Car Insurance and Other Options for Breakdown and Towing

By Jessica Bosari
After 13 years in personal and commercial insurance, Jessica Bosari now writes about personal finance, car insurance, risk management and related topics. Since 2008, she has been simplifying complex ideas through engaging articles for her readers.

Car Insurance and Other Options for Breakdown and TowingFor a long time, insurance companies offered breakdown and towing coverage as an afterthought on comprehensive auto insurance. And most people, instead of using that coverage, joined AAA to deal with a potential breakdown. But in the 1990s, luxury car brands started providing free roadside assistance with new car purchases. The idea caught on and almost every carmaker offers this option now. Services have now popped up in cellphone plans and credit card agreements too. Today there are many options for breakdown and towing protection. And every coverage option has its own pitfalls, advantages, and of course, costs. Whether you have your car insurance cover breakdown and towing, use an auto club, OnStar or other options will depend on your budget and your particular situation.

Car Insurance for Breakdown and Towing

When you add this coverage, it’s usually called “Towing and Labor”. It costs just a few bucks a month (usually under $5 per CSMonitor’s report), but has its limitations. First, the insurance applies only to the car listed on the policy and does not follow the driver. Second, this insurance only covers the cost of towing your car to the nearest service facility. If you’d rather avoid Bubba’s Discount Auto Repair, you may have to pay some of the cost out of pocket to get your car towed to another service station. One benefit that sets towing and labor coverage apart is the labor element. If you need a tire or a new starter, that cost falls on you, but towing and labor insurance will cover the cost of the installation or repair.

Emergency Roadside Assistance

More auto insurance companies are now also offering Emergency Roadside Assistance (ERS) plans. Nationwide and eSurance are two good examples. Nationwide has several levels of coverage available. eSurance offers just one plan which pays up to $75 if you need a tow. Allstate will even ‘give’ you a flat fee tow of up to 10 miles for $75, without charging you a monthly premium.

Motor Clubs

AAA is likely the most well-known of all motor clubs. Established in 1902, AAA has grown into a travel conglomerate offering discounts, maps, directions, and of course roadside assistance. Other big names include Good Sam and Better World Club. Interestingly, most people don’t know that Allstate has been offering its own Motor Club plan since 1961. As mentioned above, Allstate also has a flat-fee emergency roadside program that only charges you when you need a tow, as well as traditional towing and labor coverage which can be purchased on a policy basis.

Auto clubs are ideal for the seasoned traveler. They offer much more than a tow if your car should break down. You usually get trip planning services, travel discounts, service discounts and various other freebies. Those who travel often proudly brag that the cost of membership pays for itself in discounts. But those who use it just for emergency tows tend to show AAA less love. And, just as with car insurance, AAA may drop you if you call for service too many times.

Credit Card Programs

Although roadside assistance programs on your credit card can be free, they’re also extremely limited. American Express, for example, will only help with the cost of a tow if you are more than 50 miles from home. Discover Card offers a free dispatch service to get you a tow for which you pay a flat fee. So, on a tight budget, these programs can help, but they may not provide all the coverage you’d like.

Cell phone Programs

For just $3 a month, Verizon offers a robust roadside assistance plan with free towing up to 10 miles, up to three free gallons of gas or diesel, and other benefits. AT&T offers a similar service at about the same price. Check with your cell phone carrier to see what is available. With this coverage, the person carrying the phone is the person who can claim benefits. Combining a program like this with towing and labor coverage on your car insurance could provide the perfect amount of protection for the lowest price.

OnStar

Once only available in GM vehicles, OnStar now offers For My Vehicle (FMV), a replacement for your car’s rearview mirror that is connected to OnStar. Not all vehicles are compatible, but most cars made after 2005 will accept the device. While it offers the most comprehensive set of features, including Automatic Crash Response, Hands-Free Calling, Bluetooth connectivity, Emergency Services and Stolen Vehicle Assistance on top of Roadside Assistance, you’ll pay a premium for it. Expect a fee of $200-$240 a year for this premium roadside and onboard service.

Comparing Plans

The chart below shows common pricing and features of different types of breakdown and towing coverage. Plans may differ from the information outlined below; these are general guidelines of what you can expect.

Type of Coverage Approximate Cost per Year Towing Labor Discounts Travel Planning
Towing and Labor (car insurance) $40 – $60 To nearest service station For repairs to get car running again Not offered Not offered
Emergency Roadside Assistance Sometimes Free Flat fee, up to 10 miles or other limitation Flat fee, tire change, battery recharge, emergency fuel delivery, lockout service, winching* Not offered Not offered
Motor Clubs $50 – $100, depending on plan Free up to 3 miles or 100 miles, depending on plan Tire change, battery recharge, emergency fuel delivery, lockout service, winching Travel, dining, automotive items and more Help with trip planning, maps and more
Credit Card Programs Free Flat fee, 10 miles or nearest station** Not covered Not offered Not offered
Cell Phone Programs $36 10 miles, or to your choice of location, up to four tows per year Tire change, battery recharge, emergency fuel delivery, lockout service, winching** May offer rental car discounts Not offered
OnStar $200 or more Provided via Allstate Roadside Assistance, $75 flat fee tow, up to 10 miles Tire change, battery recharge, emergency fuel delivery, lockout service, $50 flat fee Not offered Not offered, pay additional fee for turn-by-turn directions

* Limits of $50 to $100 coverage may apply

** You may need to be more than 50 miles from home to use coverage

Some decide that roadside assistance isn’t worth the cost. These folks are generally very handy and can change their own tire or jump-start a car. They’re in good health and would have no problem walking five miles and back to take care of an empty gas tank. The rest of us will either rely on friends or use a roadside assistance plan. The bottom line: whether your car insurance covers breakdown and towing is up to you.