On March 27, the Golden Gate Bridge became the first in California to switch to all-electronic payment for bridge tolls. That means no more waiting at the toll plaza and no more paying in person. For travelers, the new system requires either advance planning, following up with payment, or paying the toll plus a convenience fee to rental car companies. Similar systems have been in place in Texas and Florida for the last few years, and both seem to work pretty well.
Tolls on the bridge are assessed coming into San Francisco, so you'll only need to worry about how to pay if you're planning on traveling southbound. While you can no longer pay at the bridge, you can still pay in person, by phone, online, or by mail. Here's the scoop and links for more information for travelers:
Rental cars: All major rental car companies' license plates are in the system already. The easiest option is to opt into a rental company's toll program, though most rental car companies tack a convenience fee onto the toll charge. If you prefer not to pay the additional fee, opt out of the program when you're renting the car and make a one-time payment before you cross the bridge at a kiosk, online, or over the phone. Here are the details, as well as a handy list of questions to ask at the rental car counter to make sure you avoid any surprise fees.
Out-of-state and out-of-country visitors driving their own cars: You can pay up to 30 days in advance or 48 hours after crossing the bridge. Pay by phone, online, or in person. If you'll be driving over the bridge a number of times during your visit (say, if you're staying in Sausalito but visiting San Francisco) you can open a limited-duration license plate account. Here are details and more information.
Another option if you know someone local: My husband's family lives out of state, but they visit often. Since we have a FasTrak (a hockey-puck sized transponder linked to an account that deducts money each time we use a bridge), we’ve just added their license plates to our account. That way, on the occasions they do cross a bridge, they don't need to worry about how to pay for it. Alternately, if you know someone with a FasTrak, you can ask them really nicely to lend it to you. As long as it beeps as you're going through the toll plaza, you're covered.
Consider yourself briefed. As long as I'm on the topic of the Golden Gate Bridge, I also wanted to share a cool story I heard last week. I was listening to the radio on the last day the Golden Gate Bridge employed toll-booth collectors, and one of the employees, Jacquie Dean, told a story that has really stuck with me. You can listen to it online (jump to 15:33), but here's the gist:
A man from Japan who was visiting Los Angeles with a group caught a late-night flight alone from L.A. to come up to San Francisco so he could walk across the bridge. When he arrived it was the middle of the night and the sidewalk on the bridge was closed (it closes at night), so he waited. At 5 a.m. one of the lieutenants came out and told him he could walk across the bridge. Before he went, he sat on the stairs, opened his backpack, carefully unwrapped a pair of shoes, took off the shoes he was wearing and put this other pair on. Ms. Dean was curious so she asked him about it, and he said they had been his grandfather's shoes. His grandfather had always wanted to walk across the Golden Gate Bridge and never did, so this man was going to do it in his grandfather's shoes. He walked all the way across and back, and when he returned, he sat down took off the shoes, rewrapped them and put them back in his backpack, put his own shoes back on and went on his way. It was his way of completing his grandfather's wish halfway around the world.