Drivers, don't let the ice leave you on the financial skids

Breaking down can be costly. Chiara Cavaglieri finds cover can be cheaper than you think

Contending with icy conditions may not be enough to deter you from hitting the roads during the holiday, but with insurers seeing record numbers of breakdown call-outs in the snow, if you're driving without cover you risk being stranded on the hard shoulder.

"We've been running most days at double our normal workload, but Monday broke all records for us at 28,000 – our busiest day for breakdowns ever," said Gavin Hill-Smith, an AA spokesman. "On a normal Monday we would expect around 10,500 call-outs and our peak rate was 3,000 breakdowns every hour."

Towing charges of £100 on average will add a financial sting to a long wait in the cold and that's before any repairs, so breakdown cover could save you hundreds of pounds. The AA, RAC, Green Flag and other providers do allow individuals to buy instant cover in an emergency, but you can expect to pay through the nose for this and may miss out during busy periods because existing members are given priority.

"Hoping for the best in extreme weather conditions like this is a highway to nowhere for anyone who needs the use of a vehicle," said Will Thomas, head of motor policies at Confused.com.

When you're looking for cover, always shop around as prices and the level of cover will vary widely. The cheapest option is to cover your vehicle, rather than yourself as a driver. At the AA, online prices start from £30 for basic roadside assistance but if you want personal membership that rises to £41.55. However, many providers offer discounted packages for couples and families.

There are various features to look out for, the most important being roadside assistance and roadside recovery. The former typically covers you for one hour's labour at the side of the road. With the latter, you will also be covered for recovery to a garage within a 10-mile radius. You can add benefits such as alternative travel to help you continue your journey, car hire so that you're given a replacement car while yours is repaired, and hotel accommodation so you have somewhere to stay if your car cannot be repaired in time. If you're happy to stick with the lower levels of cover, an annual policy for a three-year-old car can cost as little as £18.20 with the Green Insurance Company, according to figures from Confused. However, for a slight increase to £19.50, the same company includes cover for alternative travel, car hire and hotel accommodation.

Common exclusions include refusal to cover if you breakdown one mile or less from your home, but if you want protection against this you can add Home Help for an increased premium and again, this won't necessarily cost as much as you might think; the Green Insurance Company adding Home Help brings the premium to £28.90, according to Confused.

If you plan to use your car abroad look into getting additional European cover which is valid for up to 30 consecutive days, but note this is typically limited to 90 days per year.

"Breakdown and recovery policies vary greatly, and should be chosen depending on the needs of the driver. For example, if you only ever drive around your local town then you might be better suited to a lower level of cover that will recover your vehicle to your home or garage up to a distance of 10 miles," said Erica Nelson, spokeswoman for Green Flag.

As well as playing it safe financially, you should take simple steps to avoid breaking down in the first place. Top tips include checking your battery before a long journey, keeping an eye on tyre tread and pressures, making sure your brake and fog lights are working, ensuring your windscreen blades are in good condition and adding anti-freeze to the screen-wash container.

Expert view: Will Thomas, Confused.com

"In terms of breakdown policies, one size does not fit all; there are different levels of cover available. To get the most suitable product it is important to understand where, how often and the distance that is being driven."

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