Every year for Christmas my Grandmother used to get me a Canadian Auto Association membership. You Americans reading this have something similar, called AAA. I’ll let you figure out what that stands for.
Here’s how it works. For a minimum cost of about $83 per year in Alberta (certain plans are more), you get all sorts of perks. The big one is free roadside assistance, which covers locking your keys in your car, tire changes, battery boosts, towing to the nearest garage, and running out of gas.
They offer other stuff as well. If you want information about a certain place, CAA will send you maps and guidebooks. Members qualify for special hotel deals and other travel perks. Cheap car insurance is offered. The club even has an app that’ll tell you where the cheapest nearby place is to fill your tank.
After a few years of getting this membership, I realized something. I wasn’t using the darn thing. Using CAA to get travel deals is a thing of the past, since it’s easy to use the internet to find cheap hotels and flights. I get maps on my phone; the last thing I want to do is crack out a big cumbersome piece of paper you need a degree in Physics to fold back up.
I was using the auto insurance, at least. After having my membership for a year, my car insurance stayed stubbornly high even after I completed another incident-free trip around the sun. I called up my local CAA branch, and 15 minutes later I was saving close to $500 per year.
That went well for a few years, until I decided to shop around again. The CAA-branded insurance wasn’t even close to the cheapest. So I dumped it faster than my first non-imaginary high school girlfriend got rid of me.
I was left with a service I wasn’t even using. Paying $83 per year for that was silly, even if it wasn’t my own money.
Should you do the same?
About 10 years ago, when booking hotel rooms online really started to surge in popularity, my Grandmother was booking a room for a family reunion in a medium-sized city. She got some information from CAA, and made a couple of phone calls. A few minutes later, she had a room for $149 per night after getting her CAA discount.
I didn’t have anything pressing to do, so I went on her computer to see what kind of deal I could find. Less than five minutes later I had pulled up the hotel’s page on Expedia which was offering rooms at… $129 per night.
Grandma wasn’t stupid, so she called up the hotel and explained how I found the same room on Expedia for $20 per night less. The hotel reacted exactly how you’d expect–they matched the price found online, once they verified it existed.
I can remember when booking hotels was stressful. You often had nothing to go on besides a black and white accommodation guide and the reviews of friends. CAA was a valuable tool back then.
These days, there are a dozen big hotel booking sites all with hundreds of reviews about every hotel in a city. The information advantage that was formerly enjoyed by hotels is long gone. That’s a good thing for consumers, and a bad thing for hotels. It’s also a bad thing for CAA.
Having the CAA seal of approval used to be a big deal for hotels. These days, nobody cares.
It’s the same thing with roadside assistance. Most people who can afford an extra $83 per year in insurance can also afford newer cars, vehicles that don’t tend to break down on the highway. And even if your car does break down, finding a tow truck on your smartphone isn’t very difficult. Phone GPS makes it easy to tell the tow truck driver where you are, too.
So to review, CAA coverage gives you, essentially, three things. It gives you peace of mind when driving, travel assistance, and cheap insurance. But technology has also given us peace of mind while driving, travel assistance, and ways to easily shop around for cheaper insurance. Why pay $83 per year for something you can easily replicate for free using the technology you already own?