Personal Finance: French loo ruined my holiday

There are hazards everywhere for drivers abroad. So ensure you're covered. By Teresa Hunter

Picture this. You have just set off for three glorious weeks in sunny France, starting with EuroDisney. You take your toddler to the toilet, when suddenly whoosh, down the pan go the car keys. The spares? Back home in London with your harassed husband, not due to join you for a week....

This was just one of thousands of calls made by UK motorists to their breakdown insurers last summer. And for once it ended happily, the AA expressing the spares out to France.

Not such a happy ending was in store for UK motorists stranded in Spanish jails over bank holiday weekends after minor bumps with locals. They will never again head to the Med without first contacting their insurer to arrange a bail bond.

More than eight million Britons take a car abroad each year, but many do so without checking whether the vehicle or their insurance is up to the journey. One helpline assistant was left struggling to console a motorist who had just written off a brand new BMW, only to discover his comprehensive cover was null-and-void in France. And he was an insurance broker.

A UK policy will protect drivers throughout Europe but only as far as the legal minimum required in any country. This cover changes with the borders, but is usually little more than basic third party.

Some UK insurers will automatically extend unlimited comprehensive cover throughout the world, while others may only do so for a specified number of days. Alternatively, drivers may only be issued with full cover abroad on specific request or on payment of an additional premium, of perhaps pounds 30 or pounds 50.

This overseas loading is something that motorists who travel frequently overseas should bear in mind when renewing their cover. But to be on the safe side, all drivers taking a car abroad should check with their insurer that they have the full cover they need.

It also pays to take with you a green card, which is an internationally recognised insurance document. It is not a legal requirement, although French police sporadically decide not to admit any drivers without one.

A green card can smooth muddied waters when dealing with non-English speaking police, and is usually available free from an insurer, although some companies may charge an administration fee of between pounds 25 or pounds 30.

Similarly, recent changes to Spanish law mean that a bail bond is no longer strictly necessary, as police are now prevented from automatically impounding your vehicle, or you, after an accident. However, until the new law beds down, stay smart and take one.

Many companies also issue their overseas drivers with a European accident report. This is a two-part questionnaire, translated into a variety of languages, which should be completed by both parties at the scene of an accident, and can take the pain out of post-crash cross-border wrangles.

Motorists also need to do their own homework before setting off, by studying driving conditions and local customs to improve the odds of happy motoring. Many drivers, for example, fail to realise that France has a different speed limit for wet and dry conditions. Come the clouds and you need to kill your speed from 100km to 80km an hour. These limits are rigidly applied and breaches attract hefty on-the-spot fines.

Extra peace of mind can be bought with breakdown insurance. This swings into action to the opening bars of the put-put-put dirge of an engine giving up the ghost.

No one knows why more cars break down on holiday than at home, although the RAC thinks it has something to do with the monstrously long treks which cars, used to pottering around town, are put through. But give your car a pounding and it can cost anything up to pounds 2,000 to bring it home from France.

An RAC spokesman says: "In our experience, the first things that go are the electrics, then head gaskets are a major casualty. Next come engine seizures, then the highest numbers of calls follow accidents. It is a sad fact that people simply have more accidents on holiday than they do at home."

The AA, RAC, Europe Assist and Green Flag all insure against a major breakdown, with policies offering emergency roadside assistance, emergency repairs, up to pounds 100 towards labour costs and help towards alternative travel, or the price of a hotel while repairs are being conducted. As a last resort they will also bear the costs of bringing your disabled car home.

An AA spokesman explains: "It's not always easy to get spares for English cars. They can be expensive or involve a long wait. In that case, the owner may opt to repatriate the vehicle and have it repaired at home, particularly if he has any form of warranty, or it involves complicated work."

You can buy a policy for a limited number of days or annual contracts that provide good value for frequent travellers. Europ Assistance charges lower premiums for travellers to Belgium, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands than elsewhere in Europe. AA has lower rates for its members.

However, the limits on the cover may differ, so customers need to read the small print carefully. Furthermore the cheaper options listed left, such as Green Flag, offer to pay either for alternative transport or hotel accommodation, but not both. The slightly dearer AA cover will pay for both.

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