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A Guide to Breakdown Cover

Most drivers will have had the experience of breaking down at some point in their motoring. Standing on the side of the motorway in the pouring rain trying to decide what to do next isn’t a lot of fun. The idea of breakdown cover is that it will provide you with a solution in these situations, as a mechanic will come to you, and try to get your vehicle moving. This is not a new idea. The RAC in the UK was set up in 1897 to provide assistance to motorists, and over the years the market has expanded to give 21st century drivers a huge choice in the breakdown market.

Each company differs slightly in what the offer, and most will offer different levels of cover to let you choose what’s most appropriate for your needs. Most policies will send a mechanic to you in the case of a mechanical failure. The mechanic will try to fix your vehicle on the side of the road and get you moving straight away, or if they can’t, they will arrange recovery and tow your car to the nearest garage to get it repaired.

Trust is all important in breakdown cover. Motorists need to feel confident that someone will arrive in a reasonable time to help them, even if the breakdown happens at 2am in the morning. Here’s our ultimate guide to getting the best policy for you. Cars are the most common vehicles covered by breakdown policies, but motorbikes, vans and other vehicles can also be covered.

Is Breakdown Cover Essential?

It is not a legal requirement to have breakdown cover, and not every driver has it. Many drivers who use their vehicles regularly, or drive long distances, feel that having a breakdown policy in place gives them peace of mind. Having arranged a policy ahead of time can also save cash. If you break down on the side of the motorway with no policy in place, you are still going to need some way of getting your vehicle off the motorway and into a garage for repair. Recovery services will come out and rescue you, but callout fees in an emergency for people who have no pre-arranged breakdown cover can be very high. Just towing you off the motorway to the nearest junction can cost upwards of £300, and that’s before getting to a garage and funding the repairs.

Buying Breakdown Cover

There are lots of methods for getting breakdown cover, and it’s often rolled into other financial products. The main routes for purchasing breakdown cover are:

Another option is the “pay and claim” policy which might be cheaper than paying a monthly membership fee. This style of policy works like expenses – you pay the costs of getting the vehicle fixed upfront, and then supply receipts and invoices to the insurer for reimbursement. The advantage of this is that you are not paying out every month for a breakdown policy, but the disadvantage is that you need to have enough money to pay for repairs initially should you break down.

Personal Cover and Vehicle Cover

If you’ve made the decision that getting cover for breakdowns is right for you, then the next decision is about whether you should buy personal cover, or cover for the vehicle. There are advantages and disadvantages to both approaches, so take some time to think these through before deciding which best meets your needs.

Personal Cover

This covers you as an individual, and any vehicle you happen to be using at that time, irrespective of whether you own the vehicle or are just a passenger. Personal cover is not just for cars but will also cover vans, motorbikes and all other vehicles too.

The disadvantage in taking out personal cover is that if your main vehicle breaks down while you’re not with it, then it’s not covered. If you have many people in the same family all using the same vehicles, then each would need to be insured separately. Families which have one main car used by everyone are better off taking out a vehicle policy.

Vehicle Breakdown Cover

Vehicle cover, as the name suggests, covers a specific named vehicle, no matter who is driving it at the time. This is usually a cheaper option than taking out separate insurance for everyone who wants to drive a car. For families with just one family vehicle, it means that everyone is covered, whoever is driving. The downsides are that if you are driving a vehicle which is not covered, then your policy cannot be used. It also means you are not covered if you are a passenger in another vehicle which breaks down.

Levels of Breakdown Cover

Breakdown cover also gives you the choice of taking out a basic policy, or one which covers many more eventualities and circumstances. You should consider the options, depending on your needs and budget.

Roadside Assistance

This is the basic level of assurance which means that you can call a mechanic out to a breakdown in your vehicle. Usually, you have to be a minimum distance from home to call out the mechanic, but this can be as little as a quarter of a mile.

At Home Cover

In addition to the basic roadside assistance cover, an “at home” policy will cover breakdowns at home. A mechanic will come out if you find your car won’t start in the morning because of a mechanical problem or something like a flat battery. This policy might be also known as “home assistance” or similar terms. This level of cover is sometimes included as standard, but might have an additional annual cost. If the mechanic cannot fix your car on your driveway or street, then they will tow you to the nearest local garage which can do the repairs. Again, there is usually a limit on how far you can be towed, typically around 10 miles.


