I strolled out of Nordstrom Rack, my bag heavy with suede pumps, cropped pants, and strappy tops. Just before I got to my car, I stepped on something squishy -- a fat Gucci wallet. I rifled through it, looking past the wad of $20s, past the driver's license and credit cards, for something, anything bearing a phone number. No luck. But then my fingers picked out a card from AAA. I called, gave the member number, and left the wallet with a manager at Nordstrom Rack, happy in the knowledge that AAA would take it from there.Patrick's reaction when I told him the story: "Why don't we have AAA?"
"Because we have insurance through USAA."
"Will they tow us for free?"
I called USAA to find out. It turned out that for an additional $24 a year, I could get tows to the nearest garage. "Besides the tow," said the clerk, "you receive a flat-tire change, lock-out service help, a jump start, or fuel delivery." Price of replacement tire, replacement key, or fuel not included.
"Will using the service affect my insurance rates?"
"No, not if you use it only a few times a year. If you had excessive use, then it would."
I decided to compare that with AAA's emergency roadside service. I called Misty at the company's Clairemont office (858-483-4960). "We're a not-for-profit insurance company," she explained. "That makes our rates cheap. Besides roadside assistance, you receive an additional 200 benefits. For example, we offer discounts for travel attractions like Sea World, and if you shop online at places like Barnes & Noble, you can receive a 10 percent discount. We have access to every rate a hotel publishes, and our agents can pick a rate even lower than the AAA member rate. Another reason people join is that we offer all DMV services, so you don't have to wait in line. And we offer free maps, tour books, and travel planning."
The pitch over with, Misty got down to cases. "We cover the person, not the vehicle, so if you're riding with a friend and they break down, you can call and we'll come. There's a one-time sign-up fee of $20 for all members. Each plan includes four calls a year with no additional charge. 'Classic' membership is $47 per year, and $24 for additional persons. It offers a seven-mile tow, fuel service (two gallons, which you pay for), flat tire assistance, lock-out service, and jump-starting. 'Plus' membership is $76 for one person and $43 for additional persons, while 'Premiere' membership is $102 and $53 [for additional persons]. Plus and Premiere offer the same benefits, but allow additional tow miles -- 100 and 200, respectively. Also, if you run out of gas, they pay for the cost of the fuel. And our average response time is 18 minutes." Before I hung up, Misty reminded me that the travel discounts usually ended up paying for the cost of the roadside service.
The next two places I called were like Jack Sprat and his wife -- one lean, the other not. All-American Roadside Assistance (800-351-1584; allamericanroadside.org ) gave me their rates: "It's $54.95 for 13 months. That includes you, your spouse, and children under 21. You get towing up to 100 miles, lock-out assistance, battery jump, tire change, and fuel delivery service -- the first $5 worth of fuel is free. You get as many calls a year as you need, as long as there is a 72-hour gap between each call. We service the U.S. and Puerto Rico, with an average call response time of 40 to 60 minutes. We also offer trip routing, maps, hotel discounts, and a 10 percent discount with repair shops such as AAMCO and Jiffy Lube. All profits go to Pets for the Elderly and Smile Train."
All State Motor Club (800-998-8697; allstatemotorclub.com ) will get to you in less than 60 minutes, but to get comparable benefits for four calls a year ( $250 worth of towing), it ran $168 for 12 months, and no fuel-cost reimbursement.
The last company presented itself as sort of the environmentally friendly version of AAA: Better World Auto Club (866-238-1137; betterworldclub.com ). "We offer maps, auto-service discounts, emergency travel-expense reimbursement, and more," said the salesman. They didn't argue for the abolition of cars, but they did offer "the nation's only bicycle roadside assistance program" -- $39.95 a year, but only $15 when added onto an auto membership. "We actively lobby on environmental issues, and we contribute one percent of our gross to environmental cleanup. We also offer eco-travel benefits, which means discounts on the rental of hybrid cars or biodiesel cars -- they run on diesel made from agricultural products like veggie oil. Plus, we offer discounts on eco-lodging, which will usually mean a hotel or getaway that has a high standard in terms of recycling, or maybe they compost or grow their own organic garden onsite for the food they serve. They're usually mom-and-pop places where the owners have a strong commitment to the environment. We just signed up a company -- this guy who takes people on tours of Germany -- organic farms, places where they have sustainable architecture, that kind of thing."
As for the roadside-assistance package, "There's a $10 sign-up fee. You get four calls a year per member. Our average response time is 38 minutes. The Basic package includes five miles of towing, lock-out assistance, flat-tire assistance, battery service, and fuel delivery" -- price of fuel not included. "That costs $53.95 , plus $20 to add an additional member. The Premium package offers the same as the above, but with 100 miles of free towing, and costs $89.95 , with $30 to add an additional member."