Car Rentals

How to Avoid Rental Car Toll Surcharges

Otto Yamamoto from NY, NY, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

I rented a car in Boston, Massachusetts recently. And a few weeks after returning the car the toll bill arrived in my inbox: $13.45. I drove on two toll roads. One was a $1 charge and the other $2.95. But National charged me a $9.50 service charge for the privilege of using the toll tag on the rental car. That’s $4.75 per day. A 475% fee on my $1 toll!

national rental toll surcharges

This got me thinking about how to avoid rental car toll fees in the future. Fees vary by rental car company, but they are unavoidable when using the toll pass provided by the rental agency. (Note, this post is just about rental cars in the United States. I rarely drive in other countries so I’m not qualified to write about this issue elsewhere.)

Scope of the problem

There was, in fact, a 2012 mandate for nationwide toll pass interoperability by 2016. Five years past the deadline and we’re still not even close.

Twenty nine states currently have toll pass systems. A few of them are just for “managed roads” which means you can avoid tolls by not taking the express lanes. But most are only avoidable by routing around the toll roads, often at the cost of significant time.

Fortunately you don’t need 29 toll tag passes. Ten passes are sufficient to cover all states’ toll tag systems (soon to be nine).

Why are there so many different state toll systems? Well, tolls pay for building and repairing roads. The alternative is taxes. Some politicians, and some voters, prefer tolls to taxes. And because this money is spent at the state level, it’s up to each state to implement a toll collection system. In the good old days, your cash worked in every state. The transition from cash-based toll collection to electronic passes wasn’t well coordinated.

Fun fact: for the most part you won’t see tolls on interstate highways because these benefit from federal funding.

Complete list of toll tag systems

There are eight states with toll tag systems exclusive to their state. Then there’s the tri-state region of Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas in which the three toll tags are interoperable. And finally there is most of the eastern portion of the country, along with a few central states, all covered by E-Z Pass.

By Epicgenius – Own work, CC0,

Here’s the breakdown:

  1. Delaware, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia and West Virginia. (Georgia joining soon) – E-Z pass (link)
  2. Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas – TX Tag, K-Tag and PikePass all work across this tri-state region
  3. Alabama – Freedom Pass
  4. California – FasTrak
  5. Colorado – ExpressToll
  6. Georgia – Peach Pass, NC Quick Pass or SunPass (soon to be E-Z Pass)
  7. Louisiana – Geauxpass
  8. South Carolina – Pal Pass
  9. Utah – Express Pass
  10. Washington state – Good To Go pass 

To cover all states, you’ll need to get nine passes: get an E-Z Pass (or Uni, see below) and eight other passes, as mentioned above. (Georgia is not yet on E-Z Pass, so you’ll actually need ten passes total for now.)

Alternative toll consolidators

Here are a few toll consolidator options:

  • Best Pass works everywhere in the United States. Unfortunately it’s only for truckers, and comes with hefty fees.
  • Nationalpass can be used by anyone, but the fees are prohibitive for most casual travelers. Pricing: $7.99/month fee for tolls under $50 per month, $10.99 for tolls $50-$100. Itcan be used in the following US public tolling states: CA, DE, IL, IN, KS, KY, MA, ME, MD, NH, NJ, NC, NY, OH, PA, RI, TX, VA, WV and FL. Does not work in: Alabama, Colorado, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, South Carolina, and Utah. Nationalpass is accepted by private toll facilities that are interoperable with one of the regional hubs.
  • Uni is the only one geared toward the average driver. It covers the E-Z pass network (plus Georgia). You create an E-Pass account (Florida system) to activate the transponder. There are no account fees, but you must load a minimum of $10 to activate the transponder (and I was charged $.98 tax on the $10 load). The transponder can be moved between cars but is attached to whatever primary license plate you enter in your account. This means that you could use that car without the transponder anywhere that has plate reading technology. You can put the transponder in rental cars and it will correctly pay tolls.

Avoiding Toll Fees

Some ideas on how to avoid rental car toll service charges:

  • Stay off the toll roads – Google maps has an option to avoid toll roads. Turn on this feature at the beginning of your car rental and you won’t have to think about it.
  • Research tolling options for your destination – some places like California let you pay tolls up to 5 days before or after they are incurred through an app or website.
  • Bring your own transponder – if you have a toll pass that covers the state you are visiting, bring it. Consider acquiring passes for states you visit regularly.  If you don’t have an E-Z Pass transponder, that’s the most useful one to get.

Getting an E-Z Pass transponder

The Uni transponder is the most universally applicable one, and it’s easy to buy on Amazon for quick delivery. The Uni offers the following: one account, one invoice no matter where you drive in the 18 states; no account fees; movable from car to car; works with rental cars and on motorcycles; pays for parking at Orlando International Airport.

But an E-Z Pass for any state works just as well as Uni (once Georgia gets on that network.) In some cases E-Z Pass is cheaper because they will send you the transponder for free. The cost of E-Z Pass does vary by state, and some charge annual or monthly fees. I found this handy list of fees by state.

One good option is to get an E-Z Pass from Massachusetts – there is no charge for the transponder and no monthly fee. I was able to open an account from out of state quite easily, and they will send you multiple transponders if you need more than one.

(This was originally posted on Doctor Of Credit)