Don’t get broadsided by tolls when you rent a car. Here’s what you need to know

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.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines. The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

They recently got one, courtesy of suits and countersuits between BancPass and 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?

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 noncash 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, Md., 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.

“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.

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. 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.

Toll rental "convenience" fees are ...

View Results

Loading ... Loading ...

44 thoughts on “Don’t get broadsided by tolls when you rent a car. Here’s what you need to know

    1. It depends on whether the bridge/tunnel/toll booth participates in EZ-Pass. California, for example, doesn’t use EZ-PASS. It uses it’s own system.

      As far as opting to pay cash, it’s not always possible. As far as I know, here in SoCal., the Toll Roads, as they’re called here, have no manned booths. All of them take a picture of your plate as you pass under the sensor. If you don’t have a transponder, you can pay online, which is useful if you only use the interchange one or two times.

    2. It depends. First off, you would need to be using a toll system that is part of that consortium — which is limited to the Northeastern and mid-western US.

      You would then have to register the plate of the rental on their website. You could skip that step, but you run the risk of a fine if the transponder does not trigger and it falls back on license plate scanning. And when you register your plate, the update is not always instantaneous. It could take a few hours. And don’t forget to unregister your plate when done. You don’t want to pay the tolls for the next rental customer.

      1. I used to live in Florida and those $5 SunPasses (since I didn’t buy the $25 one) could not be removed from the car, nor were accepted anywhere. Almost all my toll trips to Pennsylvania were business, so I could charge to company. Now, I live in Pennsylvania so I have EZ pass but if I was flying somewhwere, may not be a place that accepts E-Z Pass. I thought there was some law that by 2017 or 2019, all transponders had to work on every system nationwide.

        1. Sunpass is not interoperable with EZ pass. NC has a quick pass that is compatible with both EZ pass and Sunpass but not all toll roads are compatible with the NC pass. There isn’t a one solution fix other than to be aware of what your options are.

    3. I have done exactly that … I live in Vermont and, when renting, would travel through New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, etc., all of which accept EZ Pass. It was a 90 second process to add the rental car’s license plate to my EZ Pass account. EZ Pass will send me free velcro strips to attach my transponder to different cars as often as I ask and they are easily removable from the car windshields. All in all, it has worked out really well. Of course, what prompted my getting the EZ Pass was accidentally driving through the non-cash lane of a toll road in a driving rain storm due to poor signage … I then had to pay the .85 toll and the $15.00 processing fee (thanks Enterprise!) … next stop on the way home was the free EZ Pass transponder. Plus, tolls are discounted for the EZ Pass.

      I have heard rumors that there is an effort afoot to combine all electronic toll services into one large cooperative toll service, which would be a boon to all us drivers.

    4. Yes, you can use your own personal device. You can (at least Sunpass) allows you to temporarily add a license plate. Just make sure your pass is interoperable where you are.

  1. OK, so how can a renter use an alternative system? What might that be? This is not a useful article other than pointing out that the rental companies are potentially making a bundle off an administratively tricky systems. What are good solutions, Elliott?

    1. I agree that based on the title, this was not a useful article. From the title, I thought it would give tips, and it didn’t/

    2. An alternate system, can be as simple as using your GPS (if you have one). Some have the ability to ask for a route that avoids toll roads.

    3. I was wondering the same thing. My main concern are the toll roads without a booth. Are there always alternative, non-toll roads available in that instance? I’m assuming bridges/tunnels always have the option to pay cash or credit card? Just don’t want to ever trip the plate reader thingy…

      1. There are now some bridges and tunnels with no cash option. One is the Tobin Bridge in Boston, which you’re likely to hit leaving from the airport. If you know about it, you can avoid it. It’s been no cash since 2014.

    4. I know the Google Maps app has an “avoid tolls” feature. It also has “avoid ferries” and “avoid freeways”
      I recently used those features on a trip to Seattle. Unfortunately the “avoid tolls” meant an extra hour of driving to circumvent it. But at least I could make an informed choice.

  2. It looks as though this Highway Toll Administration, a company with a name that makes it sound like a government department, is trying to establish an illegal monopoly. It has no business “pressuring” to prevent software developers from offering smartphone apps to pay road tolls independently of its contract with car rental companies.

  3. So Avis charges a daily fee, even if not used every day, “plus any tolls at the maximum prevailing rates posted by the toll authority.” So they are double(or triple) dipping here, depending on how you look at it, since in many states the EZ Pass charge is less than the cash charge, but Avis is going to charge you the higher cash toll anyway. If they are gonna do that, no point of even bothering with the Avis system—just pay cash.

