How to avoid getting dinged with surprise rental car toll fees

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Cars make their way to a toll plaza on the New Jersey Turnpike in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Gary Hershorn | Corbis News | Getty Images

If you are a fearless flier but break out into a cold sweat at the airport car rental counter, you’re not alone.

Prepaid gas plans, unnecessary or duplicate insurance coverage and post-rental charges for imaginary scratches are just some of the many ways car rental companies can trip up even the savviest traveler.

Now, as more bridges and highways shift to cashless, electronic toll collections, customers are increasingly getting dinged with surprise, hard-to-decipher and/or exorbitant fees for the “convenience” of driving a rental vehicle on a tolled road.

How car renters get caught:

On cashless toll roads, drivers can’t stop to pay with cash at a booth. Instead, electronic sensors scan cars for passes or transponders, such as E-ZPass. Cameras snap photos of license plates on cars without passes and send toll bills to car owners in the mail.

If you regularly drive your car on a toll road, you likely have a transponder or pay the tolls by mail.

But rental car companies not only charge customers for the tolls they incur, the companies also add charges for using the transponders in the cars. Renters who skip paying transponder fees up front and travel on a toll road anyway can be dinged with even higher charges and added administrative fees.

“Here’s where the fun begins,” said Chris White of RentalCarTransponders.com, a website that sells activated Tolltraxx transponders to rental car customers for use in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. “Depending on which rental company you got your car from, different charges will be applied.”

In some cases, one rental car company will charge different fees in different states. And companies that own several car rental brands will have different programs and fees for each brand.

In addition to non-discounted toll fees, for example, Avis and Budget charge renters a $3.95 per day “convenience” fee for the transponder, including days the transponder isn’t used. The fee is capped at $19.75 per month.

The Hertz PlatePass program charges tolls at the highest, undiscounted toll rate plus a $5.95 convenience fee each day tolls are incurred, with no convenience fee cap.

At Dollar and Thrifty, if you don’t get the transponder at the time of rental and end up on a toll road, you not only pay for the transponder and the tolls but get charged a $15 administrative fee for each toll, with a $90 cap per rental.

Not all companies charge high fees. Silvercar charges a one-time administrative fee of $4.95, in addition to tolls, while travelers who rent from Zipcar don’t pay anything for using a toll pass, although they are still responsible for paying the toll fees.

Finding what a company will charge for tolls and transponders is rarely easy. Some clearly state the toll and transponder fees on the company’s website, but others bury the information, making it very confusing or not revealing the charges until bookings are made, if at all.

Many rental customers don’t learn about the transponder fees until they’re at the rental counter being asked (or pressured) to sign multiple “accept” or “decline” lines on a contract.

Even calling ahead to a customer service line may not be much help. After several minutes searching for toll and transponder fees, CNBC couldn’t find the information on one company’s website. Later, a customer service agent tallied up the costs, laughed and said, “My advice, if you think you’ll be going through tolls, don’t rent this car.”

Workarounds

There are other options. With some preplanning and extra effort, you can avoid many of the “convenience” fees for tolling when renting a car.

Avoid toll roads

It may mean a slower trip and some round-about routes, but if you plot your journey ahead of time, you may discover that it is possible to decline the transponder rental and get from here to there without traveling on toll roads altogether. Google Maps, Waze and other mapping programs have an “avoid tolls” option that can be turned on for searches.

Bring a transponder from home

The transponder you have in your personal car can be used in many rental car situations.

E-ZPass transponders, for example, can be used on bridges and highways in more than 15 states, from Maine to Illinois and down south as far as North Carolina. Florida’s SunPass can also be used on toll roads in Georgia and North Carolina.

If you do bring your own transponder, just be sure the transponder in the rental car is turned off. Snap a photo in case the rental car company charges you anyway. You also should call or go online to add your rental car’s license plate number to your account for the dates of your rental.

Buy one for the road

Frequent traveler or not, you can save a lot of money and avoid surprise fees by buying an extra or new transponder or toll pass to use in any state you’ll be traveling to or through. In many cases the fee you pay for the pass goes into your account as credit for tolls.

For the E-ZPass program, out-of-state drivers can purchase from any participating state’s E-ZPass program, so opt for a state, such as Massachusetts that won’t add any extra fees. And be sure to add your rental car license plate and dates of travel to your account.

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