Roadside Assistance (under various names) gets offered at the rental counter as an additional/optional service, a daily fee that provides service from the rental car company if there’s a customer-induced issue with the rental car. The listed costs for the services might seem relatively small at $4-$7 per day (plus taxes, of course). However, the commission-based counter agent pushing these roadside protection services won’t tell you that the company’s offer is a really bad deal. Instead, that agent seeking a few extra dollars in the paycheck will cheerfully relay their “company line.” For instance, the statement at an Enterprise counter might go something like:
Roadside Assistance Protections (RAP) allows Enterprise customers to waive financial responsibility for chargeable roadside incidents such as lost keys, lockouts and fuel outages.
How bad of a deal can $4 a day be for a service that’s already sounding a little like AAA? Roadside assistance ordinarily provides limited coverage for driver-induced incidents – locking keys in the vehicle, losing keys, running out of fuel, or needing a jumpstart after leaving the lights/radio on. Roadside assistance doesn’t cover accidents/collisions (renter's responsibility) and doesn’t cover mechanical breakdowns (rental company's responsibility unless the customer was negligent).
Well, a driver paying a $4 per day fee (plus taxes on that fee) for those rare events would be paying the equivalent of more than $1,500 a year for the privilege. If that figure sounds more than a little extravagant, it’s because it is – while none of us would be willing to pay $1,500 a year for Roadside Assistance, a consumer accepting a rate of more than $4 per day for Roadside Assistance at a rental counter has indeed made that decision.
It’s an aggressive sell for some of the rental car companies. Hertz expressly guarantees assistance in 90 minutes for roadside assistance purchasers (well, 90-minutes or the price of coverage is refunded)—we suppose that's better than Hertz subsidiary companies Dollar and Thrifty, who both offer a similar 90-minute guarantee, with the caveat in the fine print that the "90-Minutes begin 15 minutes after Emergency Roadside Service Rep. receives the call." (We suppose that the marketing folks decided that "105-minute guarantee" doesn't have quite the same ring to it.)
Alamo and National describe the service as paying for towing not related to an accident (and an accident would, of course, be the most likely time a renter would need the vehicle towed), lightly suggesting that a customer might have to pay for towing otherwise. Payless also throws out vague language, suggesting Roadside Assistance will cover towing/winching “if the vehicle becomes inoperable” back to a site where the vehicle could be repaired.
* While all reputable companies cover mechanical breakdowns outside a renters control, we wouldn’t be surprised if Payless charged customers for mechanical breakdowns.
What happens when Rental Car Roadside Assistance is actually needed?
Well, some of the rental car companies selling Roadside Assistance really aren’t equipped to provide Roadside Assistance anyway. Payless, frequently reported to cram Roadside Assistance onto rentals despite customer objections, is also reported to have a completely worthless Roadside Assistance program when there’s a problem. We've been the recipients of numerous complaints over the years about virtually every company stranding customers with broken cars for hours (sometimes even days) and ruining vacations. Renters often don’t get what they pay for when there is a need.
Even in the best cases with the most reputable companies, what happens when there’s an issue with a vehicle? In most cases, the rental car companies rely upon contracted service from external service providers or organizations.
Less frequently, the rental company with newer, well-maintained vehicles might even get their roadside protection for free! A former rental station manager relayed to us that some vehicles in the rental fleet are already covered by the manufacturers under program agreements!
“I used to call the manufacturer roadside lines all the time; Chrysler’s program cars all came from the factory with roadside assistance, and we'd call them for issues so we didn't have to pay for anything ourselves.” – Former rental station manager
Yep. The counter agent might dutifully ask if you want to pay for roadside assistance on your rental car, while the rental car company may already get some amount of free roadside assistance from the manufacturer of the vehicle! While these special “program cars” are only a fraction of all rental cars (approximately ¼ of the rental fleet, varying by the rental car company), the counter staff is not going to know – or care – about that when it comes to selling you roadside assistance.
However, none of us wants to get trapped in an uncertain situation. Many of us want some type of coverage that includes rental cars. I recently took a rental on a 630-mile overnight drive where a 250-mile stretch could only be described as “desolate”. An uncovered incident requiring roadside protection 100 miles from anywhere at 3 a.m. in the morning would be a horrible experience. So let's look at some options.
What About the Emergency Road Service on my Personal Insurance Policy?
For travelers concerned about Roadside Assistance on their rental cars, there are a few options. “Emergency Road Service” or similar from a personal auto insurance policy is probably not an acceptable choice.
Why? These low-cost insurance riders rarely extend to rental cars. My personal insurer recently tried to upsell me on an offer of Emergency Road Service for $10 a year, per vehicle, only covering the vehicles listed on my insurance policy. Just like any other contract or document, it’s always nice to understand (in advance) those boundaries.
While my insurance company won’t help at all on roadside assistance for rental cars, there are a few good alternative choices available.
Well, Enterprise’s offering sounded a lot like AAA …
That's because AAA is the most popular and well-known roadside assistance provider in the U.S. The AAA membership card you may already have in your wallet happens to be an excellent option for drivers who also want coverage in a rental car. AAA makes a push to remind members:
As a member, you’re covered in any car — whether you are the driver or passenger.
Any car includes rental cars. And although AAA is a large group of smaller associations, service extends through the United States and Canada for a member of any AAA organization. The affiliate in my region (AutoClub South for Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee) notes this reciprocal arrangement on travel within the Membership Guide:
This broad roadside service agreement is just one of many ways AAA creates value for car renters. AAA membership can also strategically be used by renters (predominantly at Hertz) for slashing car rental costs:
- When seeking an additional driver without a fee,
- When seeking to waive the young driver fee,
- Even for a fee-free child safety seat,
- and, of course, AAA often has among the best and largest discounts of any membership organization.
Any Real Competitors to AAA?
AARP membership is also frequently used by AutoSlash users to save on rental cars. Allstate offers a slightly discounted version of their Roadside Assistance program for members of AARP. The Roadside Assistance Plan for AARP is an add-on to the basic AARP membership, with costs mirroring AAA’s.
With the program’s emphatic “Always covered in any car, anywhere, anytime as a driver or passenger!”, it’s also clear that AARP Roadside Assistance coverage purchased at home extends to rental cars, and – like AAA – the coverage is valid for the U.S. and Canada.
AARP’s other basic benefits for rental car users are only with the AvisBudget Group (Avis, Budget, and Payless) and include discounts, free additional drivers, and a firm cap on damages to the rental car for members renting at Avis or Budget.
We want AutoSlash users to have the information needed to make great decisions when selecting rental cars, options, and services. When roadside protection is desired by consumers, the expensive option at the rental car counter may seem like the only option. And we have heard from AutoSlash users when that add-on service is purchased and the customer encounters difficulty with the rental car, the roadside protection option turns out not to be very useful in the end.
While we can’t help with those add-ons selected by renters (there’s a contract between the renter and rental car company), one AutoSlash user even included the terminology “surprisingly incompetent and negative experience” when describing a rental car company’s roadside assistance package. Ouch!
And we don’t get any payments or commissions from membership organizations like AAA or AARP for describing their coverage! We simply find that customers desiring the best possible option for roadside protection on their rental cars may already have a solution that was originally purchased with personal vehicles in mind. At AutoSlash, avoiding unnecessary costs is what we’re all about!
Roadside Assistance Policies
Ready to book your next cheap rental car? Remember to bring along your own roadside assistance coverage and click below to request a quote!