Are Roadside Assistance Memberships the Only Option?
What are the options for Roadside Assistance and are memberships worth it are regular questions. Car are complicated machines, and contain thousands of parts required to operate properly. Since any of these components can fail without notice, roadside assistance is a necessary choice for vehicle owners everywhere. Any car can break down when you least expect it, and you don’t want to be left on your own when this happens.
Over 90% of cars on Australian roads are more than two years old, and 25% are more than 10 years old. Especially with an older car, a breakdown can occur anywhere, but even new cars can fail, so roadside assistance by membership-based or ad hoc service providers gives you that peace of mind knowing you are covered for any emergency.
These days, roadside assistance plans come in many different shapes and sizes, to suit all types of drivers.
The two main categories are:
Membership-Based coverage or ad hoc Pay-As-You-Need services.
Historically, the membership-based plan has been the most common thought of service in Australia and around the world. It is not the only option available. Are these membership plans really good value? There are many other options available that may suit you, and your hip pocket, a lot better. We explore these here.
What is Roadside Assistance?
Roadside assistance is a service designed to help drivers when a vehicle breaks down or suffers some sort of failure that leaves the motorist stranded. A service professional can make adjustments and repairs to get you on the road again and make the vehicle safe. There is an infinite number of things that can go wrong with a vehicle, making assistance like this invaluable when you need it.
Reasons to Choose Roadside Assistance
Most drivers agree that regular vehicle servicing is an important preventative measure for efficiency and reliability. However, in Australia, 80% did not carry this out at the recommended service intervals, and half of all drivers delayed servicing due to personal budget constraints.
If you are one of these motorists, then it will definitely pay to have assistance on hand when you need it, either membership-based or Pay-As-You-Need.
- Distance of your commute. Think about where you usually drive on a daily basis. Is your commute a long one or does it take you out of a metropolitan area? If you make trips or weekends away to unfamiliar places out of the metro area, it would be a good idea to have a professional on hand when you need help. Remember that flat tyres and dead batteries can happen anywhere, so even close to home you never know when you might need assistance.
- Weather conditions. If you need to drive in inclement or dangerous weather, being stranded on the side of the road is not a lot of fun. It pays to have someone you can rely on for help when you really need it.
- Age of your vehicle. If you have a new vehicle it may be covered under a manufacturer’s assistance program. These will run for a certain time or mileage, whichever comes first. Even new cars can breakdown or have a flat battery, so if you are not covered, or drive an older car, roadside assistance could be a good investment.
- Maintenance history. If you have a second-hand car and don’t know it’s full service history, or if it has a history of maintenance problems, you are at greater risk of something mechanical going wrong. Roadside assistance would be a good insurance policy for you just in case.
- If you are not mechanically minded. If you don’t know how to change a tyre, jump start a battery or just plain forget to fill up and maintain your car, roadside assistance is definitely a must for you.
- Convenience. A roadside assistance program or mobile Pay-As-You-Need provider gives you peace of mind. Especially after hours, or if you’re stranded on a dark road in the wet, you just want help quickly.
Membership-Based Plans Vs Pay-As-You-Need
So, while some form of roadside assistance is definitely worthwhile, what do you get with a typical membership-based plan? Research shows that Australians only require roadside about once every three years, and towing only once in 10 years, yet we spend at least $100 per year on membership fees. Let’s understand what Membership-Based Plans usually mean. There are many bundled services for membership plans with the basic premise that they will attend your vehicle and may be able to fix simple things. If not or the matter is more complicated or parts are needed then a tow will normally be arranged.
So What’s Included in Your Membership Plan?
We need to understand what may be including to determine the value to motorist. The following is based on current information from various membership-based providers across Australia.
Membership offerings vary from full-service automobile clubs like the NRMA and the RAC through to simple reimbursements for a tow under some vehicle insurance policies. The larger full-service companies also offer additional extras with membership, including entertainment discounts and movie ticket vouchers, holiday planning, parking discounts, savings at retail outlets and car rental.
