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Editor’s note: See updated story, “Cashless toll roads and rental cars: 6 tips”
I got an expected but still surprising reminder this week of the South Florida vacation I took a month ago. It was a $7 charge on my credit card for tolls on the Homestead Extension of Florida’s Turnpike.
I rented a car from Enterprise Rent-A-Car while I was in South Florida in July. I made the drive from Hollywood down to Key West — a trip I’ve taken many, many times in the years that I lived in Miami.
Automated toll plazas are fast, but…
What was different on that trip was the turnpike, the public toll road that stretches from the Orlando area down to South Miami-Dade County. Sometime between July 2011 and my last South Florida trip in 2009, the Florida State Turnpike Authority removed the toll booths that allow drivers to pay cash for tolls along the southernmost leg of the highway and replaced them with automated cameras. When cars drive past, the camera records the license plate number and drivers who don’t have a SunPass sensor are billed for the toll, plus an administrative fee. (Note: The switch began Feb. 19, 2011 — four months before my trip. I just found the press release on the authority’s website.)
It’s true that no-cash toll roads, as they are called, speed things up and save money on staffing toll booths. I used to pity the people who had to breathe in the fumes left behind by cars and trucks that stopped to pay tolls.
My problem is that I was a tourist — oblivious to the fact that the toll collection system had changed. There I was driving along and reading signs. Out of habit, I had my cash — a wad of quarters — out and ready to pay. I slowed, confused. I couldn’t find the pay booth lane. I’m sure some of the drivers behind me were annoyed at my slow pace. Finally, I saw the cameras overhead and said to myself, “Oops. Somehow I got in the wrong lane. How did I miss the pay lane?” But then it happened again at the next toll several miles down the road.
Where do I pay?
I knew I was in a rental car that had a California license plate. That meant they would bill the rental car company. But I wondered why Enterprise hadn’t warned me about the automated tolls. There’s probably a disclosure buried in the fine print of the rental agreement, but I thought something like, ‘You can’t use cash anymore on the Florida Turnpike,’ should have been pointed out verbally — right around the time they are trying to sell me a full tank of gas in advance or asking me if I want to pay more for insurance coverage that I get for free from my own auto insurer.
I kept a mental note of how many $1 toll areas I passed: There were four. When I turned the car in, I told the customer service rep that I had gone through the automated tolls because there was no other alternative for paying. She said, “No problem.” When Enterprise gets the bill, they will add a $2.50 processing fee and then charge it to the credit card I used to rent the car. She assured me: “They will call you to make sure that you want to use that card.” Wrong. I didn’t get a call in advance.
I was checking my Visa credit card account looking for something else and saw that $7 had been billed by Enterprise for “tolls and bridge fees.” My trip was July 22-24. The toll was billed to my credit card on Aug. 13.
My bill seemed to be correct. I went through four tolls at $1 each. I’m guessing the Florida Turnpike Authority added a 50 cent administrative fee and Enterprise added its $2.50 fee. But what if something had gone wrong? The automated toll collector gave me no opportunity to get a receipt to prove that I was charged correctly. What if the bill had come in at $25? Mistakes happen.
Warn customers beforehand
Here’s my point: Rental car companies should warn customers that automated toll plazas may be encountered in a city and that those charges, plus administrative fees from both the toll collector and the rental car company, will be billed to the credit card. Had I been given a heads up by the car company, I would have taken steps to avoid the toll road. There are alternative routes that take longer but avoid the tolls.
I hope I’m giving other travelers a heads up to ask about automated tolls and what rental car companies add on to your credit card for these charges.
See related: Renting a car? Beware of phantom toll fee charges