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Dear Tom and Ray:



We are looking for a recommendation for an auto club that provides reliable roadside assistance. I say "reliable" because AAA left my husband stranded outside for three hours in 10-degree weather. The driver who finally showed up said AAA had only called him half an hour ago. Does anybody provide quality, reliable roadside assistance? Thanks! -- Frances

TOM: It's a good question, Frances. Roadside assistance works something like medical insurance these days. There are four major providers, and those providers have deals with garages all over the country.

RAY: For example, AAA enters into an agreement with Vinnie's Towing and Charm School to cover a certain geographical area. The deal says that when AAA calls, Vinnie's will go out and tow the stranded car for a predetermined, set fee, which is typically much lower than Vinnie's normal rates.

TOM: So, when you call AAA's toll-free number, they call Vinnie's. But if it's 10 degrees out and Vinnie is overwhelmed by cars that won't start, it might take him three hours to get to you, or he might choose to serve his regular (i.e., higher-paying) customers before he comes to get you for AAA chump change.

RAY: Now, there are other companies that put together networks for roadside assistance, but it's possible that Vinnie will belong to one or more of them, too. Just like your doctor may take both Blue Cross AND the Tri-State Death Plan. And as far as we know, none of the national towing networks stands head-and-shoulders above any other in terms of reimbursement rates. But from the scuttlebutt we hear, AAA seems to be particularly disliked among many garage owners.

TOM: That's how it works, Frances. When BMW, Amoco or Better World provides 24-hour roadside assistance, it's through one of the four big national networks. So you can stick with AAA if it provides other services you like. Or, if you feel it's been unresponsive or deceitful, dump it and try somebody else.

RAY: Personally, we like Better World Club because, unlike AAA, it doesn't use your membership money to lobby for roadways and against mass transit. But Better World can't provide all the discounts that AAA offers for other travel services. So it's up to you, Frances. And now you know why every emergency repair kit we sell includes a copy of "War and Peace."
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