The Classic Care plan of the NRMA (NSW and the ACT) is their basic plan, and for $165 per year they provide roadside assistance including battery service, flat tyres, emergency fuel, help with keys locked in the car and 20km towing in a metro area. For $383 per year they also add 50km metro towing (100km in the country), caravan and trailer assistance, taxi after towing, pet assistance and breakdown assistance cover.
On the other side of the country, the RAC in WA offer basic cover for $106 per year which provides roadside assistance and 10km towing. Their top cover is $305 and adds 200km towing, taxi up to $100, locksmith to $200, trailer/caravan towing up to $50 fuel per year and vehicle recovery.
In South Australia, the RAA covers up to 5 night’s accommodation if you are more than 100kms form home in their Premium cover for $192 a year. The RACT in Tasmania also offers bicycle assistance and medical assistance if you are more than 50km from home in their $179 Ultimate cover package. While in the NT, the AANT will provide passenger transport up to $550 after vehicle recovery. In Victoria, the RACV includes scooter and wheelchair assistance in their $225 per annum top cover package.
Some clubs also offer cut price membership for younger drivers and students, and may cover additional drivers of a vehicle at additional cost.
If you’re not a member and want to use their services, these larger clubs will typically make you join to be able to access their services, and they will charge extra if you want to use them within 24-48 hours after joining.
So that simple flat battery may cost you as much as $200-$400 to get fixed, plus the cost of the battery and fitting when it arrives!
Typical Basic Roadside Assistance Services
- Towing service. If roadside assistance can’t make the vehicle drivable again. Depending on your provider and level of cover, your vehicle will typically be towed to a mechanic/service centre, up to a limited number of kilometres away. If you need to be towed further than that it will cost extra.
- Battery jump-start service. This will usually start a flat battery, but you may find you need a new battery instead. These can usually be provided by the roadside assistance provider at a cost and also an additional cost for fitting. If you own an electric car be very careful, as they operate quite differently to other vehicles, and it may be difficult to find a qualified service provider. Hybrid vehicles typically use their electric motor battery to start the petrol engine, so they would be unlikely to need jump-starting.
- Flat tyres. A service professional will replace your flat with your spare in your vehicle. Most companies don’t typically cover flat tyres for motorcycles or other two or three-wheel vehicles.
- Lockout service. For when you lock your keys in the car or can’t get in for some other reason. When a roadside assistance professional opens the vehicle, it is called a lockout service, which is usually covered under most plans. If they can’t get in however, a locksmith will need to be called, and some programs cover this cost while others will not.
- Fuel service. For when you simply run out of fuel. The amount they will give you depends on your level of cover, but it will typically be enough to get you to the nearest service station.
Many larger companies will have their own service staff and assistance staff, but others will partner with existing businesses that provide roadside assistance service, or employ staff to arrange service on their customer’s behalf.
Which provider is sent to help you depends on their location and circumstances. So who you actually get to see may not be employed directly by the company. This can sometimes be a problem if that company is particularly busy, or doesn’t operate in some weather conditions when you really need them. Check the details in your cover paperwork so you know what to expect in all eventualities.
Choosing the Right Roadside Assistance Cover for You
1. Do your research
Check the website for the business first – often they will have their own page for customer reviews. Try not to give too much weight to individual reviews, but look for overall impressions about the business. Individual customers may have had what they thought was a bad experience for any number of reasons that may have been out of the company’s control.
Dedicated review sites can make your search much simpler. Remember that even a highly rated business might disappoint on a bad day or customers have a bad day, but at least these sites can help weed out those businesses that obviously are not looking after their customers.
Ask around among your colleagues, family and friends. They all have cars that require service, so see where they have had good experiences. People are very unlikely to recommend you to a business who has treated them badly, so this may narrow your search down quickly.
2. Decide what you really need
There are many types of plans available from many different companies. Make sure you choose one that suits your circumstances. Be sure that you aren’t paying extra for services that you may never need.
