How to Get Roadside Assistance on the Cheap

And Why I’m Cancelling My AAA Membership After 25 Years

Have you ever locked your keys in the car, ran out of gas, or found out your car’s battery is dead? Those are frustrating situations. And when they occur, it’s nice to get help. That’s why I’ve been a member of AAA for—gasp—25 years: because AAA offers great roadside assistance. But I had to decide by today whether to renew my membership or let it lapse.

Roadside service technician changing a tire

After a quarter of a century, I finally got around to researching whether the cost of membership is worth it. And for my wife and me, I’ve decided that it is not. Following is why I’m cancelling my AAA membership and, more importantly, how you can get roadside assistance on the cheap—even for free.

AAA Roadside Assistance: Counting the Cost

By paying for an annual, basic AAA membership, AAA covers the cost of up to 4 roadside assistance services per year.

The major services that membership covers are:

  • Jump start a dead battery
  • Change a flat tire
  • Auto lockout service: if your keys are locked inside the car
  • Towing
  • Emergency fuel and delivery
  • Auto locksmith service (up to $50): if car keys are lost or damaged

A basic AAA membership in my area costs $78/year for one individual or $118/year for two people.

At those rates—and taking into account my single and married years—I’ve spent a total of about $2,350 on AAA over the past 25 years. That’s $94/year.

At the absolute most, I’ve maybe utilized my AAA membership every other year, let’s say 13 times in total. If I used it that much (very doubtful), each service call cost about $180 (i.e., $2,350/13).

At $180 per service call, the question is: can you beat that price by just paying out of pocket, rather than by having a AAA membership?

A Better Alternative: Pay out of Pocket

According to an analysis done by Direct Auto & Life Insurance, here’s how much standard roadside services cost:

ServiceCost per Event
Average Service Cost$82.50
Jump start a dead battery$50-120
Auto lockout service: if your keys are locked inside the car$65-120
Towing$55-85

Imagine that I had never had a AAA membership. Rather, on the 13 service calls, consider if I had instead paid out of pocket $120 per event, which is the upper end of out-of-pocket costs. In that case, I would have spent $1,560 on roadside assistance (13 x $120). Compared with the $2,350 I in fact paid for my AAA membership, paying $1,560 out of pocket would have saved me $790 or 34%.

Now, consider that the average out-of-pocket service cost is not $120 but, rather, closer to $82.50. In that case, paying out of pocket for those 13 roadside services would have cost me $1,073. Compared with the $2,350 I paid for AAA membership, paying out of pocket would have saved me $1,278 or 54%.

Can you think of any way you would rather spend $1,278 than by overpaying for roadside assistance? I sure can. That’s enough for an iPhone X, for a heck of a lot of deeply discounted travel with your family, or for clean water for 42 people.

Rule of Thumb:

Here’s the bottom line: If the average service call costs $82.50, and if a basic AAA membership costs $94/year, then you should only get a basic AAA membership if you think you will need roadside assistance at least once per year. Otherwise it’s cheaper—and potentially significantly cheaper, as in my case—to pay out of pocket.

This conclusion is not surprising, given that AAA roadside assistance is basically insurance, and insurance is never a good deal.

How You Can Get Roadside Assistance Even Cheaper or for Free

But you can do even better than paying out of pocket. If you hold one of the following credit cards, you get free or deeply discounted roadside assistance that rivals what AAA offers. (My wife or I currently have the three cards in blue.)

Citi
  1. AAdvantage Executive (Call 855-569-7446 for roadside assistance.)
  2. Prestige (Call 866-506-5222.)
American Express

(For the following AMEX cards, call 800-333-AMEX for roadside assistance.)

  1. Ameriprise Financial Platinum Card
  2. Business Gold Rewards Card
  3. Business Platinum Card
  4. Corporate Gold Card
  5. Corporate Platinum Card
  6. Delta Reserve Credit Card
  7. Delta Reserve for Business Credit Card
  8. Gold Card for Ameriprise Financial
  9. Goldman Sachs Platinum Card
  10. Mercedes Benz Platinum Card
  11. Morgan Stanley Platinum Card
  12. Platinum Card
  13. Plum Card
  14. Premier Rewards Gold Card
  15. Schwab Platinum Card
Chase
  1. Sapphire Reserve (Call 866-860-7978 for roadside assistance.)
  2. Ritz-Carlton Rewards (Call 866-860-7978.)
  3. United MileagePlus Club (Call 866-359-5402.)

As the below table shows, Citi’s coverage is included in the cards’ annual fee and is even more robust than AAA’s. AMEX’s coverage is included in the cards’ annual fee and is comparable to AAA’s. Chase’s coverage is comparable to AAA but only covers the first $50 of each roadside service.

For good measure, I also included in the table the option of getting roadside assistance through my wife’s and my car insurance company, Geico. Green is best; red is worst; yellow is in-between:

Chart comparing roadside assistance for AAA vs. Geico vs. select credit cards

(For more information on the above coverages, click here: AAA; Geico; Citi AAdvantage Executive or Prestige; AMEX; or Chase Sapphire Reserve, Ritz-Carlton Rewards, or United MileagePlus Club.)

Conclusion

Before the smart phone, AAA roadside assistance probably made good sense. AAA could bail you out with just a call to them.

But these days, it’s easy enough to locate a nearby towing company or locksmith. And as long as you don’t need roadside assistance more than once per year, it’s likely to be cheaper to pay as you go rather than to buy a AAA membership.

Even better, if you hold one of the 20 credit cards listed above, you can get free or deeply discounted roadside assistance that rivals what AAA offers.

Question: How do you handle roadside assistance when the need arises? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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4 thoughts on “How to Get Roadside Assistance on the Cheap

  1. I own a couple of those cards but my wife does not. She is not AU on any of them because it’s not free. Would I be able to use my card’s roadside assistance for her if I’m not with her at the time assistance is needed?

    • I’m not sure and it could depend on the card. I would strongly speculate, however, that across the board the benefit only covers the cardholder.

    • Good question, wesz. I thought to include that info in the post but then forgot to do so. I’ve updated the post with the following:

      Citi AAdvantage Executive = 855-569-7446
      Citi Prestige = 866-506-5222

      American Express (all cards) = 800-333-AMEX

      Chase Sapphire Reserve = 866-860-7978
      Chase Ritz-Carlton Rewards = 866-860-7978
      Chase United MileagePlus Club = 866-359-5402