The Travel Troubleshooter: The needle may be on “F” but I’m not done paying

Question: I recently rented a car from Alamo, and I encountered a questionable practice that I wanted to let you know about.

I’ve used Alamo many times in the past, always returning the car with a full tank. Last month, after bringing back my rental in Tucson, Ariz., an Alamo attendant verified the full tank and gave us a receipt.

After we left, apparently Alamo felt the need to try and squeeze more gas in the tank, even after their employee confirmed a full tank, and charged us the inflated rental-gas price for two gallons.

They didn’t even try to notify us by phone, email or letter. This seems very sneaky and underhanded. I wrote them two emails, but never got any reply or explanation.

It’s not a huge amount of money, but rather the principle and the deceitful tactics to make a few extra dollars. I thought you’d be interested in this episode, if you haven’t heard of this practice, and perhaps could warn others in your column. — Stephen Farr, Sacramento, Calif.

Answer: When the car rental agent checked your tank and offered you a receipt, you shouldn’t have been charged extra. But if Alamo decided you owed it money, the least it could have done was to let you know — not find out when you checked your credit card bill.

Alamo’s failure to notify you only deepened your suspicion that the company was trying to pull a fast one. And mine, too.

Alamo’s terms and conditions at the time describe your fuel purchase option. First, there’s a “prepaid gas option” that allows you to buy an entire tank of gas before your trip. And second, there’s an option to return the car with a full tank.

“If you return it with less than a full tank, you must pay Alamo for all fuel that you used but did not replace,” Alamo warns. “The price for fuel will be substantially higher than the local retail pump prices, plus applicable taxes.”

Stories about fuel-purchase requirements are the stuff of legends (just do an Internet search on “Alamo” and “gas tank.” I wrote about one unhappy Alamo customer on my blog a while back, who was asked to show a receipt for gas after he returned his vehicle with a full tank. He refused.

I understand a car rental company’s reasons for wanting to ensure the tank is full, but I think it’s going about it in the wrong way. First, Alamo should have been more specific about its “full tank” requirement.

How do you determine if the tank is full? Is it a needle on “F,” a receipt from a gas station, the color of your attendant’s mood ring?

None of this was spelled out on Alamo’s site before you rented your car, or in your contract, and so the company apparently reserved the right to retroactively charge you for two extra gallons. That doesn’t seem fair.

If Alamo didn’t respond to your emails, I would have appealed to an executive at Enterprise, which owns Alamo. Failing that, try disputing the additional charges on your credit card, since you never approved them.

Good thing none of that was necessary. I contacted Alamo on your behalf. You received a call from a manager shortly after that, apologizing for the overcharge and offering you a full refund, plus a voucher for a two-day rental.

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • BillC

    Sounds like a bit a scam. Nice that a refund was received. I am more interested in why there was a refund. If the tank did need two gallons then the customer probably should have been charged. Did the manager acknowledge that the company did something unethical or was this a case of shut up the person who complained since there are 10 – 20 more that won’t say a thing.

  • Jonathan

    Had this PITA occur to me about three years ago.  Good rule of thumb here is to fill the tank within five miles of the airport and KEEP the receipt (even if you pay cash!).  99.9% of the receipts you get will have an address, time and date.  If possible, try not to be in a situation where you are just topping it off – kind of hard for them to argue with a paper trail that shows you filled it up with gas minutes before turning the car in with a purchase of 12-14 gallons of gas!

  • MikeZ

    if the needle is on “F” then the tank is full. You may be able to put more fuel into the car, but that doesn’t matter. every single pump I have ever seen clearly states that you should not try to put more fuel in to the car after the pump stops. To me this says that even after the pump stops, there still may be room in the tank for fuel and it should not be done. I don’t care if it might be a hlf gallon, a quart, or two gallons.

  • Crissy

    More and more, taking mass transit or a taxi seems like the best way to go when traveling!

  • Eric

    This is a total scam.  My guess is the gas went in the lot attendant’s car.  If you fill the tank to the point where the nozzle shuts off, assuming you’re not more than a half-mile from the rental location, then the tank is full.  I mean, what do they expect you to do?  Keep squeezing the handle until the tank literally overflows. 

    For anyone who doesn’t believe it, next time you’re getting gas, try to squeeze two extar gallons in your tank after the nozzle shuts off

    If they’re going to get so nit-picky over how much gas is in the tank, they they should be required to PROVE how much was in the tank before you took the car.  Maybe car rental companies should be required to install a scale, so we can weigh the emtpy car before, and after the rental.  Any difference in weight would have to be a discrepancy in the fuel level.

  • sirwired

    Sounds like a scam to me too.  Once the attendant hands you the receipt, that should be IT for rental car charges.  It doesn’t matter if they “discover” after you leave that you smoked pot, emptied the gas tank, cracked the windshield, damaged the tires, scraped the rims and caused $5000 worth of paint damage to your car.

