Sometimes It’s Worth it Not to Fill Up the Gas Tank Before Returning the Rental Car

Rental car gas: I never “prepay the gas tank” when renting a car, since with most rental agencies you’re prepaying the entire tank and you aren’t going to come out well unless you return the car almost empty.

But that doesn’t mean it always makes sense to bother refueling the vehicle yourself. It depends on what the rental company’s penalty rate is.

While they may post a per-gallon price, usually you’re going to be charged a per-mile price … if you don’t fill the tank up at all they will multiply miles driven by the per mile gas cost which is based on an average fuel economy and their current price for gas.

Here’s the pricing at the gas station next to the rental car return at Miami:

Wow. $4.79 per gallon. The default rate at National Car Rental was $5.63. So you pay an extra 84 cents a gallon to have them fill it up.

I wouldn’t want to pay the premium for them to do so on an empty tank or even a half empty tank. And really, you ought to fill up before your each the last gas station near the rental return.

But I find myself there, I hadn’t filled up earlier. I had tons to do, I had been offline all day and had work to catch up on. I had only used probably four gallons of gas, and so having National hit me with a gas charge came to less than $3.50 more than filling it up at the station by the rental return. I just returned the car unfilled.

The employee checking me in was incredulous when he saw I hadn’t filled up the tank, “Do you think you might still have time to do that?” he asked. I didn’t. And it was worth the $3+ to me not to worry about it.

Next time I’ll remember to fill up farther from the airport.

Do you ever return your rental car without filling up the tank?

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About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. @Gary — Your time is way more valuable than that. I think the takeaway for you should be that “next time I’ll remember NOT to fill the tank!” I may seriously consider that option in the future.

  2. I made the mistake of waiting until the last exit at MCO a couple months ago. The first three gas stations I saw were all $5.69/gallon. Unbelievable. I filled up there because I didn’t have time to keep driving down the road, but now that you say this, I can’t imagine that was any worse than the rental car gas rate.

  3. With Avis’ $13.99 flat rate for less than 75 miles often if you go between 50-75 miles you are better off just letting them fill.

  4. I have not filled up on purpose as well because the inconvenience was greater than a few bucks. I also sometimes fill up the night before and that’s close enough that they don’t charge me anything even though it’s not full.

  5. Not to mention that you probably don’t receive the car with a totally full tank. A number of time I get a car just because the taxi option is more expensive and a less central hotel is cheaper, so I’ll use only a gallon or two. If I don’t pay attention, I’ll fill the tank completely full, and I know I just bought somebody else some gas. Bollocks! And If you return near full, you might not get hit with any charge.

  6. Avis is making it harder to gauge what to do: their “paperless” rental agreements do not list the “out” mileage, thus unless you know to reset the trip odometer or remember the mileage, and you are near the 75 mile limit for their flat-rate charge, you run the risk of getting charged $7/gal, at least at LAX.

    My office is about 50 mi r/t from LAX, so I usually just accept their $13.95 flat charge, but I worry when I get to 70+ miles that they might have the outgoing mileage wrong… However, with the poor mileage some “upgrades” get (SUVs and so forth), and Avis’ habit of not fully filling the tank, I usually find I am bux ahead by taking this flat rate rather than re-filling……

  7. I specifically don’t refill on many one way rentals from out of state to NYC, where the default rate on the contract is less than the actual price of gas at my destination.

  8. There is also another station 1/4 mile down the road (BP I think?) that is $1/gal cheaper in MIA… its just the stations formally on airport property that are outrageously expensive.

    On the other hand, the last (large) company I worked for actually had negotiated their contracts with market rate gas, in which case there really was no penalty at all for returning unfilled. Of course even with that, the formal company policy was to always refill before returning, but I don’t think accounting had enough time to really verify.

