When I turned 16 years old and got my driver’s license, one of the gifts my father gave me was a AAA (American Automobile Association) membership. Cut to 2013, following a short lapse in membership, my wife and I decided that our road-tripping ways would make having AAA a smart idea. However, with other automotive assistance options available these days, is AAA still worth the cost?
If you’re considering a AAA membership for yourself, let’s take a look at the costs, some of the benefits, and a few of my personal experiences with the auto club.
AAA Costs and Benefits
How much does AAA cost?
Here’s the thing: putting an exact cost on AAA can be difficult due to their structure. AAA as a whole is made up of 42 clubs in various states and regions, with each maintaining its own pricing and benefits. That said, a “Classic” membership tends to run about $60 per year (give or take a few dollars). You can compare plans and pricing for your area by visiting the main AAA site and entering your zip code.
The good news is that, regardless of what state you register your membership in, you’ll be able to enjoy the benefits across the country. After all, what good would a service that emphasizes hitting the open road be if it was limited to just your area? However, I will say that the whole “different regions” thing can be annoying when attempting to navigate the AAA site(s) or app — especially in states like California that seem to be even further separated.
Adding family members
If you have others in your household that you’d like to add to your AAA membership, you can do so at a discount. Again, these additional costs can vary but, in our case, it was about half price to add a second person. Also, as I alluded to, the only individuals eligible to be added to your membership are those who reside in your household.
What Services Does AAA Offer?
As someone who knows practically nothing about cars and can’t even change a tire, the main reason I keep my AAA membership active is for the roadside assistance they offer. This includes the aforementioned tire changes, “minor mechanical first aid,” and fuel delivery services (upper-tier plans cover the cost of fuel while the Classic includes free delivery but charges the member for the fuel itself). Additionally, if you find yourself locked out of your vehicle or stuck with a dead battery, AAA can help there as well — although locksmith services are capped at a certain dollar amount depending on your service tier.
What’s really nice about AAA is that your membership is assigned to you, not your vehicle. Therefore, regardless of whether you’re in a rental car, joining a friend on a road trip, or driving your own car to work, you can call the service for help.
In the event that your car is unable to be easily fixed on the side of the road, AAA also covers towing services. However the amount of free towing you’ll receive is perhaps the biggest difference between the membership tiers. While the Classic tier only allows for tows of just a few miles (or back to the service provider at whatever distance), the AAA Plus tier increases this range to 100 miles and the AAA Premier tier includes one tow up to 200 miles and subsequent tows of up to 100 miles.
This is actually one aspect of AAA I (thankfully) haven’t had to utilize. Therefore, I can’t really speak to whether the upgraded membership is worth it. However, it’s certainly worth considering if you foresee towing needs in your future.
Another AAA service I’ve never had to use involves rental cars. Once again, these benefits depend on your membership tier. For Classic members, they’ll be able to get reduced rates on rental car needs while Premier members are entitled to a complimentary one-day, mid-size rental.
If you’ve ever visited a motel or tried to book a room directly through a hotel’s site, there’s a strong chance you’ve seen the AAA logo or heard a reference to a AAA member discount. While AAA hotel rates may be one of the most popular discounts available to members, the savings hardly stop there. In fact, one of my favorite (since-discontinued) discounts was at Earl of Sandwich. Some other still-active discounts include theme park tickets, restaurants, retailers, and more.
Personally, I recently took advantage of AAA rates while staying at the Hotel Vandivort here in Springfield, Missouri. These rates were up to $25 less than the going price. In other words, you could easily cover your annual membership fee with the discounts if you’re diligent about taking advantage of them.
When I was a kid, I actually remember going to the AAA branch to pick up travel maps for our family road trip destinations, buying traveler’s cheques, and more. Funny enough, both of those services seem pretty obsolete these days, but there are still benefits to be found at some AAA branch locations. For example, when I lived in California, I found that the location in Orange Country offered the state-required emissions test at a fairly competitive price. Beyond that, it seems some AAA branches still offer travel planning assistance, notary services, and more. So while it’s been a minute since I’ve headed into one of these brick-and-mortar branches, perhaps it’s time to take another look.
Other AAA Considerations
Some of my AAA experiences
One of my favorite AAA stories actually hardly involves me as I wasn’t with my vehicle at the time. Back in my movie theatre manager days, I made the mistake of leaving something quite important in the trunk of my car: a print of a film that was set to open that Friday. Inconveniently, while the theatre and my car were in Arizona, I was on vacation in California at the time. Thankfully, after calling AAA and inquiring what could be done, they let me know that they’d be able to allow a trusted party to access my vehicle. The only catch was the person meeting the locksmith also needed to be a AAA member. Well, lucky for us, one of the other managers also held a membership and was able to rescue the print just in time for the film’s opening. Sidenote: I was not very popular in the projection booth when I returned from vacation.
Of course, not all of my tales are as unique. Really, most just involve getting flat tires — such as this past March when we blew a tire on our way home from Florida and needed to place a call. Having AAA was also quite helpful when my wife accidentally left the keys to our car on the front seat after already locking the door. In each of these cases, we paid nothing out of pocket and were able to go on our merry ways. That said, while I haven’t personally tipped (oops), apparently that’s something I should be doing. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
The service providers that respond to AAA calls are certainly helpful but, believe it or not, they’re not able to teleport and can only be in one place at a time. Because of these human restrictions, there may be times when your roadside assistance can take a while to arrive. Obviously the length of your wait can depend on several factors but a wait of an hour or two seems in line with my experience.
I will say that AAA and their service providers do a decent job of keeping you updated on ETAs, although I would recommend requesting the phone number of the provider when you first place your service call. That way you can contact them directly if there are any updates or they’ve missed their arrival window (it happens).
Roadside assistance alternatives
Just because AAA is perhaps the most widely known provider of roadside assistance, there’s a chance you may actually have access to other services through various means. For example, your auto insurance may include roadside help as part of your coverage or a subscription to in-car service may also include such benefits. Even select credit cards and wireless phone providers may offer some sort of support. Heck, once we were in the process of calling AAA for a flat tire when a Georgia Department of Transporation truck pulled up and took care of it for free.
Ultimately, it may be worth looking into what types of options you already have before deciding to join AAA. Similarly, if you do end up with a AAA membership, double-check your insurance policy, cell phone bill, and more to see if you might be paying for services you’ll no longer need. In either case, make sure to compare the benefits and restrictions of each option as not all roadside services are created equal.
Lastly, one thing I want to mention is that AAA can be pretty annoying in a couple of ways. First, it feels like I’m getting mail from them every week. From car insurance solicitations to upgrade offers, I get a least a couple of items a month that end up going straight in the trash. Also, there seems to be a few different AAA apps, making it hard to know which you’re supposed to use. In fact, when I launch one, it asks for my zip code and then launches another!
Ultimately, while these examples are frustrating, they’re not the end of the world (although the mail thing is remarkably wasteful). Both also suggest to me that AAA is a bit behind the times and could use some modernization. Still, on the whole, it’s not enough to turn me off to their service.
Final Thoughts on AAA
Despite there being other options for roadside assistance, my personal experiences with AAA since I was 16 have made them a must-have for me. While I certainly haven’t taken advantage of every benefit or discount I’m entitled to, I can say that the many road trips my wife and I take are slightly less stressful knowing that AAA will be able to help us out if we need them (and we have). Because of that, I see retaining a AAA membership as paying for peace of mind — and that has definitely been worth the $80 a year we spend.
Also published on Medium.