How to avoid ‘gotcha’ toll fees from your rental car company

Whether you’re heading down to Florida for spring break or out to Denver to go skiing, you need to know about one of the worst kinds of tourist traps you could fall into.

In Orlando, it’s called State Road 528, also known as the Martin Andersen Beachline Expressway. In Miami, it’s Florida State Road 112, also called the Airport Expressway. In Denver, it’s E­­-470, which connects the city with its international airport.

Not only are these toll roads opportunistically built next to airports, they’re almost entirely cashless, meaning there’s no booth where you can pay your toll. If you don’t pay, the systems generally take a photo of your plates and send you a bill. Too often, out-of-town visitors find themselves driving rental cars on these roads — and accruing surprise charges in the process.

The surprise is not the cost of the tolls themselves, but the often exorbitant rental-car surcharges for incurring them.

“The whole system is rigged in favor of the rental car companies,” says Cynthia Rigatti, a consultant from Mill Valley, Calif., who inadvertently used a cashless toll booth on a recent visit to New York and incurred a $4.95 per day transponder charge from Hertz, even though she never used another toll road or bridge on her trip.

There are ways to avoid these charges, and no better time to know about them than now, when they are generating more profits for rental car companies than ever before.

Knowing that boothless toll roads exist and planning ahead is perhaps the most effective way to steer clear of them. You can also bring your own toll transponder and have a plan for handling any dispute that may arise if you receive a bill from your car rental agency or tolling authority. Or you can do both.

Related story:   7 insider tips for cruise newbies

Phillip Singleton, a political consultant who is used to navigating Florida’s toll roads, favors the plan-ahead approach. His preferred app is Waze, which offers crowdsourced driving directions that show you how insiders get from point “A” to point “B.”

“Not only do they have faster routes,” he says, “But in your map setting you can choose to avoid tolls.”

Zaida Khaze, a small-business owner from Fort Lee, N.J., frequently rents cars in the New York area, and has learned to never trust the GPS systems in the cars. Why? “They always chose routes with tolls,” she says. Instead, she turns to her smartphone. Google Maps allows her to plot a course with no toll roads. “That saves me,” she says.

Robert Herbst, an attorney in Larchmont, N.Y., brings his own transponder — E-ZPass — when he rents a car. E-ZPass, which works in 15 states, allows you to transfer a transponder between vehicles as long as they are of the same vehicle class. He registers his rental car with a quick call.

That doesn’t guarantee the car rental company’s transponder or plate registration system won’t also kick in, double billing you. To avoid that, Herbst always tells rental company employees in advance that he plans to use his own transponder.

“I have found that most car rental companies back down on issues if you act like you know what you are doing and don’t take no for an answer, in a firm but polite way,” he says.

And when they don’t? Herbst has received a bill or two from rental companies when he used his own transponder, and has successfully disputed the fees. Of course, it helps that he’s both a lawyer and a world champion powerlifter, each of which can be quite compelling in its own way.

Related story:   Where's the outrage?

If you don’t have a transponder, or yours doesn’t work at your destination, you can always buy one. In Florida, for example, a SunPass Portable transponder costs $19.99, or you can get by with a SunPass Mini Sticker transponder for $4.99. You can buy them at Publix, CVS and Walgreens. Both units allow motorists to have tolls electronically deducted from prepaid accounts. SunPass also has a helpful page for car-rental customers.

Even when you’re stuck using your car rental company’s transponder, there’s still hope, says Mark Mannell, chief executive of, an auto-rental site. All-electronic tollways in Texas and Maryland allow drivers to pay online quickly, he points out: “This allows you to avoid any administrative fees that the rental agency charges.”

(Tolling authorities recommend that you contact your rental company before doing so.)

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that you’re responsible to the tolling authority, not the car rental company, for settling your debt. If you can demonstrate that you have paid your toll but a charge appears on your bill, you can dispute it via your credit-card company.

The industry probably will roll over long before it gets to that point. The reason? Companies don’t want a credit-card dispute, and they definitely don’t want the dispute litigated. Should that happen, it could eventually set a precedent that the industry doesn’t want — but which consumers urgently need.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at

  • LeeAnneClark

    This situation is indeed a mess. I got caught up in this last year – rented a car at JFK to drive to Connecticut. I saw the transponder in the car and knew there was one toll road I’d need to take to get to CT, but I didn’t know if there were going to be any toll roads in CT that I might have to take. I carefully read the contract, and although it was horribly hidden in loooong passages of tiny text, it did say that once I go through a cashless toll lane, this will activate the transponder and I will need to pay a daily fee for every day I had the car, even if I didn’t go through any tolls.

    As it turned out, there was not another single toll road that I had to use for the entire time I was in CT. Not until I was returning to the airport did I hit that one toll. So I had to pay 10 days of that fee, for two tolls.

