Who'll be getting you going?

Working out which of the roadside-assistance deals is the best is a long, hard slog.
THE SO-CALLED fourth emergency service (otherwise known as the AA) and its closest rivals, the RAC and Green Flag - who really needs them? Well actually you might just find that they will come in handy at least once or twice during your motoring career.

Despite the fact that you could pay anything up to pounds 206 a year to a recovery service, and that cars are supposedly becoming more reliable, the peace of mind you get by having membership is incalculable.

Getting stranded with a stricken car leaves you at the mercy of local garages, which may have three-figure call-out charges. Then there are storage fees, having to hire a car, or arrange accommodation. Organising all that in the middle of Europe does not really bear thinking about.

Essentially, membership of a rescue service is a form of travel insurance. Trouble is, the marketplace is complicated and confusing. I know, because I've just spent a couple of days on the telephone asking questions and wading through tons of literature. So far I'm only slightly the wiser.

A good place to start is with the AA, the dominant organisation with 9.4m members. It has the world's largest fleet of recovery vehicles - 3,600 - and claims that it can fix nine out of 10 vehicles by the roadside without the need for recovery. Not only that, its average arrival time is just 35 minutes.

Levels of cover extend from the basic, pounds 43 "Option 100" which provides roadside assistance, and then recovery home or to the nearest garage, up to the comprehensive "Option 400": from pounds 128 for single membership to pounds 189 for family cover, this gives you roadside assistance, "Relay" to your home or ultimate destination, a replacement car, onward travel or accommodation if a fix isn't possible, "Home Start" for home visits, and 72-hour European breakdown assistance.

The individual nature of AA membership means that the cover attaches to the member and not the car, and also extends to one other person at the same address. Any family member under 21 is covered, so if your six- year-old is a passenger in the neighbour's car for a school run, they can call the AA.

Then there is the RAC. Although individual membership starts at pounds 39, its Standard Cover is pounds 109: as a driver, or passenger you'll get roadside and at-home assistance, plus relay. You can add extra services and cover for others for a set fee: pounds 25 for joint cover and pounds 75 for European cover. What might appeal to many is a sort of no-claims discount worth pounds 25 a year if you don't call the RAC out.

Not all recovery services operate big vehicle fleets like the AA and RAC. Green Flag, with more than 3.5m members, has a national network of 1,500 operators and 6,000 technicians. It offers five levels of service, starting at recovery-only cover for pounds 34. If its operators don't manage to get to you within the hour you get a pounds 10 rebate.

Britannia Rescue covers around 400,000 vehicles and its annual membership starts at pounds 37. The company has a loyal following amongst caravanners because it doesn't charge extra for recovery, and also has one of the fastest average response times at 33 minutes.

Several direct-insurance companies have joined the recovery-service bandwagon. Just like its insurance operation, Direct Line Rescue actually quotes on an individual basis rather than having a set fee, and operates a no- claims bonus scheme: the annual fee reduces by 10 per cent if you don't call them out.

For me, Direct Line quoted pounds 124.80 for its comprehensive Recovery Plus for two cars. Kwik Fit operates in a similar way, quoting for the person and car. For pounds 69 I was offered a scheme which also provided European cover, homestart and a pounds 10 rebate if its operatives failed to reach me in an hour.

Comparing prices is difficult, not only because the levels of service differ, but also because many organisations prefer you to pay by direct debit, which affects the amount, you pay. For instance, the AA charges a one-off joining fee if you don't want to use direct debit. That fee starts at pounds 5 for Option 100, and goes up in pounds 5 increments to pounds 25.

It is also important to establish whether the cover relates to the car, or the driver. The direct insurers seem to favour the former. Unfortunately there is no substitute for reading the small print.

To make things easy you could simply buy a brand-new car. Most have some sort of recovery package for a year, or occasionally more.

Mondial Assistance has a low profile, but is a major force throughout Europe, operating dedicated recovery services for Volkswagen, BMW and Land Rover amongst others. According to its research, the second most common reason for a call out was a flat battery, with running out of fuel at number nine. Maybe if we paid a little more attention to car care, we wouldn't need to rely on any rescue service. So just how lucky do you feel?

AA: 0800 444999; RAC: 0800 029029; Green Flag: 0800 000111; Britannia Rescue: 0800 591563; Direct Line: 0181-760 9933; Kwik Fit 0845 272 2200