Wow, those car rental tolls can really add up!

Highway overpass / Photo by James Yu – Flickr Creative Commons
It cost me $27.10 in tolls and fees to make the round trip between the Orlando airport and my home in Winter Springs, Fla., in a rental car last month.

If that sounds like a lot of money for a half-hour drive, it should.

There are no expensive bridges or tunnels between the airport and my house, just suburban sprawl connected by a flat toll road. And technically, I paid only $3.50 to Florida’s turnpike authorities; the rest went to a company called PlatePass.

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PlatePass is one of several businesses that offer electronic toll payments through an onboard transponder or a system that photographs license plates. These little-known businesses are at the center of a growing number of complaints from car rental customers, and a look at my bill offers a few clues as to why.

PlatePass, which works with car rental companies such as Advantage and Hertz, charges customers an “administrative fee” of $2.95 per day, with a maximum of $14.75 per month, starting as soon as you incur your first toll and continuing whether or not you pass through another tollbooth during the course of your rental. Because I rented a car for more than 30 days and I went through a tollbooth on the first day, driving to the airport, I was charged for a full month plus several days of PlatePass as well as tolls.

Something similar happened to Dave Medin, an electrical engineer from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when he rented a car for a 12-day vacation in Houston. He paid cash for tolls, not realizing that the license plates were also registering a charge. “We were billed the minuscule toll, plus a $10 administrative fee,” he says. “I was asked to produce toll road receipts to show that I’d paid by cash, but to be honest, who asks for toll receipts on a family vacation, expecting to defend oneself against a bogus electronic charge?”

Medin protested the charge, copying me on his e-mail. I objected to my bill as well, because I already own a Florida SunPass transponder and thought that I had arranged to pay my tolls with it. PlatePass appeared to be double-billing me.

PlatePass says that it offers a valuable service to car rental companies and their customers. Before the system came online six years ago, it points out, car rental companies had to reconcile toll violations themselves, a tedious and expensive process. Car rental customers who blew through a tollbooth could face fines plus punitive surcharges from their rental company.

“PlatePass is a win-win-win,” says PlatePass spokesman Charles Territo. “It’s a win for a consumer who now has the option of using toll lanes without having to enroll in a program prior to renting a vehicle. It’s a win for rental car companies, because it alleviates the effort involved in processing toll violations and invoices. And it’s a win for the toll authorities, because they receive timely payment of all tolls from Hertz and Advantage vehicles.”

But some are winning more than others. I spoke with current and former car rental employees about electronic toll payments, and I learned a few things. First, billing fees are set by the agencies — not the toll-payment companies, which collect the money, pay the toll authorities and give the rental agencies a cut. If it wanted to, a car rental agency could charge only for the tolls, with a modest surcharge for handling the transaction; instead, the industry standard is to start the meter at the first use of a tollbooth, setting off a daily charge for the administrative fee.

It wasn’t always this way. Hertz, for example, originally authorized PlatePass to bill its rental car customers for only the days they used the service to pay tolls. In February 2009, Hertz changed that policy, levying the administrative fee for every day of the remainder of the rental period. Customers complained that they weren’t clearly informed that they would be charged the fee even for days when the PlatePass was not being used; after an investigation by the Florida Attorney General’s Office, the car rental company agreed to improve its disclosure and offer refunds to some drivers.

Some say that the agreement gave other car rental companies a green light to start the meters on their toll-payment services and to keep them running; a Hertz representative disputes that, pointing out that other rental agencies had similar price structures in place before Hertz did. “We believe Hertz’s pricing to be the most consumer-friendly in the industry,” she said.

Another important, but unsurprising, fact: Electronic tolling services are “immensely” profitable, according to several people with knowledge of these systems. I asked the largest provider of car rental tolling services, Highway Toll Administration, about the success of its transponder-based product, which is used by several large car rental companies, including Alamo, Avis and Enterprise.