    1. The pay cash solution is great if you have that option. I live in Florida and there’s a toll road that is located next to my subdivision. If I want to go to the airport or downtown the toll road is the fastest and easiest way to get there. The is not a single toll collector or change-only lane to be found anywhere on this road; only overhead cameras taking pictures of license plates. It is only a matter of time before all toll roads, bridges and tunnels will be using a similar system.

  4. I live in MD (EZ-Pass). When I rent a car in MD, I take my EZ-Pass out of my own car and use it in the rental car. I register the rental car with EZ-Pass online and that’s it. Works like a charm. Only one time did I have a problem when the EZ-Pass system scanned the rental car plate and my transponder but failed to make the match-up. My account was charged correctly and then about a month or so later I got a bill from the rental car company. I proved to them that my transponder paid and that the camera was incorrect and that was it.

    Whenever I rent a car in Florida, I make sure to bring my own SunPass, register the tag on the SunPass website and flag it as a rental with begin & end dates. Never had a problem in the past 10+ years.

  5. The technology has existed for years for rental companies to install transponders in their cars that keep track of toll fees. Rental companies collect these fees when customers return their cars. Close to 10 years ago I rented a car in Melbourne, Australia and had exactly this experience. All very civilized and known by me the renter well in advance.

  6. Does anyone have a list of all the toll pass systems that exist in the US? I am wondering, if it is a manageable number, whether it is possible to subscribe to all of them in advance — hoping there would eventually be a unified system.

    1. Check out the web site of the International Bridge, Tunnel, and Turnpike Association, They have a recent publication that surveys all the toll systems, “Toll technology transforms mobility for customers. 2016 national toll technology survey.” All their free publications have links from

    2. I should add, there do seem to be some gaps in that report, e.g., Massachusetts (MassDOT) is not listed among the ETC transponders by state, though the report mentions their intent to institute all-electronic tolling. The IBTTA is working on complete interoperability, but so far all they’ve done publicly is issue a couple of white papers.

  7. California uses Fast Trak – and fortunately it now works all throughout the State. Up a few years ago (at least in Northern CA) I can’t think of any bridges that didn’t have a toll booth and toll roads hadn’t been developed (we now have a couple). But, the Golden Gate Bridge no longer has toll booths. If you don’t have Fast Trak you are billed. So, if anyone visits the Bay Area be sure and confirm with your rental agency how they handle the tolls where there is no booth.
    I do believe that a reasonable charge for billing a toll by the car rental agency is OK but it should be only be for the days you use their transponder and multiple charges at the same toll booth should be only one bill and one fee. Charging for days you don’t go through a toll booth is not right.

    1. I got stuck at a toll booth crossing the Bay Bridge from Oakland to SF one rainy night – they didn’t take credit cards and I had only $2 in cash (in change, whatever I could scrounge from the bottom of my purse)! The toll lady was nice about it but the rental car company was NOT…fortunately my company paid the “administrative fee” – I think it was around $60.

  8. “It charges $7 per day for Pay-By-Plate, its tolling program.

    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.”

    If he didn’t sign up for the $7/day program, and he didn’t make any provision to pay himself (FL has a program to pay via mail, or you can supply your own transponder), how did he think the tolls were going to get paid? There were two options (one of which is run by the rental company at a profit), and he chose neither.

    The way you “willfully” avoid tolls is by choosing an alternative route.

    1. There is no pay-by-mail option in Central Florida–

      The $20 cost of setting up an account and ordering a transponder is pretty close to the administrative fee. And that isn’t even an option unless you reside in a location that they ship to. And you must declare your US/Canadian/Mexican-registered vehicle before you can order a transponder for it…

  9. Yeah, I just got bit by this too. I recently rented a car in NY for a week. I did familiarize myself with the fees involved – they are explained in detail in the rental agreement. But lemme tell ya, they are the epitome of fine print! Multiple paragraphs using very confusing language. I had to read it several times before I got it. So at least I can say I was aware of the fact that I was going to get hit with this damn $3.95 “convenience fee” for every single day of my stay, even if I didn’t hit any tolls that day.

    It was a tough call for me – I would have preferred not to do it, because I see it as a total scam. But I just wasn’t sure how many tolls I would hit during my stay, and if any of them would penalize me for not having a transponder. I live in SoCal, and paying cash is not always possible – most don’t have manned booths.

    As it turned out, I hit a grand total of two tolls during my entire stay – one on the way out of the airport, and one on the way back. And both had cash lanes. So I ended up paying over $20 for tolls that would have cost me less than $5.

