TIME Transportation

Freight Train Derails and Bursts Into Flames in Tennessee

Over 5,000 evacuated in derailment just outside Knoxville

More than 5,000 residents were evacuated after a freight train carrying a “highly flammable and toxic gas” partly derailed and caught fire early Thursday just outside Knoxville, Tennessee, officials said.

Seven officers were hospitalized after breathing in fumes from the blaze, Blount County Sheriff’s Department spokeswoman Marian O’Briant told NBC News.

An evacuation zone is in place over a two-mile radius from the derailment, near Maryville, and could be in place for up to 48 hours, the fire department said.

Two shelters were being opened for residents including one at a local high school, according to David Kitchen, senior disaster program …

Read more from our partners at NBC News

TIME Transportation

Why This July 4 Holiday Could Be the Deadliest in Years

"Drivers need to be vigilant"

With highway fatalities already rising after years of steady decline, the upcoming July Fourth holiday could be a particularly deadly one.

As many as 409 Americans will be killed on the road during the long Independence Day weekend, with another 49,500 injured, forecasts the National Safety Council. If the safety group’s prediction proves accurate, that would be the highest tally for a Fourth of July holiday since 2008.

“Drivers always need to be vigilant, but this weekend, focus on the safety of your family,” said Deborah A.P. Hersman, president and CEO of the National Safety Council. “A few precautions can help ensure a memorable weekend. Spending the holiday with family is preferable to spending time in the ER…”

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

TIME Transportation

Apple Maps Is Getting 1 Huge Advantage Over Google Maps

More good news for those who use public transportation

City dwellers will have a new reason to try out Apple Maps when Apple releases iOS 9 this fall.

Apple Maps will add a feature that tells users which exit they should take when leaving the subway or train station, Business Insider reports. It’s a subtle feature, but it could help travelers avoid getting off the subway on the wrong side of the street. It’s also a feature that’s not available on rival service Google Maps, which Apple users are forgoing more and more for the native Apple Maps.

Google Maps has long boasted a robust public transit guide, but it’s clear that Apple Maps is now trying catch up with its competition. Other features coming to Apple Maps on iOS 9 include Siri and Apple Watch functionality.

[Business Insider]

MONEY Travel

Richard Branson’s Dream Project Comes Closer to Being a Reality

Virgin Atlantic President Sir Richard Branson
Rex Features via AP Images Sir Richard Branson

Virgin Group founder strikes again.

Richard Branson, the iconic, eccentric entrepreneur at the helm of the Virgin Group, seems to do pretty much whatever he wants. If he wants to give his employees unlimited vacation or a full year of paternity leave, he’ll do it. Heck, he’ll even give the greenlight to putting the Sex Pistols on credit cards because … why not?

At a press event on Tuesday in Miami, the man who has already helped launch successful airlines on multiple continents and is even venturing into space travel offered details about his latest travel operation. “It’s no secret that I’ve dreamed of starting a cruise line for a very long time,” Branson said.

But before Branson spoke to the press, he had to make an appropriately Bransonesque entrance at the event, held at Miami’s Perez Art Museum. “With characteristic flair, Branson arrived at the event in a helicopter that took off in a cloud of bright red smoke,” the industry publication Cruise Critic reported. “When he landed, Branson emerged wearing red shorts, a white shirt and a red captain’s hat while waving a Virgin Cruises flag.”

This week’s event was actually the second time Branson has introduced the forthcoming launch of Virgin Cruises. Last December, the Virgin Group said it would soon be “making waves” in the cruise industry with the new line. “We plan to shake up the cruise industry and deliver a holiday that customers will absolutely love,” Branson said at the time. “They’ll be sailing on the latest ships offering great quality, a real sense of fun, and many exciting activities all delivered with the famed Virgin service.”

On Tuesday, Branson and Virgin Cruises President Tom McAlpin offered more details about the operation. The plan calls for three newly built Virgin Cruises ships to be deployed by around 2020, with the first based in Miami and Fort Lauderdale for weeklong itineraries exploring the Caribbean.