David Centner, the company’s president and chief executive, said that his company doesn’t publicly release its earnings because it’s privately held, and although he didn’t deny that business is brisk, he was quick to add that consumers are benefiting from the technology, too. “Everyone’s winning,” he said. “We’ve had tens of millions of satisfied customers. Our service is extremely desirable, and the price is right.”

But he acknowledges that electronic toll payment systems such as his aren’t without their critics. “With any service that’s offered, there are going to be people who think they didn’t get the value for it,” he said.

Centner and other car rental insiders say that the anger is misdirected. Neither the car rental companies nor the electronic toll services control the burgeoning number of toll roads in the United States. Also, they have no influence over the new tollbooth-less “open road” tolling that authorities are adopting, which tends to run up charges for drivers who don’t realize that they’re on a toll road. And they say that things could be worse: Instead of paying $10 or $20 in extra fees, motorists without a transponder or pre-registered plates who incur unpaid tolls could face fines of hundreds of dollars if those systems weren’t in place.

Customers like Medin are in fact upset by the prevalence of toll roads. At the top of his list is E-470, a 47-mile toll road east of Denver that tourists often use by accident, either because their onboard navigation system guides them there or because they aren’t aware that it’s a toll road. Drivers are also bothered by older highways that have been turned into toll roads, ensnaring travelers who assume that they’re still free.

“Rental car companies and their affiliates shouldn’t be treating toll roads as another revenue source, period,” says Medin. “They should charge only for tolls plus the actual administrative costs.”

I agree. At the very least, they should bill only for tolls that we incur. Medin’s charges were reversed almost immediately. Mine? A review of my SunPass records shows that it didn’t charge me for the four tolls, even though I had registered my rental’s plates. So I’m probably stuck with my PlatePass bill.

33 thoughts on “Wow, those car rental tolls can really add up!

  1. What toll roads are out there that are not clearly marked? I’ve never seen one where it was not crystal clear that the road was a toll road.

    Back to the topic at hand: What a mess; certainly some fee is reasonable for toll billing services. But all of the actual work is matching the car with the renter and billing him/her, and this only has to be done once; I cannot understand why this is a daily fee instead of a single flat surcharge for the entire rental (plus the tolls, of course.)

    1. Agree. This is a total scam, putting renters at a distinct disadvantage. Exactly what kind of “work” is being done on the days when renters aren’t using the toll road? Why doesn’t some government agency step in to rectify this lunacy?

    2. I can assure you that they are not all clearly marked nor explained : was driving out of LA on a clearly marked toll road (well, rather toll lanes on a otherwise free road), labelled as no cash : didn’t know it meant no toll booths and no Credit card option !

      1. Exactly. We don’t have toll roads in Washington State (we do have two toll bridges that are clearly marked). However we have a couple of what are called Hot Pass lanes. They are lanes traditionally reserved for HOV lanes that single occupancy vehicles can use. They pay a toll based on peak commuting times. So at say 8am, you might pay $3.50 but at 2pm you might only pay 75 cents. You have to have a “Good to Go” electronic pass that is used for those regular commuters using the toll bridges who don’t want to stop at a toll booth to pay the toll. Last time I was on I-167 I don’t remember how clearly it was marked but I can see how people that might think they can take advantage of sneaking into the HOV lane would try it.

      2. The only toll lanes on an otherwise free highway leading out of the Los
        Angeles area is CA-91, and the signs clearly say “FASTRAK ONLY” and
        approaching from the Riverside County side on CA-91 or the Orange County
        side on CA-91 or CA-55.

    3. I live in the Houston area and ours are marked with purple signs. However, some are EZ Pass only; if you attempt to go through and think you can pay cash for a toll, too bad, so sad.

      They’ll still snap your picture and bill you and/or the rental company. Of course, you won’t know it’s an EZ Pass only spot until you’re ON the road.

