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Matt C. White

OUR LAST SUMMER road trip didn’t exactly go as planned. That ordeal changed my mind about an annual expense I’d been paying without much thought. I gained a new perspective—even if I did learn my lesson the hard way.

On a Saturday morning last summer, Sarah and I woke our kids at 4 a.m. for a predawn drive through the mountains of East Tennessee and across the Carolinas. We were on our way to enjoy the beaches of Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.

For the first eight hours of our planned nine-hour trek, we all watched the trees go by in peace—a significant feat, as any parent will tell you. Then suddenly, every light on the dash began flashing incessantly. The alternator had gone bad and the car battery was failing quickly. When I stepped on the gas, the car would barely accelerate.

Luckily, I saw a pizza place coming up on the right. I coasted into the parking lot. Once everyone was inside—where they could enjoy lunch and wait safely for help—I stepped out and dialed AAA. I was calling for a tow using my roadside assistance coverage.

To my chagrin, four calls and four hours of waiting produced nothing more than one extended wait-time quote after another. I was told repeatedly that all AAA-affiliated tow truck drivers were busy working on other calls, and the service was doing all it could. As the afternoon wore on, I finally realized that if we ever wanted to get out of that parking lot, I’d have to arrange for help myself.

First, I took an Uber to a nearby service shop to secure a loaner car before it closed for the weekend. I’d arrived just in time. I had to give a “desperate dad” speech to convince the shop to release a car to me since ours hadn’t been towed in yet. Thankfully, the employees took pity on me.

Once I made it back to Sarah and the girls, I found that there was still no response from AAA. I called the first local tow service I saw in my phone’s search results. An employee answered and told me someone would be there to help us in 15 minutes.

I was relieved and flabbergasted at the same time. I explained our situation and learned that, sure enough, I was talking to one of AAA’s contractors. No one from AAA had called them to request a dispatch to us, however.

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How was Sarah handling all of this stress while caring for our two girls, who by this time were screaming and crying? Well, if it gives you any indication, while I was working with the tow truck driver, she singlehandedly managed to stuff the entire contents of our jam-packed Honda Pilot into the loaner vehicle—a Honda Civic. She’d found a productive way to burn off some steam.

I didn’t have good feelings toward AAA, but after a week at the beach, I felt better. “Everyone has a bad day,” I thought. I figured once I explained what happened, AAA would be appalled and would make it right. I called to tell the company what happened. To my surprise, the service representative didn’t seem surprised.

All the rep could do was reimburse me for the tow at AAA’s contracted rate—about half of what I’d paid. I pressed the issue, asking for more. Eventually, a manager came on the line and relented by offering a meager $10 off the price of next year’s membership. “No thanks,” I said.

Roadside assistance is the reason I signed up for AAA membership. Yes, I know a few other perks are included, like discounts on hotels and attractions, but I rarely use them. If AAA can’t reliably provide roadside assistance when I need it, it doesn’t offer me much value.

After 19 years of membership, Sarah and I fired AAA. I’m not sure why the company performed so poorly on that day last summer. I assume AAA does better much of the time. That one horrendous experience, though, isn’t the real reason we’re dropping our membership. It took that mishap to open my eyes. Now I could see that I’d been paying AAA to manage something I would rather manage myself.

When we started our membership, smartphones didn’t exist. I viewed AAA as necessary to avoid getting stranded. Now, all it takes is a quick search on my phone, and I can find a local tow service that I can call myself. I’m confident I can do a better job coordinating this service than AAA did.

AAA membership costs Sarah and me $151 every year. If we go a year with no need for emergency service, we save $151. That would be great.

If we do need roadside assistance, however, I don’t mind paying up. Saving money is not my priority in an emergency. I want someone to get my family and me safely on our way as quickly as possible. I’m happy to pay the going market rate for that.

We all have expenses that we “set and forget.” If we take a moment to think, we might find that we’ve been paying for services we no longer want. I’d rather have avoided all that stress on our road trip last summer. But I’m glad the experience prompted me to rethink a “set and forget” expense.

Matt Christopher White is a CPA and CFP® who writes about money and apprenticeship to Jesus. He’s the author of “How to Love Money: Four Paradoxes that Breathe Life into Your Finances,” available at MattChristopherWhite.com. Matt is equally comfortable talking about Luke 6:43, Section 643 of the Internal Revenue Code and the 6-4-3 double play. There’s no place he’d rather be than with Sarah and their two girls, Lydia and Eliza, at their home in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains. Follow Matt on Twitter @WriteMattWhite and check out his earlier articles.

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CJ
CJ
4 months ago

” I assume AAA does better much of the time.”

You’d think so, but nope. I was a loyal 20+ year customer with them. Best thing I ever did was fire them. They kept me waiting for multiple hours every time I called for service – in large market, suburban area with PLENTY of tow services, mechanics, etc. I was stuck alone in a sketchy area a couple of times with nowhere to wait safely.Their service people didn’t seem to care.

