WATCH OUT: Some Rental Car Companies Really Stick You for Gas!

I know, I know, it’s a good idea to refill the gas tank before returning the vehicle.

  • But what if you have a 6am flight? You didn’t fill up the night before, aren’t sure whether gas stations will be open and you overslept anyway…
  • And sometimes it isn’t worth refilling on your own anyway. Gas stations around the airport may be priced exorbitantly high, and rental companies may charge less than you realize to refill for you.

I find that National Car Rental usually wants about $5.65 a gallon or so from me to top off a tank if I don’t do it myself. That’s not cheap, but when I’m cutting it close and I haven’t driven a lot I can justify that.

But it’s a mistake to assume all rental car companies are the same. As I just learned.

Take that 6am flight and the car rental company is Budget. I got a receipt from them and learn that I was charged $77.01 to refill a tank on a Ford Fusion that was returned more than half full. Surely that was a mistake. So I contacted them.

Here’s their reply (emphasis mine):

Dear Mr. Leff,

Thank you for contacting the E-mail Customer Service team.

I am very sorry you were not advised of the cost associated with refueling our vehicle if not done prior to check in. Any time a customer returns the vehicle with less fuel than when it was rented, a refueling service charge is imposed; this service charge does not necessarily reflect current retail gas prices. This fee compensates Budget for the refueling service performed by Budget personnel in preparing the vehicle for the next rental.

The Ford Fusion holds 16.5 gallons and you were charged for 7.866GALS at $9.79 per gallon.

Our records show you were charged correctly, therefore, no adjustment is warranted.

Wow. $9.79 a gallon. That’s 73% more than I’m used. Not that I like the price I’m used to seeing, but in this case it was definitely worth it.

That’ll teach me to decide to rent from Budget when I think they’re cheaper, since for this particular trip they absolutely weren’t.


About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. Just another reason for me to NEVER rent from Budget. I can’t stand them. I remember having to go over the car with a fine tooth comb and documenting every little nick so that I wouldn’t get charged. Everything I hear about them is negative.

  2. Just rented from Avis and was told ahead of time what the refueling charge will be if I do not return the car with a full tank.

    No excuse for not refueling in the AM or in the previous evening. If you cannot or don’t wish to do so, accept the prepay option when you rent the vehicle.

  3. Yeah, we did the same thing in Munich. Planned to fill up the tank close to the airport, but then traffic was a bear (google maps said 45 minutes, it took us 90) and we did not know how long it would take to check in for our flights(turned out we had an hour to spare, but we didn’t know that), so we did not stop for fuel. Costly mistake! One car needed about a quarter tank or so, cost roughly $80 for diesel, the other needed close to half a tank, about $120 for gas! I think we could have filled them both up for about $60 ourselves. We rented from Europcar, through National, so National might be fair, but their European partners are not.

  4. I was recently charged 6.5 for 1 gallon gas from Avis Honolulu. Filled the gas about 5 miles away, with a little traffic jam, I thought it was still full. But….

  5. While I think the price that Budget charges is exorbitant and all rental companies should follow National’s lead on fuel pricing (a reasonable convenience fee for “full service” is acceptable; highway robbery at gunpoint is just extortion), the fact is, you were in the wrong. Not only do pretty much all companies other than the EHI brands (Enterprise/National/Alamo) charge ridiculously high prices (so it’s not like it should be a secret surprise that their fuel charge is so high), the price is also plastered half a dozen places across the counter, lot, and on your rental agreement.

    Also, to write Budget off because of this is kind of silly. Are you really going to pay $200 to rent next time with National when Budget (with coupons and discounts, of course) is $80 _and_ you will have plenty of time to fill up on gas before you return? Claiming that is just hyperbole. Also, make sure you avoid Avis, too, then, because they are the same company and have the same fuel policies.

