At some point in your driving life, you'll probably find yourself stranded and in need of help. Maybe it’ll be a flat tire. Maybe you’ll run out of gas. Or maybe your battery will simply need a jump.
Time was that a driver’s options for roadside assistance were limited to auto clubs like AAA, with membership costs that can go upwards of $100 a year. These days, however, almost every auto insurance company offers roadside assistance packages at reasonable costs.
“Roadside assistance definitely provides peace of mind,” says Joel Pond, an agent for the Texas-based Rockland Insurance Inc. “The only alternative is having a close friend or relative available 24/7 with a pair of jumper cables and 5 gallons of gas.”
Before you make the decision to add emergency roadside assistance to your auto insurance policy, you should consider the following five questions.
1. How much will it cost?
Every insurance provider is different, but experts agree that most drivers can expect to pay less than $5 a month extra on their auto insurance policies for a basic roadside assistance package.
For instance, Allstate’s “Towing & Labor” rider costs $2 per vehicle every six months; it covers towing, tire changes, jump-starts, lockouts and refueling.
Most large, national insurance companies offer comparable pricing. GEICO’s emergency roadside package, for example, costs about $14 a year per vehicle, while Progressive charges $15 every six months for its roadside package and State Farm charges about $6 a year.
2. What are the rules?
Michael Stahl, vice president of marketing and operations at iMingle Insurance (which charges $4.25 per year for roadside assistance), says every policy comes with its own unique set of parameters that customers should be aware of before signing up.
For instance, Nationwide’s most basic package covers only towing up to 15 miles, "minor" ditch extraction and lockout services up to $100. Another example: State Farm will cover the cost of delivering gas should you run out, but it will not cover the cost of the gas itself. Ask your auto insurance agent for a comprehensive list of all restrictions.
According to Eli Lehrer, vice president of consumer think tank The Heartland Institute, insurers almost never pay out more than $100 per incident; $50 is more common. Moreover, insurers typically cap the number of times you can use roadside assistance at two or three in a given year.
In most cases, consumers can upgrade a roadside assistance plan for more comprehensive coverage if desired. For example, Nationwide offers a Roadside Assistance Plus upgrade. The upgrade provides all of the services of its basic plan, along with towing up to 100 miles, and expense reimbursement up to $500 for alternate transportation, lodging and meals when a driver is stranded 100 miles from home.
3. How are the services paid for?
Some companies will cover the cost of roadside assistance directly, while others require that customers pay for services out of pocket and then be reimbursed.
“This can be a crucial consideration if you're stuck on the side of the road and you're short on cash or only have a low-limit debit card,” Stahl says.
On the whole, Lehrer says, the best option is to find a plan that provides roadside services directly through an insurance company’s emergency call center, since most contractors that insurers use negotiate rates that are lower than you'll get on your own.
4. Will using roadside assistance affect my rates?
“If your insurer answers 'yes' to this question, my opinion would be to stay away,” Pond says.
According to Dick Luedke, a spokesman for State Farm, the chances of an emergency road service claim denting your auto insurance rates is “extremely remote.” Because most drivers use roadside assistance only a few times a year, almost no insurer is going to lose money on the deal. Just make sure you aren’t calling on your insurance company to jump-start your car every morning.
“I suspect that many insurers sort of want their customers to use roadside assistance,” Lehrer says. “It's a tangible benefit that makes you feel good about the insurer, and using it doesn't cost the insurer very much.”
5. Is it enough?
Most roadside assistance packages offered by auto insurers are tailored to the average, 12,000-miles-a-year driver, are often the cheapest way to get this type of service.
“But if you travel a lot, I would recommend something like AAA,” Pond says. “It’s going to cost more, but you also get discounts at hotels and other perks that insurance companies, in most cases, won’t provide.”