A breakdown or flat battery can spoil a day, or ruin a holiday. Roadside assistance plans can give you peace of mind that if you're ever stranded you can get professional help without having to shell out huge amounts on the spot.
Before shelling out for a motoring club membership, you might want to check if you already have roadside assistance included with your car insurance or new car after-sales service.
- State-based motoring clubs sell it outright (e.g. NRMA, RACV and RACQ). They have reciprocal arrangements with each other to provide assistance to their members when travelling interstate.
- Some car insurers offer it as an optional extra for comprehensive car insurance customers (e.g. AAMI and GIO). Youi includes it by default in their comprehensive policy, while Allianz and Budget Direct sell it to the general public as a standalone service.
- Major car companies frequently offer it as part of their after-sales service. Find out more about new car roadside assistance.
- Dedicated roadside assistance providers also exist (e.g. 365 Roadside and 24/7 Roadservices).
All roadside assistance programs offer the same basic service:
- You get in touch with a call centre, who'll try to diagnose your problem and give you advice to help you fix it on your own.
- Failing that, they'll send out a technician to fix your car on the spot, or a tow truck to get you to a service centre.
Other common roadside assistance services:
- Flat battery replacement or repair, or a jump start.
- Tyre change, provided you have a roadworthy spare.
- Emergency fuel top-up (sometimes for free, sometimes at your cost) to get you to the nearest petrol station.
- Lock-out rescue: either helping break into your car, or paying to send someone to retrieve a spare set of keys. Some plans will cover the cost of a locksmith to recut your key.
- Towing: distance limits usually apply, especially outside metro areas.
- Basic repairs, with some plans covering a small amount for the cost of parts.
Extra features that come with more expensive plans include "health checks" for your vehicle, child seat installation, accommodation if you break down away from home, and a hire car if your car can't be repaired quickly.
Some providers have weight restrictions for their cheaper options, so if you have a trailer or caravan, 4WD or motor home you'll probably need to look for a more expensive plan. The same goes if you do a lot of travelling: these options usually have higher benefits for accommodation and towing outside metro areas.
- The cheapest basic plan we found cost $69 a year. If you're after a plan with higher benefits and extra features, you can expect to pay up to $360.
- If you buy it as an add-on with a car insurance policy it can cost between $81 and $92.
- Some motoring clubs have one-off sign-up fees (on top of the membership fees), which also give you access to other benefits of membership. The most expensive sign-up fee we found was $55, which was with the NRMA.
- Some roadside assistance providers will charge you extra if you don't sign up till you're on the side of the highway waiting for a tow. Allianz hits you with an extra $100 for using their services within the first 48 hours of signing up.
- State-based motoring clubs offer roadside assistance for teenagers through the Free2Go program. The schemes differ from state to state, but usually offer one free year of basic roadside assistance, and discounted membership in subsequent years.
If you live in the country or you travel a lot, then you should consider opting for a higher level of cover.
As you'd expect, more expensive plans tend to come with more bells and whistles than you get with a budget plan. Top shelf plans tend to have higher benefits, as well as extra features that go beyond simply getting your car back on the road:
- Tow and tyre replacement services are offered to heavier vehicles.
- Towing distances are usually higher, meaning you're less likely to get stuck with a bill.
- Usually, more generous benefits for things like fuel top-ups and locksmith services.
- Hire car for a week or more while yours is in the shop.
- Emergency accommodation and transport if you break down on the open road.
If you live in a city, a budget plan might be enough to suit your needs. But if you live in the country or you travel a lot, then you should consider opting for a higher level of cover.
- Is cover for the driver or the vehicle? It's a question of what your money is really paying for. Will anyone driving your car be covered, or will you be covered in any car you drive?
- Annual call-out limits Nobody thinks they'll ever need more than four jump-starts a year… until the fifth time the car won't start. Something to consider if your car is less than reliable.
- Who pays for petrol? If you run out of fuel, some plans will give you a few litres at no extra charge. Others will make you pay for it on the spot.
- "We will arrange" Watch out for this clause in the terms and conditions. It might apply to a taxi ride from the scene of a breakdown, a locksmith to re-cut your key, or emergency accommodation. It means the company will make the phone calls for you while you're stuck on the side of the road but, unless specified, you'll have to pay for it.
- Towing limits Most roadside assistance plans have a limit to how far you'll be towed before you have to chip in for it. Usually it's one rule for metro areas (each company will have their own definition of that) and one for regional areas. In cities you'll have a kilometre limit that starts from the scene of the breakdown. In the country (particularly very remote areas) you might have a higher distance limit, but it could take into account the tow truck's trip out and back.
- Pre-existing conditions If your car breaks down due to a problem that existed before you signed up for roadside assistance, some providers will charge an additional call-out fee.
Rear-ended another car? Call your insurer. Left the lights on overnight and drained your battery? Call roadside assistance. Need help, such as towing and emergency transport, immediately after an incident? Both roadside assistance and car insurance offer similar services.
The key difference is that car insurance doesn't cover you for mechanical failure or breakdowns, which is why roadside assistance exists. They work hand in hand so that, no matter the reason your car won't go, you have someone to call who can get you on the road again.
If your car needs to be taken to a mechanic after a breakdown, you're liable for the repair bill. But if it's taken to a mechanic following an accident, the insurer will cover most of the repair costs.
Some car manufacturers offer roadside assistance for new vehicles, often under the proviso that you get the vehicle serviced regularly at the company's dealership or service centre. Some companies provide new car roadside assistance for up to 10 years from purchase.
Hyundai, Ford and Holden offer roadside assistance through each state's motoring club (NRMA, RACV, RACQ, etc). This cover is included in the cost of an annual service at their dealerships. Every time you get your car serviced there, it extends the cover for another twelve months. If you need to get a tow, in most cases your car will be taken to nearest dealership or authorised service centre.
Some car companies offer roadside assistance as part of a wider suite of after-sale services (especially for luxury cars), while others, such as Honda, will bundle it with an extended warranty. Toyota sells roadside assistance as an add-on.
These options often provide little more than the cover sold by car insurers or motoring clubs. So if you're after extra features like locksmith services or a car rental benefit, you may need to keep looking.