One hundred years ago, when automobiles were about as common as experimental aircraft are today, motor vehicle enthusiasts banded together to provide assistance to one another. If a fellow motorist needed travel tips or broke down on the road, the auto club was there to help.

Fast-forward to the present. Auto clubs offer much more now than route maps and roadside aid. They serve up an ever-expanding smorgasbord of products and services far beyond a consumer's automotive needs—including foreign travel arrangements, credit cards, and life insurance. There's even a new auto club designed specifically for credit union members.

At the same time, automobile travel has become so commonplace that motorists no longer have to rely on mutual support groups to drive hither and yon. And, if motorists want such services, they have more choices of where to get them—including insurance agents, car manufacturers, and affinity groups.

Because each provider offers different benefits at varying degrees of coverage, you need to determine what, if anything, you need from an auto club and then shop for the one that best matches your habits.
     See your
     credit union
     for car loans;      investigate
     auto clubs
     for roadside
     peace of mind.

Peace of mind
Auto clubs or motor clubs are organizations devoted to smoothing out bumps in the road for their member motorists. Annual fees generally range from $30 to $80, with incidental costs all over the board. The highest profile auto club is the AAA, or American Automobile Association, a not-for-profit federation of more than 90 local clubs claiming a combined membership of 42 million drivers in the U.S. and Canada.

Other clubs include: Cross Country Automotive Services in Boston, with 30 million customers nationwide; Allstate Motor Club in Arlington Heights, Ill., an enterprise of Allstate Insurance Co., with 4.5 million members; and Signature Nationwide Auto Club in Schaumburg, Ill., the Amoco Motor Club in Schaumburg, and the AARP (American Association for Retired Persons) Motoring Plan, also in Schaumburg.

One of the oldest and largest motor clubs is the Automobile Club of Southern California, begun in 1900 and serving more than four million members in 13 counties. "You get a sense of security, I think. And that's what people are looking for from a motor club," says Jeff Spring, a spokesman for the Los Angeles-based AAA affiliate. "They want to know that if something happens to their car it's going to be taken care of. I think it depends on your sense of adventure."

Adventure vs. security is at the core of choosing whether to join an auto club. The more dependable your car, the more familiar your routes, the more comfortable you are with handling surprises, the less you need an auto club to back you up.

"I myself want to have that confidence that I can get emergency help when I need it—in any venue, but in a car certainly more than many other [situations] because you can get yourself in some pretty hairy situations," says Fanette Singer, of the Signature Group.

"Certainly," Singer says, "anyone who's subject to bad weather and has ever needed a tow truck has learned that if you don't have a [motor club] membership, it becomes very, very difficult to get access to emergency road service when you need it."

Julie Khan, a spokeswoman for Allstate Enterprises, says: "Why would you join a motor club? It's peace of mind."

How do you drive?
Before puzzling over which auto club to join, figure out whether you need one.

Spring says, "If you just commute from home to work and you don't drive anywhere else, your needs are pretty minimal. You want to look at what you get for your money."

A 1998 AAA survey of 1,500 motorists found that 28% reported at least one problem in the previous year that disabled their car. "And it's going to cost you at least $75 to have that towed somewhere. So there's the chance, and that's really the main reason people join auto clubs," says Mitch Fuqua, a spokesman for AAA, based in Orlando, Fla. "What you need to do is look at the different types of things you do each year and determine whether or not the cost of an auto club membership would offset those expenses."

Roadside emergency assistance may be the chief reason for joining an auto club. Just make sure your car warranty or auto insurance doesn't already cover such misadventures.

Of course, auto clubs are good for more than just tows, jump starts, and tire changes. Some other services are maps, travel guides, trip planning, bail bonds (should your driving land you in jail), reimbursements for emergency expenses away from home, and discounts at recommended lodges, diners, and garages.

And the features are expanding to include nonautomotive travel agencies and a full gamut of financial services.

"The way to choose an auto club is based on the services you think you need," Singer says. "The benefits are categorized so you can generally tell beyond emergency services what programs are offered."
     Annual fees
     generally range from
     $30 to $80,
     with incidental costs
     all over the board.

Adventure vs. security
is at the core of
choosing whether
to join an auto club.

Shop and compare
After you assess your automotive needs and determine what, if anything, you want from an auto club, check for existing coverage through groups you already belong to, including your credit union. Ask around for information. Focus only on benefits you're most likely to use. Sweat the details. For instance, in comparing roadside coverage, be clear about:
  • Who's covered. You? Your spouse? Your children?

  • Which vehicles are covered. Just those you own, or any car you happen to be driving, including rentals?

  • How it works. Does the service find and dispatch a tow truck to you, or does it just reimburse you for expenses? How does it choose which towing agency to use? What if its preferred contractors aren't available?

  • How you benefit. What advantages do you have over a nonmember calling a towing service directly? Better access? Quicker response? Lower cost?

  • What the limits are. At what point do expenses come out of your pocket? How many tows are you allowed in a given period? How many miles?

  • What other emergency expenses—food, lodging, repairs, alternative transportation—are covered, and to what degree?
If you join an auto club, use your annual renewal notice as a reminder to review how much you've used your membership and whether it's been worth your while. It's hard to put a price on peace of mind, but at least consider whether you're taking advantage of other auto club features.

"A number of these things you can get in different locations," Spring says. "If you're looking for convenience and consolidating a lot of your motoring needs in one place, you want to look at a motor club. And then, it's just a matter of price."

©1999 Credit Union National Association Inc.