Choosing the right Roadside Assistance

Coverage can be a lifesaver, but consider your needs before you buy

When your car breaks down, it’s a relief to have roadside assistance to call on for help day or night. Those plans provide basic services, such as towing, changing a flat tire, and jump-starting a vehicle, often for no more than an annual membership fee that can cost about the same or even less than paying for just one service call on your own. And many provide extras, such as discounts on hotels and rental cars, and even bail in case Smokey doesn’t appreciate your imitation of the Bandit. But the plans also have a downside. Consumers have complained on websites about having to wait hours for assistance and enduring rude customer-service representatives. Some frustrated plan members said they were left stranded and had to rely on the police for help changing a tire or arranging a tow. Some plans warn that they might not be able to provide assistance under certain circumstances, such as bad weather, which, of course, is when you may need them most. And with so many plans—offered by auto clubs, insurance companies, creditcard issuers, and wireless communications providers—it can be difficult to decide which one is best. Following is our guide to help you sort out what’s best for you:

Find out whether you already have coverage

If your car still is under the manufacturer’s warranty, you’re probably already covered by roadside assistance at no additional cost. For instance, for its new cars, Ford provides towing, jump-starting a dead battery, lockout service, and empty tank fuel delivery for three years/36,000 miles to six years/70,000 miles, depending on the vehicle and when you purchased it. Also check your credit cards. American Express automatically provides roadside assistance to its cardholders, although the extent of coverage varies by card. The Discover Card has a pay-as-you-go plan that costs $69.95 whenever you use it. And then there’s your auto insurance’s optional towing and labor coverage, which reimburses you for towing or for what a mechanic charges to get your car going at the site of the breakdown.

Decide what you need

There are several types of plans. There’s Visa Signature, which arranges for service, sometimes at pre-negotiated prices, but doesn’t cover any of the cost. OnStar, which monitors your vehicle and can contact you if you’re in an accident to see if you need medical assistance or a tow, can also unlock your doors remotely and even e-mail you monthly diagnostics on your vehicle.

Research your options

Find plans by doing a Web search with the words “roadside assistance.” Your auto-insurance company might offer full roadside assistance as an added service. But some insurers, including State Farm, take into account a customer’s use of roadside assistance or towing and labor coverage when deciding whether to renew a policy. So ask whether that’s the case.

Review the basic services

Look for towing and jump-starting, flattire changes, extracting your vehicle from mud or snow, lost-key or lockout service, and fuel delivery (in case you missed that needle hitting the “E”). Some companies and organizations offer several plans, each with different prices and benefits. Their websites sometimes have handy charts that you can use to make comparisons. Also read the fine print and any frequently asked questions. Here’s what to look for:

  • Cost. Plans we reviewed cost less than $40 a year to as much as $300. Some charge extra if you want to add family members (see chart on the next page for examples). Plans typically bill for annual membership, though some charge monthly or per incident. Some plans, such as AAA New York and Better World Club, impose surcharges during the first year, while others offer first-year discounts. If you’re new to a plan, find out if you can avoid a long-term commitment. Good Sam Roadside Assistance lets you request a full refund up to 30 days and a prorated refund after that. The BP Motor Club charges just $1 for the first month.

  • Towing destination. Find out where your car will be towed under the plan. It will usually go to the closest repair shop or one that you choose within certain limits. That’s usually about 5 miles with a basic plan but can be up to 100 miles with premium coverage. If you have the car towed farther than allowed, you’ll pay for the extra mileage ($3 a mile in the case of the American Express Premium Roadside Assistance plan).

  • Limits on service calls. Usually you are allowed four service calls during a 12-month membership period. After that you might not be covered or might have to pay out-of-pocket. Although AAA New York allows up to four service calls, if you exceed three in any 12-month period you’ll be barred from signing up for either of the group’s two premium plans the next year. The American Express Anywhere plan, which is free with some cards, limits you to four calls a year, and you can’t use the service more than once during a week.

  • Service availability. Plans typically contract with local repair shops and towtruck operators. Some boast of having tens of thousands of service providers nationwide and, in some cases, in Canada and Mexico. Find out if the plan you’re considering has providers who can respond in your area or where you’re likely to travel. Some states allow only their own contract garages to provide emergency road service on some highways. So you might end up having to call 911 anyway. If a plan can’t provide help for a particular incident, it might reimburse you for services you arrange on your own, usually up to a certain amount.

  • Vehicle eligibility. Plans typically cover passenger vehicles, though some offer separate or enhanced coverage for RVs, motorcycles, and trailers. The Better World Club even has a plan for bicycles.

  • Available extras. Find out what other benefits the plans provide, such as trip-planning tools, reward offers for the recovery of your stolen vehicles, insurance for trip interruption, warranties for repair service, and discounts on car repairs or other services.

  • What others are saying. As with any purchase, find out if the group that’s offering a roadside-assistance plan has a report at the Better Business Bureau. And see what others think about the coverage on complaint boards. Search the Web with the name of the plan, company, or organization and words like “reviews” and “complaints.”

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