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The Ultimate Guide to Roadside Assistance

Bankrate logo Bankrate 10/2/2019 Lisa Melillo
a man riding on the back of a truck: guide-to-roadside-assistance© Helena Wahlman/Getty Images guide-to-roadside-assistance

Have you ever gotten a flat tire, run out of gas or had a dead battery in your car? Vehicle breakdowns are a common but unavoidable part of owning and driving a car. In fact, AAA alone rescued 32 million drivers in 2015, or nearly 1.5% of all licensed drivers in the United States.

Not only are breakdowns a hassle to deal with, they're also incredibly costly; AAA estimate that one in three U.S. drivers can't afford to fix their car. That's why many vehicle owners opt to purchase emergency road service coverage, also known as roadside assistance.

Roadside assistance provides two main types of benefits. First, policyholders receive emergency roadside service in the event that their vehicle breaks down. Services might include fuel delivery, help changing a flat tire or towing to a service center if the issue can't be immediately resolved. Second, roadside assistance helps mitigate the cost of an unexpected breakdown. Similar to a car insurance policy, roadside assistance policyholders pay a fee, or premium, to the service provider. When a breakdown does occur, the driver won't have to pay out of pocket for the emergency services they receive, as long as they're within the policy limit.

Why is roadside assistance important?

Imagine this: you're driving in an unfamiliar location at night when suddenly, you hear the distinct pop and hiss of your tire going flat. Without roadside assistance, you'd be stuck on the side of the road trying to change the tire yourself in the dark. But if you do have roadside assistance, help is just a phone call away. A professional will be immediately dispatched to your location to rescue both you and your car.

The three most common types of calls to roadside assistance are for dead batteries, flat tires and lockouts. Many providers will also offer other useful emergency services, such as fuel delivery if you run out of gas. If your car isn't driveable, a roadside assistance program will cover all or part of your towing bill to the nearest service facility. Without roadside assistance, this cost alone could easily reach hundreds of dollars out of pocket.

Everyone should consider roadside assistance, but it's an even more important service to have for the following people:

  • Elderly people
  • Young drivers and new licensees
  • Parents with infants or small children
  • Anyone with a physical disability
  • Drivers of older vehicles (12 or more years old)
  • People who live in remote areas
  • Commuters who drive more than 20 miles each day
  • Travelers who frequently take long-distance road trips

What makes roadside assistance different?

Roadside assistance is different from other types of coverage that you might get from a car insurance policy or manufacturer's warranty. Basic car insurance usually covers only the cost of repairing damage from accidents, and emergency response isn't an included feature. Warranties will repair or replace malfunctioning parts on your new vehicle, but with the exception of a few rare cases, flat tires and empty gas tanks aren't covered.

Note that you can often purchase a roadside assistance plan from your insurance provider or your vehicle's manufacturer as an add-on to the service you currently have. You'll benefit from the convenience and potential cost savings when you bundle roadside assistance with multiple services from the same provider. Just make sure to shop around before you settle on a plan to see if you're getting the best price and service.

The best roadside assistance programs

There are many ways to purchase roadside assistance. Most popular car insurers offer roadside assistance coverage as an optional add-on to their insurance policies. You can also purchase roadside assistance independently through AAA or AARP. Some credit card companies even offer roadside assistance programs to their customers. Here are just a few to consider:

How to decide which roadside assistance program is the best for you

With so many roadside assistance programs available, you might have difficulty choosing which service is right for you. Cost is an important factor, but it shouldn't be the only one you take into consideration. Roadside assistance programs offer varying levels of coverage and additional features that might be beneficial.

While more expensive, standalone roadside assistance coverage from providers such as AAA and AARP come with a long list of perks that might be worth the cost. For example, AAA offers identity theft monitoring, travel discounts, vehicle inspections and registration assistance to its members. AARP also offers travel discounts, plus they'll include emergency bonds in case you are arrested or hospitalized while driving as well as a trip interruption guarantee.

Roadside assistance is available from many car insurance providers, and convenience is key. Emergency roadside coverage is easy to add on to your existing insurance policy or purchase when shopping for a new policy. Costs are nominal and benefits are usually good. Take this into consideration when shopping for a car insurance policy and make sure to specifically ask about roadside assistance limits.

The cheapest roadside assistance programs are typically the ones that are included with your credit card. It's good to find out if any of the cards you already have qualify you for complimentary roadside assistance in case you need it. Just don't rely on this as your only source of emergency roadside coverage. Limits on these plans are notoriously low, and you could still end up paying out of pocket for the majority of your service bill.

Accidents and exceptions

Roadside assistance coverage is wonderful to have in case of non-life-threatening emergencies that leave you stranded on the side of the road. But keep in mind that this is not a substitution for car insurance and doesn't cover more serious emergencies. If you are in an accident, dial 911 immediately.

You should also understand where roadside assistance benefits end. If your car breaks down and needs to be towed, for example, your emergency roadside benefits will typically cover the cost of the tow truck, but anything after that will be your responsibility. Roadside coverage won't pay for major repairs that are needed to get your car up and running again. It's a good idea to set money aside into an emergency car repair fund each month, regardless of whether or not you have roadside assistance.

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