How to avoid an 84% markup on tolls when renting a car

Bypassing extraneous fees in Sydney with a quick mobile registration

I could scarcely have enjoyed a better walk to collect our car in Sydney: wandering along Hyde Park on a crisp and clear day, I had plenty of time to think back on my memories of living in the city in 2004 and 2008 before stopping for a well-made coffee and eventually collecting our car for a three-day rental through a major rental-car company. Everything seemed to be in order with our car and the paperwork, with no surprises—that is, until the rental agent informed me of my choices for paying the tolls.

The default suggestion was that I agree to a flat rate of AU$18 (US$13) per day, whereby all tolls would be processed and paid by the rental car company. This would have meant AU$54 (US$39) for our rental. Their promise here was one of ease: pay more and worry about nothing. But I wondered just how far we would have to drive for our toll fees to hit an equivalent amount.

When I asked for more options, hopefully politely enough, the agent described an alternative that would require more work for me personally: I could pay a one-time “administrative” fee in the ballpark of AU$30 (US$21) and then also be responsible for paying the costs of all of our tolls. I almost laughed thinking about the creativity behind the terminology of “administrative costs.”

I asked if there was any way as a driver to leave Sydney—at least in the direction we were going, which included crossing the Sydney Harbour Bridge—without needing to pay tolls. There wasn’t. So I asked if cash payments were still an option. They weren’t. The car rental company provided the two aforementioned plans. Ah, the sweet add-on costs of legitimized extortion.

But I kept nudging, asking how local residents paid their tolls. Turns out there’s another option when renting a car in Sydney, and seemingly elsewhere too: the rental car companies may not initially tout this, but it’s actually rather simple to register the license plate of your rental vehicle online for a temporary eMU Pass, described as a “a casual pass to pay for travel on Sydney toll roads for up to 30 days.” The set-up time: a few minutes (as long as you have an Internet connection). The set-up cost: AU$1.50 (US$1.10) as a means of verifying identity.

As long as you do this before getting on a toll road, your rental car company shouldn’t be able to chase after you with any fees. I almost took the speedy Cross City Tunnel, a toll road, but thankfully realized this mistake with enough time to turn around at a roundabout so I could navigate the slower city streets instead. When I reached our hotel to pick up Cathlin and Eliza, I stepped into the lobby for a few minutes to use the free wifi to register our rental car for E-Toll and sync a personal credit card and email address on a rather clunky mobile interface.

But an email confirmation came almost immediately. And just about two weeks later, our bill arrived as an attachment in my inbox. Three days of driving in, around, and north of the city included a whopping two tolls. The cost was a mere AU$7.31 (US$5.30), plus an additional AU$1.50 (US$1.10) in lesser administrative fees. The total of AU$8.81 (US$6.40) ran 84% less than the initial rate the car rental company proposed, and 70% less than their back-up option.

Wherever you’re traveling, rental cars can give a lot more freedom for getting where you want to go and venturing off the beaten track much faster and more comfortably. But it’s all too easy to blindly go with the rental-car company’s suggestions—in this case about tolls. The short-term eMU pass in New South Wales is an ideal option for tourists renting a car in and around Sydney. Other municipalities have similar services, and if they don’t, they should consider replicating.

Either way, take a minute the next time you’re renting a car to understand the added costs of your rental, either hidden or disclosed. There are likely alternatives that don’t require you to throw extra money at your car-rental company, though you should rely on your own research.

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