The USA, for me, is not only the land of unlimited opportunities but also the land of unwelcome additional fees. Whether it’s tax and tip at the restaurant, resort fees at ordinary hotels, or a convenience fee for buying tickets online.
One topic that I had barely encountered even after my 20th trip to the USA was toll roads. Although they exist in 38 of the 50 states, I’ve mostly managed to bypass them or pay in cash. During a rental with Hertz in New York, I recently fell into a trap that I wasn’t familiar with.
Opening the supposedly convenient plastic box on the windshield automatically enrols you in a toll flat rate. Sounds not too bad at first, but it gets really expensive. Because Hertz or their service provider PlatePass automatically charges $28 for each day of the rental (or $140 per week). So, our $20 toll fee suddenly turned into $140.
To prevent you from making the same mistake, I want to briefly introduce this service in this post. Additionally, the mini-guide discusses alternative options and when the all-inclusive option might still be worthwhile.
This article refers to a rental with Hertz, but similar systems exist with other providers like Thrifty, Avis (e-tolls.com), etc. I assume the functionality is similar, but the exact fees may vary depending on the company.
Also, note that the specific regulations may vary by state. My experience is based on renting in the state of New York and driving through Massachusetts, Connecticut (which has no tolls), and Rhode Island.
Table of Contents
Our Experience: Paying $140 instead of $20
In September, we rented a fancy Tesla Model Y from Hertz at a good price (about €60 per day). Already at the Hertz counter, we were confronted with the question of how we wanted to handle toll payments. The following options were offered:
- Regular Option: We simply drive through the toll booths as if nothing happened. In this case, Hertz charges a processing fee of $9.99 for each day a toll booth is passed.
- All-Inclusive Option: For a fee of $28 per day (total of $140 for 5 days), we wouldn’t have to worry about toll payments. Because they are all included in this option.
Our route (New York – Providence – Cape Cod – Albany – New York) only included a few toll roads on the first stretch. Therefore, we declined the all-inclusive option and would reluctantly pay the additional processing fee.
This was correctly noted so far. However, they didn’t explain the purpose of the plastic box on the windshield. I assumed that one could (or must) open it to use the toll booths with E-ZPass. Because on the Hertz website, it says, Transponder Use May be required. And also:
If you decline the optional PlatePass All-Inclusive service at the start of the rental period, but still use electronic toll roads and/or bridges during the rental period (including “cashless” or “all electronic” toll roads and bridges, as noted above), you will be liable for and we will charge you: (a) all tolls incurred for such use (at the highest, undiscounted applicable toll rate); (b) a $9.99 usage day fee; and (c) all other applicable toll charges or fees, if any.Hertz website
E-Z Pass is a toll payment system available throughout most of the Northeastern United States. In other regions, there are similar systems with names like I-Pass, SunPass, etc.
On the third day of the trip, I eventually figured out how to easily avoid the processing fee by Hertz (at least in the state of New York, see below). So, I kept the box closed from that point on to avoid being double-charged.
Too late, as it turned out: a week after returning the car, I received an email from Hertz announcing the debiting of the toll fees. Only, instead of the estimated cost of about $40 ($20 toll + 2x $10 processing fee), Hertz suddenly wanted $140:
I initially thought this was a mistake. Hertz had misunderstood us and accidentally booked the all-inclusive option. Therefore, I contacted PlatePass via email to request a correction.
Complaint to PlatePass
During my research, I found on the PlatePass website that this was not a mistake but entirely intentional. Opening the transponder box implies the activation of the all-inclusive option, even if it was declined before:
PlatePass All-inclusive is purchased by accepting the service at the rental counter, opening the transponder shield box affixed to the windshield, or upon vehicle returnPlatePass FAQ
It seemed to me that this was not mentioned either in the rental agreement or on the plastic box. I then searched Twitter for similar experiences and found several complaints on the same issue.
In the email to PlatePass, I pointed out that we never agreed to the all-inclusive option and requested a correction of the invoice. It’s essential to note that the complaint must be made directly to PlatePass (information@PlatePass.com), not to Hertz.
Although it took 5 days, PlatePass was surprisingly understanding and immediately offered to reduce the invoice from the original $139.95 to $39.03:
After confirming my Opt-Out, I initially received no further feedback from PlatePass. However, upon checking the invoice about a week later, I found that it had already been corrected:
Shortly thereafter, a refund of around $100 was credited to my Amex, and the matter was initially settled for me. However, this article goes a bit further.
When is the All-Inclusive Option Worthwhile?
In my opinion, the answer to this question is: Rarely. There may be cases where you should do the math precisely. But toll payments in the USA are generally not so high that fees averaging $28 per day accumulate there. Especially if you want to enjoy your vacation rather than rush from one toll booth to another.
Unfortunately, Google Maps and the like do not show expected toll fees (why not?). There is a practical Trip Calculator on the Toll Guru website that takes care of this:
On the website, you can simply enter the planned route, and then estimated fees are displayed. Additionally, alternative routes with lower tolls and estimated fuel costs are shown.