    I’m not even sure how that’s legal. I mean, if there was some kind of administrative cost to the rental company for my using the transponder, I could see it. I can even see them tacking on an admin fee for the times I *did* use it. But they got EIGHT DAYS of fees for something I didn’t even use! How is this okay?

    I don’t live in an area that has any toll roads. I don’t have a need to own any kind of transponder. So do I need to obtain one in order to prevent this highway robbery the next time I rent a car?

    I’m actually asking for real. I have to go to CT again in September, and I’m not exactly sure what I should do at this point.

  • Joe Blasi

    they also bill you the cash price and the Daley fee now who is taking what? Does the tollway get the full cash price or does the rent a car place get the added cost + the Daley admin fees?

  • LeeAnneClark

    Good question! The entire thing just seems so shady to me.

  • PsyGuy

    Why hasn’t someone created an app, that allows your smartphone to pay these tolls?

  • PsyGuy

    It’s legal because you agreed to it, that’s why it’s called a contract.

    Unplug the transponder.

  • PsyGuy

    The car rental company gets all the money.

  • PsyGuy

    That’s because it’s a cash grab scam.

  • BrianInPVD

    Massachusetts and Ohio both use the EZPass system, which is compatible with New York. These states do not charge for the transponder itself (but do charge for replacement units). They also only require a minimum balance of $20-25. It’s worth looking into to avoid the service charges, and the $20 locked into the EZPass account may be worth it to avoid 8 days of charges.

  • The Original Joe S

    Sun pass – why don’t those people join the ez pass system?

  • The Original Joe S

    the Daley fee? Da Mare of Chicago?

  • The Original Joe S

    and bring your own EZ pass and GPS and Waze. And photograph the car inside, outside, topside, underneath, and video it. Especially with a certain shady car rental gang, but with all of ’em.

  • The Original Joe S

    I never use my phone to pay anything. It’s not secure, even if you think it is.

  • wilcoxon

    Most places I find it easy to deal with. Florida is the one place we’ve found where there is basically no option (the pre-paid Sun Pass was either unavailable when we were there or we did not know/learn about it). It can be virtually impossible to get between two points in Florida without using Sun Pass. I have an iPass (EZ Pass compatible) but Florida chose to use a different system (for no reason I am aware of (except possibly to help bilk tourists)).

  • wilcoxon

    My guess is because the rental car companies lobby against it. I see no other reason that Florida isn’t on EZ Pass.

  • Steve Rabin

    Last week the city of San Francisco opened a lawsuit against Hertz for gouging renters for crossing the Golden Gate bridge, which does not have any live toll takers. Hertz charges renters $4.95/day for a transponder, the charges start accruing once the transponder is used, and continues for the length of rental whether the transponder is subsequently used or not. SF thinks this is improper (and I agree…).

  • LeeAnneClark

    Are you kidding me?

    You can’t “unplug” the transponder. It’s not “plugged into” anything.

    Once you go through a toll booth, it is automatically activated for the duration of your rental, charging you a usage fee for every single day…EVEN IF YOU DON’T USE IT.

    Yes, I understand how contracts work. But not all contracts are legal. IANAL, but I’m sure there are lawyers in here who could explain that you can’t just do anything because someone signed a contract. You can’t do something that is illegal just because someone signed a contract. And it seems to me that charging someone a usage fee for something that isn’t used is of questionable legality. Having a signed contract does not mean that that you can violate the law.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Yes, I agree with this.

  • LeeAnneClark

    It seems wrong to me to have to pay money (or put money on a “balance”) in order to avoid paying a daily usage fee for something that I don’t use.

    Now that I am aware of this situation, I will do my homework to try to avoid the same thing happening this year. I may see if I can avoid the toll road entirely, which would eliminate the problem. But if there is no easy route to my destination without that road, I will have to do something I guess…which is just really irritating. It shouldn’t be so hard to avoid paying scammy “usage fees” for something I don’t even use.

  • LeeAnneClark

    I agree with them! This is what I meant in my comment above when I mentioned that it does not seem like this should be legal. I hope that the City of SF prevails in this lawsuit…and that this motivates other cities and/or states to do the same thing. This seems about as scammy as you can get.

  • Jake Kohenak

    I recently rented a car at the Philadelphia airport, declining the rental agency’s E-Z pass because I had my own personal transponder. When I called the NY E-Z Pass Office from the parking lot to register the car, I was told that that E-Z pass does NOT register rental cars in their system: they only register privately owned vehicles and fleet and commercial vehicles owned by businesses.

    I also have a Florida SunPass. SunPass makes it very easy to add and remove rental cars from their web site.

    Because they receive Federal funds, SunPass and E-Z Pass were supposed to be compatible per Federal regulations by the end of 2016; still waiting!!

