Ah, the joys of cruising down the poplar-lined avenues of France. That is, until the bonnet starts belching smoke. Vicky Trapmore offers advice on breakdown cover abroad
Shimmering roads lined with gently swaying Lombardy poplars, hot sunny days, trips to the beach, a car full of sand, seaweed and screaming kids. It's time to plan the joys of the summer getaway.

For millions of British travellers, this enduring image is conjured up in the office on wet June days, as they plan their holiday abroad. Many will take their own car and enjoy the luxury of not having to rely on public transport to get around Europe.

Sadly, not every trip will go according to plan. A survey by insurer General Accident suggests one in 20 travellers are likely to suffer from a car breakdown while abroad. The most common problems are engine-related, and the average cost of emergency assistance is about pounds 400. For those drivers who don't have some form of breakdown cover, this can be a heavy extra cost to bear.

Most British motor insurers offer breakdown cover for Europe. Typically, the cover includes bilingual roadside assistance, a tow to a garage if necessary, transport of spare parts and loan of a hire car if the vehicle cannot be fixed in time for you to continue your holiday. They will even bring your vehicle back home for you.

But the insurers' warning to motorists intending to cross the Channel is extremely simple: avoid the breakdowns before you even set off. Peter Staddon, of the British Insurance and Investment Brokers Association (BIIBA) advises: "Three to four weeks before you go, have your car serviced by a recognised garage. Then if anything is wrong, you will have enough time to sort it out."

It is important to check with your insurance company whether your existing policy covers travel on the continent. Classic motorcycle insurance broker, Carole Nash, for example, includes European cover as long as the company is notified of the trip in advance. It also provides a Green Card free of charge.

The cheapest cover available over a two-week period is with Europe Assistance. Two weeks for a car or motor home which is less than 16 years old, or a motorbike of less than 11 years, will cost pounds 43. There is an additional pounds 10 charge for caravans.

The next best deal comes from Green Flag. Cars cost pounds 45 to insure, with a pounds 10 additional charge for caravans. Motor homes may cost more, depending on their size. Motorcycles below 200cc are also covered for pounds 45.

Vehicle cover usually includes the following services:

If a vehicle breaks down, catches fire or is stolen up to seven days before the trip, and is unavailable for the day of departure, a hire vehicle up to the same value will be provided.

Roadside repairs will be made if possible.

Tow to the nearest garage if necessary.

Location and transport of spare parts.

Accommodation provided while your own vehicle is being repaired.

Loan of a similar hire vehicle if your own is not repaired within a specified time (for example, after 24 hours with a Direct Line Rescue Policy, or after eight hours with Green Flag's European Motoring Assistance).

Repatriation of the vehicle if it cannot be repaired during the course of the holiday.

While other breakdown companies provide these services as standard - although the maximum amount of available cover varies in cash terms - the AA has a Personal Travel Insurance Policy, which is entirely separate from its Five Star Europe Breakdown Cover.

This additional service covers cancellations, car hire if a vehicle is unusable due to fire, theft, accident or breakdown seven days before departure, medical and legal expenses and loss of money, passport or baggage.

The entire cost of spare parts is not covered under any policy, and the AA is unique in offering a pounds 100 contribution towards the cost of workshop labour.

Members of various motoring organisations are often eligible for a discount on European breakdown cover. RAC members receive a 10 per cent discount on all RAC European Motoring Assistance, while booking a ferry through Green Flag will entitle you to a 10 per cent discount on its European Motoring Assistance. It is worth considering your long-term travel requirements too. If you take your vehicle abroad more than once a year, an annual policy could work out cheaper in the long run. Direct Line Rescue, at an average yearly premium of pounds 137, covers breakdowns for up to 90 days in Europe.

Despite the hype from motoring organisations, is breakdown cover really worthwhile? Susie Thompson, a buyer's assistant at the supermarket chain Woolworth, certainly thought so: while on a six-month trip round Europe in a Y-registered Volkswagen Golf she broke down not once, but twice. Fortunately, she was covered by Europe Assistance's breakdown policy.

The first time was in Italy. "The car started gassing out white smoke and couldn't get up the hills. It was a nightmare. We called the Europe Assistance helpline. They took us to a Volkswagen garage, and then liaised directly with them. Europe Assistance would ring and speak to me, so I didn't even have to deal with the garage. Hotel accommodation was also arranged for us, until the car was fixed. I paid for everything, and then claimed the money back."

The second time was in Spain. "We were nearly at Barcelona when the clutch went. Europe Assistance were really good. They had someone to us within the hour, even though it was nearly midnight, and we were in a pretty remote area. They picked us up and took us to a hotel, and left the car at a garage. The garage wanted to charge us pounds 500 for a new clutch, but I decided it wasn't worth fixing. Europe Assistance paid for the car to be disposed of and for the flight home from Spain for me and my friend. They also provided us with a hire car for three weeks before the flight home."

Ultimately, breakdown cover is one expense among many. You could try your luck and not have any problems. Or take out the cover and become the motorist who suffers a breakdown and waits on average 45 minutes for assistance. Or you could become the one for whom the notion of discovering Europe takes on a whole new and exciting dimension.

Driving Abroad


u In most European countries you must be at least 18 years old to drive.

u It is a good idea to have a Green Card. This is an International Motor Insurance Certificate, which most insurance companies offer free of charge. It proves that your vehicle is insured to the necessary level required.

u Carry your driving documents with you at all times, as you must produce them immediately if asked.

u Check the laws of the countries you are visiting. In Italy you must have a fire extinguisher in the vehicle. French rules include carrying spare bulbs.

u Most insurance companies brochures include a list of useful motoring terms in other languages. Take it with you!