Your car never breaks down next to a lovely park, when you have a picnic basket in the trunk and not a care in the world. It’s either 90 degrees and muggy, snowing or pouring down rain. And you are under the time pressure of a million things to do. That explains why you would want a roadside assistance plan that responds quickly and reliably.
Your plan should also cover all the most likely scenarios. Your basics might be towing, battery jumpstarts or replacement, tire changes, lockouts, fuel delivery and getting your car unstuck. However, it shouldn’t force unneeded frills or duplicate coverage you have elsewhere. Today your options are far broader than just the well-known ‘motor clubs, but the fine print must be read to avoid surprises.
- Fantastic value for high-end roadside services
- Multiple RV plans with concierge services and unlimited towing options
- A full money-back guarantee within the first 30 days of membership
Whatever our age, when our car doesn’t start or breaks down on the road, we haven't factored car problems into our scheduling, so we want it fixed right away. The challenge becomes how to prepare for those trying moments at the best cost-to-value ratio. (The company choices seem endless, each one offering more than one plan with varying the prices and benefits.)
To start, identify your exact circumstances, such as:
- What is the condition of your car: new and reliable – or older and breakdown-prone?
- How far from home do you tend to drive: just around town – or long distances where generous towing allowances are important?
- How fragile is your health: good enough to wait if breakdown service is slow – or too precarious to be waiting a couple of hours when service is unreliable.
Then, if you are starting to get help from others for your everyday activities, is the coverage linked to the driver or the vehicle? For example, if you have someone driving your car to do errands for you, are they covered if you are not in the car? Can you easily add family members, or are they already included? On the other hand, if you are not driving your own car, but a rental or someone else’s, are you covered?
Lastly, how easy is it to call for assistance? Most services have toll-free numbers you can call 24/7, but some may not. Others have an app you can download to your smartphone. You can use it to call, and it also uses your phone’s GPS to pinpoint exactly where you are. (OnStar services in some cars would replicate that access.)
As you start examining all the roadside assistance options available to you, while cost may be very important, reliability and speed are the two factors that will bring you the greatest peace of mind.
Regardless of our financial situation, most seniors are living on some form of fixed income and are uncomfortable with the idea of nasty surprises and uncertainty. A good roadside assistance plan cannot erase the inconvenience of a breakdown or other car-related incident. However, it can certainly minimize that inconvenience. More important, it can remove all (or most) of the extra cost incurred – beyond the cost of the plan itself.
Having a good roadside assistance plan means:
- Having a workable solution to incidents like fixing a flat tire or getting gas if you run out;
- Minimizing the risk of large unknown expenses such as a costly long-distance tow;
- Knowing you will not be ripped off by calling an unknown service when you need one;
- Being able to add whatever extra services you want beyond the basic ones, including trip planning, trip interruption and travel discounts; and
- Having the peace of mind of knowing you have addressed one more area of uncertainty as you go through your daily life.
While smaller, local roadside assistance plans do exist, the issue of sheer accessibility to ‘responder’ service trucks leads most people to look at the plans offered by nationally known brands, insurance companies, associations or even cellular phone providers. In any case, you first want to identify the base cost (whether for basic or extended services); the warranties offered, how easy it is to start up or cancel the service, and how accessible the provider’s customer service is.
You will also want to know about the service itself: exactly what services are included or excluded in the coverage, your access to upgraded services and the forms of payment accepted.
Once you decide you want a roadside assistance plan, or want to replace the one you already have, the first step is to determine what coverage you may have elsewhere. If your car is still under its original or extended warranty, you may have some coverage there. Your car’s insurance policy may also offer optional towing and labor coverages. Even some credit cards and cellphone services offer roadside assistance as a benefit. The key is to read those contracts, list what you have and see if it is sufficient. (They may offer very limited services; the fine print will tell.)
What you need: Next, you want to make a realistic list of what circumstances you want to cover, based on how you use your vehicle. While we will be looking at standard roadside assistance plans, other types of services exist. For example, pay-per-use services are offered through some credit cards, at pre-negotiated service prices. Also, OnStar-type services may have come with your vehicle and can call for medical or towing assistance. (Be sure to ask who pays for what.)