    If they hand you the invoice, it’s over.  I can’t imagine they could make any charges after that point stick, although it could make a big hassle.

  • Michael Szabo

    The tricky thing here seems to be picking up the car rather than dropping it off.  I can certainly understand Alamo needing to fill the tank completely before the next customer gets it so I’d normally say if 2 more gallons fit in the tank then it wasn’t full.  

    However Alamo or any agency doesn’t fill the car when you pick it up in the same fashion.  Or perhaps they do but the customer has no indication of full status other than the gas gauge.  They really need to stick to the same form of measurement on both pickups and dropoffs.

  • John Baker

    My first impression is that the OP tried to scam Alamo and got caught. Notice he didn’t say “I filled up 2 mi down the road “… etc.  As a former automotive engineer, I can tell you that a least one member of the former “Big 3” used to play with the computer mapping controlling the needle in the fuel gauge to present the customer with the perception that they were getting better fuel economy than they actually were (pretty sneaky) so yes it is entirely possible that your fuel gauge could read F and Alamo put 2 gallons into the car and the entire thing be legit.
    Having said that once the turn in sheet is marked F, Alamo owns the extra gas and not the OP.  

  • cjr001

    This is an ongoing issue with rental companies, where they try and tack on additional charges well after after the car has been returned and the final invoice handed to the customer.

    And in every one of those cases, it’s a scam, and it’s wrong.

  • Bob

    Dollar requires you to show a receipt from a gas station within 10 miles of the rental location upon returning the vehicle. Or so they did when I rented a car in BOS recently. It’s ridiculous, nickel-and-diming behavior, so I guess they’re taking a page from the airlines. I just won’t choose them any more.

  • DavidS

    last fall, Alamo in Miami charged me for gas, I returned it full. (Had the receipt if anyone wanted to check.)

    Return agent asked me if everything was OK, gave me a receipt and thanked me. No mention of the charge. As I was walking away to meet my ride, I put my glasses on and noticed the total was too high. I took a moment to analyze the bill and saw the charge for a couple gallons. Went back to the car, my agent was gone, and asked another agent to verify the gas guage. He said it was full and I needed to go to the customer service line.

    I had to wait while a manager starightened out someone else with the same problem. When he got to me.. I lost it. Asked what kind of scam they are running and if Alamo now has felons in charge. I was not calm. I think the manager wanted to slug me, but I was not happy. He adjusted the bill and I then complained to Alamo via their website and a manager from the office I rented from called me. (One way rental not originating in Miami)

    We had a calm pleasant discussion and he assured me that if I returned it full I should not be charged and if it was not full the return agent should have pointed it out before charging me. He also send me some free day coupons.

    Looks like Alamo is back to their scam.

  • Walt

    Alamo and several other companies (Budget, maybe Enterprise) have a requirement that if you drive less than xx miles (usually 50-75), they require a fuel receipt or they’ll apply a fee, usually $10-15. They don’t verbally tell you but it is in the agreement, as I have found out the hard way. Usually a call to corporate customer service gets the fee removed. With fuel at record high prices it is understandable, but they have to disclose and not hide it (and renters need to read what they are signing, unless you are under a master agreeement where you don’t sign at time of rental). Good Luck!!

  • Steve R

    Agreed that the primary issue here is the charge after the fact – if Alamo signs off that the tank is full, then it shouldn’t matter if they were able to put more gas in.

    As for the issue of 2 gallons…well, that’s a pretty decent amount of gas. The OP didn’t say what type of vehicle he rented (though he did say “car” as opposed to van or SUV), but even in a big SUV, 2 gallons of gas represents about 30 miles of driving. In a midsize or economy car, it represents as much as 60 miles. Unless the OP drove 30+ miles after filling up, I’m inclined to believe that one of two things is true. The obvious possibility is that the rental car location is ripping off customers.

    It’s also possible that the customer got a bad gas pump that clicked off too early and he didn’t know it. Every now and then I fill up and think “hmm, it didn’t take as much gas as I expected,” and then watching the needle for the next 100 miles or so confirms that I didn’t really fill up all the way. As you said (and I don’t think it’s limited to any particular manufacturer, because every car I’ve owned does the same thing), the needle stays at F longer than it should, so there’s no immediate indication that you’re two gallons short of full rather than truly full. It may be that the customer and Alamo are both right: that he filled the car up to the best of his knowledge, and that they put another 2 gallons in.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that they signed off on it as full, so he was right to demand a refund for the extra fuel charge.

  • Sershev

    I would just dispute with the credit card. Provide the final receipt to the credit card. Alamo will have to respond to them to keep your money. And even if your dispute for some reasons is declined insist on the fact that you don’t agree with the charge. If the amount you disputing is less then $25 credit card is very likely to credit it out of its own pocket.

