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How to Choose a Roadside-Assistance Plan

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AAA May Not Be Right for You

A Missouri woman had a minor auto accident on her way to church earlier this year. She was billed $913 for a five-mile tow. Most but not all roadside-assistance plans would have covered the towing and prevented the extreme overcharge.

Years ago, roadside-assistance plans, which tend to provide several other kinds of assistance as well, such as jump-starting a battery and changing a tire, used to be available only from auto clubs such as AAA (AAA.com) and the Better World Club (BetterWorldClub.com). But now these plans are offered by many types of companies, including auto dealers, insurers, credit card issuers, cell-phone service providers and warehouse clubs.

Although all the plans tend to cover some basics, the full roster of what you get from each plan, how well it delivers services and how much it costs varies widely. Choose unwisely, and you will end up paying a lot more than you need to and/or getting much less than you expect.

How to choose…

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.

Examples: Mercedes roadside assistance lasts for the life of the vehicle, including all future owners. But Toyota’s ToyotaCare plan lasts just two years or 25,000 miles, whichever comes first. That is less than the length of the ­warranty. (Exception: The Toyota Prius Plug-In Hybrid comes with three years of roadside assistance. Manufacturers sometimes provide additional roadside assistance with hybrid and electric ­vehicles to reassure car buyers that these cars will not leave them stranded.)

Most of these auto manufacturer plans provide fairly comprehensive coverage, including towing, lockout service, jump-starting, tire changing and fuel delivery. Roadside service often is provided through a company called Agero (formerly Cross Country Automotive Services), which provides coverage for 90% of new passenger autos sold in the US and works with a wide network of independent towing companies all across the country.

Downside: Many manufacturer plans provide tows only to the nearest dealership, which might charge higher repair rates for nonwarranty service than an independent garage. This is the case with Ford and GM’s roadside-assistance plans.

AAA Plus memberships generally offer the most comprehensive coverage other than manufacturer-­provided roadside assistance. Other auto clubs and membership organizations such as AARP (www.AARPRoadside.com) might offer what looks on paper like comparable services for a slightly lower cost, but they generally can’t match AAA’s extensive roadside-assistance provider network. A smaller network can mean longer waits when you are stranded.

Downside: AAA roadside assistance is pricier than most other options, ­although AAA membership provides various types of discounts ranging from hotels to clothing retailers that help defray the cost of membership. 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.

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. But be very cautious about relying on them. While some 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.

Example: Insurer MetLife’s roadside-assistance plan provides a maximum benefit of $50 per breakdown in most states—much less than what you might be charged for a tow.

Some of these programs also might have relatively limited service-provider networks. And taking frequent advantage of an insurance company’s towing program could increase your insurance rates, though occasional calls to such a program are unlikely to have any significant effect. Still, there are some fine add-on plans out there if you take the time to check the program rules and understand what you’re truly getting.

Example: American Express Premium Roadside Assistance, offered at no additional cost with certain American Express gold and platinum cards, has fairly extensive benefits.

CHECK THESE FEATURES

When you investigate the add-on ­roadside-assistance plans available to you, weigh the following factors…

Towing-distance allowance. Bargain-basement plans might cover only five miles of towing or less. Others might cap the amount they will pay for a tow at $100 or less, with any overage coming out of your pocket.

Number of roadside-assistance calls allowed per year. Three or four assistance calls per year are typical.

Out-of-pocket costs. Some plans require members to pay a fee each time they request roadside assistance.

Examples: Discover Roadside Dispatch, available to all Discover Card members, costs $69.95 per service call. Towing is covered up to 10 miles. Visa Roadside Dispatch, available with select Visa cards, costs $59.95 per service call and covers tows of up to five miles. On the plus side, neither plan charges a membership fee or requires advance enrollment.

Who’s covered? Some plans cover an entire household with a basic membership, while others cover just one vehicle or driver unless you pay extra—or they place other restrictions on coverage.

Example: Some plans offered by cell-phone companies provide coverage only when an enrolled cell phone is with the vehicle.

Average response time. Call the plan’s 800 number to ask if it tracks average response time to roadside-assistance requests. If not, enter the plan’s name and keywords such as “reviews” or “opinions” into a search engine to see what other members have to say about response times.

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Source: Philip Reed, senior consumer-advice editor at Edmunds.com, an automotive information Web site that does extensive research on ­vehicles and trends. He is author of Strategies for Smart Car Buyers (Edmunds).

Date: December 1, 2013 Publication: Bottom Line Personal
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