Renting a Car? Beware of This Unpleasant Surprise Cost

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

Rental-car industry defends its practices

“Ms. Coken, when she initially rented the vehicle, either got some bad information from a very confused employee or she misunderstood how the program works,” says Laura Bryant, an Enterprise spokeswoman. “Our toll program was never set up to do anything more than just break even. Just the opposite: We, along with the rest of the car-rental industry, have had to figure out how to help frustrated customers when manned toll booths went away.”

She’s right. As the number of toll roads multiplied, rental-car companies found it increasingly difficult to bill customers for the toll penalties they incurred while driving rental vehicles. Years ago, before electronic tolling, it wasn’t uncommon to see toll bills with processing fees that exceeded the cost of the rental cars. The reason? Each bill had to be manually matched to the renter, a time-consuming process.

Billing policies for toll roads vary widely. For example, Hertz charges $4.95 per day for PlatePass, its electronic tolling product, up to a maximum of $24.75 per rental, but it keeps charging you by the day even if you don’t incur a toll. If you don’t opt in to Sixt’s proprietary tolling program (rates vary by state), and do not pay tolls with cash or a credit card, you are automatically enrolled in its pay-per-use program, which is the cost of the toll plus a $5 administration fee per toll.

Study the fine print or pay big

Whether these tolling systems are a source of profits or not, one thing is clear: They’re pretty confusing.

Consider what happened to Harvey Moshman, a television producer from Chicago, when he recently rented a car from Advantage in Orlando, Florida. It charges $7 per day for Pay-By-Plate, its tolling program.

“Pay-By-Plate is not explained to you at the counter,” he says. “On the rental agreement, it states that any manned or unmanned toll that you violate during the rental period will result in a $25 administrative fee per toll violation. To me, violate means willfully deciding not to pay — to blow through a tollbooth.”

But he didn’t willfully commit any toll violations. Rather, he used toll roads that didn’t have any booths, not realizing that doing so without a payment device would incur a penalty. “There was no opportunity to pay,” he says.

Total damage: $77.38 for three tolls.

Advantage may not have told him about the fees verbally, but his rental agreement and the company website are clear. Advantage promotes its system as one that offers “speed and convenience” for customers, explaining that drivers will pay the cash or pay-by-mail toll rate as published by the toll authority, whichever is higher, plus a service fee per rental day or a maximum monthly fee. The fees vary by location.

Is there a better way? Certainly, having an app or another way of settling your toll could help consumers. It’s hard to imagine HTA fighting a company like BancPass unless a lot of money is at stake. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year, maybe.

In the meantime, if you’re renting a car, and are considering using a bridge, tunnel or toll road, make sure you study the rental agreement carefully. If you’re not sure of the fees, choose an alternate route — just to be safe.

Christopher Elliott’s latest book is “How to Be the World’s Smartest Traveler” (National Geographic). You can get real-time answers to any consumer question on his new forum, elliott.org/forum, or by emailing him at [email protected]

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