  • Josh

    If the OP only drove 10-20 miles, some agencies do require a receipt, and while I think they should call that out more clearly than they do, since you can use that much gas without the needle showing it, I understand that.  BUT, in that case it’s the returning agent’s responsibility to note/ask right then; if they mark it full, the case should be closed.

    Other than that, “Full” can only be measured by the needle — otherwise how would you verify the tank was full when you rented it?  I’ve gotten cars where the needle was barely hanging on the edge of the F line; clearly they could have taken another half gallon or so.  Or is Full when the pump clicks off the first time (which may vary at each pump)?  Or when you keep pulling the trigger until gas spills out on the ground?  That would be ridiculous.

  • Mark K

    This sounds like a scam to me. 

    I have had this happen twice, once with Avis and once with Hertz.  Avis requires a receipt if you drive less than a set number of miles and the receipt must be from a list of gas stations they feel are close enough to their location.  I bought gas from a new station that was not on their list and, even though the station was closer than most on the list to the rental location, they wanted to charge me for a set amount which was a lot more than the amount of gas I put in.  Hertz in Vegas demanded I pay for gas even though I filled the car since they said anyone who drove as few miles as I did (airport to MGM hotel and back) would not have bothered to fill the car.  In both cases  iargued enough so that they gave in and didn’t charge me.

    The number of gallons the renter is charged for is based on miles driven and has nothing to do with the actual amount of gas used.  So, I completely believe that when the renter is charged for a couple gallons of gas nothing is added to the car if the needle points to full.  I have rented cars that showed full but just a couple blocks from the rental location were already showing less than full while other identical models I have driven many miles and the gauge didn’t even move off full.   If both were really full, the needle should not have moved on either.

  • gratianus

    I always gas up close to the airport, always keep the receipt showing the number of gallons, and, if asked, I would be happy to show it to the rental company (unlike a case you included). If you want to know what makes me crazy, it’s when companies send out cars with some fraction of a full tank and expect me to approximate that when I return the car. That is nearly impossible and invites having more in the tank when I return the vehicle than when I drove it off the lot.

  • emanon256

    I don’t necessarily agree with the F meaning it’s full.  In every car I have owned I have been able to go anywhere from 50 to 100 miles before the needle moves away from the F.  I also have received a rental car several times where it was close to full, and quickly declining.  My theory was always that the previous renter took the car on full, drove only 30-50 miles, and returned it without buying gas because they could pass it off as full.  That really irks me because I am now paying for someone else’s gas.  I am not saying this reader did that, but some people do and it’s just not right.

    For work, I have to rent from Avis or Hertz.  Both places typically ask for the receipt to prove I re-filled it.  I always comply.  I am shocked that one reader wouldn’t.  Refusing to show a receipt is proof that you are lying and ripping off the rental company and/or the next driver.  I wish they always asked.  I mostly use Avis because of a bad experience at Hertz.  The Avis managers usually tell me to try and get gas within 10-12 miles of the airport, and I happily do and show my receipt every time.

    The bad experience at Hertz was in Hawaii.  I filled the car within 2 miles of returning it, they asked for the receipt, and I showed it to them.  I was later charged an additional $80 separately.  I e-mailed Hertz and asked why and they said it was because I returned the car empty, and they had to fill the entire tank.  I scanned and sent them the receipt showing the fill up minutes before the time of my return, they apologized and refunded me.

  • Sally H

    What if you see a good price the day before and fill up.  That means you may only need as little as 3 to 4 gallons to top it up to F again.  In that case I guess you need both receipts to satisfy them because a receipt for a couple of gallons really doesn’t prove anything. 
    I don’t know how many cars are returned every day but wonder how it would add up to charge 50% for an extra gallon of over priced gas. 

  • Scott Lehmann

    This is not a new “issue” with Rental Car companies.  Alamo is not unique in this situation.  I use Avis almost exclusively and have to be very attentive to the final receipt.  Avis has a rule that if you drive less than 75 miles during your rental time, you will automatically be charged for the gas, it is a default setting they have.  They may or may ask for the gas receipt, it is important to tell the receiving attendant that you have in fact filled the gas tank, do not charge me for any gas.  If they ask for the receipt, then show it.  But check your final bill before walking away.  I often wonder how many people never even know they were charged. All the Car Rental companies really need to find a better way of handling this issue.  It is borderline theft in my view.  However at the same time, I understand their need to ensure they control their costs.  I also don’t like it when they ask for receipt, after I have told them I filled the gas, they are assuming I am a liar.  

    The morale of the story here, is caveat emptor, check your receipts.

