At one time, I was in charge of marketing a roadside assistance program, and gained some insight into the business of providing help to disabled motorists. What I learned has caused me to view AAA membership with skepticism. I think you can do better.

AAA membership has several components, only one of which has much value, in my opinion. The value of trip-tiks and maps, once a lynchpin of the organization's appeal, has dwindled in the age of Mapquest and GPS units. Ditto the travel agent services, traveler's checks, and travel magazine. What remains is the extensive roadside assistance program.

How does this work? AAA contracts with thousands of independent tow providers that can be dispatched to member calls. For each call, the company spiffs the tower a set fee.

AAA is not the only company offering this service, though. There are other wholesellers that set up such networks and provide this service to insurance companies, membership organizations, and the like, who brand it with their name and sell or give it to their customers. Many of the AAA towing providers also haul for these competitors, so the quality of your service will likely be identical.Many of these programs cost much less than AAA's rates (which vary according to your location). Google "Roadside assistance program" for a long list of such programs.

If you're concerned enough about the environment to take umbrage at what some claim is AAA's anti-green lobbying, the program offered by the Better World Club might appeal to you. They donate 1% of proceeds to good causes, and don't lobby against fleet mileage requirements and similar legislation.

Before you renew that AAA membership, shop around. As you do, be sure to ask these questions:
  • Is there a cap on annual usage?
  • Can I choose where to be towed? To what maximum distance? How much will I be charged for extra miles?
  • What areas, if any, are without tow coverage? (Ask about Long Island; trust me on this one.)
  • Is Canada included?
  • Does it cover the car or the driver?
In my area, an AAA family membership costs $79 for my wife and me. Through the American Motorcyclist Association's member program, I can buy the same type of service for $60, which also covers my motorcycle, unlike AAA.

I'll use the money I saved on a new tire, so I'll be even less likely to even need the service.

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