Business & Tech

Sean P. Murphy | Fine Print

How Avis can charge customers a fee for tolls, even if the driver doesn’t take a toll road

Suzi Parks has a complaint about Avis' extra charge for use of toll roads.
Barry Chin/Globe Staff
Suzi Parks has a complaint about Avis' extra charge for use of toll roads.

Suzi and Tom Parks abandoned the idea of owning an automobile in the city shortly after moving into their South End brownstone in the late 1980s: too many burglaries, too few parking spots.

Since then, they regularly rent a car, sometimes to go to the Berkshires or Cape Cod for a few days, sometimes for a weekend shopping trip to Ikea or a building supplies store.

Suzi Parks is an old pro at auto rentals at this point, knowing, for example, that she can save $10 by doing business outside of Boston. (When you rent from an outlet within the city you get whacked with a $10 charge for the Boston Convention & Exhibition Center.)

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What Parks has discovered recently that really irks her are the fees most auto rental companies charge customers who use toll roads, which in Massachusetts include the turnpike, the airport tunnels, and the Tobin Bridge.

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Parks has no problem paying tolls like everyone else. But she hates that she is charged an extra $3.95 “service fee” each day just because she went through a toll once.

Because rental cars are equipped with transponders, the rental company handles toll payments to the state and bills the driver later. The service fee is supposed to cover administrative costs.

Here’s how it works: You rent a car in Boston and hop on the Mass. Pike to do an errand in Newton. Avis will charge you for the toll, plus a $3.95 toll service fee for that day. But it will also charge you that same $3.95 toll service fee for the other days you had the vehicle, even though you never went through a toll again. Avis caps its monthly toll service fees at $19.75.

“It’s just so irritating,” said Parks, who has complained to Avis, to no avail.

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It reminded me of a recent experience I had buying a new iPhone. I went to the AT&T store and paid $800 for a phone with 64 GB because I had run out of space to add new apps on my old phone. I also laid out $50 in taxes and $38.25 for a screen protector. And I thought I was done.

Yet, when my monthly AT&T bill arrived, it included a $30 “upgrade fee.” I don’t remember any discussion of it at the store. And I can’t imagine why I have to pay a fee for the privilege of paying for a new product. It felt like AT&T was taking advantage, thinking, I assume, that I wouldn’t notice the extra charge, coming as it did weeks after my purchase, or that I wouldn’t fight it. I didn’t.

I asked Avis to justify charging $3.95 on days when the customer doesn’t use a toll road.

Katie McCall, an Avis representative, e-mailed me this nonresponsive response:

“We offer e-Toll service for greater customer convenience and peace of mind when travelers are on the road. The cost for the e-Toll service is $3.95/day. The customer does not pay any fee related to this service unless they opt-in, by using the device at least once. As highways increasingly move to cashless tolls, this service is very popular with our customers and disclosed throughout the reservation process in an effort to ensure transparency throughout the journey.”

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I don’t know why Avis is being so self-congratulatory about providing customer “peace of mind.” Responsibility for the payment of tolls belongs to Avis, not its customers, as far as the state is concerned. Avis owns the vehicles, and if Avis didn’t equip its cars with transponders the state Department of Transportation would simply take a shot of the license plate as the car passes through the gantry and bill the company.

Avis pledges to be “in the business of treating people like people.” But I think that would ring truer if the company got rid of fees that defy logic and seem deceptive.

Of course, there is one way rental car customers can avoid service fees while still using toll roads. If you have a transponder and you or someone in your family rents a car, bring along your transponder and keep the rental company’s transponder switched off by keeping it closed in its box.

One caveat: Before you hit the road, go online to your EZpassMA account and add the plate number, year, make, and model of your rental vehicle. (You can do it on your smartphone from the rental outlet once you get your vehicle.) That way MassDOT will know it’s really you using your transponder.

It could save you almost $20.

For Suzi and Tom Parks, who have no car and no transponder, they’re stuck.

Sean P. Murphy can be reached at smurphy@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @spmurphyboston.