Roadside Trouble? Who Ya Gonna Call?

Years ago, if you were stuck in mud, you called Triple A to pull you out. A pesky carburetor? Off to the local gas station, compliments of the American Automobile Assn. For a few dollars a year, this Red Cross of the highways jumped batteries, delivered gas, fixed flats, and posted bail for highballing motorists hauled before the Judge Roy Beans of rural America.

AAA is still around, 33 million members strong. But these days, a lot of other auto clubs, for-profit ones, have popped up. Many are cheaper than the nonprofit AAA and offer competitive if not superior services. These clubs, perhaps 30 in number and growing, appeal to those demanding the sort of luxury roadside service increasingly available to high-end new-car owners through their warranties. Such features as reimbursement for lodging, meals, and alternate transportation in the event of an accident while traveling away from home are now standard at many clubs.

BOND VOYAGE. All the clubs offer a variety of services--anything from trip planning to discounts on hotels, rental cars, and even movie tickets. But the two most important features you should look for are towing (which includes roadside services such as jump-starts and fixing flats) and trip interruption coverage. The latter is the newest wrinkle in auto clubs and reimburses members from $300 to $1,000 for trip expenses in the event of an accident at least 50 or 100 miles away from home. The Allstate Motor Club, for example, offers a $59.95 membership that pays a driver and spouse up to $1,000 in expenses for an accident 100 miles from home.

Some plans only allow reimbursement for car rental. So check whether the plan you choose covers the cost of completing the trip by air. U.S. Auto Club (USAC), for one, will foot the bill for airfare. Some clubs are also considering trip interruption for breakdowns as well as accidents. Amoco Premier Motor Club already offers both types of coverage.

In towing, the best plans involve no fuss and no cash. The tow truck takes your car where you want to go, be it a dealership or your driveway, rather than to a particular garage. You sign off, not having to reach into your pocket for $20 or $50. (The charge for a five-mile tow at night in 18 major cities averages $45.)

USAC is on the generous side, allowing up to $100 per tow, or about 25 miles. The member either can use one of the trucks in USAC's 14,000-tower network or choose an independent and get reimbursed, an important option. USAC costs $74.95 a year and covers an entire family. Cross Country Motor Club allows $35 per tow on its $35 membership plan for a husband and wife. The driver pays the overage. A $45 plan allows $50; a $60 option, $100.

AAA clubs have varying local rates and rules, but they tend to be less generous and to favor their 14,000 towing contractors. It will usually cost extra to have your car towed where you choose, and you may not get reimbursed if, stranded, you use an unaffiliated tower.

PRICEY MILES. In Chicago, the club member gets the first 5 miles free, then pays $2.50 a mile. In Northern New Jersey, a tow to the operator's garage is free, but to go elsewhere it's $5 for the first mile and $1.50 for each additional one. In Atlanta, a tow to the station is free up to 10 miles, then costs $2 a mile.

AAA isn't cheap. That Chicago membership costs $52, and there's a $12 charge for a spouse and another $22 for a driving-aged child. The family package sells for $94. AAA also has its Plus program, which features a higher level of benefits but costs more. While Plus offers a flat free 100 miles of towing, that pushes the single Chicago membership up to $76, with the family paying $126. In Atlanta, Plus will cost a couple $108 the first year and $93 for subsequent years. This may seem steep, considering that many auto insurance plans offer roadside service options for a few dollars a year.

As competition continues to heat up among the clubs, benefit levels are expected to increase further. As Charles Kuebler, president of USAC/Motoring Division Inc., says: "People don't like the nickel-and-diming."

      Club/Phone                  Membership   Towing      Trip interruption benefit
      AAA,                       $18-$68       Varies by club  Varies
      AAA PLUS                   $18-$25 extra 100 miles        $700
      Check local listing     (Individual)
      ALLSTATE                   $39.95*        $50             $500
      800 347-8880               $59.95*       $100            $1,000
      AMOCO,                     $49.95*      5 miles/$50       None
      PREMIER                    $74.95*      50 miles/$100     $500
      CROSS COUNTRY                 $35*        $35             $500
      800 833-5500                  $45*        $50             $500
                                    $60         $100            $500
      MONTGOMERY WARD               $52*        10 miles/$80   $1,000
      USAC                       $74.95         $100           $1,000
      *Covers husband and wife
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