Many of the specifics haven’t been announced—and apparently, quite a few haven’t been decided upon. Branson is asking interested travelers to visit VirginCruises.com to offer input on anything and everything they want in a cruise line.

TIME Transportation

How Uber and Lyft Are Trying to Solve America’s Carpooling Problem

These startups are finally starting to look like true ride-sharing services

First, the bad news: carpooling has been on the decline in America for nearly four decades. That practice could be helping the environment and America’s commuters, who are needlessly stuck for hours each day on packed highways. Multiple people sharing a single ride to a common destination is a simple act that has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions, ease traffic, lessen fossil fuel dependency, reduce stress on commuters, and even drive down rents in dense cities. Yet the practice fell out of favor after reaching a peak in the 1970s.

Now, the good news: popular tech companies Lyft and Uber are leading a wave of new services that have the potential to revive shared rides. “What fascinates me about these things is: can they move us closer toward a vision of an integrated public transit system?” asks Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “And can it move us closer to filling empty seats in vehicles?”

Despite referring to themselves as “ride-sharing” companies, Lyft and Uber have largely been in the business of what transportation experts call “ride-sourcing,” because they essentially provide the same service as taxis through their own platforms. “I’ve studied ride-sharing for a long time, and the definition of ride-sharing is really carpooling,” Shaheen says. “And a carpool is an incidental trip.” That is, it’s a trip that a driver was going to take regardless of whether anyone else was with them in that car.

The distinction isn’t just academic. When the thousands of drivers working for Uber and Lyft in San Francisco are picking up a single fare and taking them from Point A to Point B, it’s probable that they’re adding to unnecessary congestion, pollution and fuel consumption. But last summer, within hours of each other, the companies announced that they were rolling out UberPOOL and Lyft Line in San Francisco, passenger-pooling options that would give riders cheaper fares if they’d be willing to share their vehicle with strangers traveling a similar route.

The companies say customer interest has been high so far. Each company has since expanded the service to Austin, Los Angeles, and New York City, and Uber has launched POOL in Paris. Lyft says that 50% of rides in San Francisco are Lyft Line rides, and a little more than 20% of all Lyft rides in the city start or end within a quarter mile of commuter rail stops. “That’s notable,” says Shaheen. “It means people are taking this short trip in one of these vehicles and connecting it to a longer line-haul transit trip. It’s basically enabling somebody to not take a single-occupant vehicle for this long commute trip and to rethink how they commute.”

Uber crunched the numbers on their “matched trips” for one month in San Francisco, comparing them to the number of miles that vehicles would have traveled if all those rides had been taken individually. They estimated that UberPOOL rides taken between February and March amounted to 674,000 miles of saved driving. That’s the equivalent of 240 people driving round trip from L.A. to New York. “UberPOOL is really about trying to reinvent cities from a transportation perspective,” says product manager Brian Tolkin. “Part of that means making Uber so affordable that it’s really available to anyone and a better alternative to, say, owning a car.”

Of course, before these companies start patting themselves on the back for saving the environment, they have to offset the number of cars they’ve brought onto the road. They aren’t releasing data about that, and there is other crucial information missing. The most important piece, Shaheen says, is knowing what the people using these services were doing beforehand. If someone is now using a combination of Lyft Line and public rail rather that driving alone in a car from San Francisco to Cupertino, that represents a greater environmental offset than if that person was previously taking public rail and a public bus.

Carpooling took off in America during World War II, when the government asked people to start sharing rides to work so they could conserve rubber for the war effort. The practice gained popularity through the 1970s, spurred by volatile energy prices, employer-sponsored programs and the advent of HOV lanes. But as gas prices dropped, cars got cheaper and more people and companies decamped for far-out suburbs and exurbs, more workers began taking their own cars to the office. Carpooling became associated with the inconveniences of neighbors’ inflexible schedules, awkward reimbursements and a lack of privacy. Nearly one in four people shared a ride to work in the 1970s. By the time census workers asked about that practice in 2010, the number had dropped to about 10%.