An online search for ‘roadside assistance’ will give you a long list of possible providers. Recommendations from friends and family based on their actual experiences should carry plenty of weight but be sure they have actually used the service. Many people pay for plans they have never had to use, and report positively just because they have no negative experience.
Before examining possible providers, prepare a list of questions you will want to ask. This list gives you a good start. Mark the questions that are important to you and use them to filter the best company for you.
- What is the annual cost of the plan?
- What other fees could you incur?
- Are there first-year discounts or surcharges?
- Does the plan require a long-term commitment?
- Does the plan cover everything you may need or just some basics?
- Who does it cover? (Is the plan linked to the person or the vehicle?)
- Can you add people easily? At what cost?
- On towing, how far will your car be towed for free before extra charges kick in (and at what per-mile cost)?
- Do you get to choose the towing destination, such as your regular repair shop?
- Does the plan cover incidents caused by fire and flood?
- What kind of passenger vehicle will be towed? (Light trucks, all-wheel drive and sports cars, too?)
- Are enhanced services available for a motorcycle, RV or trailer?
- How many service calls are included each year in the plan? Above that, does the company refuse service or charge per incident?
- What about frequency if, say, your car breaks down twice in one week?
- What is the geographic range of the service? (Does it include Canada and Mexico?)
- How many ‘responders’ does the service have, especially in your area?
- Will the plan reimburse you if you break down somewhere where it doesn’t offer service?
- Is the plan available 24/7/365? Are there any exceptions?
- Does the company send its own employees or contractors?
- Are the people it sends bonded and insured?
- What does the company consider an acceptable delay in providing service? What is the published average response time per service call?
- What other benefits does the plan provide? Trip-planning tools? Trip-interruption insurance? Travel discounts? Warranties or discounts on repair services?
Responsibility and reputation: Once you have identified the questions that are important to you, get answers for the plans you are considering. Ask to receive a copy of the company’s contract so you can review it before signing. Look for ‘wiggle’ phrases like “we reserve the right” or “at our sole discretion.” Pay attention to how the company treats you during this question-and-answer phase as that will give you a hint of how you will be treated when you call for service.
With your short list of potential companies in hand, after filtering through the steps above, look up each company on the Better Business Bureau website to see how it resolves issues. (Large companies will have complaints; the key is in how they respond.) Read responsible online reviews and remember that consumers rarely write to praise a company. What you are looking for is trends.
Decision-making: This may seem like a tortuous process for something that may only cost around $50-150, or the cost of one average tow. However, that is not the point. Instead, this is a one-time decision that will make all the difference, in terms of convenience and cost, if and when you have a car-related incident. (More likely, ‘when.’) You have undoubtedly heard of people abandoned overnight in remote locations or waiting nine hours for service during rush hour. Or being hit by an unexpected $400-500 bill for a long-distance tow.
The ultimate question is this: what brings you the greatest comfort in light of the related cost?
Two areas differentiate what seniors prioritize from what others do when buying roadside assistance services: age-friendliness and health-related value.
Age friendliness: The older you get, the less likely you are going to want to change a tire on the side of a highway or walk five miles to a gas station to haul back a 1-gallon can of gas. Also, your needs may change as you age, so you may want to keep monitoring what is available to meet present and future needs. Any assessment should include ease of contact, plus the reliability and the responsiveness of the service, and may result in the decision to change service providers.
Health-related value: The impact of an unexpected car-related incident multiplies as our health declines. Reliability and timely response become that much more critical. As long as you – or a caregiver or family member – are going to be driving you around, having a trustworthy service is essential.
Each company puts together its own assistance plans, with different levels of service and at different set fees. It will be up to you to select the one that best fits your needs. The fee for most plans will be billed annually and can run from $50 for basic services to hundreds of dollars for frill-laden, full-service coverage.
With annual billing, you will want to ask about a money-back guarantee in case you are displeased with the service. You should at least get a prorated refund in case of cancellation, regardless of reason. Some companies may consider how much you have already used their service when making those calculations, which is fair.