Their app & website are a joke: they advertise you can request service online, but after you complete the request, you are informed that you still have to phone them to give them “more information”. The rep asked for exactly the same data I already submitted online!

AAA is dial-up internet in a fiber world. Most millennials & Gen Z see them as grandpa/grandma’s thing. I don’t think they’ll be around much longer.

Last edited 4 months ago by CJ
Michelle K
Michelle K
4 months ago

I’ve been driving for many, many years without AAA. I bought membership about 3 months ago. After reading your article, I think I will forgo renewal. I believe between my cell phone and the goodwill of other humans, I will be able to manage. I liked the AAA discounts but I will qualify for the AARP discounts soon anyway. Thanks for the great article!

Martin McCue
Martin McCue
4 months ago

I completely understand the writer’s perspective. But my experience with AAA has been different, so I am still a member. And my membership has helped not only me but my kids. With older cars that sometimes sit outside in cold climates, they value AAA battery recharge/replacement. I’ve had to use the tow service, not just for a breakdown, but for my inability to get out of a small rural lakeside valley where the roads were so steep and icy that I simply couldn’t get going fast enough to get out myself. Yes, it is insurance that I rarely use, but I have used it. And AAA was responsive.

GaryW
GaryW
4 months ago

Check your auto insurance policy. My State Farm policy includes roadside assistance, the cost is $2.40 semi-annually. Allstate has a pay-per-incident plan with no recurring fee, you don’t need to be a policy holder, I’ve never used it. I recently got 1 year of free AAA membership through my T-Mobile phone plan. AAA is a collection of regional affiliates so the roadside assistance may vary from area to area.

My horror story about roadside assistance occurred about 25 years ago when I lived in Texas. I had a fairly new car that came with free roadside assistance. The operator, while friendly, was obviously out-of-state and unfamiliar with Texas. He kept asking what town I was in. Texas doesn’t have towns, if you’re not in a city it’s an unincorporated area of the county. I lived in Virginia a long time ago, cities there are independent and not in any county. There are a few towns, but most counties don’t have any subdivisions at all.

Chazooo
Chazooo
4 months ago

AAA has great road maps that improve your situational awareness vis-a-vis the GPS screen. As far as tow companies go, AAA and various auto insurance companies are their lowest price reimbursement thus the last resort for service calls in most cases. Your best bet is to pay the piper – how often do you need a service call? If you have the need for service calls too often you will be cut off anyway.

Veggi Vet
Veggi Vet
4 months ago

Sounds like AAA deserves a D-. Never have been a member, and no plans to become one at any point.

Matt White
Matt White
4 months ago

Thank you to all for reading and sharing your experiences! It has been interesting to read through the comments here and on social media. I’m glad some have had better service, but it sounds like my family is not the only one who’s been let down. I’ll see how my new strategy pans out for a while, and then maybe I’ll write a follow-up piece to share how it has compared to AAA.

Last edited 4 months ago by Matt White
excel lent
excel lent
4 months ago

I have had good experience in the past with AAA on several locked cars, run out of gas and a tow where a front axle broke on my 2wd F150.
But I haven’t used them in recent years. Maybe their service is slipping?

AKROGER SHOPPER
AKROGER SHOPPER
4 months ago

Over forty years of driving and no AAA. That money went for a small tool box, car repair manual from the manufacturer, and a pair of work gloves packed in the trunkThe savings paid off, and the tools and gloves were used less than five times. Never had a good gut feel for AAA.

Stu
Stu
4 months ago

Been there, done that.

Ski Bum
Ski Bum
4 months ago

We were paying close to $250/yr toward the end of our run with AAA when we came to a similar realization. At the time we were covering four vehicles plus trailer towing for our camper. We hadn’t used the service for years and felt it was a lot of money to just blindly renew without considering our options. After we sold the camper and started to examine our spending, we opted to try AMAC’s equivalent which was about half the cost and offered similar benefits. Of course, we needed a late-night tow within a few months of signing up. After spending several frustrating hours waiting for AMAC’s reps to find a tow, my husband did what you did and had a local tow truck there within minutes. We canceled AMAC’s roadside service after that first year and now rely on our own resourcefulness backed up by what our auto insurance provider includes for a few extra $ per year.

Dwain Sims
Dwain Sims
4 months ago

Just be careful with Auto Insurance company roadside service. I have heard (from listening to Clark Howard’s podcast and radio program in the past) that some insurance companies will treat a call for roadside assistance just like an accident as far as your insurance rates are concerned. This is totally nuts, but I can certainly think of few insurers that would do this.