It’s too early to tell if Lyft and Uber’s early efforts will reverse that trend. But it is clear that they are benefiting from a changed landscape. Smartphone ownership has exploded, allowing people to connect and share useful information about where they are. Familiarity with social networks can encourage strangers to trust each other. The algorithms matching riders and drivers—while keeping routes convenient—are constantly improving. And though car sales have continued to climb in recent years, younger urban residents say they’re less interested in driving and owning their own vehicle.

Perhaps the most promising trend line for these services is that Uber and Lyft are finally solving the problem that has derailed past attempts to solve America’s carpooling problem with technology. “When you have a new system with a really small number of people in it—which any system will when it’s new—there’s a very, very low probability that you’ll have a match between all the potential origins and destinations of a driver and a passenger,” says Emily Castor, Lyft’s director of transportation policy. “So those systems that had tried to do that have been pretty uniformly unsuccessful, because they have a high failure rate.”

That’s what happened to Zimride, an early incarnation of Lyft. Among the key lessons for Zimride’s founders when they rebranded as Lyft: always have drivers available, lest you deter potential customers. “We’ve been able to build up a network that has enough density that it actually is getting to the point now where we do have a ton of people using it,” says Castor. “So we’ve kind of overcome that chicken and egg problem and we now can start doing really interesting things.”

Those experiments include “Driver Destination,” which allows a driver to specify where they’re headed and signal that they’re available to pick someone up. The app will only link the driver to a passenger going the same way. This type of trip can help eliminate wasted space in cars and potentially keep superfluous cars off the road–an efficiency that experts like Shaheen call the holy grail. “The next phase for Lyft is to look at how we can increase that commuter carpooling activity and to expand on our vision to make it so any time any driver is on the road, [they] can be using the empty seats in their cars to give rides to other people,” Castor says.

The key to long-term success may be money. For these services to truly take hold, drivers will need to see the upside of bringing a few strangers along for the ride. Old-fashioned carpooling was set up for passengers to reimburse a driver for just gas and wear and tear, a piddling bit of change per mile. “That’s just not enough to make people notice and think about doing that,” Castor says. “But if you could earn $15 on your way to work and your way home, that would probably raise your eyebrows.”

TIME Labor

Why the California Ruling on Uber Should Frighten the Sharing Economy

The question at the center of several similar cases is likely worth billions

This week a ruling from the California Labor Commission was made public because popular ride-sourcing company Uber appealed it. A San Francisco-based driver named Barbara Ann Berwick brought a case alleging that she is an employee, not an independent contractor as Uber claims. It emerged that the commission ruled in her favor, saying the company owed her $4,152 in expenses. But this could lead to rulings worth much more.

Filed in March, the ruling is non-binding, has no legal bearing on any other drivers, and won’t force any money to change hands. But Uber’s decision to appeal will now move the fight to California’s court system where — along with several similar lawsuits pending in the state—it could set a binding precedent for a multi-billion-dollar question plaguing the booming on-demand economy: Do such companies have employer-employee relationships with tens of thousands of American workers?

That might sound like a mundane bureaucratic distinction, but it’s a concrete reality for the drivers, personal shoppers and lunch deliverers who enjoy the flexibility of setting their own hours but do not get standard employee benefits like overtime pay and worker’s compensation. In California, unlike most other states, employers are explicitly on the hook for reimbursing employees for all expenses necessary to do the job. And if the workers like Berwick win their cases, there are more than 15,000 other drivers in San Francisco alone who might want to be reimbursed too.

“Uber has essentially shifted to its workers all the costs of running a business, the costs of owning a car, maintaining a car, paying for gas,” says Shannon Liss-Riordan, a Boston-based attorney who has a class-action case pending against Uber in California federal court. “Uber has saved massive amounts …. It’s important that the labor laws be enforced so that the companies can’t take advantage of workers that way. Uber’s a $50-billion company and I think it can afford to bear the responsibilities of an employer.” She expects her trial will be underway by next year and will make arguments for class certification later this summer, saying this ruling “could be a lot of help.”

