AAA never showed up, so do I deserve a refund?

By | December 7th, 2016

Brenda Huber was on vacation, driving through Scottsbluff, Neb., when her car got a flat tire.

She called AAA for service and waited on hold 20 minutes while the auto club tried to figure out what to do about Huber’s request. After two hours, AAA called Huber and told her that it could not find an available tow truck because of a major accident on a nearby interstate.

AAA suggested she try again — the next day.

So Huber paid a passerby $5 to help her change the tire. The next day, Huber had the flat tire repaired at no cost, but paid the technician a $10 tip.

When Huber returned from vacation, she wrote AAA to complain.

“Since I paid and they did not perform the service, shouldn’t they try to make it right?” she asked.

AAA said they would investigate and offered to reimburse her, if she had receipts. Unhappy with the offer, Huber told AAA that she wanted a full refund of her $200 membership. In turn, AAA offered a 20 percent discount on the cost of her membership for the following year.

Huber rejected AAA’s last offer, and AAA told her it would call her back by a certain date, but it never did. Huber feels that because she paid for service and AAA didn’t provide it, AAA should refund her full membership fee.

Even a basic AAA membership provides 24-hour roadside assistance. And when you pay for a AAA membership, you also pay for the peace of mind that the 24-hour roadside assistance provides. So, it’s understandable that Huber would be upset when AAA wasn’t able to provide her with the roadside assistance. But, it also wasn’t AAA’s fault that a major accident on a nearby interstate had tied up local resources.

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The AAA Member Benefits note that roadside assistance for tire service is limited to changing a flat tire, if there is a servicable spare, or towing the vehicle to a repair facility if there is not a serviceable spare. The member benefits do not extend to the cost of repairing the damaged tire. So, Huber would have had to bear that cost regardless of the AAA service.

The AAA Member Benefits also promises that members will be reimbursed for roadside service covered by the membership, rendered by non-contract providers. In Huber’s case, that would entitle her to the $5 she paid the passerby to help her change the tire.

The AAA refund policy states:

AAA reserves the right to cancel membership for material misrepresentation or for substantial breach of your contractual duties or conditions. If we cancel, we shall give you at least 10 days’ notice, and shall return the unused portion of your annual dues. If you ask to cancel, your membership will expire without renewal at the end of the current term, but no dues will be refunded.

As far as the refund Huber is requesting, AAA’s refund policy covers its right to cancel a membership. But for the member, the cancellation and refund policy isn’t a refund policy. It allows for cancellation, but without the refund of the dues. Basically, if you’re unhappy with AAA’s service during your membership period, there is no cancellation remedy. AAA says just don’t renew your membership.

AAA adhered to its policies when it offered Huber reimbursement for her $5, and when it refused her refund request. But did it do enough?

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  • John Baker

    If there truly was a major accident in a rural area with few tow trucks, it is entirely likely that there wasn’t anyone available and wouldn’t be for sometime.

    The $40 discount on the next year is more than $5 that she paid someone to put her spare tire on (tire repair is a red herring since that isn’t included as an AAA service) and they offered to refund that if she had a receipt.

    Not sure what else you’d be able to get.

  • Patrica

    I have had OTHER road services OFFER to get someone OUT of their network in order to help me. I didn’t have to tell them I was a woman, or that I am elderly, or that I was alone. Since none of their “in network” were available, they told me I would pay the out of network tow truck , send in the receipt, and they would reimburse me. I think either AAA agent was misunderstood OR didn’t conceive that as a possible option…

  • Patrica

    P.S. The agent offered to contact other out of network towing services for me…..

  • Jeff W.

    I am not sure you should advocate. I certainly understand the disappointment where she called AAA and they did not provide the service. As noted, because of the nearby accident, AAA was having difficulties in securing a tow truck. Scottsbluff, NE is probably rural enough that AAA could not get secure services from a nearby town.

    If you decide to advocate, some additional factors to consider:
    * Is she in the beginning of her membership or the tail end of it?
    * Has she used any of the services AAA provides. Not just for her auto, but the discounts or additional travel services.
    * Is this the first year of her membership? Or has she renewed previously.

    If she is a new customer in the beginning of her membership, then you have a stronger case.

  • MarkKelling

    What you pay for AAA membership is for an entire year, it is not per occurrence. There are many things AAA provides besides roadside assistance, if the OP used any of those (various discounts for hotels, rental cars, tourist attractions, and so on) then a full refund would not be proper.

