With rental car companies always on the hunt for new ways to generate cash, it's
no surprise that the gas tank is viewed as a potential profit center. Convenience
charges (if you don't want to refuel yourself), penalties (if you didn't sign up
for the convenience charge beforehand and forget to refuel); even fees for bringing
the tank back on Full – but not full enough... Hey, we understand – it can all get
a little confusing.
The first thing to remember as a renter: They want you to be overwhelmed. Confused
people will spend more money. Don't let the guys behind the counter smooth talk
you into forking over any unnecessary cash; check out the handy AutoSlash guide
to your refueling options.
Option #1 – Return with a full tank
This one's easy. You promise to bring back the car with a full tank of gas (or,
in many cases, with as much gas as there is in the tank when you leave – make sure
they note on your rental agreement if it's less than full). You'll need to make
sure that you leave enough time to fill up before heading back to the rental location—especially
if you are trying to catch a flight.
It's always a good idea to note the gas stations closest to the rental location
when you pick up the car, to ensure that you're not wasting time searching for a
gas station on your return trip; however, also note how much they're charging per
gallon, then weigh this against gas prices elsewhere in town.
Many gas stations near airport rental car return facilities charge above market
rates, since many renters are in a hurry to catch their flight and don't have time
to shop around. One gas station near the Orlando airport is infamous for overcharging
by $2 or more per gallon! Check out this message thread on Flyertalk, a website
geared toward frequent flyers, with more than 130 entries (going back to 2005) with
people venting about this place.
Option #2 – Prepay your fuel costs
At first blush, this seems like a pretty good option. The rental car companies typically
offer an attractive discount per gallon for pre-purchasing gas through them. You
could be attracted to this “too good to refuse” offer, but wait a moment: When have
car rental companies ever done anything that does not involve them making a profit?
The catch here is that you basically have to return the car sucking fumes in order
to recoup your investment in that great deal you got on the tank of gas. The rental
company will not refund you for any unused gas in the tank.
Plus, unless you know the fuel capacity of the gas tank in the model you are renting,
you may – oh heck, let's face it, you are -- overpaying for the amount of gas actually
in the car. We've yet to see a prepaid fuel charge on our final statement that comes
anywhere close to the amount it actually cost us to fill up the tank at any point
during the rental period. Additionally, don't let them sweet talk you into paying
the fee with promises of lower prices than at any nearby gas stations. That can
be true when they're referring strictly to airport-adjacent options (see Option
#1), but not necessarily just beyond the airport. A good rule of thumb is to check
gas prices in your destination before leaving home, easily done on a site like
Option #3 – Winging it (or, Hello, You're Screwed!) Running late?
Didn't have time to fill up? Boy, is that going to cost you.
While some states have taken measures to curb the amounts rental car companies are
allowed to charge as a penalty in this case, it's still going to mean paying a per
gallon price so exorbitant, one might be tempted to think that the next renter would
end up driving around with rocket fuel in the tank.
We've seen charges of $6.75 per gallon. Ouch, right? This, in cities where the local
average was just $2.85! If you're chronically late for everything, best you should
consider Option #2.
TREND WARNING: NOT FULL ENOUGH!
While we've yet to experience this firsthand, many renters are complaining that
companies are asking to see gas receipts when you return, to ensure that your tank
is actually full – and that it doesn't just say Full. (Most cars can take a couple
of gallons past the Full mark.) A good rule of thumb is to fill up within 10 miles
of the airport. Though, like we said, receipt checks aren't all that widespread
at this point.
Another complaint going around: If you didn't drive your rental more than 75 miles,
some companies may ask to see a gas receipt to show that you put at least some fuel
in before you returned. Budget, for example, has been known to charge an “EZFuel”
fee of $13.99 as a penalty if you tried to get away with freeloading off the top
of the tank.
Really want to play by the rules? (Nerd alert!) Stop off at the first gas station
you see after leaving the rental lot; fuel up. Then call in and ask the agent to
note that you filled up the supposedly Full tank, and that you have a receipt to
On return, fill up completely again – heck, do it at the same gas station – then
show both receipts and ask to be credited for the first one. After all, the agreement
says you had a full tank when you drove off the lot – a time-stamped receipt is
all you need to prove them wrong.