    That said, Avis Budget has among the least-friendly fuel policies in the industry (and Avis has the least useful rewards program of the three top-tier agencies), so I hold no special love for them. But in the rental car industry, a car is pretty much a commodity, so I don’t think you can honestly claim that price holds no meaning for you. Unless you’re traveling on business and the company’s paying, price IS the biggest deciding factor for almost everyone when deciding who to rent with.

  6. Rented from Dollar in GUM (LifeMiles, RIP) and they charged me $37 for refueling when I returned the car full! I even took a photo of my gas level to prove it. I’m glad I did. I filed a dispute with Chase and Chase is giving me a credit while they research it. It’s going to be a fight with these idiots. Beware of Dollar.

  7. Wait – did you just say it was “definitely worth it” to pay $9.79/gallon for gas? Surely you jest.

    +1 to Mike D’s comment. It’s just sort of a given that you need to fill up the night before if you have an early flight.

  8. @stvr “Beware of Dollar.” That really should be changed to “Beware of [insert name of company you are renting from].” They’re all bad.

    In my experience, the quality of service and number of problems encountered varies far more by individual location than by brand.

  9. I rent only through National, and one time in SAN, National hit me with a $33 refuel add on. However, I refueled less then 1.5 miles from the airport and had the receipt to prove it. The manager of the SAN location stated that an employee must have thought it was on another car, I told her I didn’t buy it. If said employee wasn’t sure what car it belonged on, then the employee shouldn’t have just “picked” any car to add it to…. I wrote a letter to corporate about this too, and received a nice letter back (wasn’t a form letter) apologizing for this, they deposited 2 free rentals into my account… But people get receipts and hold on to them.

  10. While I understand your frustration, it doesn’t compare to what happens at a lot of places: they charge you for filling up more than they could possibly have needed to fill. I had this happen at Avis when dropping off at the Munich Hofbahnhaus. Thankfully I had taken a picture of the gas gauge in the car immediately before handing over the keys. The needle was just a hair below Full, probably reading about 15/16ths of a tank–I had filled up on the edge of downtown but traffic had us sitting for 45 minutes, burning gas. They charged me for filling half of the tank at a rather high per liter rate. Thankfully an email to Avis customer support resulting in a credit back to my CC for almost all of the refueling charge.

    So the moral of my story is: Always take a picture of your gas gauge before turning in a rental car.

  11. @Andrew,

    I think he was trying to say that while he doesn’t like paying $5.65 from National (the price he is used to seeing) compared to $9.79 it’s a pretty good deal. lol

    “Not that I like the price I’m used to seeing, but in this case it was definitely worth it.”

  12. @Autolycus,

    I can just see the rental car gas pumper over-filling the tank with the excess gasoline running down the side of the vehicle. Every gallon on the pavement nets them another $4 profit. 🙂

  13. Each rental company has different rules on refueling it seems. Some want a receipt showing a recent purchase, other’s don’t. I try to fill up as close to the airport as possible (which isn’t always the cheapest place in town) and then ask the agent checking me back in “do you need to see a copy of the gas receipt.”

    I’ve never been charged for gas — but the flip side is I’m sure that I’ve received a car that shows “full” when it’s not really full.

    I like the picture of the fuel gauge concept.

  14. On my last several rentals I have used my phone to take a picture of the dash instruments and a 360 video of the car when I pick it up and drop it off. If there are any previously-damaged places, I will also take a picture. Saves a lot of hassle if they try to jerk you around and is also helpful when you drop off and there is no attendant (simply show the picture of the full tank/odometer to the counter people). This has been much easier the last couple of years when phone cameras finally achieved decent resolution and storage space.

  15. I’ve always used AVIS and it’s always been $9+/gallon.

    Is this really different than the pricing strategies we see elsewhere in travel, though? Clearly aimed at the business traveler who is more interested in saving 5 minutes than his company’s (or clients’) money. To name a few: $20 room service burgers (with 20% service charges on top), exorbitant hotel laundry rates, single-session airborne or airport wifi, lounge day passes, crazy high hotel printing costs, and don’t forget, back in the old days – hotel long-distance phone charges (and the airphone), etc. etc. There are plenty of pricing mechanisms throughout the sector that are squarely aimed at the expense account set. It’s how it always has been. The people who care won’t pay and the people who don’t care will hand over other people’s money.

