Should You Prepay For Gas With Your Rental Car?

You know the questions you’ll going to be asked at the counter when renting a car. Do you want to upgrade to a larger/nicer/fancier car? How about the  insurance coverage? Do you want the navigation system? Do you want to opt in to their toll program? Lastly, you’ll get the pitch to prepay for the gas. It sounds like a good idea. The price they’re showing is pretty decent and it’s much lower than the amount they’ll charge you if you don’t bring it back full. Should you go for it????

NO! Don’t do it. This is rarely a good deal.

I was reminded of this when I was renting a car in Austin, Texas. The car rental agent from Alamo asked if I wanted to get the prepaid fuel option – all I had to do was bring the car back empty. I told him no thanks, I’ve rented cars in Austin before and I know there are gas stations all around the airport. He said Alamo’s gas prices were cheaper and sometimes the wait at the other stations can be 20 minutes. I give him credit, his salesmanship was better than most. I came back with the response that I’m unable to schedule my driving to make sure that I return the car with no fuel left in the tank. Once it was clear to him that he wasn’t going to make the upsell, he admitted you have to return the car with 1/8 of a tank or less just to break even.

refuel-2157211_1920

It’s not difficult to do the math. When you prepay for the fuel, you’re buying a full tank from the car rental company. Any gas left in the tank when you return the car is your loss.

Let’s assume your rental car has an average size fuel tank, so say 15 gallons.

The car rental company is offering you to prepay for the gas for $2.49 a gallon.

The gas station right outside the airport (usually not the cheapest) costs $2.69 a gallon.

The cost to prepay would be $37.35

The cost to pay yourself for a entire tank would be $40.35

That’s a difference of $2.60

You’d have to bring the car back with less than 1 gallon of gas left to break even.

So if the math doesn’t work out, is there ever a time when you should prepay for the gas? I can think of two reasons:

  • If you’re returning the car very early or very late and it’s possible the gas stations in the area won’t be open.
  • You’re not familiar with the area and don’t want to worry about getting gas when returning the car.

Either way, just go in knowing you’ll be paying the car rental company with any fuel left in the car when it’s returned simply for the convenience, not the cost.

So how can you avoid these situations? I fill up our rental car the day before we’re going home, when I see a good price for gas. This way I’m already on full and only would need to put in whatever gas I use on that last day driving around and to the airport. When I use my phone to get directions to the airport, I search for gas stations on my route. I try to find one within 2-3 miles of the airport so I don’t use too much gas after filling up. If you have an app on your phone that tells you the price of gas at those stations, like Google Maps or Waze,  you can also avoid places that try to rip you off.

Google Maps Gas station
Google Maps listing of gas stations by Orlando Airport

The closest gas station to Orlando Airport (the first one on the list above) has exceedingly high prices, hoping to catch tourists off guard and they won’t notice the price until it’s too late. This was the sign the city forced them to put up, clearly showing the price, after literally years of not even showing their prices (and getting thousands upon thousands of dollars in fines).

Orlando Airport Gas Price

When I make that last fill up, I always get a receipt in case the rental car agent asks for it. I’ve never had this happen to me but I’ve heard of instances where agents did just that.

Final Thoughts

I rarely think buying the full tank of gas from the rental car company is a good deal because it’s easy enough to plan to fill up your car before returning it. If you make sure to top off the tank the day before, even if you’re rushing to get to the airport you’ll only have to pay the really high price for a few gallons instead of returning you car with a 1/2 tank of gas that you paid for.

Do you prepay for your rental car fuel? Is there a reason I didn’t think of that makes it a good deal? Let me know in the comments.

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This article was first published on Your Mileage May Vary.

9 thoughts on “Should You Prepay For Gas With Your Rental Car?”

  1. I agree with you 100%. I never get gas option and always fill up the night before I am returning to the airport. I travel to Orlando 2 or 3 times a year, so while I am going back and forth to the parks I am always scoping out the gas stations near my hotel for the cheapest prices. I also look for where the taxis are filling up, usually a sure sign of the cheapest gas in the area. Off topic, I was wondering if you could give my a link to your Sedona, AZ trip. I’ll be heading there in September and would like to see your views and the things you did when you were there. Thanks and keep of the good work, I enjoy reading your thoughts and views.

    1. Thanks for the feedback. We’re not headed to Sedona until October so not much help for your trip. We’ve been there once before. What were you planning on doing while there?

