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Roadside Assistance vs Emergency Towing Services: How They’re Different

By Kim Franke-Folstad · September 19, 2022 · 11 minute read

We’re here to help! First and foremost, SoFi Learn strives to be a beneficial resource to you as you navigate your financial journey. Read more We develop content that covers a variety of financial topics. Sometimes, that content may include information about products, features, or services that SoFi does not provide. We aim to break down complicated concepts, loop you in on the latest trends, and keep you up-to-date on the stuff you can use to help get your money right. Read less

Roadside Assistance vs Emergency Towing Services: How They’re Different

When something goes wrong with your car out on the road, most people have two options: Call an emergency towing service, or contact your roadside assistance program. Those two choices may sound like the same thing, but there are important differences.

Read on for a breakdown of what you can expect from each of these services, including pros and cons, and average costs.

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What Is Roadside Assistance?

Roadside assistance comes to your aid when your car breaks down or some other mishap keeps you from using your car. If you find yourself stranded, roadside assistance will send help (a mechanic, locksmith, tow truck) to get your car back on the road, to a repair shop, or back home.

Roadside assistance packages vary from one provider to the next, but most include the following:

•   Flat tire change

•   Battery jump-starts

•   Fuel delivery

•   Lockout assistance

•   Winching/extrication

•   Quick-fix services

Any benefits you receive on top of these basics are determined by the roadside assistance plan you sign up for. For example, some plans include trip interruption coverage or a guaranteed arrest bond if you’re charged with a traffic violation. Plans may also offer savings on car maintenance costs, car rentals, hotels, and other perks. Extra benefits may come at an extra cost, however, so it’s important to compare plans carefully.

There are a few different ways you can get a roadside assistance plan, including:

•   Many insurance companies offer some type of roadside assistance coverage, usually as an add-on to your auto insurance policy. If you’re concerned about cost, there are other ways to lower car insurance premiums.

•   Another option is to pay for an auto club membership that’s separate from your car insurance.

•   Your car manufacturer may include a roadside assistance package as part of your warranty or as a limited free trial for a service you can later purchase.

•   Some credit card companies offer access to roadside assistance as a perk to cardholders.

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What Can You Expect When Calling Roadside Assistance?

One of the benefits of participating in a roadside assistance program is that you’ll know exactly who to contact if you need help with your car. You can program the customer assistance number into your phone or download the program’s app, or you can tuck your membership card into your wallet or glove compartment.

Here’s what to expect when you call roadside assistance:

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Calling for Help

First things first: If your child is locked in the car or you’re in a situation where you feel unsafe, you may want to make your first call to 911. The 911 dispatcher will determine whether to send an officer to help.

If you feel safe, you can go straight to calling roadside assistance. You may be asked to verify that you have an account or that the car is yours; so it can help to be ready with your license and registration, proof of insurance, and your roadside assistance plan’s membership card.

Your roadside assistance dispatcher will send the appropriate help from a network of service providers to your location. A technician may try to fix your car onsite, but if that isn’t possible, you can have your vehicle towed to a repair shop or your home, if that’s your choice and it’s within your plan’s mileage limit.

Getting Home

If your car needs to be towed to a repair shop, you probably will be able to ride with the tow truck driver. Once you’re finished there, it’s up to the tow truck driver (or company policy) if you can get a ride home. During busy times, you may be responsible for getting home on your own.

If you’re out of town when your car breaks down, roadside assistance coverage will sometimes pay for an overnight stay in a hotel. (If you travel a lot, you may want to see if this benefit is available when you’re comparing plans.)

Wait Times

Many roadside assistance programs work with a network of providers, so when you call, there may be someone nearby who can get to you quickly and offer the services you need. Generally, you can expect help to arrive in less than an hour.

Several factors can impact your wait time, however. If there’s heavy rain, wind, or a snowstorm, for example, you may have a longer wait. It can also take a while to get help if you’re in a rural location that’s far from a locksmith, mechanic, or towing service — or if you’re in a busy city at rush hour.

Some plans provide updates through texts or an app, so callers can track their current wait time.

Payment

How the service provider who comes to your aid is paid depends on the plan you’re enrolled in. With some programs, if you use the toll-free number or an app, and the dispatcher sends a technician to help, you may not have to pay anything upfront for covered services. But if you contact a tow service, mechanic, or locksmith directly, you will likely pay out of pocket, then submit receipts to your plan for reimbursement.

Some plans don’t have a central dispatcher. In that case, you’d call a provider directly, pay for the services, and then file a reimbursement claim. No matter how your plan handles payments, it’s a good idea to keep a credit card on you when driving.