    It is unfortunate that they do not have the resources to cover everyone promptly even in extreme circumstances like the major Interstate accident and I understand the frustration when they are unable to fulfill their promise of assisting you, but that is modern day business. I feel the discount offered is generous. The OP is of course free to not continue membership. And not sure why her membership is that costly. I pay around $60 a year and get everything I need. I have noticed that many things that used to be included in the member ship (like locksmith service for the house if you lock yourself out) are no longer included or are limited in the number of times AAA will perform those services or are extra cost.

    I have had two instances where I called AAA due to various auto problems and they were not able to promptly send someone. I waited 3 hours when my battery was dead. This was during a blizzard situation in Colorado. I was happy it was only 3 hours. And a second time I called and had to hang on hold for more than an hour and never did get anyone to talk to me. This was also during a winter storm situation. Every other time I have had to use them in the 20 years I have had a membership, no matter where I was in the country, they were there and able to fix the issue promptly.

    So no, I don;t think there is anything to advocate.

  • sirwired

    I’m not saying this works in all situations (it most assuredly doesn’t), but everybody should know how to, (and practice) changing their own tire. (Assuming you have a spare to begin with… you can’t really practice with the “Fix-a-flat” solution too many cars ship with these days.)

    Here’s a real guide to changing tires, which you’ll never see in a car manual.

    What you’ll need in the trunk:
    – A 1’x1′ square of 3/4″ or thicker plywood; vital for keeping the car’s jack from sinking into soft ground. (Not particle board, not a square of pine 1×10… plywood. The other types of wood need to be a lot thicker to have the same strength.)
    – The car’s toolkit, namely the jack, lug wrench, and the stupid anti-theft lug remover, if applicable.
    – A cheap blue tarp (Harbor Freight gives these away all the time, or sells them for $3 or so.) This is for kneeling on the ground without messing up your clothes.
    – Because too many shops over-tighten lug nuts, a Harbor Freight “Breaker Bar” and a deep socket of the correct size for your lug nuts. Don’t bother with the stubby thing that comes with the car for this; if you are lucky you’d merely have to jump on it to get things loose, if unlucky, it’ll just bend. The cross-shaped lug wrenches work okay, but they are bulky.
    – A 12V air compressor. Admit it, it’s been a very long time since you checked the pressure in your spare, and it’s useless if it’s flat. (Pro Tip: Before I had one, I called AAA because I knew the spare was low; the truck didn’t have a compressor either…) Shop around for a decent one (I paid $40 from Amazon) if you’d like to use it to keep all your tires maintained.
    – Pressure gauge. Even the basic “stick” kind will work well enough.
    – An appropriate tool to pop off the hubcap, if applicable. Usually a small flathead screwdriver.
    – Leather work gloves
    – A loose long-sleeve shirt to put over whatever you are wearing so you don’t get it dirty.
    – A sturdy bag of some sort for all this stuff.

    This looks like a long list of stuff, but really it’s neither expensive (maybe $30 plus the cost of the compressor) nor does it take up much space.

    To change the tire:
    – If you are on a busy road, pull off as far as you can if you can’t make it to the next exit, or better yet, parking lot. If the shoulder on a busy road isn’t much wider than your car, DO NOT change the tire yourself; people get killed all the time by inattentive drivers drifting on to the shoulder and hitting somebody standing or sitting by their car.
    – Activate the parking brake. (If it’s not electronic, yank the parking brake handle/push the pedal as hard as you can.)
    – Using your breaker bar, loosen each lug, but don’t remove them yet.
    – Consult the manual for where to put the jack and how to work it.
    – Set the jack on the plywood.
    – Only raise the car so there’s JUST enough room to get the new tire on. Put the spare underneath the side of the car, if it’ll fit. (This is to keep the car from crashing to the ground if the jack falls.)
    – DO NOT EVEN THINK OF CRAWLING UNDERNEATH THE CAR, (e.g. to look for damage caused by road debris) unless you want to die. “Car people” nickname those cheap free jacks “widowmakers”, after the people that ignore this advice.
    – Remove the lugs. You can just turn the socket with your fingers, or if things are a little rusty, the stubby thing that came with the car will be less awkward than the breaker bar.
    – Remove the spare from underneath the side of the car, and put the flat tire there.
    – Put on the spare and spin the lugs back on.
    – Make sure the wheel doesn’t wobble; if it does, fiddle with the wheel and lugs until it doesn’t.
    – Take the flat tire out from underneath the car.
    – Lower the car.
    – Tighten the lugs. How tight? If it’s a 2-foot breaker bar, with the bar horizontal facing to the right, pull up with 50lb or so of force. Just guess. Do this in an “X” or “Star” pattern.
    – Inflate the spare to the proper level; consult the sticker on the driver door jamb for this.
    – Congratulate yourself on NOT waiting an hour or two for a tow truck to arrive.

