The rental car gasoline game — a consumer-friendly solution?


Anyone who’s rented a car in the past several years doesn’t need a blog post to tell them that the rental car surcharges are out of control.

Some of these extra fees are simply “soak-the-tourists” extra taxes added on by cities who see an easy revenue source. Other fees — airport concession charges, for example — could be bundled into the rate, but car companies choose not to, partly to advertise lower rates and partly because additional fees are not discountable — for example, the basic rental charge is used to calculate AAA or corporate discounts.

However, the one potential extra charge I find most irritating is the gas/refueling price. The choices are usually simple, in theory. Buy a tank of gas at a decent rate, or get gouged paying up to about $10 a gallon if the tank isn’t returned full.

Some companies have a flat refueling fee if the car is driven less than 75 miles and not returned full, but it’s pricey compared to buying gas yourself.

Personally, I always gas up the car, even if it means backtracking if I can’t find a station near the airport. Most travelers I know have some horror story of not being able to find gas easily or of being seriously gouged by gas stations near the airport.

The last few times I have rented a car the agents tried particularly hard to sell me gas, one saying when I declined it, “You’ll be sorry.” At that location, a Hertz in Baltimore, the fuel was a good price. But, since I still didn’t need the whole tank, while I drove over 200 miles and paid a higher per gallon price, I still paid less than if I had purchased a full tank.

Rental car companies say it’s about convenience. Balderdash! It’s about profit. Of course, travelers can accept that it costs rental car companies something in time to fill up a car, but not enough to justify over $9 a gallon. If rental car companies really want to offer customer convenience, my idea is simple — the option to purchase a HALF tank of gas as well as a full one.

Would I always buy the half tank? Not for a very short trip. But, in most cases I use several gallons. Plus, bringing a car back half-full is a lot easier, psychologically, than trying to run it down to nothing so as not to waste any of the pre-payment.

Besides, if a traveler bought the half tank of gas and returned it less than half full, they could be charged the full tank price.

Yes, this does require the return agent making sure that the tank is down no more than half, but they check anyway now. (And, it’s trivial to estimate the gas used with the driven mileage in case of questions.)

Would selling a half tank be perfect? No, because it does take more work to fill the car up and it would no doubt result in an occasional controversy with someone either trying to nickle and dime the rental agency or vice-versa.

It also seems fair that the half-tank price would be higher than the full price, but not obscenely so. Both parties, the renter and the rental company, are benefiting.

In addition, a half-tank option would probably engender some modicum of goodwill, which based on many of my clients’ comments, car companies could use. Many travelers, even if they didn’t quite use a half tank, wouldn’t feel ripped off if they wasted a gallon or two. That’s my opinion anyway. What about you, Consumer Traveler readers?

Photo by Mountain Roamer, Flickr Creative Commons

  • Anonymous

    Airlines should be forced to disclose, on an airport by airport and rental company basis, car rental refueling options available. And once an itinerary has been set, the specific refueling rules must be printed (prominently, of course) on all confirmation pages before and after purchase. Airlines should also be compelled to force print such information on the customer’s printer without customer concurrence because that is the only way the customer can be saved from himself/herself.

  • Anonymous

    I was in Hawaii this summer and needed two rental car reservations. I have never had consistent luck finding discount codes for rentals, and I find the loyalty programs with rental car companies is arcane, even compared to airlines. Anyway, I stumbled on this site “Car Rental Hawaii”. I filled out the online forms and quickly received an e-mail quoting prices as much as $100 less than the best I had found. Miriam at NKT Travel made my reservations and both my rentals went perfectly. I was so pleased with this no-charge discount I asked if she could also make reservations on the mainland, and she could! I got my next rental at Alamo in Detroit with a package deal including CDW insurance and a FREE TANK of GAS for less than anything I could find for a basic rental. So far the experience has been very positive; I don’t have to worry about corporate codes and discounts, and I get a good price. I guess NKT travel is getting a commission for the reservations, but to me it’s just a good price. I liked it so much I asked them to make my next two mainland reservations, and got great rates, again with insurance and a TANK of GAS included. The rental agent at Reno said, “There’s nothing else I can sell you.”

    So, even though this looks like an advertisement, I am not getting anything from this post. I just wanted to share, and help the community find some good deals on rental cars, which can be hard to come by.

    TL;DR: Good rental car prices nation-wide from Car Rental Hawaii

  • Lyngengr

    Why do the airlines need to be involved in the car rental business? This “suggestion” makes no sense. Most people rent cars for business, and really don’t care what the refueling charge is.

  • Anonymous

    Lyngenr, Kairho is posting this tongue in cheek based on Charlie Leocha’s rants about disclosure of fees.

  • Davidg

    The biggest issue is that there seems to be a standard refuelling charge regardless of the amount they put into the tank and charge per gallon on top f hat. If you coud trust them I would accept a sensible premium on he pump price rather than all the hassle of finding a petrol station at the end of a rental. If a car shows full do companies check when cleaning etc. the car whether they actually need to put more petrol in? I ask because in some cases I have returned a car really full but in others I know it was on he edge of the full mark.

  • globetrottngal

    I normally do not pre purchase fuel, but on a trip to Australia with prices skyrocketing and changing dily, I noticed the price at our pick up location was significantly less than the price was from just the day before. We opted to pre purchase at that price, sailed in on fumes and beat the drop off day’s gas price by about 50 cents a liter.

  • Anonymous

    ^o) denotes wink or sarcasm.
    :-7 is for tongue in cheek.
    Lol, things I learned today.

  • Anonymous

    My daughter and I did the same thing on our last trip to Australia. We prepurchased a tankful of gas at a reasonable price in Adelaide and were also on fumes when we dropped the car off in Sydney. We still had a few days before heading home, but who needs a car in Sydney?