Fuel For Rental Car: Do You Pay In Advance or Decline?

The agent of a rental car company would not say how much was the fuel charge — if any — to FlyerTalk member eightblack when he rented a car last year. Photograph by FlyerTalk member eightblack. Click on the photograph for a trip report written by eightblack.

Whenever you rent a vehicle, you know that there will be some expenses included — such as taxes, fees and other assorted charges which were not included in the original rate quoted to you…
…but what do you do when the agent explains to you your fuel options? After all, those pesky rental cars need to be fed their gasoline or petrol — the nomenclature depending on which part of the world you are based.
You basically have two choices — or a variation thereof:
1. Pay for the fuel at the rental car facility in advance of your rental. The agent will offer you a rate at which you pay for the full tank of fuel before stepping into the rental car.
  • Advantage You return the vehicle without having to stop to fill it with fuel before returning it, saving you time. Having one fewer thing about which to be concerned is convenient.
  • Disadvantage The cost of the fuel is often greater than what you would typically pay at a fuel station — partially because if you are renting your vehicle from a location at an airport, you are most likely paying taxes and fees you would otherwise not pay elsewhere; and you will have paid for any unused fuel left in the tank — translating into pure profit for the rental car company and possibly causing some agents to pressure you into purchasing this option with an unwanted sales pitch.

2. Fill the vehicle with fuel before you return it. Typically, the fuel tank is full when you rent the vehicle, which means that you must return it full when you return it. If the fuel tank of the vehicle you rent is only half full, then you return the vehicle with the tank half full.

  • Advantage You potentially save money by purchasing fuel at the service station of your choice — typically with the lowest price per liter or gallon.
  • Disadvantage You must find a fuel station at which to stop and fill up the tank of your rental car, which takes time and can be inconvenient if you are in an area with congested roads, few fuel stations, or where the price of fuel is higher than normal — such as near an airport. Orlando comes to mind for me as an example.

My preference is typically to fill the vehicle with fuel before I return it. I am not averse to stopping at a filling station to replenish the fuel tank of the vehicle I rented, as it usually only takes a few minutes of my time. If there are enough miles or kilometers from the filling station to the rental car facility, I will slightly overfill the fuel tank so that it will still be full when I return it. Also, I use credit cards where I receive a special cash rebate for purchases of fuel — a rebate I would otherwise not earn if the fuel is included in the cost of renting a vehicle…
…and notice I wrote “slightly overfill” the fuel tank. There have been cases of people pumping just enough fuel to fill the tank of their rental cars and then drive a great enough distance to return the car with the fuel gauge indicating “full” when the tank was not full, which apparently prompted rental car companies to engage in a practice where customers who did not drive much during the rental period were charged for fuel even though the gauge indicated that the tank was full back in 2009; For example, FlyerTalk member tomme12 was charged by Avis for fuel after only driving nine miles back in 2012; while FlyerTalk member Diplomatico drove a rental car fewer than 75 miles but was charged $10.50 by Avis for fuel back in 2009. Hertz reportedly enforced a similar policy in this case in 2013, in this case in 2012 and also in 2006. These are only a few of many examples of FlyerTalk members being charged extra for fuel after returning their rental vehicles with what they believed was a full tank of fuel…
…which prompts me to advise to you — as I did in this article I wrote and posted last year pertaining to how to avoid being charged for fuel when returning a rental car with a full tank of gasoline: always have a receipt as proof that you indeed refueled the tank of the vehicle you rented when you return it to the rental car facility — and always check your final statement from the rental car company to ensure that you were not charged additionally for fuel after you returned the car. The last thing you want to see on your statement is a surprise that you paid $9.00 or more per gallon for fuel.
Interestingly, the self-service option is not permitted in certain jurisdictions such as New Jersey and Oregon, where an attendant must fill the fuel tank. Although you never need to leave your vehicle — which can especially be convenient during inclement weather; and also where you do not have to guess on which side the cap to the fuel tank is located even though there is a simple indication which you can use without guessing — you are at the mercy of the attendant. I remember one time where filling up the tank of the rental vehicle in New Jersey consumed at least 30 minutes of my time because of a line to wait for the next pump; the slowness and poor service of the attendants; and an error where one of them handed me the wrong credit card and receipt after waiting for them to finally bring it to me.
When I am in New Jersey or Oregon, I am diligent about ensuring that the attendant pumps the grade of fuel which is the lowest cost, as I usually do not need premium fuel in the vehicles I rent; and I watch the pump closely to ensure that no “games” are being played where I could be overcharged for fuel. Quick math which ensures that all is well is when the pump displays ten gallons — meaning that if the fuel is $3.99.9 per gallon, the pump should register $39.99 at ten gallons. I suppose I am overdoing it when I even check the fuel pumps when I fill the tank of the rental vehicle myself — but it is peace of mind for me that I am getting the fuel for which I paid.
FlyerTalk member arollins recently asked if paying for fuel in advance is worth it — especially when you never know if you are going to run late or encounter heavy traffic. FlyerTalk member goosegreen asked the same question back in 2004.
My answer is: it depends on your situation and personal preferences.
If I am on a business trip where time is of the essence and cost is not an issue, paying for the fuel in advance becomes a more attractive option. However, there are some people who choose this option primarily because their employer or client is paying their expenses and the money is not coming out of his or her own pocket. I treat the money of other people as though it were my own if I am not given instructions to otherwise use it differently. I intend to discuss paying your own way versus using the money of other people in a future article, as I have seen that up for debate numerous times on FlyerTalk…
…and then there is also the argument of having one fewer receipt to attach to your expense report. Corporate expense policies can be bizarre and illogical, so I can understand this line of thinking as I have had my share of expense report “horror stories” which were no fault of my own.
Although prices for paying for fuel in advance are usually greater than what you would pay at a filling station, FlyerTalk member Coastercameron advises when pertaining to National Car Rental that they “give you a discount on the prepaid option to entice you because they are likely to come out ahead. You (usually) pay for the whole tank, no refunds for unused fuel at return. The only real way to come out ahead (depending on the value you place on convenience) is to time it out so the car is literally stalling out as you coast across the tire shredders into returns. Chances are you will return the car with at least a few gallons of fuel (that you paid for) in it for them to re-use. This, combined with the fact that National buys gas wholesale mean that the prepaid fuel is a huge money maker for National.”
In other words: do not be fooled into thinking that if they offer you a lower price for fuel than found at a typical service station that you will automatically come out ahead. Let us say you paid $4.00 per gallon with five gallons of fuel remaining in the tank of your rental vehicle when you return it, and the typical price at a gasoline station is $4.10 per gallon. You may have initially “saved” ten cents per gallon at the start of your rental; but you really paid $20.00 to “save” that 50 cents instead of simply filling your tank to replace the fuel you used had you chosen to return the rental vehicle with the tank full…
…so in that case, you have to ask yourself: is the extra $20.00 worth the convenience? Perhaps — or perhaps not. It depends on your personal threshold; the circumstances at the time; and just how good you are at returning a vehicle nearly empty, as posted by FlyerTalk member IsleOfMan: “If you’re in a position where you’re going to use more than an entire tank and can plan with some degree of accuracy how much to put in the last time you fill up before return so you arrive with very little (less than a gallon) in the tank, you’ve bought the convenience of one less fuel stop (mainly the one near the airport).”
You can also use GasBuddy or similar application software on either your computer or personal electronic device to quickly search for fuel with the lowest price — hopefully at a gasoline station which is conveniently on your way to the facility where you are to return your rental vehicle.
The bottom line is that if saving money is the primary objective, returning the rental vehicle full will usually be your best bet. If convenience is the primary objective, paying for the fuel at the counter of the rental car facility at the time you pick up the vehicle will likely be your preferred option.

