Roadside assistance, your credit card's little-known benefit
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If your car breaks down by the side of the road, in many cases your credit card won’t leave you stranded.
Many cards offer roadside assistance, which can give you a sense of security so you’re not scrambling for someone to fix a flat or tow your broken-down vehicle in the middle of the night.
But unless you have certain premium cards, be prepared to pay a price for this service.
Unlike AAA membership, where you pay a flat fee annually for roadside assistance that you may or may not ever use, with a credit card’s roadside assistance benefit you don’t pay anything until you actually need the service.
In many cases, the roadside assistance benefit “could be less than the cost of AAA, which you might not use every year,” says Gary Leff, a frequent-flyer travel expert. “By paying on a per-use basis, the credit card could be a better deal.”
But if you own an old clunker that constantly breaks down, the cost of using your credit card’s roadside assistance program can quickly add up as you pay for each individual service call.
Offered on many cards
You’ll have the benefit automatically if you use an American Express card, a Visa Signature or Visa TravelMoney (prepaid) card.
Many of the major card issuers – including Citi, Chase, Capital One, Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank – offer roadside assistance with almost all of their Visas and Mastercards. Don’t assume you have roadside assistance, though. In 2014, Mastercard dropped roadside assistance as a “core benefit” available on all its cards. It became an optional benefit banks could pay to add at their discretion.
You’re out of luck if you have a card from Discover or from retail card issuers such as Synchrony.
How roadside assistance works
Visa: For Visa cards that offer the roadside benefit, you can call a toll-free number and assistance will be sent your way. You’re charged $69.95 per call. Several services can be provided, such as towing your car, changing a flat tire, delivering a couple of gallons of gasoline or getting your car jump-started. The cost is billed to your Visa card.
Mastercard: If you have a Mastercard with roadside assistance, typically you can call a number to have help sent to you. Mastercard has pre-negotiated prices for similar services, such as towing your car and changing a flat, but the costs aren’t stated upfront.
American Express: American Express operates similarly to Mastercard, in that you call a toll-free number and the company coordinates the roadside assistance, such as towing, changing a flat or jump-starting your car. Again, the costs aren’t stated upfront.
“Customer service is a top priority for us, and we are always looking for ways to meet our card members’ needs. Roadside assistance is one of the many ways we are able to do this,” says American Express spokeswoman Jane DiLeo.
'Peace of mind' benefit
In these cases, the benefit primarily comes from having someone to call for assistance, which can be helpful if you’re far from home or need help in the middle of the night. You may also pay a lower price for services.
“Citi’s roadside assistance benefit helps provide peace of mind for card members so they can travel with more confidence,” says Citi spokeswoman Jennifer Bombardier.
Paying out of pocket: What common roadside help costs
According to CreditCards.com research, these are the average costs of various common roadside services:
- Towing: $35-$125 (up to 5 miles), per InsuranceHub.
- Locksmith service: $50-$120, based on location and service provided, per Fixr.
- Jump-start: $50-$120, according to Direct General.
It’s a different story if you have a premium card, such as the American Express Premier Rewards Gold Card or the American Express Platinum Card. With those cards, you can receive assistance up to four times a year without paying anything extra.
Comparison to AAA
AAA, which has more than 58 million members in the United States and Canada, follows a different model. You need to pay an annual membership fee and then AAA provides roadside assistance and a host of other benefits, such as hotel and amusement park discounts.
AAA is divided into geographic regions, and prices vary by location. In the mid-Atlantic region, which includes Washington, D.C., for example, a classic membership, which includes such things as five miles of free towing and locksmith service, currently costs $89. In Miami, you’ll pay $66 for the same membership.
You’ll receive more roadside assistance services from your local AAA club if you have AAA Plus membership, which costs about $100 a year, or AAA Premier membership, which costs around $130.
One big benefit of AAA is that you can use most of the services repeatedly during the year and pay only a single annual membership fee.
Credit card benefits and AAA aren’t the only roadside assistance options available. AARP, auto insurers and other groups offer such programs.
Another alternative: Buy a new car
All automakers provide free roadside assistance when you purchase their vehicle, says Ronald Montoya, senior consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com.
In many cases, the period of coverage coincides with the warranty on your vehicle. Typical coverage runs from three to five years, and 50,000 to 100,000 miles. Some, including Lexus and BMW, offer unlimited coverage. Others aren’t so generous: Toyota’s plan is only good for two years and 25,000 miles.
Even some preowned cars offer roadside assistance for a year or two, Montoya says.
If you’re looking just for roadside assistance, rather than other perks, Montoya recommends waiting until your auto warranty is up before you sign up for AAA. “Otherwise you’re just paying extra.”
Leff recommends that you take a close look at all the benefits from the credit cards you use. “A lot of people don't use them, even when they need them.”
Compare roadside assistance programs
|Visa Roadside Dispatch||Pay per use, $69.95. With certain premium cards you don’t pay for services.||
|Mastercard Roadside Assistance||Dispatches roadside service. You pay out of pocket for services; prices are pre-negotiated. Not offered on all Mastercards.||
|American Express Roadside Assistance Hotline||Dispatches roadside service. You pay out of pocket for services. With certain premium cards you don’t pay for services.||
|AAA Classic||Starts at $48 per year, prices and services may vary by region||
|AAA Plus||Starts at $100 per year, prices and services may vary by region||
|AAA Premier||Starts at $130 per year, prices and services may vary by region||
|Ford Roadside Assistance||No cost, valid for five years or 60,000 miles for 2007 and newer models; three years or 36,000 miles for 2006 models or earlier||
|Source: CreditCards.com research, February 2018|
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