You will want to ask for a schedule of extra fees. These could include the cost of adding people or vehicles to your plan, the cost of service calls above the typical service call limit of four or five per year, and the per-mile cost above the towing distance limitation. (On basic plans, the limit could be as low as five miles.)
Services offered by credit card issuers may be offered at pre-determined cost and charged on a per-use basis, instead of charging an upfront fee.
As competition increases in this industry – especially now that Uber-like smartphone apps are being introduced (and discussed below) be sure to ask for anything that could trigger a discount for the plan you select.
As with any contractual agreement, it is important to read the fine print to ensure that there are no hidden fees or conditions.
In assessing roadside assistance plans, the elements you want to define include the base cost (whether for basic or extended services), the warranties offered, the ease of service start-up or cancellation, and your access to the provider’s customer service.
Cost: The cost is going to be determined primarily by how basic or extensive the plan is that you select for your specific needs. Basic services could start at $50-60 per year. Extensive plans are known to reach $300 or more per year. Your budget is a major consideration. However, remember that the more basic your plan, the greater the possibility that something you need will not be included when you need it. As with any other insurance-type plan, you have to do a little risk assessment.
Warranty: Some companies offer a trial period. However, unless you have an incident within that short period, you will not have any criteria upon which to judge. Check to see if the company offers a money-back guarantee, and within what time frame.
Ease: Ease of access is important, whether to set up the service or to use the service. The set-up is usually available through an 800 number or online through the company’s website. Plans should have a toll-free number for service requests. Many are also adding downloadable smartphone apps that make contact easier and that use the GPS from your phone to help locate you.
Cancellation: Companies will typically offer a pro-rated refund if you decide to cancel, but they may factor in any services you have used up to that point. There may also be a small cancellation fee.
Customer support: Especially for seniors, easy access to a company’s customer service representatives is essential. You will only call them when you have an incident – when something has gone wrong – and that could be on any day at any time. 24/7/365 service is key. You also want to know if services are offered up front for free, or if you have to request reimbursement after you pay for the service yourself. The Better Business Bureau and online reviews will give you an idea of what you can expect.
Insurance risk: If you are considering using the roadside assistance offered by your car insurance provider, check to see if your usage of the service can in any way affect your access to or your premium rate for car insurance in the future. While not commonly known, some insurers consider your use of road assistance or towing and labor coverage as negatives, similar to an accident claim. Remember that, as we age, insurance companies already penalize us by raising their rates anyway. So, even if the companies say the impact of using their roadside services is minimal, it may not be worth the risk. Besides, the services offered as add-ons to your insurance plan are often pretty limited.
Disruptors: Today’s on-demand economy is disrupting just about every industry with new ways of providing services that totally disrupt how they have been traditionally provided. (Think Uber or Lyft.) In the case of roadside assistance, these disruptors have come in the form of on-demand assistance available through downloadable smartphone apps.
If you are in their service area, the service is available all the time, but you only pay for it when you need roadside assistance. No upfront fees. New non-membership app-based services are appearing, with ever-increasing geographic coverage.
Especially if you are an infrequent driver or have a newer, reliable car, this may be the best solution for you. ‘Urgent.ly’ and ‘Honk’ are two such apps, and more are coming online all the time. Here’s how it works:
You download the app to your smartphone. When you need roadside service, you click on the app, indicate the nature of your need and where you are. Registered service providers will receive the request, and one will respond to you, indicating the flat-fee cost of the service. If you accept the service, the amount is charged to the debit or credit card you have registered with the company. The service provider comes and performs the service, no money changes hands and you are on your way.
The websites and smartphone apps of both those companies are simple and easy to understand, and their popularity is growing. Urgent.ly, for example, had over 55,000 service providers at last count. Setting itself apart, it is “the only roadside assistance service in America with accident alert detection technology and FamilyView – a unique feature that provides families and caregivers peace of mind by allowing them to track the roadside service of a loved one from start to finish.”
While this may not be the ideal solution for your particular requirements for roadside assistance (because of the condition of your vehicle or the number of miles or distances you drive), in certain situations they are certainly an interesting alternative.