Be prepared for a breakdown

Taking you car abroad can turn into a headache if you've gone without cover

Millions of Britons have discovered the dubious de-lights of taking their cars abroad. The AA estimates 3.5 million car trips are made to Europe each year, and every one of those drivers fears one thing: breaking down abroad. Unless you are familiar with the French word for head gasket, buying breakdown cover for your summer holiday is money well spent.

Many groups, including the AA, RAC, Green Flag and EuropAssistance offer insurance cover for driving abroad. Luke Basdet, of the AA, says many of the problems are relatively minor but can be hard to deal with abroad: "Burst tyres, flat batteries and overheating provide the three biggest problems. A surprising number of people manage to lose their keys. If they have no spares we have to ring the house sitter or any neighbour with whom they have left duplicate keys, arrange to collect them, and then take them by car to wherever the car is stuck."

The RAC expects around 200,000 cars with GB stickers will get into trouble this summer. The basic policies don't vary much between the operators. If you have existing UK breakdown cover, the easiest thing is to phone your provider and have the policy extended. All companies provide some roadside assistance from a mechanic, and will cover the cost of any spare parts needed (although you will have to pay for them upfront). Most will also pay for you to hire a car if yours is out of action. Autonational Rescue's policy pays up to pounds 70 a day for car hire plus a pounds 200 contribution towards accommodation. If all else fails, the breakdown companies will pay for the car to be towed home.

If you do have to make a claim, the process is fairly painless - you call a 24-hour number and your insurer will locate a local garage that participates in its scheme.

Some insurers, such as Green Flag, won't take you on if your car is more than 10 years old, although the RAC only charges extra for cars that are more than 15 years old. You pay an automatic pounds 45 supplement for a two- week holiday, on top of the standard cover costing pounds 51.70. Existing RAC breakdown members get a 10 per cent discount on their policy. Autonational will also take cars up to 15 years old for an extra fee. Those taking caravans on holiday can generally have them added to the policy for a fee - Green Flag charges pounds 15 extra for this.

If you have a second home abroad it's worth getting an annual European motoring policy. The AA's deal costs pounds 95 but you cannot be abroad for more than 40 days at a time. At the other end of the spectrum, Autonational offers cover for day trips to France, costing pounds 8.50. This is for rapid repairs or taking you to the nearest ferry port.

Neat extras include seven-day "pre-holiday" cover from Green Flag, which pays for rapid repairs in case of serious mechanical breakdown. You won't get cover for illness, forced cancellation, death or any other non-motor related disasters. For that you need adequate travel insurance.

If you do decide to chance it without insurance, the costs of getting your car sorted out can be eye-watering. The RAC says the most common breakdowns abroad are failing starter motors and alternators, which can cost pounds 800, and blown head gaskets, which can be pounds 500. Towing your car home costs even more.

n AA, 0800 444999; Autonational, 01277 235935; EuropAssistance, 01444 442900; Green Flag, 0345 670345; RAC, 0800 550550.

CHECKLIST FOR MOTORING ABROAD

Call your motor insurer well before you leave the UK. All policies issued in this country meet minimum European guidelines and provide third- party insurance cover for European driving. But if you want fully comprehensive cover abroad you may have to pay a supplement of up to pounds 30. This also gets you a so-called Green Card (actually called an international motor insurance card), which is not strictly necessary but does extend your comprehensive cover. It is very useful as it is multi-lingual and, even if you have breakdown cover, garages may ask for proof of motor insurance before they will carry out repairs.

Getting a new-style European photocard driving licence will save a huge amount of hassle abroad. Pick up a form to switch to a photocard from any post office. But it takes about three weeks to process and you will need to send your passport to the DVLA to avoid having your photos signed by clergymen or doctors (the latter can charge for this service).

If you have an old driving licence you should get an international driving permit which carries translations about the validity of your licence.

Carry an emergency kit in your car wherever you go in Europe - including spare bulbs for your headlights and a first-aid kit. It is now compulsory for all cars on the road in Spain to carry two warning triangles. One should be placed behind and one in front of the car if you break down. Spain-bound drivers should also ask their insurer for a bail bond.

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