  2. Big fan of the E-toll in Avis cars, could not navigate the NYC area without a large pile of cash on hand otherwise. Of course my rentals are only for 1-3 days and I pretty much use the E-toll on all of them. Having to pay for it for 30 days when you only used it on 1 or 2 is not right.

  3. We were in the Orlando area for vacation just this past month and ran into the same situation as Chris. I’d never heard of such a thing. However, we carefully read the small print that came with the rental car and simply turned the unit off – don’t believe it was called PlatePass, but I couldn’t swear to it – and relegated ourselves to pulling into the “slow” toll lanes every 10 minutes or so. Wow! There’s a lot of toll roads around Disney. But, even with our careful reading, we didn’t realize that, had we opted to use the service just once, we would have been charged $2.95 per day, every day, whether we went through a toll or not.

    Seems to be a trend. Companies can’t come up with ways to “legitimately” distinguish themselves from others, or justify their costs, so they turn to questionable fees and charges. I’ve never experienced such a consumer-hostile atmosphere – from both business and government – as in recent years. The average consumer is under attack from all sides as these entities attempt to stay viable.

      1. Many of them you can just close. If they are windshield mounted, they look like a little box. The rental companies leave them in the open-screw-you-take-your-money position. But you can swing the little door closed. It says so in about 4pt font type on the back…

        Or, at least the rental cars I’ve had the past year have had them installed this way…

      2. The one we had – again, not sure what “brand”- had a toggle-like switch on the back. Didn’t look too sturdy, like it might “accidentally” toggle over to the “on” position at any moment, but I guess it worked; we didn’t get hit with any unexpected fees.

  4. I’ve run into this issue a few times (with Avis), and part of my gripe is that the toll surcharges sometimes hit your credit card statement months after the rental.

    Luckily, it always happened to me on business trips, and I was able to refer to my expense reports and receipts (showing I had paid the tolls) to get the charges reversed.

  5. In this day and age it makes no sense that the computers can’t be programmed to charge an administrative fee only on days that you pay a toll. If you don’t go through a toll, no fee. It seems simple to me, but I guess that would cut a lot of revenue. I also used plate pass years ago when first offered by Hertz for the PA turnpike and was only charged a minimum admin fee. However, the last time I used it, I too was surprised to see the cost to use the little box that seems so convenient. Now the difficulty is the automated toll roads use the license plate to charge, no toll booths to pay, so no bypassing the system. You drive on a toll road on the first day, your license plate in noted and you start racking up the daily fees. Something just is not right about that.

    1. Chris did mention that the daily admin fee after the first toll used is at the choice of the car rental company, not the toll processor the rental company uses.

    2. Its only in the case where the company has a regional operation. If the company is only operating in NY, it would be reasonable to integrate the toll system into their site. However this is a nightmare for a national operation. Toll collection systems vary from Chicago, NY, RTP, etc. Some use an easy pass, some use plate, some use only toll booths etc.

  6. Here’s a parallel story involving road tolls, and while it’s
    not about rental car companies, it’s about being ripped off in your own
    car. Last year I traveled from Florida to Long Island, New York. There were
    many toll roads and bridges, and each time I paid the toll booth. I don’t have any transponders for those roads.


    A month after returning home, I received a bill from the New York Port Authority for a $4.50 toll plus a $50.00 fine for not paying the toll. I know I never drove through a toll booth without paying, but had no receipts.

    My best guess is that some glitch in their system triggered the camera
    which took a picture of my car license even though I paid the toll.


    I followed all the requests for waivers, and sent everything
    by certified mail along with a check for the $4.50 toll, marking the check “payment
    in full for incident on _____date___. I never heard from them again. Now, I always request a receipt from the
    agent to whom I give money at toll booths.

