Photo (cc) by The Suss-Man (Mike)
I own a clunker. It guzzles gas and makes strange noises. A couple of weeks ago, I got into the car, turned the key, and it made no noise. After an hour of trying and cursing, I gave up. Another hour later, I was riding shotgun in a tow truck, glaring at my broken car in the rearview mirror.
Two hours of car trouble was bad enough, but then the tow truck driver told me it would cost extra to cross county lines. It was also going to cost extra since my problem was “probably related to the key” – whatever that means. In the end, I paid $100 to have my car towed 8 miles home.
I paid too much because I didn’t plan ahead. Only later did I learn that cheap roadside assistance is available. In fact, you may already have it.
Some auto insurance companies, credit card providers, and auto manufacturers offer the service (basically) free to their customers. If you don’t have it, you can add it onto another service or pay for a standalone car club. Here’s what I’ve learned…
Some new and used cars come with a warranty that covers roadside assistance. The coverage varies, but you can typically use it if you lock yourself out of the car, run out of gas, or need a tow. Edmunds.com has a list of roadside assistance coverage by manufacturer. There is one caveat – they may only tow your car to the nearest dealership.
2. Credit card companies
Some credit card companies (like Bank of America) offer roadside assistance free. There may be a limit on the number of towing miles or other exclusions, so call and ask before you use the service.
3. Auto insurance providers
If you have comprehensive and collision auto insurance, you can add roadside and towing assistance to your plan. While the cost varies depending on your location and the type of car you drive, these are the estimates I got:
- Progressive – $3 per month
- Geico – $1.83 per month
- State Farm – $4.10 per month
4. Wireless service providers
While my wireless provider (T-Mobile) doesn’t offer roadside assistance, most of the major carriers do. You get towing (distance limits may apply), locksmith assistance, tire changes, and gas service. Here are the costs:
- AT&T – $2.99 per month
- Verizon Wireless – $3 per month
- Sprint – $4 per month
5. Auto clubs
These standalone services require a membership. Here are the rates:
- AAA – The granddaddy of auto clubs, the American Automobile Association has three membership tiers. Basic membership gets roadside and short-distance towing. As an AAA Plus member, you can tow up to 100 miles and receive lock-out assistance. Premier members get up to 200 miles of free towing and 24-hour concierge service. The cost of each plan varies depending on where you live, but they range from under $50 to more than $130.
- Better World Club – The BWC is an auto club with an environmentally friendly concept: You can purchase roadside assistance for your bicycle and get discounts for renting hybrids – but you’ll have to pay more if you own a gas guzzler like a Hummer. Basic membership costs $55.95 per year. Premium membership costs $89.95.
- Good Hands Roadside Assistance – Not really an auto club, but Allstate’s program is open to everyone. There are no annual fees, but you’ll pay per use. Towing costs $75 for the first 10 miles and $3 per mile after that. If you need another service (like a tire change), it costs $50.
Finding the best plan
Roadside assistance programs come with restrictions, and sometimes the cheapest plans aren’t worth the limitations. Before you sign up, ask these questions:
- Does the plan cover the car or the driver? If your spouse or teenage driver takes your car, you need them to be covered under the roadside assistance plan. Making sure the car is covered no matter who is driving is the easiest way to do this.
- Am I covered in other vehicles? If you have a rental or borrow a friend’s car, you want to know you’re covered when the tire blows.
- What are the signup fees? Most auto clubs have them. For example, the Better World Club charges a one-time $12 signup fee.
- How many tows are allowed per year? If you only get one tow, it may be cheaper just to pay for it outright and skip the membership.
- How far can I tow? This is the biggest restriction I found. For example, with a basic AAA membership, you can have your car towed 3 miles max. Any further and you’ll pay extra. Personally, I’ve never been lucky enough to break down within 3 miles of my house or my mechanic.
In the end, I added roadside assistance to my Geico insurance policy and signed up for Allstate’s Good Hands program as a backup. (Hey, it’s free.) I’m paying $29.96 a year for the service, but that’s $70.04 cheaper than my recent tow. If I end up needing four tows in the next two years – pretty likely given my clunker – I’ll save $340.08. That’s a good chunk of change to put toward a new car.