Should You Prepay For Gas With Your Rental Car?

by joeheg

You know the questions you’ll going to be asked at the counter when renting a car. Do you want to upgrade to a larger/nicer/fancier car? How about the insurance coverage? Do you want the navigation system? Do you want to opt in to their toll program? Lastly, you’ll get the pitch to prepay for the gas. It sounds like a good idea. The price they’re showing is reasonable and it’s much lower than the amount they’ll charge you if you don’t bring it back full. Should you go for it????

NO! Don’t do it. This is rarely a good deal.

For example, I rented a car from Alamo in Austin, Texas. The car rental agent asked if I wanted to get the prepaid fuel option – all I had to do was bring the car back empty. I told him no thanks, I’ve rented cars in Austin before and I know there are gas stations all around the airport. He said Alamo’s gas prices were lower and sometimes the wait at the other stations can be 20 minutes. I give him credit, his salesmanship was better than most. I came back with the response that I could not schedule my driving to make sure that I return the car with no fuel left in the tank. Once it was clear to him that he wasn’t going to make the upsell, he admitted you have to return the car with 1/8 of a tank or less to break even.


It’s not difficult to do the math. When you prepay for the fuel, you’re buying a full tank from the car rental company. Any gas left in the tank when you return the car is your loss.

Let’s assume your rental car has an average size fuel tank holding 15 gallons.

The car rental company is offering you to prepay for the gas for $3.49 a gallon.

The gas station right outside the airport (usually not the cheapest) costs $3.69 a gallon.

The cost to prepay would be $52.35

The cost to pay yourself for an entire tank would be $55.35

That’s a difference of $3.00

You’d have to bring the car back with less than 1 gallon of gas left to break even. I’m not willing to drive a car until it’s near empty – not after running out of gas on a road trip.

So if the math doesn’t work out, is there ever a time when you should prepay for the gas? I can think of two reasons:

  • If you’re returning the car very early or very late and it’s possible the gas stations in the area won’t be open.
  • You’re not familiar with the area and don’t want to worry about getting gas when returning the car.

Either way, go in knowing you’ll be paying the car rental company with any fuel left in the car when it’s returned simply for the convenience, not the cost.

So how can you avoid these situations? I fill up our rental car the day before going home when I see a good gas price. This way, I’m already on full and only would need to put in whatever gas I use on that last day driving around and to the airport. When I use my phone to get directions to the airport, I search for gas stations on my route. I try to find one within 2-3 miles of the airport so I don’t use too much gas after filling up. If you have an app on your phone that tells you the price of gas at those stations, like Google Maps or Waze,  you can also avoid places that try to rip you off.

a screenshot of a phone

The closest gas station to Orlando Airport has exceedingly high prices, hoping to catch tourists off guard and they won’t notice the price until it’s too late. This was the sign the city forced them to put up, clearly showing the price, after literally years of not showing their prices (and getting thousands upon thousands of dollars in fines).

Orlando Airport Gas Price

When I make that last fill up, I always get a receipt if the rental car agent asks for it. I’ve never had this happen to me but I’ve heard of instances where agents did just that.

Final Thoughts

I rarely think buying the full tank of gas from the rental car company is a good deal because it’s easy enough to plan to fill up your car before returning it. If you make sure to top off the tank the day before, even if you’re rushing to get to the airport you’ll only have to pay the really high price for a few gallons instead of returning your car with a 1/2 tank of gas that you paid for.

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Mark Peters August 17, 2017 - 8:55 am

I agree with you 100%. I never get gas option and always fill up the night before I am returning to the airport. I travel to Orlando 2 or 3 times a year, so while I am going back and forth to the parks I am always scoping out the gas stations near my hotel for the cheapest prices. I also look for where the taxis are filling up, usually a sure sign of the cheapest gas in the area. Off topic, I was wondering if you could give my a link to your Sedona, AZ trip. I’ll be heading there in September and would like to see your views and the things you did when you were there. Thanks and keep of the good work, I enjoy reading your thoughts and views.

joeheg August 17, 2017 - 8:49 pm

Thanks for the feedback. We’re not headed to Sedona until October so not much help for your trip. We’ve been there once before. What were you planning on doing while there?

