Most people equate roadside assistance with the American Automobile Association, better known as AAA (“Triple-A”), but there are many competing plans available now. How can you decide between them? Let's start by considering your driving habits.
- How and Where You Drive – Do you drive for long distances, or in remote areas? Do you drive through areas considered high risk for any reason, such as mountain roads or high-crime areas? In essence, what are the consequences of being stranded in the areas where it's likely to happen to you?
- Number of Cars and Drivers – Do you need coverage for just yourself and your car, or do you need coverage for other family members and/or multiple vehicles? Are any drivers high-risk (teens, for example)?
- Repair Preferences – Do you have a particular garage or dealer that you trust for local breakdowns? Do you have preferences for repairs away from your local area?
- Cost – Are you in a situation where you cannot afford premium services, and just want the cheapest option?
The answers to these questions will at least get you started in the right direction. You will be able to assess your balance between cost and risk tolerance.
After you've gotten a feel for your needs, how do you proceed? Narrow the options down by category.
If you have a free plan that came with a new car purchase, is that enough? Typical limitations are coverage on that car only, and repairs limited to qualified dealerships. Towing and repair costs may be higher as a result. Yet, if this plan works for your particular risks, it's hard to beat during the free period.
Warehouse clubs and insurance, credit card, and cellphone providers offer add-on plans that are typically farmed out to national providers. The plans are very inexpensive, but often come with limitations. Cell phone companies may require you to have your cellphone with you, credit card companies often charge for basic services, and insurance companies may consider a service call a claim. Many add-on plans work reasonably well, but check the fine print very carefully.
National services such as AAA and Allstate provide the next tier. Virtually all offer 24/7 roadside assistance, towing, tire changes, fuel delivery, and lockout and dead battery assistance. Premium services usually offer benefits like extended free towing distances. Most have higher membership costs but good reliability records.
OnStar comes free with an increasing number of cars, and has extra benefits such as hands-free calling, accident notification, GPS capability, and theft prevention. It's quite comprehensive, but can be quite expensive. It often comes free for one year on new vehicles, and may be continued by subscription after an initial period. Basic plans are $19.95 per month, or $29.90 per month to include turn-by-turn navigation. Savings are available by purchasing longer subscriptions up to a three-year term. Also, insurance companies may offer discounts on car insurance rates if you have OnStar installed.
Here are the basic questions to weigh as you compare vendors:
- Cost and Fees – What do basic and premium plans cost? Are tows and other services covered, or reimbursed (requiring upfront payment)?
- Coverage – How many people and cars are covered, and for what area? Are rental cars covered? Is it vehicle/driver specific? Are accidents covered as well as mechanical/electrical failure? What do premium plans provide (or what do basic plans exclude)?
- Allowances – How many tow calls are allowed per year, what are the distance limitations and fees, and are the repair options restricted?
- Response Time – What is the typical response time in areas where you typically drive?
- Extras – Do they offer perks that you find appealing, such as travel assistance?
Match these vendor questions with your needs from above, and you should be able to find the best coverage for your situation.
Before making your final decision, be sure you have checked online reviews and ratings, look through the fine print carefully, and make sure you understand what you are buying. You can then travel with confidence knowing that you've chosen the best plan for you.