Save with e-tolls on vacation

When driving out-of-state, you don't have to give up electronic toll convenience or pay for rental car e-toll devices.

Published: June 04, 2014 05:15 PM

If you’re one of the more than 38 million drivers who uses an electronic toll payment device—such as  E-ZPass in the northeast, Sun-Pass in Florida, TXTag in Texas, and FasTrak in California—you know how you can save time by avoiding the traffic backed up on cash payment lanes at bridge, tunnel, and highway toll plazas. Drivers who pay electronically can also save money with e-toll discounts that may be available under some conditions.

But if you think you have to give up those benefits when traveling out-of-state on a different e-toll system, or if you reflexively pay a rental-car company costly extra fees for an electronic toll payment device, read on to learn how you can save.

Major rental car companies offer e-toll tags, but they squeeze you for hefty extra fees on top of the cost of the tolls you ring up. Avis and Budget charge a $3.95 per rental day “convenience fee,” up to $16.95 per rental month. That may seem reasonable at first blush, but the scandal is that you must pay every day of your rental, even if you use the device only once and never go through another toll on the other days of your trip. You also pay the undiscounted toll rates.

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Hertz charges a service fee of $4.95 per day up to $24.75 per rental, plus tolls, also if you use it only once. Avis’ fees have increased from 58 percent to 70 percent since 2011, while Hertz’ fees have jumped from 98 percent to 148 percent over the same period. But you can reduce or avoid those charges two ways:

Bring your existing personal e-toll tag. Different electronic toll roads often use different technologies to identify you, your vehicle, and your account, and your e-tags may not work on another system. So a FasTrak tag won’t work on the E-ZPass system, but I-Pass tags used by the Indiana Toll Road and Chicago Skyway, will work on E-ZPass.

So, if you live in Chicago and drive a rental or your own car in any of the 15 states that use E-ZPass, make sure you bring your I-PASS tag with you. You don’t have to register with E-ZPass and I-PASS does not recommend adding your rental car license plate to your account. But be sure to properly mount the tag in the rental car. E-ZPass can likewise be used in Illinois and Indiana.

Similarly, bring your FasTrak tag if you live in northern California and rent a car in the southern part of the state. Ditto if you have an E-ZPass account and tag and you’re renting in another E-ZPass state. Check the rental car use rules if you have an account with another electronic tolling authority.

Buy a tag from the e-toll system you’re visiting. Some states let you set up a temporary e-toll account, so search the Internet for the transportation department of the state or states you're travelling to and check their bridge and highway e-toll options. The North Texas Tollway Authority, for example, will let you set up a temporary Zip-Pass account with a minimum $20 credit card deposit, and unused deposits are refunded when your account lapses.

The Florida Department of Transportation also sells temporary Sun-Pass Mini Sticker transponders for $4.95 and a minimum opening balance of $10 online and at Florida Turnpike service plazas and CVS, Publix, and other retail stores. These must be affixed to the windshield to work, but have special light-strength adhesive for easy removal at the end of your rental. E-ZPass, FasTrak, and I-PASS also sell temporary or regular tags for fair prices and refundable deposits. Typically, you must register the license plate of the rental car you're driving with your e-toll account to properly direct billing to you and not the rental company. 

—Jeff Blyskal

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