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I decided to rent a car for a future trip - in Canada if it can help answering.

On my rental contract, I could see the company applies a "Pick up full, return empty" policy for the fuel tank. I am used to the "pick up full, return full" policy so I am wondering what I should expect.

To explain the policy, I should pay for the full tank when picking up the car, and whatever the amount gas left in the tank when I return the car, I will not get any refund, i.e. I lose what is left.

I have some specific worries about this process, which sounds a lot like: "I will pay for an unpredictable amount". So my goal is to make it more predictable.

My questions are : should I worry the rental company will try to scam me on the capacity of the fuel tank? When seeing the bill, could I argue it based on the specification sheet of the car?

Second, regarding the price of the full tank, I know it will be pricier than in a gas station, but what about an estimate of the ratio? Should I expect to pay more than double of the average gas station price? And finally, is there any way I can make the estimation more predictable, any resource showing an average price applied by the renters (I know gas prices change everyday, so I expect more of an average ratio)?

EDIT : In my case, I will drive enough to empty the fuel tank, so it's not a matter of losing some fuel (unless you can tell me what is the actual volume of the tank when the tank appears empty on the dashboard).

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Do you have a choice on the "return empty" thing? In the US I generally have several choices and that one is the least desirable. –  Kate Gregory Mar 27 '13 at 10:20
@Kate Gregory I'll ask at pick up if I can change that, but I doubt it. And the price difference with another company offering "pick up full, return full" is pretty large, hence my choice. –  Vince Mar 27 '13 at 10:24
Where there is a substantial difference between charges from companies offering apparently essentially identical services then there is often a reason for the difference which you ideally should be aware of. Some companies are small and need to be cheap to get business. But some companies use apparently low prices as sucker bait and then find creative ways of adding costs without adding much or any corresponding services. If you are going to pay for a tank full of gas and do not have both volume and cost/unit in writing in a signed agreement then you are leaving yourself open for abuse. –  Russell McMahon Mar 27 '13 at 11:35
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4 Answers

I've been offered this option before and it's not "I will pay for an unpredictable amount" it's "I will pay for 40 litres of gas (the capacity) even if I only used 2". As a result I never take it. Some numbers, so you can compare what you're being offered:

  • my small cars (Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Corolla) hold a little over 40 litres
  • I can typically go 600 km on that (I drive mostly at highway speeds)
  • gas is running around $1.20 a litre right now (plenty of web sites exist to monitor this, and it varies by city, but by 10-20 cents at most.)

If you rent a car and drive it 200 km, using 15 litres of gas (allowing for more in-town driving), you can fill it up near the return point for less than $20. What will the "return it empty" cost you? My guess is a lot more than that.

I have used "you guys fill it up for me" where they charge you based on what you actually used up, but at more than the going rate. It's not a good price, but in an unfamiliar city I will pay $5 for not having to find a gas station - especially since some US gas stations want to know your zip code at the pump and don't work without one.

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sorry I hesitated to make it clear, but in my case, I will drive enough to empty the fuel tank (multiple times). I edit my question accordingly. –  Vince Mar 27 '13 at 10:31
@Vince The problem is that you will always pay more since it is very unlikely that you're able to return the car with a really empty gas tank. –  RoflcoptrException Mar 27 '13 at 10:34
@RoflcoptrException I agree, I added this in my question: How much gas is actually in the tank when the dashboard needle says it's empty? –  Vince Mar 27 '13 at 10:37
@Vince It depends on the car, but normally you're able to drive 30-50 kilometers, even if the car warns you that the tank is really empty. But that's not the only problem: It will be very difficult to plan to empty the tank at the drop off station, especially if you're unfamiliar with the region. I think most people are not going to risk that they will end up with no gas. –  RoflcoptrException Mar 27 '13 at 10:39
@RoflcoptrException Yeah, well, there are techniques to reduce it. First, know ahead what's the minimum one can pay at a gas station to fill the least possible, plan the last refills to leave the less gas ... But anyway, even with 5-10 liters left, I lose 10-15 dollars, to be compared with the high price of the first 40L (I expect 40 extra dollars for that) –  Vince Mar 27 '13 at 10:48
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Rental car companies generally have 3 options when it comes to fuel. Some companies will only offer one, some two, some all three.

Return at same level as when you rented.

