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Roadside assistance programs: Beware the gaps

Last updated: March 2008

When your car heaves a sigh and collapses, it’s nice to know that you have somebody to come to your rescue with the right equipment.

Motor clubs such as AAA or Better World Club used to be a driver’s only option. But these days, an army of other businesses are offering roadside assistance plans: insurance companies, carmakers, oil companies, credit-card issuers, even cell-phone service providers.

While the programs have many similarities--all will give (or reimburse you for) a tow--some have gaps in coverage that can leave you stranded or stuck with an unexpected bill. Plans offered by cell-phone services, for example, typically won’t cover you if you leave your phone at home.

The basics

Roadside assistance offerings vary from reimbursement for a tow, under some auto insurance policies, to full-service auto clubs such as AAA. For an annual charge of about $36 to $100, they provide towing, flat-tire changing, lost-key replacement, help with vehicles that are stuck, and delivery of fuel or coolant. They also offer maps and directions, travel and hotel discounts, trip-interruption insurance, and help in locating hotels or alternative transportation when your car is disabled. What’s more, high-tech services such as OnStar can have your car literally calling for help and reporting the exact location of your breakdown or collision.

In between those extremes are car-manufacturer plans that come free with a new car for the length of the warranty, usually three or four years. (Mercedes-Benz offers roadside assistance for the life of the vehicle.) Chrysler and Toyota provide full roadside assistance only for their certified used vehicles. If you bought a new car, the two companies arrange a free tow to a dealership, but only if the car has a problem covered under the warranty.

While dozens of companies and organizations offer roadside assistance plans, most of the work is farmed out to a few players, like AAA in BMW’s roadside plan, or the Massachusetts-based Cross Country Automotive Services, which provides service for nearly 70 percent of the auto industry brands, including Volvo’s.

Depending on where you are and when you call, you could get help in a few minutes or not so fast. Even giant AAA, with its 49 million members, has left drivers in the lurch. Edward J. Burke of Riverhead, N.Y., says AAA took seven hours to come to his sister’s aid when her Subaru broke down on a trip from New York to Maryland. “The number one reason you belong to AAA?is for emergency road service,” he says. “Everything else they sell you is worthless if they can’t be there when you need help.” AAA said that the club was changing its towing companies, and the hand off may not have been going smoothly.

The frills

Some of the plans offer extras that could be godsends in an emergency. Add $15 to its $53.95 annual fee and the Better World Club, in Portland, Ore., which bills itself as “the nation’s only environmentally friendly auto club,” will provide roadside assistance when you’re on your bicycle, too, and a 15 percent membership discount for new members who own hybrid cars. For $99.95 a year, the Allstate Motor Club will cover all your vehicles, including motorcycles and RVs.

Worried about getting a bad repair when a breakdown far from home forces you to use a unknown shop? All three plans from BP Road­side Assistance ($69 to $110 annually) reimburse you for re­doing any repair that fails within six months or 6,000 miles. The applies only if you used a program-authorized shop that’s at least 50 miles from your home.

Two versions of the AARP plan provide $1,000 toward your legal defense, if, say, you got a speeding ticket, and guaranty of payment up to $1,000 to any hospital emergency room 100 miles or more from home.

You may want a few extras that might not seem important now but could be a godsend later. Example: a plan, such as the GM Motor Club, that offers reimbursement up to $100 per incident for services you arrange on your own when the plan can’t find anyone to help you in a reasonable amount of time. Some plans, like AAA’s, intervene on your behalf if its approved repair shop does sloppy work.

Follow the coverage

To figure out whether to go with a plan that you get free or to join an auto club, think about who or what the various plans cover. That can be more confusing than you think. For example, under Allstate’s insurance policy, only the insured vehicle is covered. Enroll in the Allstate Motor Club and you’re covered in any car as long as a member is driving.

Most automaker plans apply only to the new or certified used car for which they were issued. That’s fine unless you want to cover the family jalopy. (When Volvo’s new-car coverage expires, you can renew it for $69 a year and cover all your vehicles.)

Cell-phone plans, such as those from Verizon and Sprint PCS, cover whoever has the phone at the time. So if your daughter is out with her pals and the car breaks down, she can use your plan-covered phone to get help.

Auto-club plans typically follow the member, providing coverage no matter what the vehicle, in some cases even for rentals. Such plans may allow you to add family members at additional cost. For the same $49.95, the GM Motor Club covers you, your spouse, and children under 21 living at home. The plan, not to be confused with the one that comes with GM cars, is available to all drivers.

Some carmakers’ plans, including Lexus roadside assistance, provide towing only to a dealership or, if one isn’t available nearby, the nearest repair shop. Other plans let you choose your towing destination but charge if you exceed mileage limits.

Many providers allow you to expand those limits or add other features by upgrading your membership. At $74 a year for family coverage, AARP’s Standard plan provides towing for only 5 miles. Pay $25 more for the Premier version and your towing limits increase to 100 miles.

How to choose

You don’t have to buy the most elaborate plan to meet your needs. Here are some general guidelines that can help you choose the right one. You should also carefully study the fine print before making a selection.

  • 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 that you are not duplicating coverage you already have from your credit card.
  • 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.

A cell-phone or credit-card plan might also be useful choices since you can use the coverage in any car.

Pay attention, as always, to the fine print, or you could end up like one CR staffer. He didn’t learn that his auto­maker’s roadside-assistance program didn’t cover the cost of towing as a result of flood, fire, and certain other calamities until his car was dashboard-deep in a torrential downpour.

Be aware that there are places where no plan can go. On some restricted highways, local governments license tow services and prohibit others from sending help. In that case, you’ll have to call 911 and hope for the best.

Did you know?

A tow could boost your car insurance premium

Using an insurance company’s roadside assistance or towing benefits too often could affect your rates (and not in a nice way) or even your eligibility for coverage. Some auto insurers consider your calls for roadside assistance to be negatives, just like accident claims. State Farm, the nation’s largest insurer, says the use of roadside assistance is a very small factor in calculating rates or considering a driver’s insurability. Some insurers report roadside assistance calls made under their policies to ChoicePoint, an Alpharetta, Ga., company that compiles claims information for the insurance industry. Nationwide Insurance and Geico say they report the information but don’t use it in their policy decisions. Allstate says it doesn’t report usage by members of the Allstate Motor Club, but it does report towing claims made under its insurance policies.

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