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Not All Roadside Assistance Plans Are Created Equal


Roadside assistance plans are now so common that many new cars sell with a spare tire as an option rather than a given. Many people who live in urban environments or who are concerned about fuel economy remove their spare tires because they can always just call for roadside assistance (and have it arrive promptly) when they're in and around town.

Most new and many used vehicles now come with a roadside assistance plan as part of the purchase and many insurance companies include roadside assistance with their comprehensive coverages. With all of this "free" roadside assistance, it's a wonder that insurance companies that have made their name on the idea, such as AAA, are even in business now.

Well, they are in business, in part, because not all "free" roadside assistance - or even paid-for assistance - is created equal. As with anything regarding legal contracts (like insurance), it's all about the fine print.

The first thing to realize is that the person who shows up to help you when you call in your roadside insurance card is not likely an employee of whomever you have your insurance with. This means that they are not likely "vetted" outside of having a legal business entity and whatever they tell you may or may not be what your insurance carrier agrees to or provides. As with most insurance, anything you sign for or agree to without first getting the "OK" from your provider (in writing or recorded conversation, if possible) is your responsibility, not theirs.

"Free" does not mean "crap," but it doesn't mean "good" either. We all know that there ain't no such thing as a free lunch. The roadside assistance that carmakers, insurance companies, and some warehouse clubs provide is a mixed bag. Some are great, some are marginal, some vary by location of the buyer.

Many plans limit the number of miles the provider can travel to get to you, limit the amount of towing (if any) that is allowed, and limit the amount or cost of the service to be provided.

So, for example, if you are stranded with a flat tire and no spare, the person who arrives to help may not be allowed by the insurance carrier to provide a spare tire (or it may not be covered and will come out of your pocket). They may not be able to even get to you without charging you, since the mileage may be further than is covered. It's also very likely that towing is either very limited or not included at all if the problem is more than just a simple flat tire.

There may also be limits such as how often you're allowed to request roadside assistance, the locations it's "good" for (e.g. inside the dealership's "zone" or in a specific metropolitan area or state), etc. You may be surprised at how limited your "free" roadside assistance actually is.

In short, know your coverage and its limits.

Some roadside assistance plans you pay for, however, have a lot of other benefits that can really add up. Most of the well-known roadside assistance plan carriers include a sort of "auto club" membership that has a lot of other benefits, like cheaper hotel stays or free maps or call-in directions. Some have discount cards that can get you cheaper gasoline at certain service stations or lower cost services outside of roadside assistance at participating shops.

Finally, one more caveat. This is a repeat, but it bears repeating. If you or someone on your behalf calls a shop that is not covered under your roadside assistance plan (not participating, part of a network, whatever), you will be stuck with the bill. Few plans reimburse for "outside of network" calls. You should also be aware that roadside assistance is called that for a reason. If you're not on the road, chances are it's not covered.

Again, read the fine print.