If you don't have a roadside assistance plan for your car, you may want to get one soon. The winter months are when most drivers need help with such issues as dead batteries, flat tires, and keys locked inside their cars, says Robert Sinclair, Jr., manager of media relations of AAA Northeast.

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With below-freezing temperatures in much of the northern United States in recent weeks, Sinclair says roadside assistance calls to his office are up about four times the usual number, ranging from 770 to 1,500 requests per hour.

Figuring out the right plan for you, though, may not be that easy. "Every roadside assistance program is slightly different," says Mel Yu, Consumer Reports senior auto analyst. You need to do your research. Here are some questions to ask yourself.

Am I already covered? 
If you bought a new car or a certified used vehicle recently, your car may have come with a roadside assistance plan that lasts for the duration of the warranty, which for a new vehicle is at least three years or 36,000 miles, says Yu. New Hyundais, for instance, provide five years of roadside assistance, and certified used Hyundais are covered for 10 years from the date the vehicle was originally placed in service.

If you've purchased a service contract—also known as an extended warranty—from an automaker or aftermarket company, you may also have coverage already, says Yu.

Be sure to check the terms of your auto insurance policy as well. Some insurers, such as Allstate, Geico, and Nationwide, offer roadside assistance as an add-on to their auto insurance policies. 

Also check the fine print in your credit card agreements. Cards such as the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card offer roadside assistance.

How do I find a plan?  
There are various websites that compare roadside assistance plans. Here are few guidelines to help you decide which plan is best.

  • If you have more than one car, you may want to narrow down your choices to a full-service plan, such as those offered by AAA, National General Motor Club, Better World Club
  • If there are multiple drivers in your family, consider a plan from an autodealer such as Good Sam Roadside Assistance, where the member fee covers the spouse and kids as well.
  • If you recently bought a new or certified car—and it's the only vehicle you own—you can go with the automaker's service, but make sure you know of any restrictions.
  • If you are on the road frequently and traveling far from home, choose a plan with the most generous towing allowance and trip-interruption benefits.
  • Pay attention to the fine print. Some roadside assistance programs don't cover the cost of towing as a result of flood, fire, and certain other calamities. 

How much will a roadside assistance plan cost? 
The amount you have to pay can vary widely. Plans typically start at around $40 to $60 for the first year, but premium coverage that provides increased or additional benefits can cost hundreds of dollars annually. For instance, OnStar plans with roadside assistance, available on GM vehicle, range from $20 to $35 a month.

Credit card issuers that offer roadside assistance often make it available on a per use basis so there are no upfront fees. Chase Bank's Roadside Dispatch service, for instance, costs $59.99 per incident and includes towing up to five miles, tire changing, jump-starting, and fuel delivery.

How often can I use the service?
Plans typically restrict the number of service requests to four or five per year. Exceed that, and you'll have to pay for the total cost of any assistance you receive, whether it's towing, extracting your vehicle from the snow, or having fuel delivered to your car. Rates vary by towing company but the average nationwide rate to tow a car is $109, according to  the website Angie's List

Is it easy to call for roadside assistance?
Plans usually have a toll free number you can dial. Many plans, including those from AAA, Allstate, and Good Sam Roadside Assistance, let you download a smartphone app that you can use to call for help. The app also provides your exact location using the phone's GPS capabilities.  Some vehicles, such as OnStar-equipped General Motors models, include onboard electronics so that you can summon roadside assistance and speak to an agent at the push of a button, says Yu.

Does the coverage extend to other vehicles I drive?
It depends. Some plans, such as those from auto manufacturers, only provide coverage for their specific cars. Other plans, including the Better World Club memberships, cover rental cars, vehicles you've borrowed, and company cars assigned to you for full-time personal use. You'll need to check with the provider. 

Where does the plan provide coverage? 
Roadside assistance plans usually provide coverage throughout the U.S. and Canada, but you may be out of luck if you're stuck in Mexico or some other country. Find out whether the plan you are considering will reimburse you if you break down in a location where it doesn't offer service. Good Sam Roadside Assistance, for example, covers you in Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

How far can I have the car towed? 
Check whether the service will only tow your car to the nearest repair facility, or if you can choose another farther away. The distance could be as little as three miles to as many 100 miles. For example, if you have a basic membership, AAA in the Northeast will tow your car for no additional fees within 3 miles, but it will charge a fee—depending on the location—beyond that. 

Can I cancel the plan anytime?
Yes. You'll typically get a pro-rated refund, though the plan might deduct the value of any services you received. You also may have to pay a cancellation fee, which, in the case of one AAA affiliate, is $10 for members without automatic renewal.

Check for complaints. 
Before choosing a service, check out the plan provider with the Better Business Bureau. It's also a good idea to do a web search with the name of the plan provider and such terms as "reviews" and "complaints." "Reading past complaints can give you an idea of what to look for," says Katherine Hutt, a spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau. Among the complaints we've seen are gripes about members having to wait hours for assistance, no one showing up at all when called, and vehicles that were damaged during the tow.

Look for specials.
You shouldn't necessarily pay whatever price the plan quotes you. Often, plans offer discounts. This month, for example, AAA is offering new members family coverage at no additional cost.