It’s every traveler’s worst nightmare. Moments before you’re supposed to leave for vacation, you try to start your car – and it won’t.
That happened to me in Provo, Utah, recently. On an unusually cool summer morning, I pushed the start on my Honda CR-V and heard a faint buzzing sound, followed by silence. I tried again. No response.
It was time to call roadside assistance.
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But which one? It turns out I had choices, and so do you. You can contact your auto club, your credit card issuer or your insurance company. Occasionally, roadside assistance is included with your rental car. With driving vacations surging in popularity and even more in store for the upcoming holiday travel season, it’s time to review all of your options, including a few you might not know about.
“Roadside assistance is not always something drivers think about before they go on vacation,” says Joan Trach, chief operating officer of Allstate Roadside.
But there are a lot of companies and organizations that can help, she says. You can pay an extra $25 per year to add roadside assistance to your Allstate policy, for example. If you rent a vehicle through its car-sharing service, Avail, roadside assistance is included.
Trach says they recorded an 11% increase in roadside inquiries last summer, compared to the same period a year ago. In 2019, the last normal year for travel, there were a record 69 million breakdowns, according to Agero Insights, a driving technology company. Trach expects us to hit 2019 levels again this year, and maybe even surpass them.
Who should you call for roadside assistance?
For most drivers, the reflexive response to a flat tire or dead battery is to call an automobile club like AAA. That’s what I did in Utah. A tow truck showed up about half an hour later, installed a battery, and I made it to Los Angeles that evening without incident.
But AAA is far from perfect. Romeo Raabe discovered that when his Monaco Cayman RV sputtered to a halt on Interstate 43 near Cleveland, Wisconsin, recently. He phoned AAA for help, but a representative said they couldn’t arrive until the next day. When someone did, he charged Raabe $624 for the tow.
“It turns out that two fuel filters and one of the fuel pumps needed replacement,” recalls Raabe, a long-term-care planner from Green Bay, Wisconsin.
AAA eventually refunded Raabe for the tow, but the experience left him disenchanted. He says AAA balked at covering his expenses, saying it had recently changed its coverage limits. He looked up other roadside services but decided to stick with AAA after reading the user reviews.
How to get free roadside assistance
Sometimes, you don’t have to pay anything for roadside assistance. When the trailer carrying Alison Ilg’s kayak and windsurfing equipment blew a tire near Fort Myers, Florida, recently, she made two calls – one to AAA and another to Road Rangers Service Patrol. AAA wanted $100 to respond, but the Road Rangers arrived at the scene quickly.
“The road ranger was great,” says Ilg, a PR consultant from Atlanta. “He set up cones and helped my husband change the tire. He also had all the tools needed.”
The Road Rangers Service Patrol is a free service of the Florida Department of Transportation. Most states offer roadside assistance services. Look for road signs for instructions or research free road service online before your next trip.
Roadside assistance is sometimes included with your car
If your car is under three years old or has fewer than 36,000 miles on the odometer, roadside assistance is likely still covered. Most major manufacturers offer some kind of roadside assistance service for a limited period which covers battery jump starts, flat tire help, fuel delivery, lockouts and towing.
When Adeodata Czink had a flat tire in the driveway of her Toronto home, she reached into her glove compartment and found the car’s manual. On the first page, it listed a number for ToyotaCare, the manufacturer’s roadside assistance.
“They knew exactly what kind of car I had – a Toyota Corolla – and they were there within a half-hour to fix the tire,” says Czink, a consultant and tour guide.
The services may be limited. For example, Toyota’s plan only covers you for the first two years. One of the most significant restrictions: clauses that limit coverage to paved roads. If you’re camping and you have a flat tire, you may be out of luck.
Car rental companies and sharing services also include roadside assistance. For example, if you’re renting a motor home through RVshare, roadside assistance is included with the vehicle. RVshare has a partnership with Questx Tow Network to ensure all its renters get help with towing, tire issues, battery problems and lockouts.
“It helps you to have peace of mind, knowing someone is there with help to get you back on the road as soon as possible,” says RVshare spokeswoman Maddi Bourgerie.
How to handle a roadside assistance request
I should have thought twice before calling AAA. It turns out I had roadside assistance coverage through Progressive, my auto insurance company. I had already paid extra for a comprehensive plan that includes towing, winching, fuel delivery and a flat tire change. I could have also paid a flat fee of $69.95 for the same services through Visa’s Roadside Dispatch service.
Certain travel credit cards such as the American Express Platinum and Chase Sapphire Reserve have roadside assistance benefits but there may be charges involved depending on the service required as well as limits to how often you can use the
So what’s the best way to wade through all the options? Well, knowing the options are there is a sensible first step.
“Shop around,” says Kirsten Reneau, a consultant for Superior Honda in New Orleans. “It’s tempting to just go with a big name because that’s what’s easiest, but those won’t always be the cheapest or right for you. Find out what roadside assistance your insurance already covers, and look for additional coverage based on that information to get the best deal.”
A careful evaluation of your travel needs might make you reconsider your roadside assistance plans. Like Raabe, you may stick with AAA. Or you might find that you’ve already got all the coverage you need through your insurance or credit card and save a little money on that annual AAA membership. Either way, it’s worth a closer look.