In a statement to TIME, an Uber spokeswoman said that its drivers embrace their status as independent contractors. “It’s important to remember that the number one reason drivers choose to use Uber is because they have complete flexibility and control,” she says. “The majority of them can and do choose to earn their living from multiple sources, including other ride sharing companies. We have appealed this ruling.”

Liss-Riordan has also filed a class-action case on behalf of workers for house-cleaning company Homejoy, as well as delivery service companies Postmates and Try Caviar, arguing that they have been misclassified as independent contractors when they should be treated like employees. Other cases are pending against ride-sourcing platform Lyft and grocery-delivery company Instacart. “Instacart does all it can to distance itself from the employer-employee relationship,” lawyer Bob Arns told TIME when that case was filed. “Why does a company want to do that? It’s to keep the bottom line lower, to unfairly compete against other companies. That’s the crux of our case.” Instacart did not respond to a request for comment for that story.

The growing independent-contractor workforce is a key reason that companies like Instacart and Uber have been able to grow so quickly, because the cost of organizing independent contractors is much less than hiring employees. There’s no requirement to pay unemployment tax or ensure that workers are making at least minimum wage. In many cases, the companies don’t have to pay for the smartphones or data plans workers use on the job. They don’t have to deal with the costly spools of red tape that come with federal and state withholdings and healthcare and anti-discrimination laws.

David Rosenfeld, a labor law expert and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley, says a California superior court will likely set a trial date in a few months. If the judge agrees with driver Berwick, the rulings could be appealed back and forth all the way up to the California Supreme Court. That process could take years. But the California courts have been sympathetic to workers and Rosenfeld says its unlikely the state’s highest authority would overturn a ruling made in their favor. In the meantime, he says, lawyers like Liss-Riordan can “show the ruling around” as evidence that helps build their cases, if not a precedent to use in court.

“This is big, high stakes problem for them,” Rosenfeld says. While Uber emphasizes that the labor commission ruling is only about the status of a single driver, he notes that if Uber beats Berwick in court that doesn’t bar other drivers from bringing similar claims. Liss-Riordan says she has been contacted by more than 1,000 Uber drivers who believe they’ve been wronged. And her doors have been open to other “1099 economy” workers who want to file their own claims.

“A lot of companies are watching Uber and seeing whether it’s going to be allowed to get away with this,” she says. “These companies want to have it all. They want to have control over their workforce so they can provide this consistent quality service they sell to the public but at the same time deny it has any obligations to these workers that it is treating as their employees.”

How much control companies like Uber have over these workers will be central to the cases. Does their ability to kick drivers off the platform, their ability to set rates, their mandates to follow certain protocols amount to an employer-employee relationship? Uber has repeatedly argued that they are not a transportation company but merely a technology platform that helps willing drivers connect with passengers willing to pay for a ride.

But in denying a summary judgment in the class-action case earlier this year, District Judge Edward Chen wrote that Uber’s claim that it is not a “transportation company” is “fatally flawed.” In the March ruling, the labor commissioner wrote that Uber is “involved in every aspect of the operation.” A 2012 ruling from the labor commission, however, found that another Uber driver was, in fact, an independent contractor and describes Uber as a “technology company.” In the statement, Uber says similar commissions in five other states have come to the same conclusion.

These cases apply only to workers in California. So the endgame could look a few different ways if these on-demand companies lose their cases, all of which would require a change in business models. Operations could be shut down or take a different approach in California. Companies could start shouldering the costs of treating their armies of workers as legal employees. Or they could change the way they operate—giving up control over their workers and therefore control over the quality of their services—in order to keep treating them as independent contractors.

The latter, Rosenfeld says, is what FedEx recently decided to do after paying $228 million to settle claims from 2,000 pickup and delivery drivers in California who alleged that they were mislabeled as independent contractors. That high ticket price was directly related to California’s law requiring expense reimbursement. But making the decision to give up oversight is not an easy one. “You lose control of your brand,” he says. “And you lose control of your model.”