3. Find out whether you already have coverage
If your car is still covered by the manufacturer’s warranty, you may be eligible for roadside assistance at no cost. Check your credit cards, as some companies like American Express provide roadside assistance to cardholders. Your insurance company may also provide some level of assistance in your cover, as do some telecommunications providers.
4. Review the basic services available
Service providers will have different levels of cover available at different costs. Look to see what you will get with their most simple cover first. This will usually cover all the basic services you may need.
The company’s websites often have comparison charts so you can compare between the different levels of cover easily. Make sure you read their fine print and look at their frequently asked questions sections that may tell you what you need to know.
Here are some basic things to look for:
- Limits on service. You may only be covered for a certain number of service calls per year, and after that you may not be covered, or it might cost you extra. Some plans may not let you claim more than once in any given week. Be sure to read the fine print, as some services like towing may not be available if they are a consequence of natural events like flooding or fire.
- Cost. Some plans will bill annually, while others have a monthly subscription, or cost per call out. For new members, there may be incentive discounts to join, but if you’re a new customer, try to avoid long-term commitment until you are happy with their service.
- Service availability. Make sure the plan you join has service agents in the areas where you’re likely to travel. Some companies will cover you within their state, while others will cover you when interstate, or reimburse costs you may incur when out of their usual coverage area. Plans offered by some mobile phone providers won’t cover you if you don’t have your phone with you. Sometimes there may be places that no plan can help you, so make sure you know of any exclusion areas that may apply.
- Vehicle eligibility. Typically, passenger vehicles will be covered, but some companies may offer coverage for off-road vehicles, trailers and caravans. Depending on your provider and level of cover, you as a driver may be covered in any vehicle, or it may be that only your vehicle is covered. Some let you nominate other drivers for your vehicle at additional cost.
Using your insurance company’s towing or roadside assistance too often may affect your insurance premiums or your eligibility for insurance cover. Some insurance companies consider calls for roadside assistance to be a negative, and may treat it like an accident claim, so it may in fact work against you.
You May Not Need a Full-Service Operator
1. Unused Services
While those discounts and movie tickets provided with your top range cover might be nice, how often do you really use them? They can usually be bettered by online travel sites, coupon codes or other promotions that can be found easily with an internet search. So the additional cost you are paying for these ‘free’ inclusions may be waste of money.
Free maps and travel services are almost redundant in this digital age of GPS and Google Maps, and travel guides and booking services are at your fingertips for no extra cost.
2. Overlapping Services
Remember that your credit card, insurance or mobile phone provider may already have you covered, usually for much less than the annual membership cost of the larger providers.
3. Only Renew When You Need It
Why should you be paying an annual membership fee just in case you need a towing service? Given that most of us will only need this service once every ten years you could be paying up to $3000 for it when it happens! If you did ever need a tow, it would be much cheaper to pay for it yourself. The other option may be to renew your membership on the spot to access their towing service. There will be a premium because you want their service straight away, but the total cost will probably be close to the cost of a tow anyway.
The Pay-As-You-Need Option
Pay-As-You-Need services usually cover most roadside assistance services provided by the membership-based, however may not operate on a 24/7 basis. The PAYN service usually go much further and cover mechanic and auto electrical repairs and servicing. These PAYN providers are more akin to a workshop in a van that operates may operate on extended hours but just not 24 hours. The benefits include having repairs able to be the work able to be actually done on site rather than a quick inspect and referral off to a tow. Also if you break down you can pay for the work that your car actually needs and may also be able to do other work such as servicing at the same time.
Conclusion – Roadside Assistance Options
The most common breakdowns are caused by flat tyres, lockouts, dead batteries and running out of fuel. These are problems that can be dealt with without needing a full-service membership with all the bells and whistles. While these products may suit some people, the vast majority will be well served using a Pay-As-You-Need independent supplier of these services.
These operators will be able to get you on the road again and help with most major issues such as:
- Urgent roadside repairs
- Engine problems
- Starting issues
- Battery troubles
- Mechanical glitches
- Electrical issues
- Charging problems.
These services are provided on a payment for service basis. So you don’t need to be stuck paying annual fees each year for things you don’t need.