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Roadside assistance is one of those things that’s easy not to think about — until you’re stuck on the side of the road somewhere or your car won’t start.
Roadside assistance plans come in all shapes and sizes, and can potentially save you big headaches later if you have car trouble. But choosing a plan that makes sense for you and your vehicles isn’t as simple as you might think. Here’s what you need to know:
What Is Roadside Assistance?
In its simplest form, roadside assistance is emergency help when you find your car disabled or inoperable. This includes assistance with recharging your dead battery, fuel if you’ve run out of gas, towing, or tire-changing services. If you find your car stuck in a ditch or in mud or snow, roadside assistance can help with extrication.
Why Is Roadside Assistance Important?
Roadside assistance can help get you out of inconvenient, vulnerable, situations when your car is inoperable. The added peace of mind you get with having a plan can be particularly useful if you regularly drive far away from home in places you’re unfamiliar with.
Even if you aren’t regularly driving out of town, roadside assistance can provide help with situations many people may not know how to handle, such as changing a flat tire or jumping a dead battery.
“One of the benefits of a specific roadside assistance plan is that it gives you a company to call,” says Jack Gillis, an auto safety expert and executive director of the Consumer Federation of America. “While we may have a favorite mechanic, knowing who to call for a roadside fix or a tow can be a mystery for most of us.”
What Makes Roadside Assistance Different From Car Insurance?
Roadside assistance is different from your auto insurance coverage because it provides relief for a temporary situation when your car is undrivable. It is usually much less expensive than your annual auto insurance premiums, or possibly without any additional cost to you.
Roadside assistance is available in two basic forms: You can choose a reimbursement plan, or one that gives you access to a network of service providers.
The Reimbursement Model
The reimbursement model is considered a more basic plan. With this option, you make your own arrangements for towing, tire changes, etc., and then submit the receipts to the plan administrator for reimbursement. This type of plan might make more sense if you typically drive near or within your town or community, where you will be better able to get local assistance if the need arises, says Gillis.
While reimbursement plans are typically less expensive than a plan with a network, there are several drawbacks, including needing money out of pocket upfront when the need arises.
“Often overlooked is the cost of towing,” says Charlie Breit, director of consumer products for Allstate, whose division includes the company’s roadside assistance plan. “This can add up to over $400 in one incident. Even pre-pandemic, $400 was a huge expense many Americans couldn’t cover out of pocket.”
Another disadvantage to this model is you have to know who to call if you need a tow or minor mechanical help on the road. While this may work when you are close to home, this is more difficult if you’re driving out of town.
Service Provider Network
With this type of roadside assistance plan, you simply call for help and the dispatcher puts you in touch with the appropriate service provider.
One major benefit of this model is you don’t have to figure out who to call for help, since the plan administrator takes care of this for you, Gillis says. Another benefit with plans offering access to the network of providers is the availability of digital apps. Most such plans offer the ability to track your service provider and see the ETA.
With either model, be sure to confirm the number of rescues covered each year. If you travel on the road frequently or drive an older vehicle, you may want a plan that allows for more rescues.
Should You Get a Roadside Assistance Plan?
A roadside assistance plan can provide a safety net in the event of car trouble — whether you’re near (or even at) home or while traveling. Especially if you regularly travel out of town, or at night, a roadside assistance plan can be a good way to get extra peace of mind. They can be especially beneficial if you drive an older vehicle that is more prone to mechanical or other issues.
Where Can You Get Roadside Assistance Plans?
There are several different roadside assistance plan options, including your car manufacturer, insurance companies, and other private clubs and organizations. “I strongly recommend purchasing it from an insurance company, a manufacturer, or through a club because if you buy from an independent company and they go out of business, you are out of luck.” advises Gillis.
Here’s what you should know about different common options:
Almost every new car comes with some sort of roadside assistance says Gillis. “It generally lasts a certain period of time, typically 48 to 60 months. Now each program is slightly different, but it comes free with the car.”
If you drive a newer car, review the manufacturer’s roadside assistance plan first, since it’s likely included at no additional cost. “Check what benefits your new car includes, then compare to others.” advises P.J. Miller, partner and independent insurance agent with Wallace & Turner Insurance in Springfield, Ohio.
Most new cars come with free roadside assistance for a set period of time. Make sure you understand any such coverage you might already have before you buy something separately.
Most carriers offer or include roadside assistance plans with your auto insurance coverage. But don’t assume your roadside assistance plan is tied to a large network of service providers simply because you receive it through your insurance carrier. Some carriers use the reimbursement model, which means you’d have to pay out of pocket if the need arises.
If you like the roadside assistance plan offered by an insurance company but you don’t have a policy through them, ask about a standalone assistance plan, or consider whether it might make sense to switch insurance companies to get the extra coverage.
Organizations and clubs
Auto clubs such as AAA or Better World offer a variety of annual membership plans. These plans typically travel with you wherever you go, even if you aren’t driving a car. This means you can tap them for help even if you’re a passenger in someone else’s car.
The yearly membership tends to cost more versus a manufacturer or insurance carrier’s plan. Club plans can also include travel discounts, trip protection, and other perks, but note that you are paying extra for these services you may not need.
Cellphone carriers and credit card companies
Your cellphone company might offer roadside assistance plans to existing customers. Credit card companies, as well, might include roadside assistance at no additional cost for cardholders. But be careful to read the fine print — these included plans usually have a limited number of rescues and smaller towing radius.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best roadside assistance?
The best roadside assistance plan is the one that works for your driving habits, lifestyle, and fits your budget. If you drive an older car primarily in your community and just want extra peace of mind, a reimbursement plan might make sense. If you frequently travel away from home, a network plan might be a better fit. You can also check out the best roadside assistance reviews to see what consumers have to say about their experience calling for help or getting reimbursed.
Can I use my roadside assistance for other vehicles I don’t own?
This depends on your plan details. For instance, “some carriers charge you per year and per car,” explains Miller. This means the plan is tied to the car you own.
But other plans, such as AAA, offer an option in which the roadside assistance travels wherever you are, whether it’s in your car or someone else’s. If this is important to you, make sure to confirm your plan includes this before purchasing.
When can I use my roadside assistance?
You should be able to use your roadside assistance whenever you truly need it. However, some plans only allow a certain amount of rescues per year, or you incur extra charges.