What Does Your Car's Roadside Assistance Cover?

Here is a short guide to what is typically covered, what is not covered, and extra or hidden costs to consider before signing up.

A red Honda Civic is secured on the back of a flatbed tow truckAustin Lott | Capital One

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Roadside assistance is similar to an insurance policy. When a covered mishap occurs, you make one phone call or tap on an app, and a service provider comes to you to either fix what's wrong with your vehicle or arrange to tow it to a garage.

What's covered can vary by the provider and the level of service. Still, the most common incidents almost any roadside assistance program will cover are flat tires, vehicles that run out of gas, jump-starting a car with a discharged battery, and lockouts. For electric vehicle owners, running out of charge means a ride on a tow truck to the nearest charger rather than an attempt to recharge where the vehicle stopped.

Some issues can't be fixed on the spot, so towing is usually part of a roadside-assistance package. The distance a company will transport your car varies widely between providers and even within tiers of service from the same company. Some roadside-assistance coverage will offer to tow your vehicle to your choice of repair shops. However, some service providers require that your car be towed to the closest repair shop in their network.

Where Can I Get Roadside Assistance?

You may already have it. Most major automakers doing business in North America offer free roadside-assistance programs with their new and certified pre-owned vehicles. The length of coverage time varies by manufacturer (generally six years or less), as does the mileage (some offer unlimited mileage within a number of years, others have a cap).

If a manufacturer's roadside-assistance plan doesn't cover your car, there are other options. Several automobile-insurance companies have plans that can be added to your policy for an extra monthly charge.

Some insurance companies don't require you to buy a policy to join their roadside-assistance plans. That includes AAA, Allstate Insurance's Allstate Motor Club (which also provides AARP's roadside-assistance plan), and the RV-oriented Good Sam Roadside Assistance (which has plans for passenger vehicles.)

And there are less-mainstream choices, such as the eco-friendly Better World Club, which also offers roadside assistance for bicycles. Cellphone provider AT&T will add roadside assistance to its customers' contracts for a monthly fee.

How Much Does Roadside Assistance Cost?

Costs are a big variable in roadside assistance. GEICO advertises its plan (for its insurance customers) for as little as $14 a year per vehicle. AT&T's deal (for phone subscribers) works out to $2.99 monthly. Depending on what type of coverage you need, AAA offers three tiers of membership that cost $64.99, $99.99, and $124.99 a year.

Before signing up, you should also read the coverage agreements closely. There's a lot of fine print about what you get for the price, including caps on the number of times per year you can use roadside assistance without additional service fees, covered towing distances, whether fuel is free or not, and the cost of replacement batteries or other parts your vehicle might need.

One more money issue to consider is tipping. None of the roadside-assistance companies suggest you tip the person who comes to your aid, but none actively discourage you from doing it either. As there are no set rules, there's also no guide for what's appropriate. Consider the work that's being done and the conditions.

Do I Need Roadside-Assistance Coverage?

The answer to this question depends on the condition of your vehicle, where and how you drive, and your mechanical abilities. How easily, quickly, and safely could you handle a blowout, a breakdown, or just running out of gas? Does your car have a spare tire, and do you know how to install it? Do the roads you drive on have lots of potholes or debris on them? The answers to those questions will help you decide whether roadside assistance is something you'll find useful, even if you rarely need it.

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Mike Hagerty
Sorting through the hundreds of new car, truck and SUV choices on the market to find the right one for your needs gets tougher all the time. I’m here to help. I’ve been writing and talking about new vehicles for 25 years on TV and radio, in print and online. And my passion for cars and driving goes back even farther than that. I love design and performance, but the second-largest purchase most of us will ever make (for some of us, the largest) needs to be based on more than good looks and quick zero-to-60 times.