  • Jeff W.

    $200 does seem to be high. Maybe the various local AAA chapters charge different amounts for membership. If I had to guess, this is probably a premier membership with multiple drivers on the account. Or just many drivers on the account.

  • Hanope

    I pay $196 for a premier membership for myself and husband.

  • Alan Gore

    AAA is good about keeping you informed on the progress of called assistance by text. Did she use that option?

  • Mel65

    It appeared that ALL of the local towing resources were occupied with the accident, not just AAA-branded ones, so this likely wasn’t an option either.

  • Rebecca

    One thing really struck me here. Zero sympathy or understanding for a “major” incident? Yes it sucks to have a flat, but certainly that’s better than having a vehicle that isn’t drivable, which presumably could include very serious injuries?

    So I googled recent crashes in western Nebraska. The last major accident in the area was a particularly horrible crash a couple months ago; three people died and their bodies were charred so badly they were unrecognizable and had to be identified through dental records:

    http://www.nbcneb.com/content/news/Fiery-crash-on-I-80-near-Gibbon-backs-up-traffic-394635131.html

    Kind of puts things in perspective, in my opinion. The pictures are horrifying. When something bad happens, I think it always helps to remind ourselves how really awful it could be. An annoyance is not a tragedy. A horrific crash is a tragedy. I just can’t bring myself to be worried about a couple hundred bucks when the tow trucks were busy with something like this. That’s a perfectly reasonable excuse, and to say it isn’t just somehow feels disrespectful to the victims of such a terrible event.

    And, as someone else astutely pointed out, why would you drive alone a long distance, especially in a rural area, and not know how to change a tire? My grandpa and my dad both made sure I knew how to do it before they let me drive a car.

  • Jim Zakany

    I had an issue with AAA and simply emailed memberrelations@national.aaa.com to get it resolved.

    I didn’t ask for more than what would make me whole.

  • Rebecca

    I get stuck at the major accident part. I linked the last major accident in the area in my post. And it just doesn’t feel right to advocate for a refund when you compare the OP’s situation. I can’t explain exactly why, but it just feels outright disrespectful to victims of a tragedy to complain about a flat tire.

  • Harvey-6-3.5

    While I hear the point that a major accident will prevent prompt service, and that is much more important (and maybe tragic), she still paid for a service she didn’t really receive. As a long time AAA member (who just recently changed my own tire because I can and why wait), I would expect them to at least comp the cost of a tow ($40-50) to show they care, because when I’m paying for AAA, I expect some customer service.

  • Bill___A

    Sometimes, you need to look at the circumstances surrounding a customer service failure, and if this were me, I would let this one go.
    One could ask for some compensation but is it really worth tying up everyone’s time for a token payment? AMA should do something as a customer service gesture, but I don’t see why one would make a big deal out of it.

  • LeeAnneClark

    My thoughts exactly.

  • ctporter

    Go to the web site, $165 is the top price for RV, regular premier is much cheaper.

  • MF

    A credit on next year’s membership??? This is the equivalent of funny money credit from an airline or cruise line that one had a bad experience with. As she wants to quit the service, it is more than useless, it is an insult. She may back down on her demand & keep the service, or not, but funny money is worse than nothing for someone who wishes nothing more to do with AAA. Call back in 24 hours for service, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot???

  • PsyGuy

    AAA is right, and I understand why they don’t care. if the LW is leaving anyway what use is preserving the business relationship.

  • PsyGuy

    I wonder if making the customer whole is even what you need to do. Give the customer a free years membership, and do right by them next time.

  • PsyGuy

    In this case however making the LW whole amounts to $5, that’s all she was entitled to was a tow, or change, and since the spare was serviceable, $5 is all she was really entitled to.

  • PsyGuy

    That’s a dumb list, my fiance just calls me on the phone to do it, one instruction, done.

  • PsyGuy

    Yeah but many of those services are of minimal value. You can book most easy travel yourself at better prices than you’ll get even with the AAA discount, and Costco has as good if not better packages, without the $200 fee. You don’t need to be a member to get an IDP, nor to buy anything from their travel store (luggage, etc.).

