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