Mark Peters August 18, 2017 - 9:26 am

We will only be there for 2 nights, so we will do a Pink Jeep tour, hit Bell Rock, try to do Devil’s Bridge and my wife wants to visit one the Vortex sites. I just wanted to know what you guys did on your last trip or your opinion on anything that you think we should not miss while there. For what it’s worth, I have been playing the points game for about 3 years now. So we are flying to Phoenix from Philadelphia free round trip and my stay in Sedona for the 2 nights which are also free, at a Hyatt. We will then head to Williams, AZ, and take the Grand Canyon Train to the Grand Canyon and spend a night.

Juan Dough February 8, 2018 - 12:30 am

never prepay for gas at rental car companies. the gas they advertise at the counter may appear to be less than the gas stations but their gas doesn’t include all the taxes, and it’s not just sales tax. in my case, the gas price at the counter was $2.85, whereas the gas stations were charging above $3. however, the above $3 gas is the total, after taxes price you pay at the gas station. so even before taxes on the $2.85, i was charged a total of $68.10. $68.10/$2.85 is about 24 gallons. the suv i got had a max of 18.6 gallons. i’ve already overpaid. again, this is before all the taxes. i used about 14 gallons. $68.10 before taxes/14 gallons used is $4.86 since it wasn’t empty when i brought it back. even empty is $68.10 before taxes/18.6 gallons max is $3.66.

5 Bad Habits You Shouldn’t Do With Your Car Rental – Heath Ly & His Blogging Life November 1, 2018 - 10:15 am

[…] you have an early flight that will make it inconvenient to refuel the car yourself, always avoid prepaying for gasoline. Even where you are only charged for the fuel you use, having a car rental agency refuel the car is […]

Michael August 25, 2019 - 10:24 pm

I often spend time in Yuma, AZ and typically fly into PHX and home on a red-eye from SAN. I know I will use more than a tank, and gas is much cheaper in PHX than anywhere in California! It is a no brainier to take the fuel option in this case!

joeheg August 26, 2019 - 12:24 am

Truly an example of how no advice is perfect for every situation. In this instance, purchasing the fuel makes perfect sense.

Bob McTighe August 29, 2019 - 9:23 pm

My wife and I had an early morning flight at 7:10 a.m. out of San Jose, California and then a transfer in Maui going to Kauai. By the time we arrived at the Advantage Rental Car we were both tired! When the Advantage Rental Car explained the Car Rental she talked about giving us a deal on the price per gallon of: $3.719 (using Advantage Rental Car gasoline) – – told us they are the lowest price on the island. What she didn’t make clear is that she charged to our credit card: $57.11 for a full tank of gasoline upfront! While in Kauai we found that we could buy gasoline at Costco for only: $3.099 per gallon. So we filled our tank at Costco and returned the Rental Car with a Full tank. Our flight returning was an early one too – so dropped off the Rental Car with the full tank – – prior to the Advantage Car Rental Office opening. When we arrived home we find out that Advantage had in fact charged us up front. I needed to call and speak to a Manager who after several minutes credited us back for the $57.11 Pre-paid Fuel Charge. Even though they refunded our pre-paid fuel – – to me this is a Scam and they are taking Advantage (hence their name) of tired customers as well as customers that are in a hurry. Also one final point – we drove all around the island of Kauai and only drove: 119 total miles – – there is no way we could have possibly used a full tank and again I am sure they know this and take advantage of customers – just like the extra auto insurance they offer – – another big money maker!

nara December 3, 2019 - 1:19 pm

Just this past weekend, for the first time ever I took the Fuel Service option. I did this because the previous car rental tried to charge me for an empty fuel tank (which was totally full), and so as I’m trying to catch my flight I’m having to argue with a dawdling agent to correct the mistaken charge. Needless to say, it’s stressful. And they know it.

