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 reasonable 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.
Last year, I rented a car from Alamo in Austin, Texas. The car rental agent 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 lower 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 could not 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 to break even.
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 holding 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 an 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. I’m not willing to take a car near empty after running out of gas on a road trip.
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, 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 going home, when I see a good gas price. 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.
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 showing their prices (and getting thousands upon thousands of dollars in fines).
When I make that last fill up, I always get a receipt if 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.
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 your car with a 1/2 tank of gas that you paid for.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary