Must hell freeze over before you buy rescue cover?

How to find the best deals on breakdown insurance as the winter threatens a spate of conked-out cars
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The Independent Online

As forecasters prepare us for sub-zero weather conditions, car-breakdown cover will be an essential if you don't want to be left stranded this winter.

Along with the discomfort of sitting in freezing temperatures while you wait for help, you could face an average bill of £65 if you break down without cover and have to call a local garage instead, according to research from Tesco Personal Finance.

Grind to a halt on a motorway and this cost rises to £72, it says, though consumer group Which? reckons the bill in these situations could easily rise to £200.

While many would think of turning to the AA and RAC, two brands that have long dominated the market, price-comparison website reports that you can get standard roadside cover from as little as £40 a year - against £100 with larger rivals.

However, as with all types of insurance, check the small print of different policies and compare what you get for your money before taking the plunge.

Some policies limit the number of roadside call-outs, and some put a cap on the number of your fellow passengers that the service will ferry home (see the table below).

Others may include car repair at your home address, while rivals add it to the policy as an extra charge. In some instances, the cost of the policies will go up and down in the style of a "no-claims bonus - according to whether or not you call out a breakdown service.

Tesco's "standard" cover is £33 but you need to be at least a mile from your home to claim and there's no transport to get you to your destination or home if your car can't be fixed.

However, its £79 "Total" package covers repair at your home address as well as securing alternative transport.

Richard Mason of says: "As standard, look for a tow to a garage; car repair at the roadside and at home; and a trip home or car hire or accommodation if your vehicle can't be fixed."

Extras such as breakdown cover on the Continent, recovery for accident, theft or vandalism, and provision of a relief driver can push up premiums significantly, he says.

The biggest difference between packages offered by the AA and RAC and those of rival insurers is that the former cover the policyholder while others insure the vehicle instead.

If you're covered as an individual, you can call out the company to any breakdown - even if you are in someone else's car.

However, when the insurance is linked to a particular car, the premiums will depend on your circumstances - such as occupation and whether you park on the street - the age of your car and where you live.

"Other providers may offer a more attractive headline price but it is just that - a headline price," says Gavin Hill-Smith of the AA. "A lot of people will pay considerably more than the advertised price due to their car or personal circumstances, so it's always worth checking the actual price and any restrictions."

An alternative has now emerged to the traditional patrol teams of breakdown services. This has come in the form of companies such as Autoaid and GEM Motoring Assist, which contact local recovery firms on your behalf. You pay for their assistance upfront and it's then down to you to send in receipts to the company to claim the money back.

Cover from AutoAid starts at £29 while GEM begins at £52.

Of course, you may already be protected against a breakdown. A number of insurers include the cover as part of their overall car policies.

Zurich automatically incorporates 24-hour roadside assistance in its car insurance - as long as you're more than a mile from home. A home callout service costs extra.

Other insurers provide discounts if you already have a motor policy with them.

Privilege offers various breakdown options with annual premiums from £35, but if a customer has a Privilege car insurance policy, they can get a 25 per cent discount on breakdown cover for the first year.

You can get cheaper insurance if you buy online. The AA offers a discount of up to 15 per cent for policies purchased over the internet, while the RAC is currently offering £5 off.

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