Tow the line: the case for breakdown cover in the cruellest month for cars

As the freezing weather threatens misery for motorists, Nargis Ahmad and Julian Knight report on the features and prices of vehicle rescue policies

January is the single biggest month for car breakdowns in the UK and, this time around, with the country gripped by arctic weather, there won't be any relief for drivers.

The UK's biggest motoring organisation, the AA, expects to attend a peak of 11,000 breakdowns a day at this time of year, with the main mechanical culprits being battery or tyre problems, according to AA spokesman Pete Barnao. "Extra dependence on heaters and lights mean you are twice as likely to run your battery flat in winter than in summer. The next two biggest breakdown causes are flat or damaged tyres and key problems, either losing them or locking them in the car."

And if you suffer a breakdown on a motorway, the expense of calling out a mechanic and then, if necessary, a recovery vehicle can be enormous. It is common for assistance and recovery to the next motorway exit or nearest garage to cost more than £200. The bill may be even higher if you're rescued on a bank holiday or in the dead of night. According to AA figures, around two million British drivers had to fork out a collective £120m in 2007 on recovery and roadside assistance.

What's more, there is the hassle of finding a local rescue service – and no way of knowing how long you will be waiting at the side of the road.

It's in the light of figures such as these that millions of motorists take out annual car breakdown cover – a form of insurance that comes in all shapes and sizes and from a host of providers, including the AA and RAC.

The most basic cover will provide roadside assistance and recovery to a local garage should you break down. Premiums start at around £30 a year but can top £100 for services that add other features. No providers offer guarantees on the time it will take to get to you but industry norms are under an hour, though on busy bank holiday weekends and in remote locations you can wait longer.

In the majority of breakdowns, mechanics don't have to do any more than tinker. The RAC estimates that it repairs 80 per cent of cars at the side of the road with no need for a tow truck. But if you are concerned that you won't always be able to rely on good fortune such as this, you can choose to add more features to your insurance. Among the most popular of these is recovery to a place you specify. Put simply, this means that if you have a breakdown and the car can't be repaired there and then, a tow truck will take you and your vehicle either to your original destination or to your home address.

Some providers will limit the number of passengers that can be transported in this way, so if you have a large family, ensure you are fully covered. One package from the AA, for instance, at £73, includes the recovery of seven people, while First Call limits the number to four, on a £42 deal.

Another popular add-on is home- start, with providers sending a mechanic to your address if you can't get your car going because, say, of a flat battery or a flat tyre. Around a quarter of breakdown callouts are to the home, although putting this feature on the insurance can bump up premiums considerably. For instance, the RAC and AA charge around £40 for adding homestart to their roadside assistance and recovery services.

Other extras on breakdown policies include alternative transport – a taxi to the nearest big town, say, while a local repair is arranged – or overnight hotel accommodation should your vehicle conk out far from home.

If you want to drive on the Continent then some providers, such as Vehicle Rescue Direct, will cover you. With big players such as the RAC and AA, though, you will have to purchase separate European breakdown cover, with premiums being based on how long and how often you plan to drive on the Continent. The AA will only cover expenses up to the "market value" of the car, so think twice about taking that much-cherished old banger on holiday with you. However, it is crucial to be covered while driving abroad as the costs of recovery back to the UK can be enormous.

"Think about whether you can forgo any extras such as overnight hotel accommodation," says Clare Francis, spokeswoman for price-comparison service "It's about figuring out what's useful and what's not; you may not need to fork out for the highest level of cover."

How you buy car breakdown cover can also affect how much you pay. If you purchase a policy with RAC online, you can save up to 25 per cent on the premium. Meanwhile, the basic AA roadside package costs £39 if you buy offline and pay by cheque, but £29 if you go on the net and use direct debit.

Another option, if your car does not break down that often, is "pay and reclaim", where the driver pays the repair and recovery costs upfront and then claims the costs back from the insurer by sending in receipts. Auto Aid charges just £37 a year for this service , but there are limitations: the maximum amount a policyholder can claim for home breakdowns is £65.

If you do not want to pay a flat-rate fee, looks at the make and model of the car and takes the driver's age into consideration when deciding on the premium, with breakdown cover starting at £29. Ms Francis says consumers should "look beyond the big providers. The cover can be just as good from smaller ones."

The motorist's age is important to RescueMyCar as it is an indicator of experience. The thinking is that older drivers are less likely to own a vehicle that is poorly maintained and likely to break down.

Neither the RAC nor the AA raise premiums for younger drivers, though they do limit the number of breakdown callouts that can be made each year to five.

Drivers of older cars – which are statistically more likely to break down – are not generally penalised in the form of higher premiums. But owners of vehicles aged more than 10 years are barred from taking out the AA's cheapest roadside assistance policy.

When buying car breakdown cover it is also worth taking note of the policy activation times, as these vary between providers. Some insurers, such as Green Flag, will start the cover immediately, provided you have not already broken down, while others will wait between 24 to 48 hours before a callout can be made.

Whatever the age of your car, carrying out some simple checks before setting out can reduce the chances of a breakdown and a cold wait at the side of the road. "People often forget to renew their policies, so check your insurance is still valid. And before you go on a long journey, check your tyres are fully pumped, the oil levels are fine and that the lights are working," says Ms Francis. "In the bad winter weather, both the RAC and AA recommend having an emergency kit with a torch, blanket, water and food."

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