Editorial Policy

Credit Card Deals #9: Free Roadside Assistance

Eva Norlyk Smith Ph.D

May 22, 2009

Few things are more upsetting than your car breaking down in the middle of a road trip when you're a long, long way from home. Even if you have a newer car that is less likely to have a breakdown, lots of things can go wrong—flat tire, dead battery, locking your keys inside the car, getting stuck in the mud, etc.

No surprise that many people shell out $60-95 for an AAA (American Automobile Association) membership year after year, just to know that, should something go wrong, they have somewhere to turn for help. Still, that's a lot of money to spend on a ‘just in case' service, which few people end up actually using.

So, what if you could get roadside assistance almost for free? Or at the very least, only pay for it—at a reasonable, pre-negotiated rate—should you need it? Calling your credit card company may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you need emergency road assistance, but all credit card companies, like American Express, Visa, MasterCard, and Discover, offer some type of road assistance service. The services and cost vary quite a bit, however, so here's an overview of the programs offered and how they compare.

American Express Global Assist Plus

Through its Global Assist Hotline (1-800-333-AMEX), American Express offers emergency road service for all holders of Amex charge cards, like the American Express Preferred Rewards Gold cards. The Amex Rewards Green card also offers coverage, but only for incidents that occur more than 50 miles from home.

Amex will help you locate a local provider, and its roadside assistance program covers the first $50 of the cost, whether you need your car towed, jump-started, or a tire changed. Amex will even help out if you run out of gas, and will cover the first $50 of the cost of having up to 2 gallons of fuel delivered.

You can get the $50 coverage on roadside assistance up to four times a year; however there must be a 7 day period between each similar incident. You pay any costs above the $50, and those costs, of course, vary by region and by type of emergency. The service is card specific, so the cardholder needs to be present with the vehicle, but it doesn't have to be your vehicle. In other words, if your teenager locks his key in his car, you're still covered as long as you're present, even though the car is in his name. Towing of rental cars, however, is not included.

The coverage is available in the 48 contiguous U.S. states and in Canada. Roadside assistance is not available for holders of cards that don't have an annual fee, such as the TrueEarnings Card from Costco and American Express and the Amex Blue cards.

Visa Credit Cards' Roadside Dispatch Service

Visa offers its Roadside Dispatch Service to all Visa card holders (1-800-VISA-TOW). The service is different from Amex, in that you don't get a $50 credit towards the service fee, but rather pay a pre-negotiated fee of currently $59.95 per service call.

If you get stuck, simply call the roadside dispatch service, and Visa will arrange for the nearest provider to come out to help. The service fee includes up to five miles of towing (you pay extra for more miles), tire changing, jump-starting, up to five gallons of fuel delivery (you pay for the fuel), and some winching services if you get stuck (within 100 feet of a paved road).

Rental cars are included, as is your own car or truck. This is a pay-as-you-go service, so the main benefit is having a pre-negotiated rate, which costs you the same as you'd pay for a full year of the basic AAA membership plan. Also, you won't have to hassle with finding a trustworthy local provider.

MasterCard Roadside Assistance Program

MasterCard's Roadside Assistance program is essentially a referral to the services of Cross Country Automotive Services of Medford, Massachusetts. The service covers the same items as the Amex and Visa services, including emergency towing, jump-starting, emergency fuel delivery, flat tire change, lockout assistance, and roadside winching.

You pay a pre-specified flat rate for the service, which ranges from $70 to $95, depending on which type of service you require. If you need the service, simply call the general MasterCard number (800-622-7747) and they will connect you to the service.

Discover Card Emergency Assistance

Most Discover Cards do not offer roadside assistance with the exception of the Discover Miles cards (1-800-Discover). The service offers the same benefits as the other roadside assistance programs, at a flat fee of $69.95

Which Credit Card Company Offers the Best Roadside Assistance?

If you already have an Amex Rewards Green or an American Express Preferred Rewards Gold Card, the $50 service coverage offered by American Express is a great credit card deal. But don't run out and get one of these cards just to get this benefit. These are all premium American Express cards with annual fees ranging from $95 for the Green card, to $125 for the Amex Gold.

If you don't already have an Amex card that qualifies for roadside assistance, you're better off going with the $59.95 service offered by Visa. Should something go wrong, you'll know where to get help. And if nothing goes wrong, you've saved the $60-95 that you'd otherwise be out for an AAA membership.