roadsideassistance$48 a year for AAA membership that entitles you to roadside assistance and………10% discounts? Really? Think again.  For decades, motorists paid their annual AAA dues thinking that they couldn’t afford to hit the road without roadside assistance. In the intervening years, two things have happened: cars got more reliable and alternative roadside assistance plans popped up as companies realized that AAA was massively overcharging customers and making some pretty profits.  Breaking down the roadside assistance maze resulted in finding some good and some ugly facts that you need to consider.

We quit our Automobile Club of Southern California about 10 years ago when we learned that the organization’s Board of Directors were largely made up of retired oil and energy executives. Ugh!   When we researched more about that Club and the national AAA, we learned that this “non-profit” company had become a marketing machine — much like AARP.  Except that AARP does a fair amount of advocacy for retired folks whereas at that time AAA’s advocacy was largely limited to defending the auto and oil industries.   We also discovered that, if you are a AAA member, you may be overpaying or paying double for roadside assistance, as many auto insurance and credit card companies include this coverage in their services.

Back in 2002, when we began searching for alternative roadside assistance services to AAA, we found the Better World Club and a handful of others.  Now, there are a slew of alternatives available to California consumers. Most recently, I looked at this marketplace and found roadside assistance plans offered by auto dealers, insurers, credit card issuers and warehouse clubs. For example, my needs are provided by Ameriprise, an auto insurance company that sells a plan to Costco members that includes roadside assistance. There are over 10 national plans listed and compared at Top 10 Reviews as well as other blogs.

THE UGLY

AAA is a group of more than 50 independently operated motor clubs with a total membership of 52 million. Each motor club works with local towing companies to provide roadside assistance with its members, and has a reciprocal agreement with every other motor club.The cost for AAA Plus membership varies widely, from $66 to $163 per year, depending on where you live. AAA Basic membership costs less but provides very limited towing—often just five miles or less—so you still could get stuck with a big towing bill if you break down in the middle of nowhere. Also, AAA membership covers just one motorist. Adding family members to a Plus plan can cost between $34 and $117 per additional person.

Many roadside plans are actually middlemen offering a service largely handled by one company: Agero. Formerly called Cross Country Automotive Services, Agero  provides coverage for an estimated 90% of new passenger autos sold in the US and works with a wide network of independent towing companies all across the country.  It has contracts with towing companies all across America, which allows it to negotiate lower rates.  Reportedly, GM, Ford and Lincoln, Mazda, Toyota, Chrysler, USAA, and Progressive all use Agero to provide roadside assistance to their customers.

Using roadside assistance through an insurer could increase your rates. Consumer Reports warns that some auto insurers consider your calls for roadside assistance to be negatives, just like accident claims. Some insurers report roadside assistance calls made under their policies to ChoicePoint, an Alpharetta, Ga., company that compiles claims information for the insurance industry.

Comparing roadside assistance plans has gotten complicated, as companies try to differentiate themselves through various “frills”.   It takes a fair amount of work to do the comparison and there aren’t any authoritative independent websites that track the various flavors of roadside assistance plans.

THE GOOD

If your vehicle is still under warranty, there’s a good chance that you already are covered. Most auto manufacturers now include roadside assistance when you buy a new or certified used car. This typically lasts as long as the basic warranty—perhaps three or four years—but not always.

Explore the add-on plans offered by your auto insurance providers, credit card issuers and/or cellular service providers. These add-on plans tend to be very inexpensive.  Sometimes they’re offered at no additional cost with an insurance policy or a credit card. While most are legitimate roadside-­assistance programs, others are little more than sales gimmicks that do not truly remove the financial risk of calling a tow truck, which is supposed to be the point of any roadside-assistance plan.

AAA, Allstate and Geico don’t use Agero and deal directly with towing companies to create their own roadside assistance plans.  Their responsiveness may be superior — but it is difficult to compare given the lack of regulatory or independent oversight over these plans.

Additional Things to Consider

  • When you investigate the add-on ­roadside-assistance plans available to you, weigh the following factors…
  • Only consider a full-service auto club plan — such as those offered by AAA, the GM Motor Club, AARP, and the Better World Club — if your family has more than one car or if you must cover more than one driver.
  • Check with your credit card company and auto insurer to ensure that you that you are not duplicating coverage you already have from them
  • Go with the automaker’s service that came with your new or certified car if that’s the only vehicle you own.
  • Choose a plan with the most generous towing allowance and trip-interruption benefits if you frequently travel far from home.
  • When deciding which program is right for you and your family, consider who needs to be covered and what vehicles they drive, and whether you need to be covered in other vehicles.
  • Once you’ve decided on a plan for you or your family, make sure each covered person has the number programmed into his or her cellphone or written down in a wallet, and has the information easily accessible in the car.
  • Find out the number of roadside-assistance calls allowed per year. Three or four assistance calls per year are typical.
  • Some plans offered by cell-phone companies provide coverage only when an enrolled cell phone is with the vehicle.
  • If you are going off-roading, it is unlikely that any roadside assistance plan will cover you.