  • PsyGuy

    I haven’t seen all transponders, but the ones I have seen either connected to the car’s electrical system much like the stereo, or they ran on batteries.

    While true you can’t enforce a contract for an illegal activity, this isn’t an illegal activity. Business charge people for goods and services they don’t utilize all the time. Look at gyms and athletic clubs. People sign up at New Years then they never go, the business doesn’t owe them a refund.

  • LeeAnneClark

    IANAL. Are you? Can you definitively state that this “isn’t an illegal activity”, or is that your opinion as a lay person?

    Just FTR, I never specifically said it was illegal. I *questioned* it’s legality, because it seems very problematic. Go back and read my comment.

    It’s not at ALL like a gym or athletic club.

    And clearly I’m not the only one questioning it. If you look elsewhere in this comment thread, you will see that the City of San Francisco agrees that it is of questionable legality, and are actually suing to stop the practice. So I daresay that adds some credibility to my own opinion that this practice *may not* be legal. I look forward to hearing the outcome of their lawsuit.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Oh, and one more comment – I do not think your advice to “unplug” the transponder, or actually remove its batteries, is advice I would want to follow. Given that there IS a signed contract (of questionable legality or not), seems to me that could be construed as tampering with their equipment, and would open me up to some kind of penalty.

    No, I think I’ll try to find a legal way around this scam, thankyewverymuch. :)

  • Joe Blasi

    City of San Francisco is also suing over them changing the full cash rate when they are only paying the toll system the ETC rate.

  • Joe Blasi

    Like any toll road operator wants to pay up to 30% of the toll + yearly fees to be a Dev to apple.

  • Joe Blasi

    Just getting them to bill the ETC rate + admin fees will be a win as well.

  • Susie

    I’m with LeeAnne, what do you mean unplug the transponder? Any rental car that I have ever rented that offered a toll pass had this little contraption stuck to the windshield. You either slide the thing open so the toll booth will read the pass or leave it shut and go through the cash booth. I don’t see how it’s connected to anything. Might have batteries but how would you remove the batteries when the contraption is sealed to the windshield? And Original Joe S…not every state allows you to bring your own EZ pass. In TX, our passes are stuck to our windshields and cannot be transferred to any other vehicle….each pass is assigned to one license plate number.

  • Susie

    I had something similar happen to me. In BOS, I was asked if I wanted the toll tag thing. I told the agent that I was driving to Lowell and he said I would have 2 toll booths but both were manned and would accept cash and credit. I was going to be north for 3 days so no sense in paying for the transponder rental when I would only need it to get in and out of the BOS airport area. While on the toll road north, it seemed to be the only road I could see and I began to worry that if that booth isn’t manned at the end, I was screwed. Everything was as is, but your comment made me start thinking that how could I have avoided that toll road so checked googlemaps and sure enough found that there ARE other roads I could have taken to Lowell, not as direct though. But yeh, any way the rental agencies can get more money out of your pocket, they will.

  • Susie

    Add Delaware to your toll tag scam list. Came upon the $4.00 toll booth and realized I didn’t have enough cash so offered my credit card which the attendant refused as it was cash only. I asked how can I exit since I couldn’t pay the toll. She said to not worry about it, that the cameras will take a photo of my license and send me a bill. I got the bill for $54.00. $4.00 toll due, $25.00 administrative fee, $10.00 ambulance co. fund, and $15.00 combat violent crimes surcharge (and they specify the Delaware law that allows them to assess you these fees). They give you two weeks to pay at which time they assess an additional $25.00 civil penalty charge and $12.50 civil penalty surcharge!

  • Susie

    This article really got me wondering….does anybody know if there’s a way you can find what a particular toll road has…if it has manned booths, does it take cash, credit card or only eztag, what are the penalties for not paying….the kind of info that would be helpful to know before you go.

  • BrianInPVD

    EZ Pass technology is passive RFID. The toll gantries have higher power transponders that activate each tag to share its ID number when it passes underneath. Think proximity cards for security or tap-to-pay credit cards or public transit passes, but more powerful.

    The few rental cars I have used with a transponder have a box that blocks the radio waves and prevents reading of the tag…essentially a Faraday cage. You flip the box open so the transponder can be read if needed.

    I get the sentiment of “unplugging,” but semantically incorrect to say “unplug.”

    It is legal because you agree to it, AND because there are no laws prohibiting it.

  • BrianInPVD

    The other option is to see if the booths have an online payment option to pay by plate number after the fact. Massachusetts is now doing this since they have done to all electronic tolling. The risk you take with that is:
    1) if you don’t pay before the bill goes to the rental car company, the rental company is going to charge a hefty “service fee” to track that unpaid toll back to you, generally more than what paying for the transponder “service” would cost.
    2) if someone else hasn’t paid for a toll on the same plate, the toll agency may try to stick you with that bill too.

