Should roadside assistance come from your car insurance company?

Tamara E. Holmes

While you can go years without having your car break down on the side of the road, if you ever have a flat tire or lock your keys in your car, you’ll appreciate having someone come to the rescue. Roadside assistance programs will do just that, as they provide tow truck assistance and may even jump-start your battery if you experience car trouble.

You can find roadside assistance programs available from all sorts of places. Most car insurers provide it, as do shopping clubs such as Costco and road service companies such as AAA. Many auto manufacturers include free roadside assistance for a limited time when you buy a new or certified use vehicle.

There’s no rule of thumb regarding whether you should use a roadside assistance program offered by a car insurance company or go with a company like AAA, says Phil Reed, senior consumer advice editor at automotive website Edmunds.com. Your choice depends on your roadside needs, as well as your budget.

Weighing the options

When determining what type of roadside assistance program to go with, make sure you look at the specifics of the plan, since plans vary from company to company. For example, Progressive’s roadside assistance program will provide towing to the nearest approved repair shop for such problems as a mechanical breakdown, dead battery or flat tire, as well as help in circumstances such as car lockouts.

Programs also typically designate how far your car can be towed in an emergency. Many plans have different tiers of service, with more expensive plans providing towing services over longer distances, which can be helpful if you do a lot of driving far away from home. You also want to know where the service will tow your car, since some programs may limit towing to certain repair shops.

Price can be another factor. For example, GEICO’s rates start at $14 per year for each car, while AAA plans start at a $66 annual membership fee. While you might get more features for that $66 – for example, AAA includes legal defense reimbursement of up to $1,000 if you’re charged with a moving violation – you may decide you don’t need those extra features.

Another thing that should factor into your decision is response time, Reed says. Ask the company offering the program how long it generally takes a tow truck to arrive after you make a call. When you’re stranded on the side of the road, 15 minutes vs. 30 minutes can make all the difference in the world.

Also find out whether you’ll be hit with any out-of-pocket charges. Some programs might require you to pay for a tow upfront, and then get reimbursed for the cost, while a program that pays for everything upfront would be more consumer-friendly, Reed says.

Buyer beware

Roadside assistance is an important feature to many people who shop for auto insurance. In fact, it’s been the third most important feature to auto insurance policyholders for the past five years, according to comScore’s 2012 Online Auto Insurance Shopping Report. Not only do policyholders appreciate roadside assistance, but 49 percent would be willing to pay a higher premium in order to have the benefit, according to the comScore study.

However, there could be some downsides to buying roadside assistance through your car insurer.

While some car insurers such as Allstate don’t require you to have an auto insurance policy with them join its roadside assistance program, GEICO and others do. So in the second case, if you decide to change car insurers, you also must find another roadside assistance plan.

Some consumer advocates warn that you should be wary of buying roadside assistance from your own car insurer because of the effect it can have on your premium.

Amy Bach, executive director of consumer advocacy and information group United Policyholders, has said that drivers who use their car insurer’s roadside assistance programs are providing information about vehicle breakdowns to the insurance company. If several claims for towing-related costs are filed, there’s always a chance that your insurer could consider you a greater risk and raise your rates.

Finally, some auto insurers offer roadside assistance only if you’re in the insured vehicle.  Other companies, like AAA, will offer roadside assistance no matter what vehicle you’re in and will provide coverage for other members of your household for an additional cost.

Whether you buy your roadside assistance plan from your auto insurer or another company, don’t be swayed because a company offers it bundled with other services, such as auto insurance, legal defense reimbursement or even hotel discounts, Reed says. Make sure the roadside assistance plan can stand on its own merits. 

Free Insurance Quotes