One for the road: the rescue services broken down

We'd be going nowhere fast without them, but which car-recovery firms offer the best value for you? Laura Harding reports

You're out on the road, miles from home, and your car conks out. Maybe it's the gearbox or a flat battery. Whichever – you can't get the vehicle going again. And if you're not a member of a rescue service, you're stranded.

Most consumer groups agree it makes sense to have car-breakdown cover, but it's also important to choose the policy that's right for you. For example, do you want to insure the driver or the vehicle? With a family car, say, covering anyone who drives it rather than just the named policyholder may be the best option.

All policies provide basic roadside assistance – meaning they will send an engineer out to your car – and most problems can be put right there and then. But if immediate repairs aren't possible, the breakdown companies offer add-ons such as transporting you and your car to any onward destination in the UK. Some providers will even arrange for overnight hotel accommodation and a rental car.

The AA, Britain's largest breakdown company, will arrive, on average, within 40 minutes of your call, giving you priority if you're in a vulnerable situation. The annual membership price – which includes roadside repair, transporting you to your destination and coverage if you break down at home – is £141. The current online discount knocks an additional £35.25 off that.

The RAC is the other main provider and can pinpoint you from your mobile phone signal even if you don't know where you are. Its Solution 3 package includes roadside assistance, towing to a garage, onward transport, home breakdown cover and legal advice. It costs £136 and with the current online discount that is cut to £102.

But Richard Mason, head of insurance at price comparison site, says: "People think the only places they can go are the RAC and the AA, which both charge over £100 a year. They don't realise you can get very similar cover for a lot less from smaller companies. They shouldn't think these firms just have one old van."

He cites, with an average response time of under 40 minutes. It has no flat-rate cost but takes into account the individual circumstances to calculate a premium. The most basic policies start at £29 and include roadside assistance, towing the vehicle and a messaging service to friends and relatives.