  16. I just picked up a car from Avis today and about dropped dead when I saw $9.29 a gallon as the refill price. I’ve seen $5 or $6 a gallon and thought it was pretty ridiculous, but $9 is just insane!

  17. Another thing to watch out for is charges for driving the car less than a certain amount of miles. I rent frequently in Tulsa (although probably the same in other areas where allowed by law) and if you return the car with less than 75 miles driven, Avis does you the “favor” of charging you around $16 as a “convenience” so you don’t have to fill back up. Of course, they forget to mention the part where they charge you the fee even if you return the tank full. You have to actually show them a gas receipt showing you filled up within X miles of the airport so that they don’t charge you the fee. Pretty sleazy.

  18. I usually rent from National and Hertz on business trips and I always take some things into consideration before deciding to pre-pay for gas: how many miles I plan to drive, how familiar I am with the airport and gas stations around it and what time is my flight versus any appointments I have in the trip. If I feel I am going to use at least 3/4 of the tank and will be returning the car close to the time I have to be at the airport I just pay for it. Otherwise, try to fill it up close to the airport. One comment regarding “cheap” rental car companies such as Alamo and Budget is that they will try to find any reason to charge you more. I just rented at Alamo during a family vacation since it was way cheaper than National and Hertz but when I got to the cat I was told I had to check for every dent and dings on the car and notify the agent at the gate so he could take note otherwise I would be charged for those upon returning the car. WTF!!! It was late at night and the parking lot was pretty dark and I had to check a dark color car dor dings and dents. There were many but I am sure I missed some. No problems when I returned the car but it was a hassle to go over that.

  19. That’s pretty standard. When you pick up the car, they ask if you want the refueling option (at approx. market price), and if you say no and return it less than full, they charge you ~$9 at every car company. It’s pretty clearly disclosed at the pickup counter on a large sign. And I’ve seen this at Hertz, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, etc.

  20. Last time I rented from Budget I was waiting in line for over 30 minutes. Rent from Budget again? No thanks! And then there was a rental from Dollar where my front tire blew out on the freeway. I’m sticking with Avis Preferred. They will give you a nice new low mileage rental car. I’ve learned my lesson that you need to pay a little bit more for a safe vehicle.

  21. Last time I rented a car from hertz and was charged about $70 when I returned the car full. I have a receipt saying that, so I just disputed. But still you got a better than than me!

    I guess the lesson is ask how much it’ll be, don’t assume the prices are same, even amongst the same brand

  22. Thanks very much. I typically don’t rent from Budget, but they’re now on my do-not-rent-from list.

    BTW, Hertz’s policy is very simple: they charge $ fee for the labor + gas at the “average retail price in local area as periodically updated”. Assuming they don’t tinker with the “average”, that’s a very fair policy, one that thankfully haven’t had to test in a long time (although I can see events unfolding exactly like they did for you).

  23. Thanks very much. I typically don’t rent from Budget, but they’re now on my do-not-rent-from list.

    BTW, Hertz’s policy is very simple: they charge a $7 fee for the labor + gas at the “average retail price in local area as periodically updated”. Assuming they don’t tinker with the “average”, that’s a very fair policy, one that thankfully haven’t had to test in a long time (although I can see events unfolding exactly like they did for you).

  24. Haha well if you want to feel a bit better, Gary, our NORMAL fuel prices here in the UK are around $8.60 per gallon, so you only paid a very small premium on top of that – think how much you save all of the rest of the time!

  25. I can understand a fee for refueling, since some employee actually has to take the time to go and do it. There are some costs to the company there. However, I think the reasonable thing would be a flat fee to cover the person’s time, not a “per gallon” fee for refueling, since every extra gallon is only a few seconds of time. Just announce upfront, “If you bring the car back with less gas than it had when you started, there will be a $15 (or whatever)refueling fee.”

