The story so far . . . Our hero has come unstuck. A breakdown has forced him and his family to leave the car in Lyon for repair and continue without it to Blighty (Independent Traveller, 14 May). After 15 years of carefree (and breakdown-insurance- free) motoring abroad, he has reluctantly concluded that it is time to buy insurance - but which policy . . ?

The first question is: what expenses might a breakdown involve? We needed a tow off the motorway; the services of a mechanic to investigate the problem; a further tow to a specialist dealer 50 miles away; rail and ferry fares to continue the journey (although a replacement hire car would have been preferable, and the obvious solution had we had insurance); a hire car to get us home once we had crossed the Channel; transport back to Lyon to retrieve the car; and overnight accommodation there. And although my wife and I were able to get through the week by sharing our second car, in other circumstances a hire car would have been necessary.

My initial thought was to add RAC Continental cover to my existing membership. As with many other parts of the cover, initial rescue costs are not subject to any particular limit, other than that of pounds 3,000 on the whole claim - a sensible scheme. But car hire is limited to 12 days, emergency accommodation to pounds 25 per person per day - and there is no mention of paying for meals, which I call mean.

The RAC will bring your car back to your home or your favoured garage, or will meet accommodation and travel expenses involved in fetching it yourself, once it has been fixed. Car hire in the UK is covered if you're waiting for the RAC to repatriate your own; and, although the brochure doesn't say so, I'm assured that it is also covered while you are waiting for a repair to be done abroad.

RAC Eurocover can be bought by members and non-members (at different prices) for periods of 4, 9, 16, 23, 31, 38 days, and so on. For members, nine days costs pounds 38, 16 days pounds 50. Year- round cover is pounds 95.

RAC Reflex membership (which gives cover in the UK to get you home or to your destination) can be extended to year-round Continental cover by upgrading to Reflex Europe membership; it costs only pounds 40.

The RAC's main competitor, the AA, offers similar options, except that its long-established AA Five Star Service comes in two variants, Vehicle and Vehicle Plus (the latter not available for cars more than 10 years old).

The plain Vehicle cover again has a pounds 25 per person, per day limit on emergency hotel expenses - this time including food. But Vehicle Plus doubles this to pounds 50. The cover for car hire or fares abroad is also doubled, to pounds 1,400, which should be enough for most trips, except perhaps a lengthy one in Italy (where car hire is mind-bogglingly expensive). Towing/repair labour is covered up to pounds 250, which seems adequate. And there is pounds 200 for additional car hire once you are in the UK. The AA's cover for costs incurred in recovering the car is pounds 500 - enough for a single flight, a night or two's accommodation and a day or two's subsistence. Again there is the option of getting the car shipped home by remote control.

Five Star premiums are related to how long you plan to spend abroad: each extra day adds pounds 2 to the initial charge for a single day of pounds 27. So: pounds 43 for nine days, pounds 57 for 16 days. Members and non-members pay the same. But AA members who have Relay cover can take the optional AA Europe extension. This gives year-round Vehicle Plus cover for pounds 49.50, which makes it cheaper than Five Star if you are going abroad for more than 12 days, or if you are going twice, however briefly.

Next, I recall that my year-round travel insurance, the Centurion policy marketed by American Express, can be extended to include breakdown cover. Towing cover, pounds 250 - OK. Cover for a replacement hire car abroad, pounds 750 - not a lot, although there is separate provision (without limit) for the cost of returning home. Cover for a replacement car in the UK is pounds 150 - a bit mean, but bearable. Emergency accommodation cover is limited to B & B and cash-limited to pounds 125 per person. It will pay to get the car home without my fetching it. Centurion breakdown cover costs pounds 59 a year, in addition to the family travel insurance premium of pounds 179 (which includes skiing).

The breakdown add-on to Centurion happens to be underwritten by Europ Assistance, which also sells its own cover with personal travel insurance. The cover is broadly in line with the Centurion: personal travel cover for four people and breakdown cover costs pounds 59.50 for nine days, pounds 84 for 16 days. If you don't already have travel insurance, these seem attractive - the comparable all-in costs with AA Five Star are pounds 88.80 and pounds 125.20.

So far, the best bet appears to be switching from RAC to AA membership. But in 1992 Which? found the AA's UK breakdown service one of the least efficient.

Other possibilities? First, you should check your ordinary car insurance, because it may include breakdown cover (through the French organisation, GESA) with its 'Green Cards'. I can rule out Mondial Assistance because it will repatriate the car only if the repair takes more than five days (a test that our case would have failed). And Britannia looks expensive at pounds 92 for annual cover. But National Breakdown Continental Cover is free. That is, it is thrown in free if you buy heavyweight UK breakdown cover at pounds 79.50 a year - a lot less than the pounds 115 I am paying the RAC. The catch must be in the conditions? Nope. No limits on most of the cover; emergency accommodation limited to pounds 45 per person per day, up to a total of pounds 225 per person; replacement car hire limited to pounds 750 - still not a lot. Travel to your destination and back to the scene (or home) are covered separately, which helps a lot. And Which? says National's UK service is one of the most efficient. Done.