There is no deductible for roadside assistance. Most programs have very specific limits on what they will cover. For example, if a service technician delivers fuel to your car because you’ve run out of gas, the delivery may be free, but you may have to pay for the gas.

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What Is the Average Cost of Roadside Assistance?

The price of a roadside assistance plan varies based on several factors:

•   how many vehicles or drivers you want to cover

•   where you live

•   whether coverage is through your auto insurance or another source

•   the level of coverage you choose

Some plans charge less for annual coverage and more for services received, and vice-versa. It can be useful to compare online insurance benefits and quotes to get a sense of what’s available and at what cost.

Generally, you’ll pay less for a plan that’s an add-on to your auto policy versus a stand-alone membership. Allstate, for example, offers a roadside assistance insurance add-on for as little as $25 per year for one vehicle. Without an Allstate policy, the cost of a roadside assistance membership starts at $79 for the first year.

If your insurer doesn’t offer 24-hour roadside assistance, or you don’t like your insurer’s plan, you may want to check out what other insurance companies are offering.

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Pros and Cons of Roadside Assistance

One of the biggest pros of roadside assistance coverage is that you know you’ll have someone to contact any time you’re in need. You can call for advice or hands-on assistance, and someone will be there to help.

As noted above, some plans will post a bond if you’re charged with a traffic violation or reimburse you (within limits) if you need to stay in a hotel overnight. Plans may also include benefits that go beyond roadside breakdowns, such as discounts on travel and entertainment.

If you have to call roadside assistance even once, you may save enough on the services rendered to cover your cost for the year.

Still, no one likes the idea of paying for something they may never use. If you have a newish car that’s well-maintained or you seldom drive far from home, you may decide roadside assistance isn’t for you.

Coverage limits can also be disappointing. Enrolling in a roadside assistance plan doesn’t mean you’ve got a blank check that will cover any cost you incur. You may have to pay something for a tow if you go beyond the mileage limit, for example, or you may have to pay for a new battery or tire if yours needs replacing. There also may be an annual limit on the number of calls for service you can make.

Also, not all costs are covered upfront. Your plan may require you to submit receipts for reimbursement in some or all instances. If you’re averse to paperwork, that may be something to consider.

What Is an Emergency Towing Service?

The main purpose of emergency towing services is to move a vehicle when the driver can’t get back on the road without help. There are several circumstances that might require calling for an emergency tow, including:

•   When you’re in an accident, and either your car can’t be driven or you’re in no shape to drive

•   If your car isn’t running and it’s blocking traffic or putting you and other drivers in danger

•   If you’re pulled over by law enforcement and the officer determines you can’t drive

There are a couple of circumstances in which your car insurance may pay for a tow, even if you don’t have roadside assistance coverage:

•   After an accident and you have collision coverage

•   If your car is damaged — in a flood, fire, etc. — and you have comprehensive coverage

But in most cases, if you don’t have roadside assistance or “towing and labor” coverage through your auto insurance policy, an auto club membership, or a car warranty, you may be on your own when it comes to paying for your vehicle to be towed away.

What Can You Expect When Calling an Emergency Towing Service?

If your car breaks down close to home, you may be able to directly call a reliable repair shop or towing service you’ve worked with in the past. Having that connection can be a benefit if you want to choose the company that will come to your aid quickly.

But if you’re far from home and unfamiliar with the service providers available, you may have to cross your fingers and hope for the best when you call for a tow.

Here’s what you can expect when you call for emergency towing without a roadside assistance plan:

Calling for Help

If your regular mechanic or garage has the right equipment for your needs (a tow truck, a flatbed truck, a winch, etc.), you may be good to go. They can come pick up your car and get you the help you need.

But if you can’t call your favorite repair shop — because you’re out of town or it’s after hours — you may have to make a few calls before you find the appropriate help.

Some companies don’t require a subscription to use their towing and roadside assistance network, so you can try contacting them for help. But if their network doesn’t include services where you are, you may have to try your luck dialing local tow truck companies.

When a tow truck comes to your location, the driver may be able to offer onsite assistance with a flat tire, dead battery, or other problem — but you can’t necessarily count on getting the same help you’d get with a roadside assistance plan. The driver may be equipped only to tow your car back to your house or to a repair shop. And you can expect to pay in full for every service you receive if you don’t have roadside assistance coverage.

No matter who you call, it’s important to be clear about what you need. And of course, if you’re in an accident or feel as though you’re in danger, you should call 911 first.

Getting Home

You may be able to get a ride home from the tow truck driver after they take your car to the garage. But just as with a roadside assistance plan, it will likely be up to the individual driver’s discretion or company rules. If you aren’t sure if there will be a cost for the ride, you may want to ask before you get in the truck. And if you’re far from home, you also may want to ask for hotel recommendations.

