Millions of motorists join automobile clubs to smooth th bumpy ride. Clubs provide roadside assistance and offer travel information.
They're big business, as evidenced by constant club mailings received by motorists imploring them to sign up. Their plastic membership cards or club brochures look a lot alike and names sound similar. All include emergency help to tow a car in trouble, start a faltering engine or fix a flat tire at little or no cost. A toll-free 800 number is at your service.
The American Automobile Association is the biggest. But many others, among them Allstate, Amoco, Cross Country and Montgomery Ward, are also enormous. Memberships do differ in fees and service.
"We've been in business since 1902 and have 32 million members through 147 local clubs nationwide," said Geoff Sundstrom, spokesman for the American Automobile Association, based in Heathrow, Fla. "Cost ranges from $18 to $65 annually, depending on the organization in your area."
Many new cars also include roadside assistance plans for a set number of years or miles. "Our 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week Oldsmobile Edge program lasts for the warranty period of the car, which is three years or 50,000 miles," explained Ross Ruehle, spokesman for Oldsmobile.
Through agreements with car companies, Cross Country provides services for a number of brands. "It speaks well of us that some of the more prestigious manufacturers such as Rolls-Royce and Mercedes-Benz are among carmakers which have chosen our services," said Sidney Wolk, president of Boston-based Cross Country. "We also have separate retail memberships for $35 or $45 a year, depending on benefits selected."
Annual membership fees for various clubs can range from $15 to $200. Some clubs set limits on how much they pay.
Full-service clubs have arrangements with garages, service stations or towing services to provide emergency help as part of membership. If you call a non-program service facility, a full-service club will reimburse the expenses -- up to certain limits. You don't need cash or credit card.
With a limited-service club, you typically call a station you choose and pay up front, the club reimbursing you for a predetermined amount. Reimbursement policy is important, since one big bill can wipe out savings from going with a club that has less expensive dues.
"A major plus of our club is freedom of choice, in that members can choose to use either 24-hour emergency dispatch or cash reimbursement," said Ray Celaya, emergency services manager for Allstate Motor Club.
An auto club is most valuable when your car warranty has run out, because the car has more miles on it and the manufacturer isn't going to have any responsibility if the car breaks down, according to Rick Popley, senior editor for Consumer Guide.
Check price. Most basic club memberships range from $20 to $50. Compare service. For example, there's no monetary cap on AAA service, but if it takes more than 20 or 30 minutes to get your car moving, you'll be charged. Montgomery Ward gives you up to $80 of free roadside service per call; Mobil, $70.
"We suggest the motorist first analyze his personal needs, then review benefits offered from various clubs, keeping in mind that quality and reputation are more important than price alone," said Neal Geary, spokesperson for Amoco Motor Club.
There are several levels of membership at most clubs. For example, Amoco has a $39.95 basic plan, which includes an arrest bond and, if you lose keys, reimbursement of a locksmith up to $40. Its $59.95 extended service plan boosts the lost key and lockout protection to $75, increases the distance you can be towed with no charge, and expands accident insurance.
Finding the best club for you requires studying fees, reimbursement and reputation of the organization. Importance of special features is up to you.