E-Z Pass

As someone who logs about 45,000 miles a year behind the wheel - most of those miles in rental cars - there are two things that occasionally frustrate me on the road:

  • Drivers who don't understand the concept of right-of-way and
  • Tolls

I must admit that those two things sometimes result in contributions to the swear jar. I see the (indirect) benefit in contributing to the swear jar, as the proceeds are designated for a community organization. I'm not so keen on making contributions to the toll authorities in the 33 U.S. states (and Puerto Rico) currently charging tolls .

And while AutoSlash can't do much to help other drivers display basic competence behind the wheel, we can address the issue of how to handle tolls in rental cars! Along with additional drivers and underage drivers , this happens to be one of the most common queries we receive at AutoSlash.

First - A Deep Breath and a Chat About Planning

When driving in a new or unfamiliar area with tolls - personal car or rental car - the key is planning. While we might complain about the process involved in paying for tolls in a rental car, we would have to put in more planning in advance if in a personal car.

  • Fly into Chicago or Houston and rent a car? The driver might encounter cashless tolls, through a rental company that deals with tolls on a daily basis.
  • Take a personal car to Chicago or Houston? The driver might encounter cashless tolls, searching the websites of each successive state to understand the appropriate rules.

At least the rental car company has already thought of how to pay for tolls and equipped cars to deal with such! And yes, cashless tolls are a thing. In many areas of the U.S., there are no staffed toll booths to pay any tolls that are due (more on that in a bit).

Encountering tolls can turn a cheap car rental into an expensive car rental, though one of two different ways:

  • A cashless toll where there's no mechanism to pay.
  • Automated toll collection added to the rental contract where the daily administrative fee alone might exceed the costs of the tolls themselves.

For instance, my family had the option to add an E-ZPass to the rental for $20 for the week (which would then be subjected to the airport taxes) on a recent trip to Maine. Knowing that we would spend less than $10 in cash tolls, we readily declined the $26 that would have been added to the $10 in actual tolls paid. The fee just to pay tolls would exceed one day's rental rate on my car!

Options for the Rental Car User

Know where you anticipate driving at/near your destination? Figuring out tolls becomes easier. A rental car user has three major options.

  1. Avoiding Tolls Completely - In many areas, it's possible to avoid tolls - or at least to avoid cashless tolls. We're not talking about toll evasion (using toll roads without paying) but we are talking about shunpiking - intentionally finding alternative routes to avoid tolls. This option usually takes more time but comes with the least additional out-of-pocket cost.
  2. Bringing a Personal Device - If I'm traveling in the Northeast United States, I can bring my E-ZPass from home. And the E-ZPass device is available no matter the state of residence! Ordinarily faster than shunpiking, the driver would be paying the actual toll cost on roads that have transponders.
  3. Using the Rental Company's Toll Service - In some regions - especially those with cashless tolling - this might be the only reasonable option other than shunpiking. The service would likely be PlatePass or E-ZPass. Not only does the customer get charged for the tolls incurred, but the rental car companies charge the customer for the privilege (an administrative fee). And if a driver's going on a cross-country trip, this (sadly) might be the best option to deal with the hodgepodge of systems used by the 33 states.

Door Number 1 -- Avoiding Tolls Completely

Tolls can be avoided completely on many trips. For instance, a cross-country trip from Los Angeles to Washington, D.C. can easily be completed without ever encountering a toll (largely thanks to Interstate 40).

Even a trip from Washington, D.C. to Augusta, Maine - where the (unwise) conventional wisdom says "Take Interstate 95" - can be done without encountering any tolls at all, at a time cost of about 2 hours. The tolls simply add convenience at a cost; the financial cost adds up quickly!

Northbound tolls for DC - Maine (as of early 2017):

  • The cost of tolls alone for a user without an E-ZPass transponder? $58.60
  • The cost of tolls alone for a user with an E-ZPass transponder? $51.11

Yet the trip could be done without tolls. There were a lot more turns involved!

Growing up in the Northeast U.S., I knew how to bypass many toll roads based upon my origin and destination. Only recently did I learn there was a term for the practice (shunpiking) but I didn't need to search online for guidance. Most mapping providers (both online and on cell phones) allow setting an option to "Avoid Tolls" - a driver can compare the timing difference between tolled and toll-free options before hitting the road. If the timing for all drives is similar without incurring any tolls, the driver might opt to simply follow directions that avoid tolls.

In Google Maps, "Avoid Tolls" is listed under the Route Options

Door Number 2 - Bringing a Personal Transponder from Home

The trip from D.C. to Maine is a rarity among tolling in the United States. That trip - through D.C., Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine - can be completed with a single transponder (E-ZPass). E-ZPass is valid from North Carolina to Maine, west to Ohio, and a customer can even get a transponder while living outside the radius.

