AAA: Pay us $30 or you’re on your own

I have been a loyal and happy AAA member since 1988, when my late uncle Clyde helped me buy a used Chevette for my junior year in college. But after today, I’m not so sure how loyal or happy I am anymore.

I got an urgent call from Kari this afternoon, who was over at the preschool to pick up our daughter. Our car wouldn’t start.

“Don’t worry,” I told her. “I’ll call AAA. They’ll be right there.”

Only, they weren’t right there.

When I phoned AAA’s roadside assistance department, they asked me if I was with the vehicle. No, I explained, I was at home.

“We won’t be able to help you today,” a representative explained in a matter-of-factly tone. Not until I added Kari to my membership, which would cost another $30.

“How would you like to pay for that?” the operator asked. She knew I didn’t have much of a choice.

See, that’s how my AAA coverage works. It follows you around, not your car, and unless you pay extra, not your family.

(Many thanks to commenters Kelly, Joe and Susan for helping me find that link, by the way. The first thing to go when you’re upset are your superior search skills, I guess.)

I should have known that’s how roadside assistance works.

Anyway, I wish I had recorded the conversation, because then I’d just post it on my site. I told the associate that while I was not upset with her, personally, I was disappointed with AAA.

They were saying, “Pay up, or you’re on your own.” At least that’s how I perceived it in the heat of the moment. How could they do that?

AAA agreed to lower its fee to $15 (six months’ membership, as opposed to $30 for a full year) and I figured that there was no point in talking with a supervisor. After all, my family was stranded with a car that didn’t work. The clock was ticking.

I was asked to call another number for member services. Within a few minutes, the $15 was withdrawn from my credit card and a tow truck was dispatched to the preschool.

What’s the lesson here?

Well, AAA is certainly free to make whatever policies it wants to. And we’re free to buy its memberships, or not. But you should never, ever withhold roadside assistance from a member’s vehicle on a technicality.

AAA can do better.

Update (4 p.m.): This is turning out to be quite the drama. The car was “fixed” but then froze in the middle of the road, and AAA had to be called again. It’s being towed to the Honda dealership as I write this. I think.

Update (4:15 p.m.) Looks like a bad alternator. AAA won’t cover the trip to the Honda dealership, so we’re being routed to another mechanic, who can hopefully fix the car. Oh, did I mention that it’s our only car?

Update (4:30 p.m.) What a soap opera! A family friend is delivering the kids back home. Kari is now stuck with a car at an unknown garage somewhere in Oviedo. Stay tuned for more …

Update (5:15 p.m.) It was the alternator. The kids are at home and Kari is almost done with the repairs. A few thoughts on this eventful afternoon:

1) Never try to mediate your own case. Seriously, when your family is stranded and they’re refusing a service you thought you had paid for, how can anyone be rational? I think that’s what makes third-party mediation so effective. Someone like me doesn’t have the emotional baggage of a person who was wronged — unless it’s my case.

2) Take a few deep breaths before you post. I headed straight to the computer after getting off the phone with AAA. Probably not the smartest thing, in retrospect.

3) Read the fine print on your membership. AAA sends me its notices every year. In fairness, it also sends me a lot of unsolicited offers for credit cards and other things that I tend to gloss over. When I get my next membership renewal, I’ll take the time to read the whole thing.

Thanks for all of your comments! You’ve certainly made this an interesting day.

Update (10/27): This post is still getting comments. Here’s my response.

(Photo: Nic FitKd/Flickr Creative Commons)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at . Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Jasonbranhamsr

    That service through your phone is actually AAA, I know this because I am a AAA contractor. The service you pay for through your phone is in a basic membership through AAA. Its cheaper just to buy the actual membership.

  • Rachael Rivera
  • KMA Admin

    I own a towing company and I have to tell you AAA is a rip off.
    call your car insurance company and ask them if you are currently paying for roadside assistance on your policy.
    97% of cars on the road have the coverage and 2% of the people with the coverage know about it.
    you pay AAA per person but you pay your insurance company per vehicle regardless of who’s driving.
    lastly you pay what…$150 / year to AAA?
    through your insurance company you will pay about $1.00 / month
    12 bucks a year
    and you get UNLIMITED calls per year through your insurance co rather than the 3 calls max you get with AAA.

    Also through your car insurance you get the same roadside assistance benefits AAA gives you. As in towing, winchouts, lockouts, jumpstarts, fuel deliveries and flat tire changes.
    I hope this helps you out in the future.

    Phil Mitchell
    Owner
    KMA Towing and Recovery
    Eden Prairie MN
    952-201-2689

  • gerard

    You could have paid up to 10 times that amount for a tow truck (depending where you reside) but the good is that if you were in your sons car or your mothers they would have come no questions asked your paying for your safety and security not car insurance they are a business and like any other business can not use your “membership” for a family of 4-10. They need money to pay their bills as well.

  • Bill

    Have to agree with a number of others here. That’s the way it works, and always has. The membership covers the individual, not the vehicle. Over the years I’ve used AAA for towing many times. Once I had to use it twice in the same week. It have saved me enough over the past thirty years that I figure I will be playing with house money from here on. The only problem I have ever had with AAA is the wait for service. They contract with individual towing companies and a lot of them take their sweet time showing up. I’ve waited up to 2 1/2 hours for these lunkheads to finish watching Beverly Hillbillies reruns and come and get me. On the other hand I had a driver load three adults and two kids into the tow truck and drive over an hour to get me home with a broken tie rod. He was only required to tow me to the nearest repair facility. He charged most of it to AAA. I paid excess mileage. AAA is worth the money, believe me.

  • extremely_well

    I would have just asked a friend to follow my car closely to minimize the chance for a cop to run your license plate at a traffic light.