Are you confident that your car-towing program will provide the emergency help you need when you need it? Don’t be so sure.

A relatively new service on the scene is Volvo’s Tow for Life, a program that provides free towing for any Volvo, ­regardless of its age or how long you have owned it. Volvo drivers don’t even have to pay an annual fee to participate. That sounds like a wonderful money saver—getting towed can cost $100 or more if you pay out of pocket. Although most automakers have roadside-­assistance programs, they generally are free only during a car’s first few years on the road. And AAA and other emergency services charge annual fees for what they hope will never get used.

But there are some major limitations hidden in the Volvo plan’s fine print. Most notably, the tow is free only if the vehicle is towed to and serviced by a Volvo dealership (or a Volvo-­certified
body shop) and the dealership is no more than 25 miles away. Dealers
often charge steeper repair rates than independent garages, so these free tows could end up being extra expensive.

Also, unlike most assistance programs, Volvo Tow for Life provides just towing—not jump-starts, fuel delivery, flat-tire changes or other vehicle-related services.

Roadside-assistance programs are available from many auto manufacturers, auto insurance providers, credit card issuers, cellular-service providers and membership organizations such as AAA and Better World Club. But like Tow for Life, these programs inevitably have important limits and caveats that many drivers don’t know about until it’s too late. Among the details in fine print…

Towing distance caps. AAA’s ­Classic/Basic membership ($49 to $77 per year, depending on your location) often caps free tows at a mere three, five or seven miles, depending on which regional AAA club you join. Pricier AAA Plus ($60 to $124) and Premier memberships ($77 to $164) generally provide tows up to 100 or 200 miles. Roadside-assistance plans offered by Verizon and certain American Express cards cap towing at 10 miles. Roadside-assistance plans that are included with many auto insurance policies—or available to policyholders for just a few dollars per month—similarly provide free tows but typically only to the nearest repair shop, which often won’t be the shop you trust to work on your car. (Auto insurance programs can vary by state, policy and other factors, and they typically include a range of roadside-assistance services, not just towing.)

Exceptions: Progressive offers up to 15 miles of towing or towing to the nearest repair facility, even if that’s more than 15 miles away. Travelers and Nationwide offer tiers of roadside assistance—customers can opt for basic roadside assistance, which provides up to 15 miles of towing, or Premier (in the case of Travelers) or Plus (in the case of Nationwide), which provide up to 100 miles. The higher tiers cost more than the basic tier but still are a fraction of what a membership organization such as AAA charges.

Some coverage expires unexpectedly. Automakers’ roadside-assistance programs tend to be available only up to certain vehicle age and mileage limits—similar to auto warranties—so the protection they provide can end suddenly. That could be a problem for drivers who are not paying attention to when their vehicles will reach the age or mileage limit. Examples: ­ToyotaCare lasts two years from date of purchase or lease. Honda Roadside Assistance typically expires as soon as the vehicle’s three-year/36,000-mile limited warranty ends. Ford’s plan lasts five years or 60,000 miles, whichever comes first. Hyundai’s plan lasts five years with no mileage limit.

Some automaker programs allow car owners to extend their coverage beyond these limits for an annual fee.

And these programs almost always will tow the vehicle only to the nearest dealership of that make. Some plans, such as Toyota’s, let you choose which dealership your car is towed to if there’s more than one within some mileage limit—25 miles, in this case.

Caps on other coverages. Most towing programs are components of larger roadside-assistance programs that include features such as lockout services, lost-key replacement and jump-starts as well…but details vary. Examples: If your key is lost or broken or locked in your car, AAA Plus and ­Premier will compensate you for $100 to $150 in locksmith services, while basic AAA caps this at $50. AT&T Roadside Assistance has a maximum benefit of $75 per incident—though at $2.99 a month, its premiums are relatively low. The roadside assistance provided for free by certain Chase credit cards, including Chase Sapphire Reserve, is capped at $50 per incident.

Which drivers, cars and incidents are covered. Auto-manufacturer programs typically provide assistance no matter who is driving the vehicle, but they don’t cover the household’s other vehicles. In contrast, Good Sam ­roadside-assistance plans automatically include spouses, domestic partners and dependent children under age 25 at no ­additional cost. Good Sam is best known for its RV roadside-assistance plans, but people who don’t drive RVs can opt for its Platinum Auto plan, which generally costs $99.95/year but recently was available for $49.95/year. Many other programs, including AAA, cover only one driver, although it’s relatively easy to pay additional fees to add other members of the household. And many programs cover only cars, SUVs and small trucks. Only a few extend coverage to RVs, motorcycles and even bicycles. Example: AAA and Better World Club include bicycle roadside assistance. ­Bicycle coverage is included at no additional charge with many regional AAA plans…but there’s an added fee with Better World Club—$17 to add bike coverage to an auto membership…or $39.95 for a stand-alone bike plan.

And some towing programs cover tows stemming from only mechanical breakdowns, not other events. Example: AT&T Roadside Assistance’s towing program does not cover tows following accidents or even following damage from driving over road debris.

Most programs cap their coverage at either three or four service calls per year.

Pay per call. Some programs don’t charge an annual membership fee but instead impose a fee each time the program is used. This is especially common with programs provided by credit cards. Example: Visa Roadside Dispatch, available with many Visa cards, costs $69.95 per eligible service call—with additional costs for tows longer than five miles.

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