  1. As far as I’m aware, they are pre-selling you a full tank which only works in your favor if you come back on E and also they sell it for less than you would pay in the real world. Both are not good choices for me and I always refuel before returning. And, as suggested, I get a receipt.

  2. I always get to the airport with time to spare. So the issue of running late doesn’t apply. I always fill up my rentals at the closest national gas station to the airport ( I try to stay away from the smaller gas companies). Thanks to my GPS its really easy to find the closest stations to the airports.

  3. With a GPS as you get to less then 7 miles to the Airport look for an exit to a gas station (even Orlando with the congested roads still has a gas station 5 miles away that is easy on easy off from a highway).
    Pre-pay for gas is never a good option. If you are going on a meeting, and time to get back to the airport is tight, you are better off with the option to pay for what you used (at 2x the amount at the pump … basic math says … no time to fill as long as you are returning the car with more then 1/2 the tank you are better off with the pay for what you used .. if you are returning with less then 1/2 a tank ?? really you couldn’t fill up the night before?)
    I still do not see a situation that pre-pay is better then pay for what you used (in the situations above).

    1. I will go one better, oshkrozz
      …I would rather fill up the tank several miles from the airport — or even fill it up the night before, as you suggested — and pay for that extra gallon consumed upon returning the rental car than paying for fuel in advance. Even if that gallon costs $9.00 or so, it is still cheaper than returning the tank with three gallons or greater of fuel when paying for them in advance…
      …and even after filling the tank up the night before — a form of “insurance”, in my opinion — if I happen to have time and there is a gasoline station along the way, I will top off the tank to avoid being charged extra for fuel by the rental car facility.
      However, that is just me. The only times I have ever paid for fuel in advance — fewer than the fingers I have on one hand — have been for business trips where I was certain that time would be tight for me; and where the client would rather pay extra for the gasoline in return for the value they perceive they will get doing business.
      I still did not like paying extra for the fuel under those circumstances — but I must admit it was quite convenient; and that may be the primary reason why people unlike you and I will happily pay for fuel in advance. There must be enough of them — otherwise, rental car companies probably would not offer that option in the first place.

  4. Prepurchase and then refill it if I can. If I do, make sure to get a receipt to show the return agent who will refund me my repaid fuel charges.

  5. I think the pre-pay is a rip-off. they charge you for a FULL tank, which is basically whatever the car manufacturer lists, which even on E, one would probably never hit. When I leave the airport, I make a point to look for a gas station somewhere nearly. I try my best to make 10 minutes available prior to returning the car. It’s usually not an issue.
    I have had the off case, FLL is this way, where there is literally NOTHING nearby. In that case, I fill up somewhere along the way and expect that the odd 10 miles I have to drive to the airport terminal are not going to register on the fuel gauge. Works now about 100% of the time.

    1. The ten miles may not register on the fuel gauge, nmenaker; but if I recall correctly, there are discussions where FlyerTalk members complain about renting a car with the fuel gauge registering full — only to not have a full tank of fuel and therefore feel like they have been cheated.
      I do not have time right now — otherwise, I would have already searched for those discussions and posted links to them here.

  6. I prepaid one time at Enterprise for 5 cents/gallon less than nearby pump prices. I returned it on fumes, so I got my money’s worth, but it was incredibly stressful trying to time it right. From then on, I have just refueled before returning the car.

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