Car Warranties & Roadside Assistance: Yea or Nay?

This week, I was the unhappy driver of a car that died in the middle of a busy four-lane avenue. After 20-plus miles on the highway, I’d gotten off my exit on the way to work and was motoring along a city street when suddenly the car didn’t want to “go” anymore. Even though my foot was on the gas, it sputtered and complained for 1/4 mile before finally crapping out at a red light.

The only lucky thing was that I was right across the street from the local mechanic that many of my co-workers use, and the auto guys were able to push my car into the driveway of the shop during a break in traffic. I was embarrassed, but it could have been worse: I could have gotten stranded in the middle of the major 5-lane interstate that makes up the bulk of my commute.

The verdict? A dearly-departed fuel pump, which is a difficult job and a fairly-expensive part. $600 later, it’s fixed, but I’m not happy about it — even though there was nothing I could do.

My car is “only” 6 1/2 years old, but it’s 3 years past the roadside assistance and 36-month warranty that were included when I purchased the car new. That meant that once they expired, I had to decide whether I still needed roadside assistance and/or warranty coverage.

Here are my thoughts on getting roadside assistance and extended warranties for your vehicle:

Roadside Assistance

YES. As a car gets older, the potential for breakdowns or damage to your car increases. The moving parts continue to wear down, to the point where eventually, something will break at an inopportune time — like your fuel pump. Or the battery dies, the alternator goes, or a tire blows out.

As soon as my 3 years of GM Roadside Assistance expired, I immediately signed up for AAA. I’ve only had to use them twice, but being stranded on the highway at 3 in the morning and knowing there was a tow truck on the way was comforting (it was after a late shift at work; I was on my way home). A year of AAA Plus membership (which covers tows up to 100 miles) costs me $92, but I know it covers towing, fuel delivery (in case you run out of gas), jump-starts, tire changes and lockouts. And since I can barely lift a gallon of milk, nevermind take lug nuts off a rim, I need to know I can get someone else to do it for me if I’m on the road. It also covers any vehicle I’m in that breaks down.

I use AAA because it’s the largest roadside auto club in the country, but there are other choices, such as Allstate Motor Club and the National Motor Club. And nowadays, you can even sign up for roadside assistance plans through your credit card provider, car insurer or organizations such as the AARP.

Extended Warranty

NO. An extended warranty for your vehicle is generally considered a poor choice, especially if you have a car with a quickly-depreciating book value. A 2008 Consumer Reports survey agrees, calling an extended warranty a “high-priced gamble.”

An extended warranty allegedly either extends your vehicle’s coverage after the manufacturer’s warranty expires or covers repairs that don’t fall under the manufacturer’s warranty. If you buy a reliable car, chances are that you’ll have minimal problems.  You’ll be doing routine maintenance on it — brakes, tires, oil changes — which aren’t covered by any warranty out there. General wear-and-tear isn’t covered, either. Many of these extended warranties also have a lot of exceptions, so there’s no guarantee the repair will be covered. That’s a lot of stuff that’s not covered!

If your car is always breaking down, you could buy another used car in decent shape for the price of the extended warranty. And if you get into an accident, the repairs will be covered by your car insurance if you have comprehensive coverage on your policy.

Instead of paying $1,000 for the warranty, take that money and put it in an interest-bearing account earmarked for car repairs. That way, you’ll have the money there in case something major happens — like replacing the fuel pump, which is costing me 600 beans.

15 comments to Car Warranties & Roadside Assistance: Yea or Nay?

  • Signing up with AAA is definitely a smart idea. It gives me piece of mind to know that my wife and kids can get help if they break down somewhere.

    I actually let my AAA lapse this past winter because I forgot to pay the bill despite their reminders. And of course that’s exactly when my wife decides to run out of gas on her way to visit her dad at the hospital. She was getting off Route 80 and got stuck on the off-ramp with cars and trucks whizzing by. And since she had the minivan with all the car seats I couldn’t come help her! She froze her butt off while the local police dept and state troopers argued over who had jurisdiction over the offramp until a tow truck finally came and gave her enough fuel to make it to the gas station.

    Later that night, I renewed my AAA subscription and set it up for automatic renewal.

    • Nicole

      @Mike: I’m also a big Route 80 driver (to and from work), so I also make sure it doesn’t lapse. But I don’t use auto-renewal — that might be a good idea.

  • Jim

    extended warranties for the most part on cars, TV, electronics etc. are a waste of money until something happens and you really need the fix.

    warranties for the most part in my mind are an easy way for companies to make money hand over fist on something they should “cover” in the first place.

  • I’m glad you stopped near the mechanics but sorry about the $600…. That’s what emergency funds are for I guess!

    AAA pricing sounds very fair and definitely something I would go for.

  • Yea 10,000%!! I use USAA, and pay $25/yr for roadside assistance, and I’ve had to use them 5 times in the past 4 years! Blown tire, car wouldn’t start on an old car, blown tire, and two battery deaths b/c i left the lights on.

    One trip alone is like $100 bucks.

    Definitely get it!

  • We pay our insurance company $15/year for roadside assistance for our two cars. I hope we never have to use it.

    • Nicole

      Hello, fellow Nicole! $15 is a great price for your two cars, to know you’ll have help if you need it. My insurance company, while excellently rated, is small, so I don’t think they offer a roadside assistance program. But it doesn’t hurt to check!

  • My insurance covered roadside assistance. I had it with my new car but my insurance also covered it when that expired. It’s a real life saver when you need it. You should try and find it any way possible because it leads to peace of mind.

  • We have towing through Geico, but none of that other roadside stuff…now I want it. I have AAA open in the other window and it seems it would cost $20 for a new membership and $52 for the regular membership or $82 for the Plus membership with 100 mile towing…hmmmm. I can’t find out how much hubby would cost to add. Sounds like a good idea (I’ll talk to Mr. BFS tonight).

    As far as extended warranties, even with my crappy Aveo, I’ve “only” paid for about $1200 of fixes and the extended warranty was $2000 at the dealership. I figure I pretty much broke even in my 5 years and the extended warranty wasn’t for longer than that anyway…

  • I’ve been a member of AAA ever since I bought my first beater car about 20 years ago. Those first few years, I was constantly calling AAA!

    When we purchased our car a few years ago, we did opt for the extended warranty, even though our car is a Honda. However, now that the car is over 5 years old, we are glad we did. It runs well, but if anything were to happen within the next two years, at least I feel slightly relieved that the entire cost wouldn’t fall entirely on me. Luckily our Honda has kept its value pretty well, so maybe the warranty coverage isn’t a complete waste.

    • Nicole

      @Little House: That’s what I was getting at — the foreign cars hold their value much better than the American models do.

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