CAR RENTAL

Car rental sign at an airport.

Say you're driving a rented car in an unfamiliar vacation destination city and start to cross a big bridge, when you suddenly find you owe a toll and there's no toll booth around to accept cash? Depending on where you live, that might be either routine or unexpected, but in either case, it's more common: Many toll bridges, tunnels, and highways have eliminated conventional staffed or automatic toll booths that can accept cash or credit cards in favor of all-electronic systems. And driving through an electronic toll collection point without the right hardware can lead to a stiff fine. You can avoid most problems with a little planning:

1. Determine whether you're likely to encounter any toll facilities wherever you plan to go. The best place I know to find that information for driving in the U.S. is a Federal Highway Administration compilation, at https://www.fhwa.dot.gov/policyinformation/tollpage/page00.cfm, available as either a PDF or spreadsheet download.

2. Use the FHA charts to determine the primary toll-collection agency for any facilities you plan to use. A few collection agencies cover multiple states or metro areas: E-Z Pass (e-zpassiag.com) operates in 17 states, so if you already use E-ZPass where you live, you may not need to do anything more. Other systems, however, are unique to a single facility.

3. Electronic toll collection systems come in several different flavors:

-- The system scans a vignette or decal you put on your windshield that can be read by scanners. Some vignettes are prepaid for a specified time; others charge per-use and link you to an online payment process.

-- The system relies on scanning your license plate as you drive through. You set up an account and pay for each trip online or by smartphone app. Sometimes, you don't even have to set up an account; just call or log in and pay within a few days of use.

-- The system communicates with a transponder device that you return after use.

4. Do not blindly rely on your car rental company. Rental companies may offer toll-recognition and payment as an add-on option, but you almost always pay more than when you arrange your own system. One nasty scam: A rental company charges you a daily toll-collection price for every day of the rental, whether or not you use the system every day -- and maybe it adds a markup, too.

5. When you drive in Europe, you'll encounter lots of bridge, tunnel, and highway tolls. In some cases, you have the option of using a toll gate that can accept cash or credit/debit cards, but in others electronic is the only option. Even when booths are available, automated tolls are almost always easier and often cheaper. Check TollTickets (tolltickets.com/en/) for requirements in each country and to buy/rent whatever you need. European transponders can also sometimes help with parking payments. Austria, Bulgaria, Czechia, Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Switzerland require vignettes for use on major highways. Cars rented in those countries almost always come with a valid local vignette. If you plan to drive in an adjacent country, you can ask for a car with a vignette for that country, but you can't count on getting one. And in that case, you need to buy one. All countries except Switzerland sell short-term vignettes for visitors, but with Switzerland, you either have to buy an expensive full-year vignette or stay off the motorways.

6. A few important visitor destination cities, including London, Milan, Singapore, and Stockholm, assess a heavy congestion toll for driving in a core area, and New York City is seriously thinking about it. Tolls are collected, and fines assessed, through license plate scanning. Normally, the combination of a city-center accommodation and a rented car doesn't work very well, but if it works for your trip, contact your hotel about how to get to and from without paying any fines.

(Send e-mail to Ed Perkins at eperkins@mind.net. Also, check out Ed's new rail travel website at www.rail-guru.com.)

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