Kristine Hayes
Kristine Hayes
4 months ago

A few years ago, I had a flat tire at work. I didn’t discover it until I was getting ready to leave for home. I’d had a AAA membership for several years and never used it. I called and they told me they’d have someone out soon. And then I waited. And waited. And waited. I kept calling for updates and got lots of excuses for why nobody had made it to my location.

Eventually a tow truck driver arrived–about three hours after I called–and they tried to sell me an extra service before finally agreeing to put my spare tire on for me.

A few days later I called my insurance company and told them the story. I wanted to get roadside coverage through them–as it turned out, I already had it. The agent was able to give me some very good advice. They told me they contracted with a local tow company and that I could just call the tow company directly, rather than calling the “1-800” number on my insurance card.

A few months later, the alternator on my car failed. Stranded on the side of a busy road, I called the local tow company. They had someone to me within twenty minutes.

R Quinn
R Quinn
4 months ago

Your experience is vastly different from ours. We have had AAA for decades and used it many times, with good results each time. They have dealt with dead batteries, blown tires, etc.

Our best – worst experience – was on a Christmas Day. Our car died on the Garden State Parkway. Only certain tow companies can get you off and then they drop you. I called AAA to get us from the closed Burger King where we were dropped to our garage and home. AAA answered quickly and a truck was at our location in twenty minutes. It was 6:00 pm.

The driver dropped the car at the garage and then agreed to take us home several blocks away – all after leaving his Christmas dinner. We gave him a nice tip and the wine we were bringing to our relatives for Christmas. I know he was a contractor, but still working for AAA.

I have zero complaints about AAA.

CJ
CJ
4 months ago
Reply to  R Quinn

wow…that is nothing like my AAA experience. They’re total losers in my area.

Jerry Pinkard
Jerry Pinkard
4 months ago

We are longtime users of AAA service and have used their services numerous times. They have never let us down. I have been stranded with dead battery, busted radiator hose and other problems. Most of our service has come in the Charlotte metro area which may be better run than some AAA sites. Examples: last year about a month apart the battery died on each of our cars and I was unable to jump start. I called AAA and had a tech on site within 40 minutes.

OP makes good point about use of cell phones and internet which makes need somewhat different today. But that does not mean you will get reputable service providers.

booch221
booch221
4 months ago
Reply to  Jerry Pinkard

You must drive real clunkers to have so many breakdowns.

mytimetotravel
mytimetotravel
4 months ago
Reply to  Jerry Pinkard

Maybe AAA is better in NC than SC? I live in the Raleigh area and the few times I have needed help from AAA it has been prompt and effective. Admittedly it has been a few years since the last time.

Warren Grafer
Warren Grafer
4 months ago

Having AAA for 40+ years, when the annual bill comes I always wondered if it was worth it but end up just paying it, mostly out of habit. Last year my membership came in Very handy twice – once when my spouse backed off the road into a ditch requiring a tow, and once when we were out to eat and my friend realized he had locked his keys in his car. In both incidents AAA came through promptly, even in a somewhat rural area. As they say, better safe than sorry!

Mark Schwartz
Mark Schwartz
4 months ago

I’ve had superior service with the towing provided through our auto insurance company Safeco…costs a few dollars a year. And when I’ve had to use them they were extremely helpful.

Paula Karabelias
Paula Karabelias
4 months ago

A few years ago my husband broke down on a major highway just outside of Boston. AAA “couldn’t find him” so he had to arrange for towing service that only accepts cash .(around here at least all tow businesses we know of are cash only ). I emailed AAA and they promptly reimbursed his actual expense , not the lower contracted rate. Prior to this I had used AAA a few times over 30 years without any problems . Their service now , as with so many organizations now may be suffering. Many businesses now have inexperienced workers and sometimes I have had to go to the executive level to solve the issue. Always politely.

Newsboy
Newsboy
4 months ago

I have heard this story all too often. One suggestion: most car insurance carriers offer comparable emergency roadside assistance coverage for $4-5 / year on your car policy. Many insurers give you the option of either using an 800# for service (i.e. they pay the tower directly,) or the ability to ask for reimbursement from the insurer (within limits) if you are in a non-service or extremely rural area.

My siblings and I all received AAA membership as a Christmas gift (purchased by grandma, then later on, our mom). Both naturally worried about our safety as newly minted drivers. Both mom and grandma have long since passed on, but those AAA renewals keep arriving every December. I suspect that back in the day, AAA was the only game in town for this kind of “peace of mind” protection.

With annual membership typically costing on average between $60-$120/ year for a rarely used service (admittedly, AAA included a bunch of “extras” – sweeteners that most members don’t use often) IMO – AAA should be placing flowers and candy on the front-seat of a subscriber’s car when their renewal payment clears every year!

Last edited 4 months ago by Newsboy
Mik Cajon
Mik Cajon
4 months ago

We’ve also been disappointed with AAA roadside services…is there a similar, but better provider ?

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