Schemes to keep a holiday on the road: Andrew Bibby surveys car breakdown insurance

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MOST British motorists venturing abroad this summer are unlikely to know that their car's clutch master cylinder goes by the name of bomba de mando del embrague in Spanish or that the Italian for ignition coil is bobina d'accensione.

For those who find it hard to understand even what their own British mechanics are talking about, perhaps this is not much of a handicap. But motorists who feel the need to be able to look up the name of every part of their car in eight languages (including Serbo-Croat) will be satisfied with the phrase-book section of the Automobile Association's handbook for those taking out its five-star European cover, although most people who break down abroad will probably prefer a reassuring English-speaking voice at the other end of a phone line.

The AA is the leader in European breakdown insurance for motorists, with about 50 per cent of the market. But this dominance may be due more to AA members choosing a familiar name than considerations of price. Other companies offer a broadly comparable service at much lower premiums. As the table below shows, standard AA five-star cover for 17 days abroad costs pounds 47.50. A similar service is available from National Breakdown, Europ Assistance and Mondial, who all charge pounds 39.50, while Britannia's rate is pounds 33.50.

Arrangements for dealing with a breakdown or accident also differ. The AA and RAC both have European control centres (the AA in Boulogne, the RAC in Calais and Barcelona), but they also make use of the normal roadside services provided by other European motoring clubs. The AA, for example, expects five-star policy- holders to make arrangements with a local garage or to contact the relevant national motoring organisation first, with the Boulogne centre being summoned if other efforts to get help fail.

Although neither the AA nor the RAC organisation publicises the fact widely, the standard roadside breakdown services of most other European motoring organisations are available free to ordinary AA and RAC members, regardless of whether they have taken out extra cover. (Unfortunately, France has no national motoring club.)

Mondial and Europ Assistance operate from 24-hour control rooms, coincidentally both based in Croydon. These control centres will be the first point of contact for British motorists stranded abroad. In each case, the UK centre summons help through its mainland European offices, calling up assistance from an approved garage or breakdown agent.

Europ Assistance claims the largest network, with 15,000 garages in Europe, including 4,000 in France.

Another organisation with a strong European base, GESA Assistance, operates in a similar way from its Leatherhead centre. GESA provides the European cover for Britannia (which recently changed from Mondial) as well as tailored packages for individual holiday firms such as the French self- catering specialist VFB, but GESA does not sell direct to the public.

Europ Assistance believes it makes good sense to combine holiday insurance with motor breakdown cover. A spokesman says: 'It is stress-free: one phone call can solve all the problems.'

His firm has launched an innovative policy, Family Cover, offering both car breakdown and personal travel insurance for all the car's passengers. The cover is per car rather than per person. It costs pounds 25 for the first day and pounds 3 extra for each additional day of the holiday.

However it is possible to avoid taking out special continental car insurance by choosing a UK breakdown package which includes European cover automatically. This sort of arrangement is especially useful for British motorists with houses abroad but it could also be good value for once-a-year travellers across the Channel.

The choice includes International Assistance Services (IAS), a Sun Alliance subsidiary, which offers continental cover in its standard pounds 65 annual Rescueline premium.

The Environmental Transport Association prices its breakdown service at pounds 66 a year (including pounds 20 ETA membership), an attractive package for green-minded motorists unhappy at the power of the road lobby. ETA uses GESA's European service.

National Breakdown's UK breakdown service also includes continental protection, and costs pounds 57.

Continental European cover may also be provided automatically through motor insurance policies. GESA provides a European breakdown service for customers of several insurance companies, including Legal & General, Iron Trades, Pearl and Provincial, though it is important for customers to check the exact cover with their insurers before heading for the Channel.

New cars are also likely to be provided with European breakdown protection, at least for the first year. 'About 65 per cent to 70 per cent of all new cars come with RAC membership and that RAC membership includes European cover,' says Ken Glozier of the RAC. According to Mr Glozier, the RAC has agreements with Vauxhall, Volvo, Renault, VW, Audi and Jaguar among other manufacturers, with cover extended to two, three or even six years in some cases. 'Ford models also effectively get Euro-cover.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- CONTINENTAL BREAKDOWN PROTECTION ----------------------------------------------------------------- Examples of rates for cars ( pounds ) 10 days 17 days 23 days 30 days AA 5-Star (members) 35.00 47.50 50.50 54.00 Britannia 30.00 33.50 40.00 45.00 Europ Assistance 33.00 39.50 39.50 46.30 Mondial 33.00 39.50 45.00 51.00 Nat Breakdown 39.50 39.50 47.50 51.00 RAC (members) 36.00 46.00 46.00 46.00 AA and RAC non-members pay a pounds 3 supplement. Rates may not be available for older vehicles (normally 10 years). -----------------------------------------------------------------

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