  7. I still have my EzPass transponder from when I lived in
    the Northeast (I’m in Atlanta now), and it comes with me when I travel. Few
    times I’ve gotten Hertz rental cars that have the transponder installed @ 1st
    they were in a slide out box so I could push it in so it would not work. Last
    few rental’s have had its just stuck to windshield, (and not with Velcro). Told
    Hertz to give me different car.

    Since I did not want to attempt to remove it (might break
    windshield). Or have them take of off and not reassign from my car, and put it
    in some other car, and I get charged for it.

  8. In France, the numerous toll roads take credit cards, which you feed into a slot, and you can get a receipt if you wish. It is fast and efficient, is there any reason why it could not be done here … self-service gas stations can read credit cards, why not the same devices at toll gates on toll roads?

  9. This is the biggest rip off, I can see the administrative fee on days the plate pass is used, but for days its not used why should you have to pay, what exactly are they administeing, what a rip off.

  10. This is one of the most brilliant ways to scam money out of customers that I’ve ever heard of. Send you out in a rental car that automatically pays the toll and don’t tell you so you pay the toll too? Hysterical. Car rental companies should be ashamed of themselves. But they aren’t ashamed, they’re just more profitable with this scam.

  11. Why doesn’t AAA or some organization concerned to help motorists arrange a provider to offer a “universal” (or, at least, a choice of regional) transponders that people could carry with them to handle the tolls?

    BTW, I haven’t checked lately, but the last time I did, the SunPass operator in Florida offers a relatively convenient online method to pay tolls for tourists and other occasional users. There’s no more reason to use the transponders supplied by the rental agency than there is to use their semi-scam “pre-paid fuel option.” I’m sure somebody out there knows more about this.

    1. Chris-they did a story here in WA on the Good to Go pass how the human operators who looked at the photos of toll-runners. They found a number of errors in reading the plates (not excessively high mind you).

      Fight it . The story made it clear that people that had proof of their whereabouts at the time the toll violations was logged had the violation removed.

  12. Last time I flew back home to visit the family and flew into NY, I refused the the toll pass, I refused it. The agent warned me I was responsible for all tolls and I just rolled my eyes at them. Same thing when I flew into VT. (they live in way Upstate NY so I either fly into ALB or BTV, depending on which is cheaper)

    Yeah, it is a bit of a pain in the ass to have to pull over to a toll booth to pay. (not that I hit any tolls roads on my visits but still). Taking a few extra minutes to pull over and pay cash sounds like it is worth the extra effort not to deal with this.

  13. I don’t know how that PlatePass system works, but if it’s anything like the EZPass that’s used in the north-east, registering the car’s plates under your account doesn’t really accomplish very much.

    As far as I know, on the EZPass system, someone looks at the plates only if, for some reason, the toll booth failed to register the toll transponder as you drive through. Then, someone looks up the plates from the photo, and uses them to find your transponder and your account.

    But, if everything went normally, the transponder’s account gets hit with the toll charges, even though you, supposedly, temporarily registered the plates on a different account.

  14. So Chris, what’s the best way to opt out? I’m still confused. Is there a reliable way to not accept their terms and instead pay our own tolls?

  15. In December 12th of 2013, I returned a rental to Hertz. All was normal until a few weeks later. I got a charge from on my credit card statement. I didn’t have any dealings with this company so I went online to find out what they do. Apparently, Hertz is supposed to ask you whether you want to use their service or not. I was never asked. Hertz makes it impossible for you (the customer) to ever reach them to complain about this as they will immediately hand you off to platepass call center, which is also trying to get you off the line as quick as possible. The platepass call center just directs you to the site. This is a scam and should be illegal. I paid for the sunpass charges on the cash lane the few times I passed through one. They are probably counting on millions of people not going to complain but they got it wrong. I will fight them for this on every website that will lend an ear. I’m one pissed off customer that’s never again renting with Hertz or ever dealing with this Platepass system. When I finally talked to an agent, he explained that there are tolls where you can’t pay with cash and are automatic. This is the biggest scam I have heard of in my life.

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