But when they are not offering interest-free loans, how do they perform where it matters? And are the AA and RAC the only options? To find out we tested the response time and service provided by three organisations.
At 10.10am I called the AA from the cool of PC World in south London. I fingered the engine immobiliser key in my pocket while, somewhat guiltily, reporting its loss to a sympathetic woman. "We will make you a priority since you are on your own," she said. "Someone will be there within the hour.'' This was reassuring, even though there were worse places to be stranded than a sunny car-park on a weekday.
Testing the rescue services seemed a simple idea and had I been driving my old brand of unreliable motor, any number of bits could have fallen off quite naturally. But a new Renault 19 was trickier territory; human error and a mislaid key to an anti-theft device seemed a more probable predicament. The immobiliser is a security lock which effectively prevents the starter motor from working and the fuel from getting to the engine. I satisfied myself that my car was, to all intents and purposes, dead.
Thirty minutes after my call, the AA man arrived. And charming he was, too. First he checked under the bonnet. No chance of starting the engine from here. So it was into the car and the immobiliser lock, hidden from view in the glove compartment. "I'll have to take the air vent out to get at it,'' he pronounced. I started to feel a bit uneasy. "Don't worry, there'll be no harm done and I'll soon get you on your way."
It took him nearly half an hour to do that. Painstakingly, he bypassed the lock by connecting the exposed wiring. The engine burst into life. All I had to do, he explained, was to unravel the piece of wire he had inserted and turn the key - when I had found it, of course.
Verdict: Faultless service. Although it took a while to get back on the road, it took a second to restore the immobiliser to working order.
Seven hours later. A car-park in east London. The immobiliser was back in action and the key once again in my pocket. This time I was going to use National Autopoint which offers a non-members' credit card rescue service.
At 5.10pm I reported my predicament, gave details of my location and my credit card number. As promised, they called back in 10 minutes and told me that a mechanic would be with me in about 35 minutes. I settled down to a slow read of my paper.
About 20 minutes later I caught sight of a breakdown truck whizzing past the entrance to the car-park. Telstar Rescue had arrived. The driver, who looked as if he spent a fair bit of time underneath cars and certainly wouldn't let them give him any trouble, obviously thought that I was pretty hopeless to lose the key. I nearly owned up.
A quick rummage in his truck produced an impressive ring of skeleton keys. As he contorted himself to wiggle a key in the lock, I feebly asked whether that would damage it. A hearty laugh, then "Try it now''. I turned the ignition key and the engine started to purr. "Ha,'' said Telstar man, flourishing the keys in triumph. "My jigglers never let me down." I signed the job form, muttering about how amazing it was. And it was. The operation had taken three minutes.
Verdict: Brilliant - the rescue took less than 50 minutes from start to finish. But as National Autopoint does not employ its own mechanics, there may be an element of luck. Very good value for a one-off breakdown.
Next day: I'd had enough of car-parks and luckily my membership of the RAC provided for a breakdown at home. Just after 9.30am I phoned for a rescue. There within the hour was the response. After more than an hour the phone rang. An apologetic woman, who double-checked that I was not stranded on my own, explained that the patrolman had been held up on a difficult job.
Some 15 minutes after that, a Knight of the Road roared up, radio blaring. Like his predecessors, he checked that the immobiliser had been added; those fitted in the factory apparently are impossible to tamper with on the roadside. I had helpfully left the air vent sticking out slightly, so he set to work.
By now I felt I knew all about mobilising immobilisers and watched rather as a doctor might a medical student faced with a difficult case. But before I had time to discuss his course of action, he had freed the wires from the barrel. "You will either need a new one or, if you find your key, a garage can refit this one," he said handing it to me. This was completely unexpected - a third cure.
I asked if there was anything else he could have done; a key perhaps or some nifty wire work? "No. That was the only way," he said confidently. He certainly had me on the road in next to no time. Problem is, I also have a bill of pounds 20 from my garage.
Verdict: Disappointingly long wait, but then I was at home. Can't fault the speed of the repair, but was left with the feeling that the easy option was taken. Turned out to be rather expensive.
Cost per year: from pounds 29-pounds 99.
Starter policy covers: member for registered vehicle; roadside assistance; tow to nearest garage if necessary.
Reflex, the most comprehensive policy, includes home service, a "personal incident manager", recovery in the UK, overnight accommodation (Reflex Europe pounds 134).
The RAC will attend non-members in an emergency, but it is likely to cost pounds 73 plus a surcharge of pounds 30.
(0800 550 550)
Cost per year from pounds 36 - pounds 106. All categories are for members and not simply their cars, which means that you are covered even in someone else's car.
Basic roadside service: pounds 36 for any car, including towing to the nearest garage if necessary.
At the top end, Relay Plus includes hired car for 48 hours or hotel accommodation overnight or pounds 100 travelling expenses.
For non-members the AA will attend for pounds 72 ( joining fee of pounds 36 plus pounds 36 call-out charge).
AA Europe annual cover for members only: pounds 52 (for 90 days maximum each visit). Car must be under 10 years of age. AA Five Star: from pounds 3 a day.
(0800 919 595)
Autopoint cardline scheme: pounds 1 for a card which will provide an instant rescue service. Daytime call-out charge of pounds 44.06; night-time/weekend pounds 49.93. This provides 30 minutes' roadside assistance or recovery to home or garage of up to 20 miles round trip. They have about 1,600 garages under contract around the country.
Cost per year: membership in four different categories and rated according to age of car. Chevron One from pounds 16, recovery only, does not include work on car, to Chevron Four, pounds 69, which includes personal cover; car of any age; roadside assistance, nationwide recovery, car hire or accommodation and homeside.
Green Flag National Breakdown
Basic annual membership fee of pounds 28 for nationwide recovery, excluding roadside assistance. Total protection, including home call and European services, pounds 84. Unlimited call-outs on all categories (AA and RAC will not keep turning out free for the same problem).
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