    Scammy scam scam.

  10. Yup. Exactly what happened to me. Eight day stay – I hit toll booths on day 1 and day 8. But I paid $3.95 for all the days in between.

    This really should be illegal. There is ZERO cost to the company to have an unused transponder sitting in a car that is not going through any toll booths. They should only be able to charge convenience fees on days that the transponder is actually used.

    Scammy scam scam.

  11. This is not just a rental car issue though. My hubby and son drove to Chicago and my son was driving and went through three tolls while Dad as asleep in the passenger seat, because the cash lanes are all the way to the right and often appear as if you’re exiting the highway (basically he was chicken). Well those three tolls just cost me $64.75. So, I wouldn’t put all the blame on rental car agencies. The state of Illinois stuck it to us for three $20 fees even though there weren’t three bills; we got it all as one notice/bill. As so many of them are–expensive lesson learned.

  12. Some places, Illinois for example, allow you to pay online after the fact. You do have to note which toll booths you went through, though, and pay within a week. In a rental car you might still be dinged by the rental company–I haven’t tried it. I’ve thought about temporarily registering my I-Pass to a rental car in an EZ-Pass area, but Illinois specifically warns against doing that, thought without any explanation as to why. The per-day fee on top of the cash tolls charged by the rental companies is definitely excessive.

    1. This is what EZ-Pass has to say about that:

      Should I add my rental car information to my E-ZPass account?

      Do not add rental car information to your E-ZPass account. However, you
      can use your E-ZPass Tag in any vehicle of the same class. Please ensure
      that your E-ZPass Tag is properly mounted as per installation
      instructions in all vehicles in which the Tag is used. A Tag that is not
      mounted properly may prevent the Tag from being read in the lane. If
      your Tag does not read, you will be subject to the terms of your car
      rental agreement that apply to E-ZPass usage, toll transactions and/or
      violation transactions.

      In other words, don’t add the rental car’s info, but feel free to use it anyway as long as it’s the same type of vehicle(and properly mounted so it will be read). From personal use, I have found that even having it on the dashboard will work.

      1. Thanks for the info. The I-pass site says don’t register it to a rental car, but doesn’t include the rest of that text. Now I can comfortable take my I-pass with me when I rent while traveling, at least in EZ-pass territory.

    2. I had a rental car in IL and paid online the next day. Did not receive a peep from the rental car agency. (Also saved a screenshot of the online receipt just in case.)

  13. Simple answer is just pay the toll at the time.
    In Australia, many people simply spray their number plates with a highly reflective material like road line paint, that’s see thru to the eye, but cameras see a mirror.

  14. While charging for every day when a toll transponder is used once does seem unfair (and I agree that convenience fees are very annoying), there are some real costs involved for the car rental companies. There must be programming costs for their computers, there must be some shrinkage with customers whose credit card expires/is cancelled before the toll hits they the company must eat, and probably other expenses I’m not considering.

    However, the solution is to build these costs into the price of the daily usage fee, and not to charge an additional fee on top of that, and to be transparent about the cost of the toll transponder fee for the rental period for comparison shopping purposes.

  15. Massachusetts has just dismantled all its toll booths and gone to overhead, automatic transponder reading or pay-by-photo. The rental companies have no excuse for adding on additional fees with such a clear system.

  16. Interesting and timely article. While traveling in Europe recently, I suggested that my group take the NON-toll route displayed by our GPS because we didn’t know if the tolls would be manned or not. A couple of my friends thought I was crazy for thinking this…but clearly I’m not. I’m an experienced traveler and have been caught in this trap several times in the U.S. It wasn’t crazy to think it could happen in Europe too – and I bet it would have been a LOT harder to get those fees removed given that none of us speaks the language of the country where we rented the car!

  17. I would say that if you ask to rent a transponder but you fail to ask how much it costs to rent one when you are told it’s in the car, then you shouldn’t be surprised that you end up paying for it.

    And $3.95 a day sounds just about right for transponder rental.

  18. I think those poll questions are a little unfair. How about an option such as ‘reasonable, as long as the fees are clearly disclosed up front?’

    I can understand charging a fee for use of the EZ Pass. Otherwise, bring your own ez pass or pay cash. But more and more frequently i’m seeing tolls where the cash option no longer exists. They’ll either charge your ez pass or bill you for the toll. In these cases, charging an administration fee for the toll doesnt seem fair as the consumer simply has no option to get out of the fee.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

%d bloggers like this: