Car rental tips for refueling cost minimization

Car rental tips for refueling cost minimization

When renting a car you should:

A) Fill it up yourself before returning your vehicle;

B) Let the rental car company do it at a per-gallon rate that often far exceeds the price at the retail pump; or

C) Buy a full tank from the agency when you pick up the car often at or below market prices and pay nothing upon return.

If you answered "A" then you've chosen what experts say is the best way to save money in the car-rental process, especially with gas averaging $4 a gallon or more.

At those prices, and perhaps rising, not knowing your rental car company's rules can be costly. And some of the policies are changing.

Beginning July 1, Hertz will cap its refueling fee at $6.99, with gasoline provided at market rate. Currently, Hertz is charging from $6 to $8 a gallon to refill the tank, a spokeswoman said.

While other rental car companies haven't announced similar changes to their refueling policies, consumer advocates say Hertz's move is a step in the right direction.

A USA survey of eight car-rental companies found prices of $7.99, or $8, a gallon at all 10 airports surveyed. The prices were levied upon renters who return a car without a full tank of gas or don't prepay for a full tank at the car rental company's set price. The airports surveyed were Boston, Chicago O'Hare, Dallas/Fort Worth, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, New York JFK, San Francisco, Seattle-Tacoma and Washington National.

This is not what has been happening in the United States, where taking shameful advantage of lost, confused and disorganized travelers who don't fill the tank is a proud tradition among rental car companies. Except that maybe a few chinks have appeared in that rip-off wall.

Although the rental companies say the extra per-gallon cost is a reasonable fee for the refueling convenience, Maryland Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler wasn't so sure after noticing the prices being charged.

"They shouldn't be able to gouge passengers and consumers and businesses," said Gansler, who hopes Hertz's policy will become a national model.

"If you bring a midsize car back close to empty, at the $8 mark, it would be $145 to refill the tank, and $180 for an SUV," Gansler said, noting that expense could be several times the cost of the rental. "That's absurd."

His office began investigating, and after six months reached agreements with major rental companies to keep per-gallon refueling costs at no more than 35 percent to 42 percent above the prevailing price. As a result, that $8 gallon at Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport became $5.85.

The deal also allows customers to pay a flat fee of no more than $10 to have the agency refill the car at the local per-gallon price.

The agreements, which were announced this month, only apply to vehicles rented in Maryland and were accepted by every Car rental tips for fuel efficiency major rental company that operates there, including Avis, Budget, Dollar, Hertz and Thrift, Gansler's office said.

St. Louis-based Enterprise and its affiliated companies, Alamo and National, signed on, but had already capped refueling prices at 33 percent above the local average.

Hertz said neither rising gasoline prices nor the Maryland investigation prompted its new refueling policy, which applies to 95 percent of its locations.

"No, it was really us trying to make that portion of the car rental experience more user-friendly," said Paula Rivera, a spokeswoman for Park Ridge, N.J.-based Hertz. "It cuts down on the hassle of, 'I have to return the car and I have to find a place to refill the tank."'

Lon Anderson, director of public affairs for AAA Midlantic in Washington, said some rental car companies are taking advantage of consumers by charging high fees for refueling.

"It's not a stretch to say that they (the fees) are really outrageous. Certainly unreasonable," Anderson said.

"The question is, 'How much penalty should we pay to fill up the tank because we ran out of time?"' Anderson asked. If a car needs 10 gallons and the driver is paying $4 extra per gallon, that's $40, he said: "That's a big penalty; that's like getting a traffic ticket."

Other rental companies have a different view.

"Frankly, we're not holding a gun to anyone's head and telling them you have to do that. It's a convenience for someone who is in a hurry," said Chris Payne, a spokesman for the Tulsa, Okla.-based company that operates the Dollar and Thrifty rental agencies. "If they want to pay for that pleasure, that's up to them."

The company that operates the Avis and Budget chains is based in Parsippany, N.J., where spokesman John Barrows maintained, and “We felt that our prices were reasonable."

Several companies offer drivers the option of buying the full tank at near-market prices, although to make that really pay off, it's best to come back with the car running on fumes.

Many consumers seem to know the best option is to refuel the car yourself, but that's often inconvenient.

"I have to leave myself an extra 30 minutes to hunt down a station and fill up," Michael Corcoran said after returning an Avis vehicle at Newark Liberty International Airport to catch a Dallas flight.

"It really comes down to time. If you're willing to pay a few extra bucks, it's easier to let them do it," said Corcoran, who regularly flies and rents while crisscrossing the country as president of Henley-Putnam University, based in San Jose, Calif.

Consider as well as the following tips to rent a car for your trip:

Whether it makes sense to rent a car instead of taking your own depends a lot on your car's gas mileage and how many miles you plan to travel. If you already own a fuel-efficient car, this won't necessarily make as much sense as if you own a vehicle with poor gas mileage, but still can if you plan to sell your car in the future.

Whether it's for a long road trip or just to drive around town, if you are going to be getting a rental car this summer, here are a few other tips to help keep costs down:

Consider going green:

If you are going to be doing a lot of driving when renting the car, think beyond the smallest car that fits your needs. It may be a great chance to try out a hybrid model, since the higher gas mileage can compensate for other charges.

Consider a GPS system:

If you'll be driving in unfamiliar areas, getting a GPS navigation system can save you time and money by keeping you from wandering around lost.

Find Coupons:

You should never rent a car without a coupon or discount, because they are easy to find. Many memberships such as AAA and AARP provide rental car discounts.

Coupon books such as the Entertainment Books will not only provide you with a lot of coupons for restaurants and attractions in your destination city, but also come with car rental coupons.


Rental car companies often offer "upgrades" to bigger cars if they are running low on the car model that you requested. In these cases, you get a larger car for the same price you originally paid for the car rental.


You should check all the rental car companies to see which one is offering the best deal.

Do quick prices check:

On the way out the car rental lot, make a note of where the nearest gas station with the best price is located.

When you consider the rising cost of gas and the other less obvious costs of using your own car, a rental car can make a lot more sense than you may have first thought.


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