  • michael anthony

    Call me cynical, but we only have the agencies word that there was a major accident that had all tow trucks in use. And it took them 2 hours to tell her this. The first call to the area shoukd have alerted them that a major incident was going on and woukd be for several hours.

    Accidents that you describe often require the use of specialized trucks since certain procedures are carried out “off site”. Regular tow trucks damage the vehicles further, which would impede an investigation.

    I’m certainly have empathy for those involved in major accidents. But accidents, storms, blizzards, etc, are daily occurrences. Triple AAA should have policies in place for how to assist members during that time and if unable to, how they will make things “right” for their customers.

  • Charles Owen

    The ONLY reason we have AAA is for roadside service. I count on the idea that if I have a problem on the road I can call AAA and they will respond. I don’t care about other accidents elsewhere. A major accident elsewhere does absolve AAA of its responsibility to respond to someone who purchased a membership for that and only that reason. If they have to go an hour away to get someone to help me they darned well should do it. If they have to go out of their system they should do it. I don’t care if the services are busy. I’m pretty sure I’m more likely to have a problem during those times, anyway. When I call AAA it is almost certainly going to be an emergency and I expect them to respond. Leaving someone stranded on the road should NEVER be an option! In the worst case they could have at least contacted the police.

    There may be situations when every local resource is in use. I’m sure it happens. In such a case they have a responsibility to: 1) go as far out as necessary to get help to you, 2) ensure that you get help, even if it means they have to wait for someone to become available and keeping in continuous touch until you are helped (and that is certainly not one day later).

  • MarkKelling

    I book directly with hotels, choose the AAA option and save money most of the time. (If the AAA rate is not better than other rates at those hotels, I don’t use it, but the cancellation policy is still much better on a AAA rate than the hotel basic option in many cases which has value to me.) Also, when visiting many tourist sites in the US, showing your AAA card gets you a discount on the ticket price. Where I park at the airport gives a 15% discount when you show your AAA card (just this one alone nets me more than I pay for the AAA membership every year). Those are the types of services I was referring to which do provide value from your membership.

    I have never used the AAA travel agent because I find their prices higher than I get elsewhere if I want them to do the booking and so on. Also, the travel agents at my local office are no more helpful than going online to book myself and offer little flexibility on their prebuilt packages, unfortunately.

  • Pegtoo

    This is awesome. My dad made me change the tire before I could drive, we did the same with our kids… but I’ll admit its been many years since I’ve needed to do this. I’m putting this in the glove box just in case AAA can’t make it out to help me!! And definitely getting one of the “breaker bars”, it’s been a long time since I remembered to tell the shop to hand tighten the lugs. Thanks so much.

  • The Original Joe S

    I waited 2 hours in Arlington, VA. Then I tried a jump from another car. Went home. AAA ain’t so great.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    About 8 years ago, my wife locked her keys in her car while attending a gymboree class with our son. After the class, she discovered that she locked her keys in her car and I was out of town on business so she called AAA. She was told that someone will be there within the hour to unlock the car; however, the AAA tech never showed up. After an hour, she called AAA and they sent another tech and eventually her car was unlocked two hours after the first call.

    We complained and they gave us another year of membership (we have AAA Plus membership) at no cost.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    I agree…the AAA rate for hotel usually have the best cancellation policies and a lot of the time the same or lower price. Back in the 90s, I used to work for a company that paid my AAA membership because the money that I saved them for hotel rooms.

    In regards to discounts, you can save some money at a variety of places (at least for the Arizona Club of AAA).

    If we need maps or passport photos, we go to AAA since they are ‘free’.

  • jim6555

    If there was really a serious accident. AAA may be using the “accident” as an excuse for it’s inability to provide service in a rural community in Nebraska. We know that airlines will blame the weather for a delay or a flight cancellation when the real reason might be a mechanical problem or there not being a flight crew available. The same sort of thing could be happening here.

  • jim6555

    The way that AAA.com is set up, the system transfers you to your local AAA club’s site based on your IP address. As Jeff W. said above, each club sets it’s own membership prices.

  • ArizonaRoadWarrior

    Since major accidents and severe weather conditions can affect serviceresponse timeetc, AAA should have a clearly written policy for these events (i.e. reimbursement for using non-AAA service; membership refundsdiscountsetc.).

  • ctporter

    I book on hotel sites directly and the cheapest price is with my AAA discount. I have also used the tow service (twice). They have changed my tire several time for me as well as gotten into my locked rental car – all as part of my yearly fee. Well worth it for me.