  26. Good thing I allowed for enough time departing from TPA this morning – exiting I-275 dumps you straight into the airport entrance with no option to get to local areas without doing the entire loop and exiting to a local area a good 10 minutes away… Those not allowing enough time for this detour to fill up end up pretty pissed off I imagine

  27. @Paul, is that a local policy with Hertz? On my most recent Hertz rental (LAX location) I was dinged about $9/gallon.

  28. I ran into a similar issue with Avis @ MUC. I filled up 10 km outside of the airport, showed my receipt upon arrival, but found a 13 euro “gas surcharge” on my receipt. Sent to corporate and they removed the charge.

  29. Interestingly, Budget sometimes decides to charge you for half a tank of gas regardless of whether or not you filled it up. a) Always keep your gas receipt. b) Always take a photo of the instrument panel when you return.

  30. As a Corporate Travel Manager, I’ve been told by our partner rental car vendors that they’re not in the gas business. This is what motivates them to charge such exorbitant rates for prepaid gas. Bottom line – just plan better and save your receipts. I love the idea of taking pictures of the odometer, gas gauge and car itself to document damage. Brilliant!

  31. @john: I think it was an experiment Hertz tried for awhile. IIRC, they gave up and went back to the previous normal approximately-double-pump-price policy for whatever reason. Too bad, as I thought it was much fairer.

  32. Doesn’t everyone know that if you don’t prepay your going to get screwed on the gas refill. This is just standard rental car operating procedure.

  33. What bothers me about the whole racket is that the tank is not always full when you pick the car up. I can’t prove it, but my hunch is that if they get cars back that are not full, they don’t always top them up if the gauge reads full. I’ve had a few circumstances where the car needle is on full, but when I fill it up, I see that there’s actually space above full for the needle to go, and I realize that I just contributed a gallon or so to the company. I wish I could charge them $9. Similarly, there are some times when after only 10 or so miles, the needle starts to drop toward 3/4, so I know it wasn’t completely full, or a couple of times where I’ve only driven a few miles but stopped to fill up anyway to have a receipt to prove I did, where it ends up taking more fuel than it should for having driven just a few miles. I think most people return the cars very close to fully topped off, so I don’t know that there are too many opportunities to do it, but I do have a feeling that when cars are returned less than full, there are some shenanigans that go on.

    Charging $10 per gallon for cars returned not full is unseemly and an unwelcome trend, but if it’s disclosed in a way that is not intended to deceive customers, it’s not dishonest. Getting people to buy gas for your cars — even a only half gallon at a time — is much different to me. That’s just plain dishonest. It’s stealing. Next time I suspect it, I may take a picture of my gas gauge and the mileage when I rent the car and then try to fill it up and see how much gas goes in.

  34. @Larry: I think it’s less a case of intentional deception than it is of laziness.

    You have minimum-wage (or near minimum wage) car wash guys cleaning sometimes a hundred cars each per shift. A hundred stops at the gas pump adds time to each car cleaned. That said, I’m familiar with one company who did fill up every car at return regardless of what the gas needle said, but the fuel pump was located right next to the vacuum station, so it was easy for the car wash guys to stick the fuel nozzle in and let it run while they’re vacuuming. That’s actually not the case at very many locations–most places (for safety reasons) have fuel pumps on dedicated islands in a separate area.

  35. Oh please. Even most Kettles know that you will pay through the nose when you fail to return with a full tank. This is true at every rental company – the rate was just higher than you normally see. And I can see not filling when you drive 30 miles, but half a tank?? And please, I’ve never been to any major airport in the USA where you can’t find 24/7 gas – and you can always use a smartphone if you don’t know where it is.

    There are many reasons not to rent from Budget. Personally I prefer Hertz, National, Avis (in that order) with a strong pref for Hertz as Gold service consistently surpasses all others. But here you really only have yourself to blame – no different than complaining about checked bag fees.

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