      1. We will only be there for 2 nights, so we will do a Pink Jeep tour, hit Bell Rock, try to do Devil’s Bridge and my wife wants to visit one the Vortex sites. I just wanted to know what you guys did on your last trip or your opinion on anything that you think we should not miss while there. For what it’s worth, I have been playing the points game for about 3 years now. So we are flying to Phoenix from Philadelphia free round trip and my stay in Sedona for the 2 nights which are also free, at a Hyatt. We will then head to Williams, AZ, and take the Grand Canyon Train to the Grand Canyon and spend a night.

  2. never prepay for gas at rental car companies. the gas they advertise at the counter may appear to be less than the gas stations but their gas doesn’t include all the taxes, and it’s not just sales tax. in my case, the gas price at the counter was $2.85, whereas the gas stations were charging above $3. however, the above $3 gas is the total, after taxes price you pay at the gas station. so even before taxes on the $2.85, i was charged a total of $68.10. $68.10/$2.85 is about 24 gallons. the suv i got had a max of 18.6 gallons. i’ve already overpaid. again, this is before all the taxes. i used about 14 gallons. $68.10 before taxes/14 gallons used is $4.86 since it wasn’t empty when i brought it back. even empty is $68.10 before taxes/18.6 gallons max is $3.66.

  3. I often spend time in Yuma, AZ and typically fly into PHX and home on a red-eye from SAN. I know I will use more than a tank, and gas is much cheaper in PHX than anywhere in California! It is a no brainier to take the fuel option in this case!

    1. Truly an example of how no advice is perfect for every situation. In this instance, purchasing the fuel makes perfect sense.

  4. My wife and I had an early morning flight at 7:10 a.m. out of San Jose, California and then a transfer in Maui going to Kauai. By the time we arrived at the Advantage Rental Car we were both tired! When the Advantage Rental Car explained the Car Rental she talked about giving us a deal on the price per gallon of: $3.719 (using Advantage Rental Car gasoline) – – told us they are the lowest price on the island. What she didn’t make clear is that she charged to our credit card: $57.11 for a full tank of gasoline upfront! While in Kauai we found that we could buy gasoline at Costco for only: $3.099 per gallon. So we filled our tank at Costco and returned the Rental Car with a Full tank. Our flight returning was an early one too – so dropped off the Rental Car with the full tank – – prior to the Advantage Car Rental Office opening. When we arrived home we find out that Advantage had in fact charged us up front. I needed to call and speak to a Manager who after several minutes credited us back for the $57.11 Pre-paid Fuel Charge. Even though they refunded our pre-paid fuel – – to me this is a Scam and they are taking Advantage (hence their name) of tired customers as well as customers that are in a hurry. Also one final point – we drove all around the island of Kauai and only drove: 119 total miles – – there is no way we could have possibly used a full tank and again I am sure they know this and take advantage of customers – just like the extra auto insurance they offer – – another big money maker!

  5. Just this past weekend, for the first time ever I took the Fuel Service option. I did this because the previous car rental tried to charge me for an empty fuel tank (which was totally full), and so as I’m trying to catch my flight I’m having to argue with a dawdling agent to correct the mistaken charge. Needless to say, it’s stressful. And they know it.

    So they sell the Fuel Service option like it’s a flat rate, but what they don’t show you is that in the fine print (that I didn’t read) they say they adjust the total according to the vehicle class. For me, I reserved an Economy car (9.2 gallon tank), but when I went to the booth to pick up my Economy Car they steered me toward all the Full Size cars. When I pointed out I did not ask for a Full Size, they pointed me toward the spot with the Economy and the Compacts together and said “take anything”. I took the Toyota Corolla (which is actually a “compact”… 13.2 gallon tank). When I went to return it I asked why my final total was higher, is when I learned they charge per gallon for each vehicle class. It’s still the same rate per gallon, but you’ll pay for a full tank based on the car you actually drove, not what you reserved. I actually think they deliberately steered me toward the Full Size cars for that very reason. I think they want customers to think they are being generous by ‘upgrading’ your vehicle, when in actuality they stand to profit off of a larger fuel tank. For me, I used up only about half my tank. If I had driven the Economy I would have ‘gifted’ them $18, but since I drove a Compact I gifted them $25. If this sounds like nickel & diming… yeah, that’s exactly what it is. If thousands of travelers unknowingly accept what looks like an innocent vehicle class upgrade, this per gallon fuel service difference probably adds up to millions in excess revenue.

    In summary, The Fuel Service option is an upsell that does not benefit the customer’s pocketbook, but can shave off a few minutes of travel time, that is, if you don’t waste it arguing with an agent about the discrepancies in your bill.

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