  • Tim Mengelkoch

    Has anyone mentioned carrying a product like Fix-A-Flat ? It is a reasonable choice when all elase fails.
    Of course, if the tire won’t hold air then you need a change or new tire

  • Annie M

    Where is she getting $200 for a refund of her membership? I don’t think I pay more than $60 a year. Why is she paying $200?

  • Annie M

    My car didn’t come with a spare tire nor any place to put one. That’s why I have AAA and a can of tire inflator in my car.

  • sirwired

    Yeah, a breaker bar is just a metal stick with a nub for mounting a 1/2″ socket on one end. (No moving (breakable) parts like a ratchet.) Unless the tire store went ABSOLUTELY NUTS on your lugs, 2′ of leverage makes short work of the job. Just make sure the socket you get to go with it both fits your car, and is a “deep” socket. Even if your lugs aren’t very long, a deep socket is needed because otherwise the breaker bar might scrape your fender.

    And you don’t have to specifically get the breaker from Harbor Freight (if you’ve never been to one, it’s an experience… it’s pretty much a toy store for handy grown-ups); pretty much any store that sells tools will have them. I just mentioned HF because their breaker bars are cheap and sufficiently sturdy, and they have a decent selection of sockets, so they should have the size you need. (Wal-Mart probably has breaker bars too, but they are unlikely to sell individual sockets, especially the “deep” kind you need for undoing lugs. Might have to head to HD/Lowes for that… they’ll have breaker bars too, but may charge more.)

  • CycleAZLindyB

    Seems a bit of an extreme reaction to one incident.

  • joycexyz

    $200 membership??? What in the world did she buy? Anyway, AAA offered reimbursement for the cost of the tire change (did she get a receipt from the passerby?), or a $40 discount on her renewal–pretty generous. The membership includes many other services which she may or may not avail herself of. But their inability to respond to a service call because of a bad accident (which makes her flat tire seem trivial) is no reason to demand reimbursement of the membership fee. I recommend deep breathing.

  • LonnieC

    The AAA terms and conditions state:

    “…During inclement weather conditions, civil disturbances or national emergencies, service requests might increase to the point that delays are unavoidable and service may be limited until weather improves. At such times, priority will be given to members stranded away from shelter. Member safety
    is our top priority. If the member is already in a place of safety, AAA reserves the right to postpone service until after restrictions are lifted….”

    While this doesn’t directly describe what happened to the OP (and is very poorly written, in this writer’s opinion), it provides guidance as to how AAA handles similar situations, i.e., “If they can help, they will. If they can’t now, they will – eventually.”

    I don’t really think the OP has too much to gain from going after AAA. Too bad.

  • LonnieC

    Excellent – and very complete – advice. I would add:

    1. JUST BEFORE the tire clears the ground as you are jacking it up, use the tire iron to “break free” the lug nuts. That way the tire won’t just rotate as you’re putting pressure on the jack. THEN continue jacking until the tire just clears….

    2. Try everything first! When you get a car, do the entire tire-changing thing when the weather’s nice and you’re on level ground. It’s amazing what you will find out the first time you change a tire. And if your spouse/children/partner drives that car, make them do the entire procedure as well.

    Again, your directions are terrific. Thanks.

  • sirwired

    I actually have both of those in there already, although I had the lugs broken before even bothering with the jack.

  • LonnieC

    And if you use that tire inflator stuff and the tire can later be repaired, make sure they clean all of it out of the inside of the tire when it’s being fixed. The goo can throw off the balance of the tire if they don’t.

  • LonnieC

    Sorry, I missed that. You are correct.

    And one other thing: If you have a “security” lug nut holding the wheel on, make sure you know where it is, and how to use it. (I keep mine in the glove box, in a little plastic zip-lock bag, with a description of what is in the bag).

  • sirwired

    Heh. No offense taken. And I got the lug remover too! “Thorough” is my Middle Name! (It’s in the 2nd item in the list of equipment.)

  • LonnieC

    I saw that in your list of items to have (really, I did!). I just wanted to make sure they know what it is and how to use it….

    And I love Harbor Freight. Not the best quality toold in many cases, but they’re low priced and excellent for the basic stuff (tarps, breaker bar, etc.)

    Thanks again for a terrific list. it should be copied, printed, practiced, and put in everyone’s car.

  • jsn55

    AAA should have offered her a bit of money, say $50, for not being able to help her. Very short-sighted on their part. However, anyone with a driver’s license who can’t change a tire should not point fingers and try to escape the blame for the problem.

  • Jim Zakany

    I don’t disagree with you.

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