  9. +1 for refilling the night before. I often work in Mountain View, which is a good 30mi from SFO. I’ll top it off the night before my flight and then just drive gingerly up to SFO the next morning. Gas gauge still says ‘F’, but there’s at least a gallon missing 🙂

  10. Jl100, Ed, and Kurt-you guys almost sound excited to be screwing over the next person who rents that car…

  11. I always fill the tank, even on business trips, unless I am rushing to the airport from a meeting and can’t spare 5m, which is rare as I normally book a later flight to be safe.

    But there are some places where you may not want to stop to fill up. The neighborhood near Oakland airport is not too wonderful, I have been menaced at gas stations by the locals looking for a victim.

  12. Louis CK does this great bit about blissfully leaving his car curbside and then calling the rental car company at the last minute to have them pick it up.

    I’ve always filled up before I return my rentals, probably because I think I’m being “ripped off”, but you make a good case for time vs. money that I’ll consider for future rentals.

  13. I pay for my own rentals and fuel and nearly always have the time. Your mileage may vary (intended) but here’s some of what I do:
    1) when possible, reserve and rent and off-airport locations.
    2) during the walk around, have agent mark and sign* fuel gauge box on contract. Name and ID number, not just initials)
    3) During last day of use, tune brain to buying gas have a sense of local prices.
    4) Buy self-serve gas to an ‘obvious teaspoon’ above rental contract, considering my needs for that day.
    5) use manual check-in with agent, for inspection and fuel check. If my ‘obvious teaspoon’ or better, ask agent to write on contract, “No refuel Necessary,” or some such, with signature and ID number.
    5) use public transport of truly free shuttle back to airport.
    In 6+ years with this method I had but one problem; quickly corrected when contract notes were examined. WHY is works: Ninety percent of my trips are to the same 7-8 cities, I understand their public transport systems, have plenty of time and in 6 or 8 rent from the same company. Again, your mileage may vary and you may not really care.

  14. Quick add to above. How I often score ‘free’ rental upgrades. Per above post, I usually have plenty of time and tend to arrive the PM before my business. I reserve compact or lowest rate cars and schedule my arrival for mid to late afternoon when possible. The morning rush is over, some agencies are out of lowest class cars and they want my business and fill the order with what ever remains. One, two or even three class upgrades occur about 60% of the time. My best guess is that a one-class upgrade is part of their PR program and that 2 or 3 class bumps are a slight benefit. An no, “Size does not matter.”

  15. I normally fill just because I am always putting serious miles on my rentals. Recently, we had rented a SUV to get the family away from the airport during a long layover. I only drove 25 miles, but we had the SUV parked with the a/c on high for a few hours while our little guy rested and I played with the older ones. It was totally worth paying the flat $13.95 considering I was down well over a 1/4 of a tank. 🙂 The funny part was that I went to return and they had me down as driving 450 miles – in 5 hours. After telling them about the the 25 miles and paying the flat fee, I was done!

  16. You think that’s expensive? This morning in Paris regular gas is about 1.6 Euros/Liter which translates to roughly $8/Gallon.

    So when I travel to the US I feel like I’m getting a HUGE deal even without refuelling at the station.

  17. My #1 rental car annoyance is when they give me a car with a less than full tank and tell me, “Just return it at the same level,” as if it is an easy task to refill an unfamiliar car to 3/8 of a tank of gas. In these instances I almost always end up buying more gas than I should have and swearing never to return to that rental location again.

    I have, however, been happy with the policy at a few Enterprise Local locations of late (though I am not usually an Enterprise fan). Because they do not have facilities to refuel the cars, they nearly always give you a car with less than a full tank, but upon return they only charge you for what you actually use (rather than a full tank), and the refueling rate is the same as the going rate at local gas stations. I’m not sure if this is company wide, or only at the locations I’ve been to recently, but it really improved my evaluation of Enterprise.

  18. When they refuel for you dont they sock you with a bunch of extra fees ie: charge you those outrageous 20-30% tax fees on top of the gas cost? If not and its only a flat rate marginally higher than the real cost of gas I guess it could makes sense if your time is that valuable to skip it.

  19. I realized this weekend that I should have done the same with a car rented at Avis in Manhattan. If agreed to upfront, the per gallon charge was only about 30 cents more than the station. With so few gas stations, I would’ve gladly paid the extra $1.50 instead of wasting time.

