With the holidays approaching, I know more than one family will be getting a new Mac. Many first time buyers whom I've guided through the purchase of their first Mac ask me, "is AppleCare worth it?"
For your new Mac, absolutely; I speak from first-hand experience. Now, I'm a pretty capable guy. I can fix application problems, recover data, and reinstall operating systems like a champ. I've replaced power supplies, installed memory, and upgraded hard disks. I thought I didn't need AppleCare. That is, until I bought my iMac G5 a few years ago.
It was a great computer, but it had some manufacturing defects that reared their ugly heads well after the standard one year warranty expired. Turns out I needed a new logic board (or motherboard, for our PC friends). Outside of the one year warranty, that was a $900 proposition.
Thankfully, my best buddy, an Apple Certified Repair Technician, found that there was a logic board replacement program for my iMac that had me covered even after the one year warranty expired. Even so, I knew I wouldn't be so lucky next time. I learned my lesson: AppleCare is worth every penny the day you need a part replaced.
For your iPhone and iPod, it depends. If you're hard on your devices -- throwing them in bags, on tables, and are generally rough with them -- AppleCare can cover some damage. (The same is true with coverage for a laptop, too, with the notable exception of liquid damage.) Also, AppleCare covers having your battery replaced if after a year or two it doesn't hold a charge anymore. If you plan on keeping your device around for a while, AppleCare is $60 well spent.
Now, I can't speak for third-party retailers' warranty programs (from places like Best Buy, CompUSA or Circuit City, for example), because it depends on whether the location near you has an Apple Certified Repair Technician on staff or on call. My best buddy worked at CompUSA, and he did an awesome job. Know, though, that AppleCare will cover you at any Apple Certified retailer, no matter where you take it.
It's an up-front cost, yes, but it can save you a lot of money down the road. If, like me, you buy a refurbished Mac, you can think of it as using the refurb discount to get AppleCare for free (or nearly so).
So, bottom line: Is AppleCare worth it? I think so.