AAA: Pay us $30 or you’re on your own

I have been a loyal and happy AAA member since 1988, when my late uncle Clyde helped me buy a used Chevette for my junior year in college. But after today, I’m not so sure how loyal or happy I am anymore.

I got an urgent call from Kari this afternoon, who was over at the preschool to pick up our daughter. Our car wouldn’t start.

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“Don’t worry,” I told her. “I’ll call AAA. They’ll be right there.”

Only, they weren’t right there.

When I phoned AAA’s roadside assistance department, they asked me if I was with the vehicle. No, I explained, I was at home.

“We won’t be able to help you today,” a representative explained in a matter-of-factly tone. Not until I added Kari to my membership, which would cost another $30.

“How would you like to pay for that?” the operator asked. She knew I didn’t have much of a choice.

See, that’s how my AAA coverage works. It follows you around, not your car, and unless you pay extra, not your family.

(Many thanks to commenters Kelly, Joe and Susan for helping me find that link, by the way. The first thing to go when you’re upset are your superior search skills, I guess.)

I should have known that’s how roadside assistance works.

Anyway, I wish I had recorded the conversation, because then I’d just post it on my site. I told the associate that while I was not upset with her, personally, I was disappointed with AAA.

They were saying, “Pay up, or you’re on your own.” At least that’s how I perceived it in the heat of the moment. How could they do that?

AAA agreed to lower its fee to $15 (six months’ membership, as opposed to $30 for a full year) and I figured that there was no point in talking with a supervisor. After all, my family was stranded with a car that didn’t work. The clock was ticking.

I was asked to call another number for member services. Within a few minutes, the $15 was withdrawn from my credit card and a tow truck was dispatched to the preschool.

What’s the lesson here?

Well, AAA is certainly free to make whatever policies it wants to. And we’re free to buy its memberships, or not. But you should never, ever withhold roadside assistance from a member’s vehicle on a technicality.

AAA can do better.

Update (4 p.m.): This is turning out to be quite the drama. The car was “fixed” but then froze in the middle of the road, and AAA had to be called again. It’s being towed to the Honda dealership as I write this. I think.

Update (4:15 p.m.) Looks like a bad alternator. AAA won’t cover the trip to the Honda dealership, so we’re being routed to another mechanic, who can hopefully fix the car. Oh, did I mention that it’s our only car?

Update (4:30 p.m.) What a soap opera! A family friend is delivering the kids back home. Kari is now stuck with a car at an unknown garage somewhere in Oviedo. Stay tuned for more …

Update (5:15 p.m.) It was the alternator. The kids are at home and Kari is almost done with the repairs. A few thoughts on this eventful afternoon:

1) Never try to mediate your own case. Seriously, when your family is stranded and they’re refusing a service you thought you had paid for, how can anyone be rational? I think that’s what makes third-party mediation so effective. Someone like me doesn’t have the emotional baggage of a person who was wronged — unless it’s my case.

2) Take a few deep breaths before you post. I headed straight to the computer after getting off the phone with AAA. Probably not the smartest thing, in retrospect.

3) Read the fine print on your membership. AAA sends me its notices every year. In fairness, it also sends me a lot of unsolicited offers for credit cards and other things that I tend to gloss over. When I get my next membership renewal, I’ll take the time to read the whole thing.

Thanks for all of your comments! You’ve certainly made this an interesting day.

Update (10/27): This post is still getting comments. Here’s my response.

(Photo: Nic FitKd/Flickr Creative Commons)