Rental cars and the true cost of tolls

Many rental car companies today are offering renters the option of paying road and bridge tolls electronically. That can be pretty handy in certain parts of the country but it can also prove to be surprisingly expensive on a per-use basis.

When I rented a car from Hertz (NYSE:HTZ) recently, I learned that the car had been enrolled in PlatePass, an electronic system that would have allowed me to bypass toll booths and use cashless electronic toll lanes in “[t]he entire states of Florida, Colorado, and Texas, the San Francisco Bay-area bridges, and in (metropolitan) Seattle the Tacoma Narrows bridge and the SR 520 bridge,” according to my rental agreement.

If I did so, the credit card I used for the car would be billed separately for the tolls I incurred plus a service charge levied by PlatePass. Reading the fine print, I learned that the service charge for this convenience was $2.95 per day, but not just on those days I used the feature. I would also be charged for “a $2.95 service fee per rental day, up to a maximum of $14.75 per month for the service fee.”

What that means is that a person who rented the car for a five-day trip and went across the Golden Gate Bridge or Bay Bridge would have been billed the cost of the tolls PLUS $14.75 in service charges for the rental period.

(Editor's note: This article was originally published in March 2012. As of December 2014, the charge for the PlatePass service was $4.95 per day, up to a maximum of $24.95 per rental, plus incurred tolls.)

Of course, the value of that extra expense depends on a number of factors, including the reason for your trip, the time of day you’re traveling, how tight your schedule is, and how long you’d otherwise have to wait at a toll booth to pay in cash. I have commuted across both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge during rush hours, and lengthy waits at toll booths are quite common. Being able to bypass those queues could make the extra expense worthwhile.

If you’re traveling during non-peak times, aren’t in a hurry, or are on a tighter budget, it might make sense to go old-school and pay the tolls in cash at the toll booth.

But here’s an important twist: an increasing number of toll roads and bridges (including the SR 520 bridge in Seattle and Florida’s Turnpike in Miami-Dade County) simply don’t offer cash toll booths at all. In such cases, renters will simply have to pay the service charge in addition to the tolls, or will have to find another route.

For most of us, shelling out an additional $15 (or $25 - Ed.) isn’t going to mean a major change in lifestyle; however, knowing in advance what you’ll be paying could spare you an unpleasant surprise when you get your next MasterCard or Visa statement.

Visit my main page at for more news, reviews, and personal observations on the world of upmarket travel.