Many moons ago, when “choke” still meant the knob you used to pull when starting your car rather than what Sam Stosur and Bernard Tomic do on the tennis court, it was a common sight to see people waiting in woe for breakdown recovery as their tired old vehicle blew clouds of steam into the air.
If you drove up a steep hill in summer in anything but a new car, it was often in the back of your mind that you might not make it. This now unimaginable level of mechanical unreliability meant that everyone was signed up for NRMA roadside assistance or RACV roadside assist. It was as much an accepted part of owning a car as the 40c a litre we used to pay for fuel.
Today, though, we just don’t expect our cars to break down. This doesn’t mean they won’t, of course, because it still happens, but certainly our perceptions have changed to the point where we’re genuinely surprised if something goes wrong, even flat tyres, or batteries.
Roadside assist is also just something that seems to come as part of your new-car warranty these days, which provides both peace of mind, and the reassurance that the car company we’ve bought from must be very confident to pay for that.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t seek the best roadside assistance for your car if you’re not already covered, because you never know when it could be you looking glum on the roadside. And tow trucks are not cheap.
Fortunately, it seems to be the case that cars breaking down less often means that cheap roadside assistance has almost become the norm.
Finding the cheapest for you and your circumstances is obviously an easy way to save money, particularly with the internet making it so easy to compare roadside assistance plans.
Basically, the best roadside assistance in Australia is going to be bit of a personal choice, because you might feel aligned with a brand, possibly because you’ve grown up with it. Roadside assistance NSW isn’t going to be that different to roadside assistance QLD, because they all tend to provide national coverage through sister companies anyway.
New entrants in the car insurance market, such as supermarkets and progressive online players, are helping to drive down the cost of car breakdown cover. Some insurers now offer roadside assistance at no extra cost with other types of cover.
Shop around and review the deals and you can find emergency roadside assistance for as little as $80 a year. There also appears to be very little difference in the inclusions of a $100 annual breakdown assistance with the more expensive cover ($200-plus) offered by large insurers (although there are some inclusions at the top you might never use, like a taxi ride of up to $100 with some premium plans).
Motorists should consider the cover they need before buying all the bells and whistles, says Compare the Market spokesperson Abigail Koch.
"If you have only had to call on your roadside assistance once or twice in the last few years, or if long road trips aren't your thing, then perhaps you should consider a more basic product. You don't want to be over-covered," Koch says.
She also advises people to check the policy's towing distance limits and restrictions on the number of call-outs.
So, which roadside assistance companies are the biggest and best?
Budget Direct roadside assistance is currently offering unlimited callouts and 24/7 coverage, 365 days a year, for just $79.95 annually, and you don’t already have to hold a car-insurance policy with them to take advantage of the deal.
Some insurance companies now even throw in emergency help if you comprehensively insure your car with them, as is the case with Youi Roadside Assist. As is the case with car dealers offering it, you're basically getting it thrown in for free.
AAMI is another national insurer that offers coverage, for “less than $86 a year”, which covers you for flat batteries, flat tyres, lost or locked-in keys, running out of fuel or if your car is really broken and needs towing.
AAMI points out that it will help your vehicle out, no matter who’s driving, that it already covers 120,000 vehicles nationally and that it includes up to 20km of towing in the city, or up to 100km in the city, at no extra charge.
Those membership numbers are small beer, of course, compared to the giant NRMA, a staple in NSW and the ACT, which has 2.4 million members.
The NRMA claims an average 35-minute wait time with more than 1000 of its specialist breakdown vehicles ready to assist you. Its technicians also fix, they say, nine of 10 problems on the roadside, meaning no further delays for you. NRMA offers unlimited callouts, at a cost of $9.99 a month.
Roadside assistance VIC is likely going to see you at least considering the RACV, which offers both a basic program of 'Roadside Care' for $105 or a 'Total Care' package, which is worth considering if you want multi-car breakdown cover.
The upscale package, at $236 covers you no matter which car you’re driving and includes caravan and trailer assistance.
Roadside assistance QLD will see you tending towards RACQ, with prices starting at $95 a year.
GIO roadside assistance is another trusted provider, with coverage from $90 a year, and will bring you a free top-up of fuel if you run out. Handy.
If you’re still not sure, after comparing all the prices, you can always check out what other customers are saying via threads like 365 roadside assistance review or 24/7 road services review.
What are you covered for?
Generally speaking, the inclusions are pretty standard, but you can expect to be looked after anywhere in Australia (warning, waiting times may vary if you’re in the outback), 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, if your car breaks down.
Different amounts of free towing are covered, depending on your deal, but they’ll generally get you to the nearest repairer if you break down in the city.
Even if the problem is your fault - you’ve run out of fuel or locked your keys in the car - roadside assistance will rescue you. They’ll also change a flat tyre for you, if you’re too useless/inexperienced/lazy to do it yourself. And flat batteries are also covered, although they seem rarer than ever today as well.
Call times are something of a selling point for providers, with Allianz Roadside Assistance promising 39 minutes of waiting time on average, which is just above NRMA’s 35. But you have to accept that averages are one thing, and getting caught in peak hour in in a major city is another.