Uber v. Berwick California Labor Commission Ruling

MONEY Airlines

Airlines Aren’t Making Nearly As Much Money As You Think

Passengers use self-service machines to check in for flights on Delta Air Lines at Detroit Metro Airport.
Jim West—Alamy Passengers use self-service machines to check in for flights on Delta Air Lines at Detroit Metro Airport.

Somehow all those fees don't result in monster profits.

Airlines charge customers for everything from a carry-on bag to a bottle of water, airfares are sky high, and there’s rarely an empty seat on a plane. Fuel prices are low as well. You’d think carriers would be making money hand over fist.

Somehow, though, the industry’s average profit is just $8.27 for each passenger that boards a flight. That doesn’t sound like much, and amounts to what is described as “a hard-earned 4% average net profit margin” by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in a new report.

At its annual meeting in Miami Beach, Fla., on Monday, IATA revised its outlook for 2015 to a net profit if $29.3 billion, an upgrade from earlier projections of $25 billion, Yahoo News reports. Either figure would be a notable increase from 2014’s $16.4 billion net profits for the industry.

While this is all good news for the airline industry as a whole, not every region is booming. Airlines will profit $8.27 for every passenger carried on average, but North American carriers earn double that figure for each passenger on a flight, while airlines in other parts of the globe are much less profitable. In fact, North American airlines generate over half of global profits, pegged at $15.7 billion for this year. Europe, the second most profitable region, is expected to generate $5.8 billion in profit. Asia-Pacific, African and Latin American airlines are performing below average in terms of expected profitability.

In any event, higher profits compared to last year are expected, with low fuel costs acting as a major driver behind the industry’s improved outlook. An average Brent crude oil price of $65 per barrel is 36% lower than the 2014 price of $101.4, according to IATA.

Fuller planes are another factor. The overall number of passengers is expected to grow 6.7% this year, compared to 6.0% growth in 2014.

What does this mean for each of those passengers? IATA swears that, despite the rise of airline fees and airfares, the value of airline travel is outstanding. “The average return fare (before surcharges and tax) of $429 in 2015 is forecast to be more than 64% lower than 20 years earlier, after adjusting for inflation,” the report states.

Given airlines’ increasing profitability, will they stop or at least slow the pace of nickel-and-diming customers for every conceivable need once they’ve purchased their tickets? Perhaps that that’s too high an expectation.

Read next: Airline Group Says Your Carry On Bag Should Be Even Smaller

TIME Transportation

Amtrak Engineer Wasn’t Texting or Making Calls Before Fatal Crash, Investigators Say

Christopher Hart National Transportation Safety Board
Cliff Owen—AP National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Chairman Christopher Hart, center, waits with his staff on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 2, 2015, prior to testifying before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee oversight hearing of the Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia.

Authorities are still investigating whether he was using the phone offline

Authorities say the engineer driving Amtrak Train 188 was not texting or making calls on his cell phone before the train’s fatal derailment last month, but they are still investigating whether he was using phone in an offline mode, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said Wednesday.

NTSB investigators have determined that engineer Brandon Bostian did not place calls, send text messages or use data immediately preceding the crash. He also did not access the train’s wi-fi network. Still, they haven’t yet been able to determine whether his phone was still being used while in “airplane mode” or was powered off completely. Investigators are piecing through more than 400,000 files of metadata to determine whether the phone was on or off. Bostian is cooperating with the investigation and provided the NTSB with access to his cell phone.

The derailment killed eight people and left more than 200 injured. The train was traveling at more than twice the posted speed limit when it derailed going through a curve north of Philadelphia.


MONEY Travel

Here’s How Much Americans Spend on Their Daily Commute

New York City Subway Pushing Death Puts Spotlight On Commuter Safety
Spencer Platt—Getty Images Passengers ride in a New York City subway car.

Fuel is the most common commuter cost.

Take your annual take-home pay and subtract $2,600 from it — that’s how much you’re really making, after you factor in how much it costs you to get to and from your job all year. The average American travels 45 minutes commuting to and from work and spends about $10 to do so every day, according to the Citi ThankYou Premier Commuter Index.

