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.