How to Avoid Overpriced Toll Payments
This is not intended to be an extensive guide on toll payments in the USA—I lack the experience for that. However, I’d like to briefly present three (or two) ways to at least avoid toll exploitation by the rental company, especially in the Northeast.
Until a few years ago, many toll stations had manned booths where the amount could be paid in cash. These times are gradually fading—during our September trip, we did not encounter a single manned booth.
Avoid Toll Roads
With common navigation tools, it’s possible to completely avoid toll roads. In our example, the drive from LaGuardia Airport to Providence, Rhode Island, for instance, would have increased from about 3 to almost 4 hours.
It’s always worth checking such possibilities. Sometimes, even with a 5-minute longer drive, you can save $10 (plus Hertz’s processing fee). However, on longer road trips, you might eventually come across a toll booth that can’t be easily avoided. Who wants to take a 40-minute detour when a bridge takes only 5 minutes?
Keep the Box Closed – “Only” Processing Fee
If the plastic box on the windshield remains closed, tolls are usually billed by license plate. In this case, Hertz charges the following fees:
- The actual toll costs (without E-Z Pass discount)
- Plus a $9.99 processing fee for each day a toll booth is passed
Unfortunately, Hertz recently increased the processing fee from a humane $5.95 per day to $9.99. Passengers do not benefit from reduced toll rates; Hertz charges the full regular toll fee. However, in most cases, this will still be significantly cheaper than the expensive toll subscription.
There might not always be the option to settle toll costs by license plate. In the worst case, without a compatible transponder, you risk a toll violation, which will then be forwarded by Hertz. However, even an active PlatePass does not necessarily protect against this. So, it’s best to ensure that it mentions Pay by Plate or similar somewhere.
While this method is convenient, the downside is the fees. Because even $9.99 per day can add up:
- Most convenient option
- Often cheaper than the all-inclusive option
- Still expensive
- Supports rental companies’ exploitation with additional fees
If you have the time (and inclination) to deal with it, there are two better alternatives below.
Pay Tolls Online
Often, there’s the option to pay tolls online. So far, I only knew such a system for the bridges to and from San Francisco via FasTrak. When a toll road is passed, the fee can be paid online within 48 hours. Only if that doesn’t happen, the bill is forwarded to the rental company (where additional fees usually apply).
For the state of New York, the process is somewhat different. You need to register on the website tollsbymailny.com. If you have a rental car, select the option
Rental / Loaner Vehicle for Future Travel.
You then need to provide the following details:
- The license plate of the rental car
- State where the car is registered (see license plate)
- Period for which the payment should be made (usually corresponding to the rental period)
- Credit card for debiting the amount
The website tollsbymailny.com seems to be accessible only from an American IP address. This is not a problem when using an American hotel Wi-Fi but might be an issue from Europe (or with a European SIM card). In this case, a VPN must be used.
You can also check online at any time which passages have already been recorded. When this wasn’t the case after 2 hours, I was initially a bit worried. But over time, all transactions came in:
The debit of the payment from the registered credit card can take up to 45 days. Here’s a brief overview of the pros and cons of this method:
- Applies immediately upon registration (possibly even slightly retroactively)
- Done with a few clicks
- No discount through E-Z Pass
- Not available in every state
- Separate registration is required for each state
Buy Your Transponder
Even if you’re travelling with a rental car, you have the option to buy your E-ZPass transponder. In the state of New York, there’s a quite convenient option for this. A box with E-Z Pass on the Go is sold at numerous gas stations and supermarkets. It just needs to be placed on the windshield and is recognized in 19 states:
The starter kit costs $25 ($30 in New York City) and includes a $15 credit for future toll transactions. You can find an overview of the sales locations here (possibly access with VPN). Note that the pass becomes valid only on the next calendar day after activation.
The transponder can then be used again on every trip, and any remaining credit remains permanently. If you use E-Z Pass on the Go, you might also benefit from discounted toll rates (usually about 30% to 50% off). However, sometimes discounts are applied only if the transponder is from the same state, and you need to recharge it in time.
Briefly, the pros and cons:
- Potentially reduced toll rates through E-Z Pass
- Can be used again on future trips to the USA
- One-time purchase necessary
- Valid only from the next day
- You need to keep an eye on the credit
- Not available in all states
For Florida, Georgia, Kansas, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and parts of Texas, there’s an alternative called Sun Pass Mini, available for a one-time fee of $5 plus tax. This can be obtained, for example, at CVS Pharmacy stores. Alternatively, there’s SunPass PRO for $15, which is also compatible with E-Z Pass.
The toll system in the USA is unfortunately not particularly easy to understand. Hertz makes it even worse by being very opaque about the fees. If you open the plastic box on the windshield, you agree to a contract for $28 per day, even if this option was explicitly declined before.
In essence, the article can be summarized in a few words: If you’re not sure what you’re doing, in a Hertz rental car, don’t touch the plastic box on the windshield—keep it closed.
I will probably buy my transponder sooner or later because it’s a way to save a few dollars. For short stays, online payment is also a convenient alternative. And if all else fails, it must be settled through the rental company (plus a fee).
Translated by Ditmar