We're told that Massachusetts is the place for an out-of-state resident to purchase an E-ZPass, as the initial transponder itself is not billed to the driver (a $20 sign-up fee results in a transponder that's already loaded with $20 in credit). However, a driver must always add any rental car plates to their account temporarily to avoid charges for unauthorized vehicle use .

The ability to personally acquire a transponder for a toll system means a rental car consumer can pay the tolls (and nothing but the tolls) without enriching the rental car company. And the ability to purchase a transponder means the customer would be able to easily deal with cashless tolls .

Cashless tolls? That's right, more states are moving to a model where toll roads will be entirely unstaffed. Without a transponder or license plate billing, customers would encounter tolls, fines, and administrative charges. Cashless tolls most upset our former rental car manager here at AutoSlash, and the State of New York is expected to be entirely cashless by the end of 2017. Looks like there won't be many trips to AutoSlash HQ in the future!

Other states with some cashless tolls include California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

Door Number 3 - Accepting the Rental Car Company's Tolling Option

At times, accepting the rental car company's method of paying for tolls might be the most effective. If crossing multiple states, a customer may want to verify with the rental counter that the vehicle is properly equipped (through PlatePass or similar) to accommodate tolls in every state visited .

Note: Tolls (and fees for toll collection) are never included in the rates provided by AutoSlash.

If accepting the rental car company's method of paying tolls without cash, the driver should expect to be billed for actual tolls plus the daily cost of the tolling service (which is then taxed) with limited exceptions. The primary exceptions are Dollar, Silvercar, Sixt, and Thrifty.

The Amount of Tolls Only - Silvercar charges only for the tolls incurred, without any additional fees. >AutoSlash reviewed Silvercar while the car was great, we could almost always find far less expensive luxury car rentals with traditional companies, with less time from the airport terminal to the car.

State-by-State Rules - Sixt (annoyingly) has a different set of rules for each state where a car may be rented. Fortunately, every other major rental company has managed to avoid this practice.

All You Can Drive - Dollar and Thrifty have implemented a PlatePass All-Inclusive program. For a set daily fee, all tolls are covered.* If a customer doesn't enroll in the service and runs a cashless toll, there's the cost of the tolls plus an administrative fee of $15 for each toll that wasn't paid (limit of $90).

* I've already asked AutoSlash founder Jonathan for authorization to incur a few hundred dollars of "All-Inclusive" tolls on a cheap AutoSlash one-day rental through Dollar. Expect a blog post about that experience (and my subsequent banishment from Dollar/Thrifty/Hertz) in the very near future!

Traditional Daily Fee - The daily fee programs charge a customer a basic administration fee for every day of a rental (not just days that tolls are incurred) plus the cost of tolls. This is by far the most common arrangement with toll payments in rental cars. Payless provided a pleasant surprise (as opposed to their standard operating procedure ) with an eToll fee of $2.95 a day (maximum $14.95 per month). That's cheaper than their far more reputable sister companies of Avis and Budget! Alamo, Enterprise, Hertz, and National also operate under this daily fee model. Just remember - those daily fees are in additional to tolls and the states/cities/airports are going to tax those fees.

You Mentioned Sixt has State-by-State Rules...

How does a renter know the rules of their rental if a company like Sixt has state-by-state rules? While making a reservation the "Rules & Information" tab is available once a rental company is selected. The same information is provided in the "See Rules" link after a reservation is booked.

"Rules & Information" tab is available when booking.

"See Rules" link is included in all confirmations.

If there's any question at all about a rule, remember that the text of the rules come directly from the selected rental car company. We highly encourage renters to read the rules and ask questions of the rental car provider* if necessary. When one rental car company's rules don't work for a renter, we're happy to help locate alternatives.

* Neither AutoSlash nor any other booking company can get a company to revise their rules.

What Happens if I Run a Toll Plaza in a Rental Car?

The rental car company's going to send a hefty bill, including the toll, the fine from the toll authority, and an administrative charge for the rental company's time and trouble. If these fees are not paid in a timely fashion, the customer is headed directly to the DNR (Do Not Rent) list.

Our Take

At AutoSlash, we always believe in following the rules set by the rental car companies (as well as the relevant laws of each municipality). Unexpected tolls can be frustrating for drivers but the rental car companies are well versed in handling tolls for renters. The rental car company would prefer that the customer pays for their tolling service - it's highly profitable for the rental car companies - but there's no requirement that a customer must select the service.

Toll Policies of the Major Rental Car Companies

The Major Tolling Systems in the U.S.

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