTA’s lawyers indicate that the fees beyond actual tolls collected by car-rental companies could be as high as $250 million annually, with at least half of that going directly to the companies. That’s the conclusion of Glenn Deitiker, president of BancPass, who said he believes tolls and the related fees are a massive profit center for car-rental companies.

“That is why the car-rental industry came down so hard on us,” he said.

Centner, however, says that HTA “is not making hundreds of millions of dollars on this program.”

Rental car tolls and fees have been something of a mystery for years. Avis explains the system Kaiser encountered, called e-Toll, as an electronic toll-collection program that “makes road travel more convenient.” The transponders, which come preinstalled in vehicles that are used where toll roads are common, offer an optional way to pay for tolls, according to the company.

Kaiser could have paid his bridge toll in cash and avoided the fees — but if a camera caught a glimpse of his plate in a non-cash lane, then he would have automatically enrolled himself in the program. And the program is not cheap. Avis charges a convenience fee of $3.95 for each day of the entire rental period, including any days on which e-Toll is not used, up to a maximum of $19.75 per rental month, plus any tolls at the maximum prevailing rates posted by the toll authority.

Other car-rental customers are frustrated by the fees, too. When Jen Coken rented a car from Enterprise in Rockville, Maryland, recently, she asked if she could also rent a toll transponder. “They told me to just go through the tolls and they will bill me later,” recalls Coken, a voice-over actor who lives in Rockville. “What they didn’t share was that they would be charging me an extra fee on top of the tolls.”

Coken’s bill shows that Enterprise charged her $3.95 per transponder usage day plus the amount of the tolls. When she called the company to complain about the charges, it promptly refunded them.

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