The index is based on data collected by Wakefield Research from a nationally representative sample of 3,500 consumers between the ages of 35 to 54 with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, plus 500 respondents from New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Miami, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points. The survey asked Americans, not all of whom are full-time employees, about their commutes, which the survey defined as “your trip from work, school or daily activities.” The survey took place online from May 5 through May 12.

Most people drive to work (77%), so fuel is unsurprisingly the most common commuter cost — 79% of people who incur out-of-pocket expenses for their commute said most of their commuting budget goes toward buying gas, while 14% said they spend the most on public transportation, 3% spent the most on tolls and 2% spent the most on taxis or car services.

As far as commutes in big cities go (at least, the ones included in this survey), L.A. commuters spend the most per day ($16 on average), which makes sense, because it’s a car-dominated city, and fuel is a top cost-driver. New Yorkers spend the most time commuting, with an average round-trip commute taking an hour and 13 minutes — 44% of respondents said their daily commute takes longer than an hour. Miami workers have the shortest commute time of the cities (49 minutes) and Chicago and San Francisco were cheapest ($11 a day). That just includes the people who pay anything to commute — nationwide, 17% of people don’t have daily commute expenses, though it’s unclear how that breaks down among people who work from home, walk, bike or have some form of free transportation.

The responses from the five major cities came from commuters within designated market areas (as The Nielsen Co. outlines media markets), which may include suburbs of those areas.

The logistics involved in earning a paycheck are costly — you can do a lot with an extra $2,600 a year — and if you’re putting those expenses on a credit card without paying your statement balances in full, you’re spending even more on travel, not to mention the damage you could be doing to your credit. Carrying high credit card balances is one of the worst things you can do to your credit score, so it’s important to keep track of your accounts, check your credit scores and make adjustments to your habits as you see fit.

There are plenty of ways to save money on a commute, too. If taking public transportation is an option and would help you save money, consider doing so. Many public transit systems have options like a weekly or monthly pass that will allow regular commuters to spend less than if they regularly bought single-trip fare, and if public transportation isn’t an option, you could consider carpooling. Additionally, many large cities have adopted bike-share programs with annual passes that cost less than a typical monthly commuting budget, or you could try riding to work on your own bicycle. Every option has its pros and cons, but it may be worth the time and money to determine your most budget-friendly option.

More from Credit.com:

MONEY Transportation

4 Tips to Avoid Road Tolls This Summer

Toll Booths and Fastrak signs on gantry over Interstate 80 highway to San Francisco City, California
Ian Shaw—Alamy Toll booths and Fastrak signs on gantry over Interstate 80 highway to San Francisco City, California

We've got a secret the rental car companies would prefer you didn't know.

This won’t come as news to commuters and frequent road trippers, but drivers are encountering more and more toll roads, as well as higher and higher tolls on the existing ones. The latest example is I-10 in Texas, where plans called for the maximum toll during peak travel hours to shoot from $7 to $10 as of May 30. [UPDATE: At the last minute, the planned road toll price hike on I-10 was suspended, though a toll increase could be implemented in the future. For now, the maximum toll remains $7.]

With road trip—and rental car—season squarely upon us, here are a few strategies that’ll help keep tolls and surprise fees from ruining your vacation.

Be mindful of cashless toll roads. Along with more toll roads overall, more of them have become electronic-payment only roads, in which drivers can pay only via EZ-Pass, FasTrak, or a similar system. Those without a transponder will be captured on camera and later billed for payment—often at a higher price and perhaps with a “handling” or “administrative” fee tacked on.

It’s hard to find a definitive, up-to-date list of America’s cashless toll roads and bridges. PlatePass, an electronic tolling solution system that works with rental car operators to lend transponders to rental customers, lists dozens of electronic-payment-only toll roads around the country, but it’s focused only on where its service works and is therefore not comprehensive. If you’re planning a trip on an unfamiliar highway, bridge, or tunnel, look up the toll and payment details on the corresponding website.