So they sell the Fuel Service option like it’s a flat rate, but what they don’t show you is that in the fine print (that I didn’t read) they say they adjust the total according to the vehicle class. For me, I reserved an Economy car (9.2 gallon tank), but when I went to the booth to pick up my Economy Car they steered me toward all the Full Size cars. When I pointed out I did not ask for a Full Size, they pointed me toward the spot with the Economy and the Compacts together and said “take anything”. I took the Toyota Corolla (which is actually a “compact”… 13.2 gallon tank). When I went to return it I asked why my final total was higher, is when I learned they charge per gallon for each vehicle class. It’s still the same rate per gallon, but you’ll pay for a full tank based on the car you actually drove, not what you reserved. I actually think they deliberately steered me toward the Full Size cars for that very reason. I think they want customers to think they are being generous by ‘upgrading’ your vehicle, when in actuality they stand to profit off of a larger fuel tank. For me, I used up only about half my tank. If I had driven the Economy I would have ‘gifted’ them $18, but since I drove a Compact I gifted them $25. If this sounds like nickel & diming… yeah, that’s exactly what it is. If thousands of travelers unknowingly accept what looks like an innocent vehicle class upgrade, this per gallon fuel service difference probably adds up to millions in excess revenue.

In summary, The Fuel Service option is an upsell that does not benefit the customer’s pocketbook, but can shave off a few minutes of travel time, that is, if you don’t waste it arguing with an agent about the discrepancies in your bill.

Janell Parque March 3, 2020 - 11:41 am

I am renting a car in Arizona and returning it in California. I have a friend who works for Enterprise & she told me it will be cheaper to pre-pay because the gas in California is so much more expensive than in Arizona.

joeheg March 3, 2020 - 1:04 pm

That’s a very specific case but it shows how you can sometimes “hack” the rules to be in your favor. You’re still going to return the car almost empty because any fuel left in the tank will cut into the savings you’d make on the price difference.

TAG October 26, 2020 - 7:23 pm

If you fill up 15 miles from the airport as the tank will still show full.

Randy October 27, 2020 - 3:04 pm

Usually there is a set amount of max miles driven that require a receipt, somewhere around 30-50, to make sure that you actually put gas in. I have never heard of it being asked when driving more miles. Also, I love driving by Suncoast to see how many people are still filling up there, even with a new Wawa a few blocks up 436!! Also, at some airports, SAT and DFW that i know of, the on-airport gas stations around 25-30 cents higher than the surrounding area, as I am sure that the Airport Authority gets some of that.

Jimi Hendricks January 27, 2022 - 9:56 pm

Excellent article! I’d like to add another reason not to pre-pay: The cost per gallon is much higher than specified, due to fees charged on the fuel. For example, in Phoenix some fees are charged for the rental AND the fuel charge (AZ Vehicle fee 5%, AZ Tax PHX 10.6%, Phx Conc 11.1%) thus adding 26.7% to the price. The quoted rate of $ 3.80 becomes $ 4.81/gal. Even if you don’t top off the tank and pay for a couple gallons, you save a lot!

Jo June 13, 2022 - 8:50 pm

I almost fell for this in Las Vegas. The agent said the gas was cheaper at the counter than in the city. I accepted at first, until my bill was nearly $200.00 more than my original reservation. I had no idea how many gallons I was being charged for, plus I remembered that my credit card gives double miles for gas purchases, and so I quickly made the decision to decline rather than try and determine why the big difference. Glad I did because it ended up that they didn’t have the car I reserved and gave me a hybrid. I don’t think I even used a full tank of gas the whole trip AND there were many stations that had cheaper gas than what I was being quoted at the rental car company. I topped off twice during the trip for a total of a little over $100,

CV June 17, 2022 - 1:19 pm

NEVER prepay for gas. After almost 40 yrs of not doing it, in a weak moment I decided to do it in Charleston, SC last week. The rental agreement showed the price as $ 56.33 that sounded right for the Honda Civic (Same model I have & know the capacity to be about 13 Gallons). The car was returned almost empty & I felt good about it. The final bill was e-mailed to me & guess what–The fuel charge was $ 74.39. On calling budget, the representative looked up the details & confirmed that the actual fuel cost was $ 53.75 based on the price on the day I rented the car & the rest (almost 31% more) was the various taxes. When asked why this is not mentioned on the board all I heard was silence.

Sad that our politicians do not care about such dishonest practices that affects all of us


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