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Planning a road trip or need a tow? Auto clubs a helping hand

In a perfect world, cars would always start with a simple turn of a key and only stop running when switched off. Real life is more complicated. Even properly maintained cars are occasionally balky. (Poorly treated vehicles exact revenge with more costly bouts of crankiness.) If you can’t eliminate the risk of car breakdowns, you can prepare for the unexpected. That’s the main reason millions of Canadians have joined auto clubs – reliable help is just a phone call away.

The Canadian Automobile Association (CAA) – the country’s oldest and largest auto club with more than four million members – fields about 3.3 million calls for roadside help annually. The roadside services it provides include towing, battery boosts, flat-tire changes, winching and fuel delivery.

While best known for aiding stranded motorists, the CAA is a powerhouse when it comes to travel planning and vacation discounts. And it lobbies politicians on issues such as road improvements, gas taxes and road safety. I’ve even helped women unravel the mysteries of auto repair through CAA car-care seminars and an instructional video. Local services and fees vary across Canada, with a CAA basic membership ranging from $53 to $63 and an expanded Plus membership costing $84 to $94. Membership is driver-based, so you’re covered even if you’re driving a company car or one belonging to a friend. (Check your local office or visit www.caa.ca.)

The Canadian Tire Auto Club (CTAC), the country’s second-largest operator, handles about a million calls for help a year. As the name implies, the Canadian Tire Auto Club gets its cachet from its link to the well-known store chain. CTAC members get unlimited free tows if a vehicle is taken to a Canadian Tire Auto Service centre. (Auto clubs normally restrict the number of tows allowed per year.) CTAC members also get $60 worth of coupons, as well as a free 20-point vehicle inspection and free flat-tire repair when they are towed to a Canadian Tire Auto Service centre. Trip-routing information is also available.

While auto club coverage is often driver-based, CTAC coverage is vehicle-based. Canadian Tire spokesperson Jennifer Sexton points out a family of four drivers and two vehicles needs only two memberships to cover the household, compared to four memberships for a driver-based plan. CTAC’s Silver Plan is $56.50, while the Gold Plan is $91.95. (Call 1/800/893-2582 or visit www.autoclub.ca for more info.)

The helping hands of the auto assistance world aren’t just geared to roadside rescue. The Automobile Protection Association (APA) is a non-profit group that provides expert advice on finding a reliable used car, getting the best deal on a new car and locating a reputable garage. It can also assist you in dealing with sticky disputes.

Although its services vary by province, the APA is an active consumer watchdog, involved in high-profile hidden-camera investigations expos- ing ripoffs in the auto sales and repair market. A $52 APA membership can supplement roadside coverage from another automobile association and help you avoid being taken for a ride. (For more info, visit www.apa.ca.)

The best deal will depend on your needs and driving habits. Whatever route you take to buying roadside help, never treat an auto club membership as a licence to ignore regular maintenance. Cars know that revenge is a dish best served cold: preferably at minus 20 degrees Celsius.

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.