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The Sensible Traveler

Budget adds an option to gassing up rental cars

Email|Print| Text size + By Bruce Mohl
Globe Staff / February 19, 2006

Budget Rent A Car is offering customers a third flat-fee option for gassing up their vehicles at the end of a rental.

Most rental car companies offer two options: to prepay for a tank of gas at the time of rental and return the car as empty as possible, or to return the vehicle with a full tank or else pay a steep premium for any gas the company must add.

Budget's new option is to pay a flat fee of $9.50 as long as the car is driven less than 75 miles.

Susan McGowan, a spokeswoman for Budget, said it saves time and money for travelers making relatively short trips because they don't have to top off the tank before returning the car or pay for gas they don't need.

''It's simple," she said. ''It's geared to business travelers or anyone making a short trip."

Avis, which like Budget is owned by Cendant Corp., is also experimenting with the flat-fee fuel option at select locations, but only Budget has rolled it out nationwide.

Rental car companies have long used gasoline as a means to wring more money out of their customers. Budget's flat-fee option doesn't end the problem, but it helps.

I usually choose the full-tank option, because I think it's easier to fill up the tank before returning the car than to prepay for a tank of gas and try to return it empty. Neither option is ideal.

I have been on a lot of trips where I am short of time and dashing around to find a gas station. I also have been on trips where I have prepaid for a full tank but returned it half full. Mostly, it seems you can't win.

The penalty under the full-tank option is particularly annoying. Rental car companies charge steep premiums, often more than 100 percent of the prevailing retail price, for every gallon of gasoline they have to add to return the tank to full. At Orlando International Airport, Budget was charging more than $4 a gallon, Enterprise Rent-A-Car $3.50, National Car Rental $5.99, and Hertz Corp. $6.39 a gallon.

The regular price in the area, which the companies were charging for the prepay option, ranged from $2.05 to $2.49 a gallon in a weeklong period.

Rental car companies say the premium they charge customers who fail to return the tank full is partly to cover their extra costs and partly as a deterrent.

''We want to deter people from taking that option and returning the car empty," McGowan said. ''We are not a service station per se."

Maybe, but companies have no problem filling the tank for the prepay option and Budget is now refilling the tank with its new $9.50 flat-fee option.

Laura Bryant, a spokeswoman for Enterprise, said rental car companies do pump a lot of gas, but that the steep premiums for customers who do not return their tanks full are designed to cover unplanned costs.

''It's a matter of planning and allocation of resources and time," she said.

Contact Bruce Mohl at mohl@globe.com.

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