Normally this will involve you getting a "full" tank at pickup, and you have to return the car with a full tank, however sometimes (especially at smaller locations) you may actually get a vehicle with less than a full tank of fuel in which case this should be noted on the rental agreement and you will be expected to return it at the same level. Normally this will be done in 8th or 12th of a tank, depending on the marking on the fuel gauge. eg, the vehicle might be marked as 8/8 (full), 4/8 (half tank), etc. Obviously when you re-fuel the car you pay the street price for fuel.

Pay for the fuel that you used

This isn't so much a separate option, it's more of what happens if you take the option above but return the car with less fuel than when you rented it. In this case the rental company will charge you a per-litre rate based on the fuel needed when they refill the car. The catch with this is that their per litre rate is normally around double the street price, so whilst it's convenient not to have to refill the car yourself you can end up paying a large premium for getting them to do it - especially if you returned the car close to empty!

Some companies have a variation on this where they will charge a per distance rate rather than a per litre rate, especially if you've only driven a short distance. In theory, the per distance and per litre rates will work out roughly the same, but using the distance has the advantage that they can work out the price at the time you return the car, rather than having to wait until it is refilled.

Pre-purchase a tank of fuel (aka "return empty")

Again this would normally involve you picking up the car with a full tank of fuel (although again it could be less), and you will pre-pay for the fuel included in the tank, based on the manufacturers capacity of the tank. Normally the price you pay will be discounted over the street price, which is the main incentive for you to pre-pay. eg, if fuel is selling for $1/litre, the pre-pay price might be $0.90/litre.

The catch with this option is that you pay for the fuel whether you use it or not. If you only drive far enough to use half a tank, you still pay for the entire tank. Even if you do drive far enough to use more than one tank, you still need to plan correctly so that you are returning the vehicle as close as possible to empty (without actually being empty!) in order to get the best value for money.

Depending on the location it's also possible that you will be charged additional taxes on top of the stated price. eg, in California they might advertised this option as being $4/gallon (and compare it to $4.40/gallon street price), but there's an additional ~15% in taxes that get added that are not charged elsewhere, so what appears to be a 10% saving actually ends up costing more!

In general this option is NOT a good option, unless the price being charged is significantly lower (including taxes) than the street price, AND if you know you'll be able to return the car almost on empty. Sometimes rental car companies have specific rates that include this in the price, in which case it came sometimes be a good option - but again only if you intend to return the car empty.

Which to pick?

In this case it sounds like you're not being given the choice - but it may be worth asking to see if you can actually change to a different option for a lower price.

In general, the best option is almost always NOT to pre-pay for the fuel, and return the tank full (or at the same level that it was when you rented). The rental staff will likely try and tell you that pre-paying is a better/cheaper option - but that's almost always because they are commissioned on selling it to you, not because it's a better option for you! The only normal exception to this is if you can get a rate where the base rate includes the first tank of fuel. In this case it can work out cheaper (especially if you get a car with a large tank!) - although it's worth comparing as it frequently will be more expensive.

Personally I rent cars around 50 times a year, and over the past few years have pre-paid for fuel exactly once - at a time when the rental location happened to be offering 10% off their pre-paid price at the same time that (due to a refinery fire and a pipe shutdown within days of each other) the street price of fuel had increased around 20% almost overnight. Even with that roughly 30% difference, and with me returning the car with the gauge below empty, I worked out that I probably saved about $5 by the time I included taxes/etc. By the time I rented from the same location two weeks later they had bumped their prices to include the 20% increase, and it was no longer worth pre-paying!

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Great explanation. Just one thing to add, I remember that the "Pay for the fuel that you used" option happened once to me and along their per-litre price, there was some "refilling" fee, worth 10-20 dollars. –  Vince Mar 27 '13 at 19:30
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The policy makes it easy for you because you do not have to fill up just before bringing the car in. It also makes it profitable for them because you give them free gas. You can try to come back on a very low tank, but would you really risk it in a foreign country?

For cost concerns your best bet is to ask for another option. As far as I know, they all offer more than one option and bring back full is the most economical usually.

Some companies in Canada like Discount will charge you a fair price to fill up the tank to capacity. It will rarely be the exact local price but usually pretty close and rounded up in volume.

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I recently experienced this policy for the first time (by Budget, in Spain, so not sure if any conclusions can be drawn for you). The price paid for the full tank may have been a bit padded, but at most 20% more than regular, definitely not in the regions you'll pay if you return a non-full tank on a "return full" policy.

However, this was not the only upselling technique they used. The most extortionate was that they took 20 EUR per day to rent a navigation system. So be careful about any extras...

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