Prepaid Option Or Fill It Up Before You Get To The Airport?

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Prepaid Option Or Fill It Up Before You Get To The Airport?

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May 31, 2013

Now that Memorial Day has passed and summer is coming in full stride, many of us will go on some type of vacation for some fun in the sun.   If you end up renting a car, most agencies know that they are the last stop between you and your vacation.  Thus, you will most likely end up playing a game of rapid fire at the checkout counter, getting the keys to your rental car, as well as answering questions about insurance and gas options before you take the car.   One of the key questions that the rental car agency will ask you is, “Do you want the prepaid option for gas or do you want to fill it up yourself before you return?”    Hardly ever does anyone ask questions or do any type of analysis on this question, and it can cost you big money if you don’t answer it correctly.   So, here are four ‘smart money moves’ questions to ask yourself before you drive off the lot:

  1. What is the cost per gallon of gas of the prepaid option?    Your car rental company will likely have a gigantic sign posted on the back wall with the price per gallon of gas if you buy the prepaid option.   With the advent of the smart phone, you can simply go to a website like www.gasbuddy.com on the spot to review either the average national price for a gallon of gas or the local average prices for where you be staying.   There is going to be some markup on that gallon of gas so some profit can be made by the rental car company, but the differential isn’t usually as huge as you may think.
  2. How many gallons of gas does the tank hold for my rental car?  This is a question many people won’t ask when they try to do the math (that is if they attempt to do the math at all).   If you end up renting a large car like a minivan or SUV, it could hold between 25-30 gallons of gas.  Whether or not you bring the car back on empty with the prepaid option, they are going to charge you with the full tank of gas.  So, you’ll have to manage this during the course of your trip. Bringing back the rental as close to empty as possible is your best money strategy in that situation.   If the prepaid option is $4.00 per gallon and your car holds 25 gallons, you’ll have roughly a $100 charge to add on top of your rental car costs when the final bill is tabulated. So keep that in mind!
  3. Is there a gas station within the airport? (If not, what is the closest gas station to the airport?)   If you are considering filling up the car yourself because you think this is a more cost effective option, it’s important to know if there is a gas station you can hit within the confines of the airport.  Some airports will have a gas station/convenience store right on the way back to the rental car drop off which is the best case scenario.  However, other cities may require your own additional level of planning on what gas station to hit before you drop off the car.   It’s important to note, that you’ll likely have to hit a gas station within five or ten miles of the actual airport and not necessarily one near your hotel because the car rental agencies are extremely particular about the definition of the word FULL.
  4. What is the cost per gallon if I don’t bring the car back FULL?   This is the one question that will absolutely floor you because if you don’t ask it up front you’ll really have a surprise at the end of our vacation.  Typically, if you don’t choose the prepaid option and the car rental agency needs to get the gas tank back to full, it will cost you roughly double the cost of a normal gallon of gas.  While this may not be a huge deal if you are only a gallon or two short of full, it will be astronomical in cost if you are less than a quarter of a tank full.

It is really important to understand the gas options and whether or not you will refill the tank at the beginning of your vacation.  This is something you should plan before you start the vacation rather than making a snap decision about at the airport.   If you refill the tank yourself, you will need to have proof of receipt for the car rental company or they could still charge you.  This is true even if the tank is physically full.  Yes, even if that needle is right on full where the car rental checkout person can see it.   I know all of this to be true as I argued this point at 6 a.m. on the way back to Atlanta from a business trip many years ago.  Ask these four questions when you check your car out so you can really enjoy your vacation and don’t have a tank of gas (or more) leaking out of your wallet!

Written by:

Ted Jenkin

CFP®, AAMS®, AWMA®, CRPC®, CMFC®, CRPS®

Editor in Chief of Your Smart Money Moves

Co-CEO and Founder of oXYGen Financial, Inc – The Leaders in Gen X & Y Financial Advice and Services

Ted Jenkin  is one of the foremost knowledgeable professionals in giving financial advice to the X and Y Generation.

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