  • flutiefan

    i was with you until the “they are assuming I am a liar” line.  that’s not exactly fair.  asking you for proof of something is not the same as calling you a liar.

  • cjr001

    I’ve never been asked to provide a receipt for gas purchased upon returning a rental car, nor was I aware of some of these potential ‘policies’, such as minimum mileage. So, were I asked for a receipt, I probably would feel like I’m being accused of not refilling the tank.

    It would greatly help if every car rented out were required to have a full tank before hand. For example, the Enterprise location I rent from in town has a gas station on the same block. Yet, last time I rented from them the car I received only had half a tank in it.

    When I went to refill it just before returning it, the gas I pumped in didn’t ‘take’ with the needle right away as it should have, and I ended up overfilling it by a couple of gallons. And in that small car, that ended up being nearly another 8th of the tank.

    But there’s little chance of error if you are simply having to fill the tank to full.

  • Ajaynejr

    I have rented cars where it seemed like the gas gauge went down from full too fast, I think the car did not have a full tank to begin with.

    Once I was renting form a comapny that let me choose my car from a lot. I happened to notice that some cars the gauge did not even go all the way to F to start with.

    I suggest taht if your car did not go all the way to full to start with you expect the agent to round down to the next eighth on the report when taking the car out. For example the gauge is slightly under the F then the agent has to call it 7/8’th full. After all he is going to call it 7/8’th full if you bring it back that way.

  • Ajaynejr

    When I noticed that the car I first looked at had the gauge not go all the way to F I took my things out of that car and tried a different car.

  • Asiansm Dan

    The Car-Rent Companies pull that trick millions of times since at least 40 years. I always bring the Gas Receipt buying gas the same day I return the car. Since I show my receipt, they know they cannot pull that trick. They don’t even make a closed look at my receipt, they just know that I know they play that trick and they don’t charge me for gas.
    Bring your last receipt of buying Gas.
    If I remember well, in the contract, if you drive less than 50 miles, you have to show the gas receipt.

  • y_p_w

    Yeah – the art of tuning a fuel gauge needle reading has been known for years.  Tune it to sit near full as long as possible, give it a long way until it reaches the middle mark, and speed it up to near empty, but give it a buffer past the near empty line.  I’ve never had a problem with a rental car charge for fuel before.  I’ll usually fill it up less than 10 miles from the rental return and maybe even make note of nearby gas stations around the rental lot.

    If someone really wants to play around with it, it’s even possible to fill up a tank, let it sit for a few minutes, and pump anywhere from a half to a full gallon more without overflowing.  Overdo it and a vapor recovery system (in some states) might keep it from spraying everywhere until the nozzle is removed.  It sounds to me as if this tank was reasonably full.A lot of the digital fuel gauges were recalibrated over time because of complaints that one read maybe 18 gallons when filled, but quickly changed to 17 gallons.  Most people don’t understand that it’s only an estimate with rounding errors.

  • andrelot

    An incidental comment: while this case sounds like a scam, with higher gas prices I’ve encountered also the opposite situation – drivers which clearly didn’t refuel their thanks to the fullest level prior to returning.

    assuming /Hertz doesn’t use their cars with refuled thanks to run around, sometimes I rent cars that are up to 3 gallons short of full.

    How do I know that: if the car model is notorious for having an imprecise fuel gauge, I stop the car at the first gas station after leaving the rental parking lot, then refuel it. Sometimes, the tank is really full, but on 3 occasions last year I could refuel over $ 10 to get the tank full -and I meant up to the 2nd pump automatic stop, not as in trying to squeeze every drop into the tank.

    I managed to get refunds in both cases upon showing them the receipt. It is very easy to prove it with the time stamp of the gas station receipt comparing to that of the gate of the parking lot in the airpot.

  • andrelot

    Not necessarily. In mane car models, the pump will stop at a point well over 1.5 or 2 gallons OVER a load that would render the same “F” reading. Especially in models whose fuel gauges are small.

  • andrelot

    Bob, that doesn’t sound a problem, as long as you are let to know in advance. A GM Trailblazer, for instance, was notorious for a fixed fuel gauge on F for over 40 miles on a highway.

  • Roger M

    I have had this happen to me several times.
    If the gauge needle is below full when I pick up the car, I let the rental company know, and they will usually discount the estimated price of that amount of fuel from the rental bill. I still return the car full.

    If I drive a few miles down the road and notice that the fuel needle drops quickly, there’s not much I can do. Just bite the bullet, so to speak. I’ll usually fill it up about 10 miles from the rental location, and keep the receipt.

    What I really hate is when I fill the tank with fuel, and the needle does not go up to the full mark. This is clearly a malfunctioning fuel gauge, but it’s tough to convince the rental company of that when you return the car. I noticed this to be a problem with the Dodge Calibers that Dollar rents. I avoid them now.