  • PsyGuy

    Finally, a use for those RFID shielding passport covers.

  • PsyGuy

    Sure they would, they’d pass the cost onto the driver.

  • PsyGuy

    “A legal way around a scam”. This is why evil companies win, good people insist on playing fair.

  • PsyGuy

    Sueing someone doesn’t make it illegal.

  • LeeAnneClark

    You do enjoy being oppositional, don’t you?

    You also like to put words in my mouth. Once again, I didn’t say that it was illegal. I didn’t even say that suing them makes it illegal. Go back and read my comment, please. What I said was the fact that a city is suing them lends credence to my *personal opinion* that it *may not* be legal.

    And now, really, can you stop please?

  • LeeAnneClark

    I fail to see how my refusing to break the law allows an evil company to “win”. In this case, “good people” (meaning me) insist on not doing things of questionable legality that might result in hefty penalties.

    Haven’t you ever heard the old adage “two wrongs don’t make a right”?

    I’m not going to break the law in order to avoid being scammed. I’m going to find a way to not be scammed without doing something illegal. Hence, the “evil” company WON’T win, because a) they won’t get that money out of me, and b) I will avoid giving them their ill-gotten gails without doing anything illegal that might get me in trouble.

    I’m baffled why you would have a problem with this. Unless your ulterior motive is to persuade me that I really SHOULD tamper with their equipment and get in trouble? ((evil grin)) ;-)

  • LeeAnneClark

    Susie, he’s just trolling now, trying to get a rise out of me.

    Frankly I was hoping that the temporary cessation of the comments section would stop this kind of stuff, but this one person likes to troll for reactions.

    So far in this thread he has straw-man argued with me over my comments questioning the legality of this practice, told me I should do something that would quite obviously get me in trouble, and insinuated that it is my fault “evil companies win” because I refuse to break the law myself.

    Before the comment break, I flat-out said I wasn’t going to respond to PsyGuy’s comments to me anymore, and asked him to stop replying to mine. I regret that I broke my own rule, because the same crap has ensued.

    It’s a losing game for me, so I’m done.

  • LeeAnneClark

    Good suggestion, but I’m thinking I wouldn’t want to go that route for the very real risk you mentioned…this car is not mine, and I wouldn’t want to take the risk that I’d get hit for someone else’s toll when they had the car.

    I did use this option when I recently had to drive on a toll road a few hours away from me in my own car – in this case I was able to pre-pay the toll using a cellphone app, using my car’s license plate. But I’d be very leery of trying to do this with a rental car.

    At this point the best option for me seems to be taking the long way around, to avoid the toll road entirely. Which sucks because it will add quite a bit of time to my trip.

  • PsyGuy

    Yes, but four wrongs do make a right, you just have to be committed. Two wrongs is just lazy.

    There’s nothing ulterior about my motives, I strongly advocate you tamper with their equipment, but refrain from getting in trouble, blame it on the last renter, or just play dumb like you have no idea what they are talking about.

  • PsyGuy

    Not really, oppositional, adversarial, collaborative, cooperative, (sometimes the hamster wheel spins left, sometimes right), I’m like water I follow the path of least resistance (electricity does the same thing). Basically, I’m lazy, I like to work smarter, and sometimes the smarter is morally and ethically subjective.

    I read it, your inference was pretty clear.

  • LonnieC

    I’ve used EZ Pass in NY for decades, and they only “hold” about $15. As you use funds for tolls, they tap into whatever credit card you’ve given them to use, and it’s always for just a small amount. And the state charges lower tolls for EZ Pass users than for non Pass users. It may be your best solution for travel where there are tolls.

  • LonnieC


  • LeeAnneClark

    Thanks…I’ll check into that.

  • LonnieC

    Hope it helps.

  • jae1

    The FHWA has a difficult to read, but comprehensive listing, at You have to look at the various segments (bridges & tunnels vs. roads, interstate vs. non-insterstate) separately, but the information is there.

    A somewhat easier to read, but only partial answer, is at This is a 2016 publication by the International Bridge, Tunnel and Turnpike Association. Page 3 includes a list of which states use which transponder system. They’re busy working on interoperability initiatives, but as far as I know the only one that’s working is that I-Pass (Illinois) is compatible with EZ-Pass. There are still a lot of one-offs (SunPass etc.). The Association’s goal is for them all to be interoperable, but that no doubt requires legislative and/or state tollway authority approval.

    They also have an interactive map on their home page with links to the various state toll authorities. Those, in turn, will tell you whether they’re manned/unmanned, transponder-only, etc. It’s not an easy guide, for sure, but it’s at least something you can look at.

    I’m a bit surprised AAA doesn’t have such a directory. I suspect the information changes just frequently enough that it would be burdensome to maintain.

Get smart. Sign up for the newsletter.