Budget Rent a Car Topping Off Some Bills With Fuel Charge

By Keith L. Alexander
Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The next time you rent a car, pay close attention to your final bill: There might just be a new fee attached that you may not deserve.

To help offset gasoline prices, Budget Rent a Car is imposing an additional $9.50 charge on all vehicles driven fewer than 75 miles.

Most car rental companies have three fueling options: have renters fuel the car, pre-pay for fuel at the rental counter or return the car on empty and let the rental company fill up the vehicle. The last option is usually the most expensive, as companies often charge as much as $6 a gallon.

The new charge is aimed at renters who drive short distances and don't fill up their tanks before they return because the gas gauge still reads "full," even though the tank is a few gallons short. In the past, Budget filled the tank and billed the customer the highest rate. But now, Budget will impose the $9.50 charge even if the renter tops off the tank before returning the car. The charge will be removed only if customers show their gas receipt to a Budget agent, one traveler has already reported, slowing travelers often rushing to catch flights.

"This is a convenience and time-saver for our customers," said Susan McGowan, a spokeswoman for Cendant Corp., Budget's parent company. "This is being done to recoup the cost of lost fuel."

Budget implemented the policy in November. Now Avis, which is also owned by Cendant, is testing the fee at several of its locations, including Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall, Houston's William P. Hobby and Minneapolis/St. Paul International airports. Hertz and other rental companies said they have no plans to adopt the fee.

And while rental companies see the fee as an easy way for renters to avoid extra costs, it hasn't always worked out that way.

Environmental attorney Gary Bigelow of Raleigh, N.C., became irritated after getting socked with the fee when renting a car to Budget's Reagan National Airport office last month. Bigelow, a member of Budget's frequent rental program, said he gets gas at nearby stations before he returns the car. But last month, despite having paid $5 to fill up the tank before returning the car, Budget automatically charged him the fee. He was told the only way the fee would be removed was if he showed his gas receipt to a Budget agent.

Bigelow said many business travelers either don't notice the fee or are too harried to protest as they try to catch a flight or train.

"It ticked me off that after I told them I bought the gas, [the fee] still showed up. I had to go in and show them the receipt and everything," he said.

Air Traveler Advocate Retires: The nation's airline passengers lost probably their biggest -- and most influential -- ally when he retired Friday.

After nearly nine years of leading airline investigations, Transportation Department Inspector General Kenneth M. Mead, 56, who was a Clinton appointee, has left to head up the transportation practice of Baker Botts LLC's law firm in Washington. Mead's replacement has not been named.

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