Wait Times

Response times for tow trucks generally are determined by availability. If you call a tow company directly and there’s a truck close to your location, you may be able to get faster service than you would calling a roadside assistance plan because you’re eliminating the middleman.

But the same things that can hold up a truck coming through a roadside assistance dispatcher can slow down a company you call directly, including inclement weather, rush hour traffic, and distance.

Payment

If you call a tow truck directly, you can expect to pay the bill out of pocket. Depending on why you’re calling and the type of insurance coverage you have, you might be reimbursed for some costs. But if you’re calling about an overheated engine, dead battery, or flat tire, and you don’t have roadside assistance coverage, your insurance company typically won’t reimburse you for your costs.

What Is the Average Cost of Emergency Towing Services?

According to J.D. Power, towing rates in the U.S. can range between $2.50 and $7 per mile, and the average cost of a tow is about $109. But besides distance, several factors can affect the overall cost of a tow.

It may cost less to have your car towed after a breakdown than if you’ve been in an accident. And if the tow company needs to use special equipment — because your car is stuck in mud, snow, or a deep ditch, for example — that can also increase the price.

Many tow companies also include a base charge or “hook-up” fee that can range from $35 to $100. Some tow companies have a list of basic charges on their website, but if you can’t find pricing, you may want to ask so there aren’t any surprises.

Pros and Cons of Emergency Towing Services

One of the biggest upsides to using emergency towing service may be that you’re eliminating the middleman. You don’t have to wait for the dispatcher to find a network-approved provider to come and get you; you can call any company you like.

Of course, this can also be a drawback if you’re far from your favorite mechanic or repair shop. You may have to make multiple calls to find a tow truck that can come to your rescue.

Another plus to consider is that you won’t have to worry about paying for roadside assistance coverage every year whether you use it or not. You’ll only pay for services you actually use.

But if you do end up calling a tow truck even once and you don’t have coverage, it can mean a whack to the wallet. You can end up paying more for that one tow than you would for a year of roadside assistance coverage — and you won’t be getting the perks.

How To Decide Between Roadside Assistance and Emergency Towing Services

Because there are pros and cons to both roadside assistance coverage and emergency towing services, here are some things you may want to look at when you’re trying to decide between the two:

Your Comfort Level

Are you someone who likes having a plan when things go wrong, or are you OK with winging it? If you like the security of knowing you’ll have just one call to make if you need help on the road, you may prefer roadside assistance coverage.

Your Car

If your car is new or it’s well-maintained and the chances of a breakdown are slim, you may decide you don’t need to pay for roadside assistance coverage.

The cost of some roadside fixes may be covered if your car is still under warranty. And if you have collision or comprehensive coverage through your auto insurance policy, towing costs may be paid in some circumstances.

Your Family’s Needs

Maybe your car is an older model that isn’t exactly reliable. Or maybe you have some first-time drivers in the family, and you want to feel confident they’ll know who to call (besides you) if they run into trouble on the road. You might want to look into what it would take to get new drivers roadside assistance coverage for the whole family.

Value

You may want to list side-by-side the costs of having a roadside assistance plan versus what you might end up paying for a tow or other services out of pocket. Can you afford a plan that fits your needs and budget? Can you afford to not have coverage? (Keep in mind that if you use your plan just once, it may pay for itself for the year.)

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The Takeaway

When the unexpected happens on the road, you can wing it and call for a tow truck. Or you can contact roadside assistance and feel confident that someone will come help you out ASAP. And some or all of the cost of getting your car back on the road could be covered under your plan. Many drivers consider roadside assistance a good deal for the money: The cost of just one tow is often more than the annual cost of roadside assistance. If you travel a lot, or have young children or new drivers in the family, roadside assistance may be what you need.

If roadside assistance sounds like something you could use, SoFi can make it easy and convenient to find the best auto insurance policy with the right benefits for your needs. SoFi can help you compare auto insurance policies today.

FAQ

What is emergency roadside assistance good for?

Roadside assistance coverage can help you deal with and pay for a range of unexpected costs you might run into while on the road — from fixing a flat tire onsite to towing you to a repair shop for major repairs.

Is emergency roadside assistance worth it?

No one likes paying for something they may never use. But if your car breaks down just once, the convenience and savings you get through your roadside assistance plan may make it worth paying the annual cost.

What is the difference between emergency towing and roadside assistance?

Roadside assistance coverage is meant to help you get the service you need when you have car trouble — on the road or at a repair shop. Depending on the problem, roadside assistance may cover all or a portion of the costs. On the other hand, emergency towing is meant to get your car off the road and to a repair shop where it can be fixed. Generally, you can expect to pay for all the costs related to this service.


Photo credit: iStock/sefa ozel

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