Florida is notorious for having an abundance of toll roads with no humans to collect cash payments. Drivers who don’t have SunPass transponders on the Florida Turnpike, for instance, are billed an extra 25¢ on every toll, plus a $2.50 fee once a month. On other roads, like the Miami-Dade Expressway, tolls are doubled for automobiles without SunPass. Northern California’s famous Golden Gate Bridge is also cashless, and drivers without FasTrak tags pay $7, or $1 extra. Oh, if you’re driving a rental car, expect a lot more in the way of fees on cashless toll roads (more on this below).

Get the most cost-effective EZ-Pass account. Though some drivers refuse to get on board with electronic toll payment systems due to concerns about privacy and billing mistakes, or perhaps because they’re “unbanked” or simply prefer cash, the vast majority of car owners are on board. Doing so typically saves money: After a recent (surprise) toll hike, crossing New York City’s Verrazano Bridge costs $16 in the cash lane, but only $11.08 with EZ-Pass.

Note that there is generally no specific requirement to sign up for the EZ-Pass or equivalent local system in the state where your car is registered. Because each state’s program has its own fee structure—the cost of tags, prepaid tolls, and other fees vary widely, including some states with no upfront payments or monthly charges—it’s worth shopping around for the transponder system that gives you the best combination of convenience and value for your household.

Choose your rental car company and options carefully. Most rental car agencies offer electronic toll transponders as an option, alongside insurance, car seats, extra driver charges, and a host of other fees. Getting a transponder with your rental car is a convenience if you’ll be driving often on toll roads. But it can cost a bundle. The Avis e-Toll program, for instance, costs $3.95 per day, for a maximum of $16.95 per month with its rental cars.

What’s gotten many customers up in arms is that Avis and other operators charge the $3.95 “convenience fee” for each day the vehicle is rented—”including any days on which e-Toll is not used,” the fine print states. In other words, even if you use the transponder just once in the course of a weeklong rental, you’ll be charged more than the daily fee. (In this instance, you’d be hit with the monthly maximum.) This isn’t necessarily something customers would know enough to argue about when returning the vehicle, because the charge doesn’t show up on a credit card bill until a few weeks have passed.

Even more egregiously, Dollar and Thrifty were hit with a class action lawsuit last year for allegedly charging customers who didn’t sign up for a transponder an administrative fee of $15 or $25 for each toll, even though the tolls cost a tiny fraction of those amounts. In the past, Hertz and Fox Rent a Car have also been sued for fees related to road tolls incurred by customers.

The consumer travel blog The Points Guy recently rounded up the fees charged for transponders by the major rental companies. Only upscale Silvercar, which rents Audis and has locations in just nine airports, allows customers to use transponders without incurring extra fees. Bottom line: If you don’t want to use a rental car company’s transponder, don’t touch it. Pay tolls in the cash lane whenever possible, and avoid cashless toll roads or expect to see fees from the rental car company pop up on your credit card statement.

Bring your own EZ-Pass when renting. There is one other option for rental car customers who don’t want to pay transponder fees: BYO. Rental car operators aren’t exactly forthcoming in presenting this as an option to customers for obvious reasons (it cuts down on easy profits). But we confirmed that it is indeed OK to bring your own transponder and use it in a rental car. “They just need to be sure the rental car’s transponder box is closed,” a Hertz representative explained via email. “If it’s opened that will cause the EZ-pass transponder to be active when the customer goes through a toll and they will be charged for the EZ-Pass service.”

State transponder programs generally allow this practice as well. “You can use your E-ZPass Tag in any vehicle of the same class,” New York’s program states. To play it safe, though, double-check the rules with your particular transponder account. In some cases, it may be recommended that you register the rental car with your electronic payment account system, which you can do online.

If you don’t have a transponder tag that works in the region you’re traveling, consider buying one for your trip. Signing up for a local account often costs only a few bucks and can be accomplished in minutes once you’re at the destination. Doing so can save money compared with using the system that comes with the rental car.

Skip road tolls all together. The simplest way to avoid big tolls is plot a route that bypasses toll roads. Google Maps and various other online map and navigation systems give drivers the option of getting directions solely on roads, bridges, ferries, and the like with no tolls. On Google Maps, just click “Route Options” and choose according to your preference.

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