    I also had that contract perk once with no surcharge for refueling. I believe it was with Hertz.

  20. SFO has this issue too. There are a couple of gas stations that are around one to three dollars per gallon more expensive. Go a few more blocks and the prices go back to normal.

  21. I always fill it up unless its on a business trip and I’m cutting it close getting to the airport on time. I think there gas charges also get some of the car tax fees added.

  22. @JohnBom

    I used to live in Millbrae right by the airport. Best place to fill up is Market gas station on Millbrae Ave across from BART, one exit away from SFO. Not only is it 10 cents+ cheaper than the Chevron across the street, but all the Town Car / shuttle van / taxi drivers go there to fill up, and they are people who knows where to get cheap gas.

  23. That gas station on the corner is robbing blind the poor renters. Elsewhere around the prices are significantly lower.

  24. I’d be interested to know what you actually were charged in the end. I’m always concerned that they would come up with an excuse for charging me more than I anticipate.

  25. Twice I returned a car without filling up: Once in Lawton, Oklahoma, a meeting ended early and I realized I could make it to an earlier flight, but had no time to stop and fill up. Arriving at 8 PM rather than 10:30 was well worth the few extra dollars for refueling. Another time at Oklahoma City I somehow managed to find a route to the airport (coming from Lawton) without any gas stations. I probably did have time to drive a few miles out and back, but being able to just step into the terminal without feeling rushed was worth the extra cost.

  26. Everyone, please fill up if renting with Hertz at SLC. I didn’t and was charged $4.00 more for each gallon. Yikes! Normally, I fill up, and the one time I don’t it cost me an arm and a leg.

  27. This article saved me $15-$20 yesterday. I had flown into JFK and rented a car grom Hertz to drive one way to East Hampton, returning the car to the East Hampton Airport. It’s always been ingrained in my head to fill up the tank before returning a rental car, but based on this article I actually did the math first. I had driven 103 miles, and the contract called for a charge of $0.192/mile for not buying gas, or about $20. I figured filling the tank (at <$4/gallon) would have cost $15. Do I decided that it wasn't worth filling the tank. But when I returned the car and explained my decision making to the Hertz guy, he responded that he wasn't going to charge me for gas! Thanks Gary!

  28. My deep dark secret is E85.

    I often rent cars in Kansas City. About half the time (although less and less frequently anymore), I grab a car that’s FlexFuel capable.

    There’s a couple of stations just off the highway between downtown and the airport that sell E85.

    Truth is, it’s full and they never tell me “what” it ought to be full of.

    PS – Don’t do this with a car that’s not FlexFuel capable. You’ll do harm that you will pay for.

  29. this asshat is the reason why it’s now $10/gallon if you don’t fill up the tank at rent-a-car places. thx a lot shmucko.

  30. This is probably the reason why my “loaner/rental” from Enterprise was at just over a quarter tank and after driving it to work, home, and back to the dealer – the LIGHT WAS ON (51 freaking miles total)! They never told me what to fill it at, but I better not get a ding for it. I needed to trade for my same “brand” of car the next day and my car is still in the shop. But, the car I got with a “full” tank was a compact that was definitely not full. I needed to fill it the next day.

  31. I actually missed the last-of-the-day red-eye flight because I wasted ~5 minutes to go to the nearby gas station and fill up couple gallons. It had cost me thousands of dollars due to missed workdaym canceled meetings, extra hotel night, taxi fees, etc. Next time, I will be more than happy to pay the extra fuel charge and get to the airport sooner. My time is more worth than few bucks (or even ~$10) that I can save by bothering to full the tank.

  32. The rate I prepay for gas at National is right at or less than the cost of filling it up myself. I use a full tank each week. I don’t have to make an extra stop, which is worth it to me. LAX is a horrible airport. Extra time is always worth it, even if I’m early. I use the Emerald club, and the prepay fuel rate is for a midsize regardless of which car I choose.

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