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Cashless tolls trigger rental car fees
I love those electronic toll gadgets on your windshield that let you breeze past cash-only lines. So when I saw that my rental car had a doohickey that worked on different toll roads across the nation, I was happy. I wish my EZ-Pass tag would work everywhere I drive, not just in the Northeast.
I eagerly swung open the cover of the gray plastic box on the windshield to turn on the automatic e-Toll thingy from Avis. Inside the box there was a list of disclosures, including this line: "A convenience fee of $2.95 per day will be added to your rental in addition to the cost of tolls."
Bang! That cover closed fast. The fees, once tacked onto my credit card, would add $14.75 to my rental. The actual toll for my trip on the New York State Thruway -- from Buffalo to beautiful Cayuga Lake -- was only $3.85. No thanks, Avis.
Instead of feeling miffed, I should have recognized my good fortune. For one thing, $14.75 -- the monthly maximum on the Avis-Budget e-Toll system -- is a fraction of the administrative fees that some other rental car companies charge.
More important, I had a choice -- I could still opt to go through the slow, low-tech cash lane. In some parts, that's an option that is no longer available. Increasingly, toll highways lack a cash lane, leaving car renters at the mercy of the rental car company's electronic toll collection fees. Phantom toll fees on credit card statements aren't new -- but as cash lanes disappear, more drivers will get steered into the fees.
Around my home in Austin, for example, toll highways collect their fees automatically by snapping a picture of your license plate if you don't have the toll authority's electronic tag. By driving on a Texas toll road in my rental car, I would automatically opt in for the e-Toll service and the related fees, Avis says. The only other option is to get off the toll road and use an alternate route. That's not fun for visitors unfamiliar with the area -- or for anyone who would rather not see miles and miles of Texas punctuated by stoplights. It's a big state to travel at 35 mph.
In California, the last cash lanes on the Golden Gate Bridge going into San Francisco have been replaced by all-electronic toll collection. If you plan ahead, you can make a one-time payment with your credit card to bypass the rental company's fees -- if the company has an opt-out option, according to the bridge's toll authority. That's a lot of advance planning -- I'd be tempted to forget about the bridge and stay in Sausalito.
Judging by the howls of outrage on Internet complaint sites, cashless tolls are not entirely a convenience for rental car customers. Some travelers sputter about getting hit with a $25 administrative fee for a 40-cent toll. It makes the $14.50 fee I thought exorbitant look downright cheap.
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