Don't let a broken-down car spoil your holidays

One expensive tow to a garage is enough to convince you that breakdown cover is one of the most worthwhile policies, Chiara Cavaglieri reports

Families all over Britain will be taking to the roads to visit relatives and friends this Christmas. With winter driving conditions to contend with, the last thing anyone wants to worry about is the car breaking down.

The AA rescues 9,000 people a day on average but this can rise to 13,000 a day during the worst days of the winter. Problems can often be simple to repair, such as flat batteries and tyres, but some straightforward roadside repairs are beyond many motorists.

"People who break down without cover and have to call out a garage pay nearly £90 per time on average, with much higher charges when the vehicle could not be fixed and had to be recovered," says AA spokeswoman Katie Stephens.

The cost of being towed to the next exit after a breakdown on the motorway averages £150, according to the RAC. You may find these costs are higher should you have to be towed further than the next exit, or if you break down on Christmas day or other public holiday. But there is car breakdown insurance which offers assistance at the roadside to get you on your way or, if your car can't be started, a tow to a garage or even to your home or onward destination.

When you compare the potential cost of breaking down to the actual cost of most policies, it can be one of the most worthwhile types of insurance out there. For a three-year old vehicle, breakdown cover with Green Insurance Company costs just £20.95 per year with no excess payable, according to price comparison service. Confused.com. However, prices do vary widely and purchasing the same level of cover for a three-year old vehicle with GEM Motoring Assist, for example, would cost more than double this at £46.35 per year.

It is vital to shop around, using comparison sites and several providers directly which may have extra incentives such as online discounts or money off for agreeing to renew annually by direct debit. It may also be worthwhile looking out for no call-out discounts. Several companies, including Churchill, offer discounts on your renewal membership if you have not needed breakdown assistance during the previous year.

When looking for a policy, you must decide whether to cover yourself or your vehicle. Covering your vehicle is the most common route as this covers the car and anyone else who is insured to drive it. However, the age and mileage will affect the premium so it could work out to be more expensive unless several family members use the same car. With personal cover, you are protected when driving any car, which may be ideal if you regularly drive more than one car. Alternatives include couple cover which offers discounted premiums to couples taking out joint policies and family cover, which covers all family members insured to drive under one policy.

"To get the best policy, it is important to understand where you will be driving, how often and the distance you drive. You don't want to be paying extra for benefits you will never use, but at the same time it is important not to make assumptions about what your cover entitles you to," says Will Thomas, the head of motor insurance at comparison site Confused.com.

Broadly speaking, there are five levels of cover to choose from. Roadside assistance is the cheapest and the most basic way to get your car fixed if you break down away from home. This typically covers you for up to one hour of labour at the side of the road to try to fix the vehicle. A step up from this, roadside recovery, also includes recovery to a garage. With both options, you will not be covered if your car breaks down within a specified distance from your home, usually one third of a mile. You can, however, pay extra for home-start cover which protects you if your car won't get going at or near home.

On top of these three levels, several benefits may be added – onward travel, which can include a courtesy car or accommodation while repairs are made, and European breakdown cover. Repatriation can cost you thousands so this is important if you take your car overseas. It can be added as a permanent extra with some firms. Or you can take out separate European cover as and when you need it. Tesco's Euro Care policy, for example, provides cover for a trip of up to eight days for £36 or up to 22 days for £52.

Beyond insuring against breakdown, it's crucial to take preventative measures. Check the oil and antifreeze levels, hazard lights, tyre tread depth and pressure and stow a spare in the boot. "It is also essential your vehicle holds items such as a torch, reflective triangle sign, high-visibility jacket, first-aid kit and jump leads," advises Steve Sweeney, the head of motor insurance at Moneysupermarket.com.

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