Recovery is often included with roadside assistance breakdown cover. This covers the costs of towing your car to the garage if the mechanic is not able to resolve the problem on the roadside. Most policies will limit the distance which you can be towed. This is often around 10 miles, but some offer national recovery which mean you can ask to be taken for any garage in the UK. The 10 mile limit may not be an issue for those living in towns or cities, but could seriously limit choices for those living more rurally.

Onward Travel

This is usually offered as an additional extra to a basic policy and is usually sold as a “get you to your destination” product. If you break down, you may be supplied with a hire car to keep you mobile, or may be able to claim for overnight accommodation while your car is repaired, or for a reimbursement for public transport costs.

Other Extras for Breakdown Cover

After you have bought your basic breakdown cover policy there is a range of other options which you could consider adding on to the policy. Most of these can be bought at the time, or can be added later. Whether these are worth taking will depend on your situation and how you plan on using your vehicle.

European Breakdown Cover

Most breakdown policies will cover incidents within the UK only. If you are thinking about taking your car overseas to France or even into Ireland, then you won’t be covered for any mechanical failures. Navigating the process of getting your car recovered and fixed in a foreign country can be stressful and difficult, even more so when you have no knowledge of the local garages and system. European breakdown cover will give you the same peace of mind that you have at home and will provide both the roadside assistance and recovery options, and sometimes also the cost of getting a hire car or using public transport while your car is fixed. If you don’t take vehicles overseas on a regular basis, then you might be able to buy a single-trip insurance policy for your car in the same way as you can but single-trip travel insurance for yourself.

Replacement Keys

As the name suggests, this cover will meet the cost of getting a new set of keys cut for your vehicle if you lose the originals, or have them stolen. Policies might also cover the cost of replacing damaged keys.

Replacement Tyres

One of the main causes of a breakdown is an issue with the tyres. Choosing to but replacement tyre cover will meet the cost of getting a new tyre if yours is punctured or maliciously damaged. This cover will not pay for new tyres if they need to be replaced because of standard wear and tear.

Replacement Battery

Flat batteries are another common problem, and if the battery runs flat, you won’t be able to go anywhere. If you choose to buy battery cover on your policy then the breakdown company will meet the cost of a new battery fitted to your vehicle. With the battery, key and tyre policy, there is usually a 14-day initial period in which you cannot claim, to stop people from losing their keys and taking the policy out after the event.

Choosing a Provider

Hopefully you should have a fair idea by now about which level of breakdown cover you might need, but how do you choose which company you wish to buy a policy with? There are some key factors which you might look at when trying to make that decision.

Price is undoubtedly a factor in the decision, but is the cheapest policy necessarily the best? Drivers should also be looking at things like how whether the company offers a 24 hour, 365 day service, what sorts of guarantees they give about how quickly they can get to you, and whether they offer any discount on insuring multiple vehicles.

Most companies will have information on their websites about speed of response and their national coverage. A bargain low price might seem like the best choice, but if the company concerned has a small fleet of mechanics who can respond and cannot guarantee to get to you quickly, is it really the best buy?

If you break down but have not bought cover, then you can still contact one of the major breakdown companies for help. Emergency assistance can be provided to someone who is not a member of the organisation, it will just cost you more in an emergency call out fee.

Usually, breakdown cover starts from the minute you hit the “buy” button online and pay. Most companies will only provide basic cover for the first 24 hours, to prevent someone realising that they have a flat battery and then immediately signing up for a policy. If you do buy a product knowing that you have already broken down, then the breakdown company will still come out and help, but they may charge you an additional fee for doing so.

Business Cover

Standard breakdown cover is designed for cars and other vehicles used for the standard social, domestic and pleasure and commuting to and from work. If you need to use a van for work, or are operating a taxi or other hire business, then you will need special business breakdown cover. The main providers all offer these policies, which will usually need to be taken out online. They are also more expensive than standard cover, as business vehicles are on the road more.