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Military families are often eligible for steep discounts

No matter what insurer they choose, military families should always ask whether they are eligible for any special discounts or policy flexibility. Most companies have some sort of special plan for military members, but some are much more user-friendly than others. For example, some companies require more notice than others before deployment benefits can kick in, and some make it fairly complex to fill out the necessary paperwork.

For the best, most affordable and flexible coverage for military families, check out the highly rated military-only option first: USAA, or the United Services Automobile Association. USAA scores at or near the top of several car insurance customer-satisfaction surveys, with policyholders reporting positive experiences with claims, from the initial appraisal all the way through repair and payout. They also get kudos for value for the money.

USAA car insurance plans are flexible and there are several discounts available, customers say, and not just for being in the military. While it fulfills a niche in the car insurance industry, USAA retains a nationwide reach and strong financial ratings with most major rating agencies. Potential customers should note that USAA only does business online and over the phone, so those who want to build a close relationship with an insurance agent may need to look elsewhere. However, customer service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and USAA's phone representatives get high marks for being helpful and knowledgeable. USAA is also a membership-based insurance company, and members get cash rebates in years when claim payouts are low. Most insurance companies offer only coverage for your money -- if you never make a claim, you never get anything back for that payout.

USAA makes repairs easy, maintaining a list of approved repair shops -- although customers can still opt for their own choice. For an additional fee, roadside assistance, rental car and towing coverage are all available. Unlike most insurance companies, USAA works with their own financing network to offer competitive loan rates and discounts on auto purchases for military members.

Another option worth a look for military families is GEICO, our top pick in for cheap car insurance in our discussion of Best Auto Insurance Companies elsewhere in this report. One of the largest insurers in the country, and initially formed as a subset of a larger insurance conglomerate to service government employees, GEICO boasts a special military program that offers lower rates and special policy flexibility for servicemen and women, including an overseas insurance program for those who are touring or stationed abroad and an emergency deployment discount.

GEICO also offers a wide variety of policy options and discounts for non-military members, and the company earns solid financial ratings. While GEICO offers a smattering of local agents -- and they get lackluster reviews -- it does most of its business online and over the phone and the company's phone representatives earn kudos for their solid customer service. Service is also available 24/7.

Some experts say that military members are actually better off with direct writers, such as USAA or GEICO, rather than agent-based auto insurance for two reasons. First, since military members move a lot, you need to continually sever your ties with one agent in one locality and then find another elsewhere. In addition, military insurance experts point out, agents often earn a commission that may result in higher overall rates for your coverage.

In addition, as with any type of insurance, you may get better rates if you bundle your car, home and life insurance, and both USAA and GEICO, either on their own or in partnership with another company, offer a full range of other types of insurance.

Elsewhere in this report:

Best Reviewed Auto Insurance: These are the top car insurance companies, based upon surveys that measure customer satisfaction. We found the top options for every car, person and price range.

Best Auto Insurance Company: There are some car insurance companies that just stand head and shoulders above the rest for claims settlements and customer service. We also found a highly affordable option.

Best Car Insurance for Risky Drivers: You may be considered high risk based upon your driving history or where you live. These companies are willing to work with you even if some others won't.

Buying Guide: Shopping for car insurance can be like trying to steer an out-of-control car. We answer many of your questions and offer tips for shopping here.

Our Sources: These are the expert sources and customer reviews we used to determine the best auto insurance. They are ranked in order of their credibility and usefulness.

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