Rental cars and paying tolls electronically

Approximately two years ago, I wrote a blog post, RentalCars and the True Cost of Tolls, which dealt with the option of renting an electronic pass to pay road and bridge tolls in certain areas. 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 National Car Rental during a recent trip to Chicago, I was offered the option of renting an I-Pass to pay my tolls electronically. For $6.99 per day, the pass would cover as many tolls as I incurred; quite the deal when compared to the PlatePass offered by Hertz for rentals in the San Francisco Bay area.

According to Hertz’s web site, drivers who use PlatePass will be charged a $4.95 service fee for each day of the rental including any days on which PlatePass is not used, up to a maximum of $24.75 per rental, plus the cost of the tolls at the cash, or undiscounted, rate.

While I didn’t find the convenience of an electronic pass from Hertz worth the extra cost, renting an I-Pass from National made sense.

I knew I would be traveling about 30 miles on I-294, which is part of the Illinois Tollway. In one direction, I would encounter four tollbooths, and five on the way back, for a total of nine tolls. Drivers who pay cash pay $1.50 toll per booth, while cars with the I-Pass are charged $0.75 per toll. However, visitors aren’t likely to have an I-Pass, so that particular trip would have resulted in $13.50 in tolls.

I made that trip twice and headed into downtown Chicago once so, for less than $14 for the two-day rental, the I-Pass more than paid for itself.

Even if you’re not sure how many tolls you’ll be incurring, an electronic pass could still be worth the extra expense. Depending on the reason for your trip, the time of day you’ll be traveling, how tight your schedule is, and how long you’d otherwise have to wait at a tollbooth to pay in cash, it could be valuable to be able to keep moving at 55+ miles an hour and bypass queues for the tollbooths.

And here’s an important twist: an increasing number of toll roads, bridges and tollway exits 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.

Finally, consider this: if you choose not to get the pass and miss a tollbooth, National will charge a $15 processing fee plus the cost of the toll and any fines. Other rental car companies have similar charges for processing missed tolls, so the cost of missing one tollbooth could easily eclipse the cost of the electronic transponder.

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