Breakdown Cover Explained


author image - crispin

By Crispin Bateman

on Friday 15 February 2019


Father and son next to broken down car

Imagine that you’re driving through heavy rain, listening to your favourite music while your children are sleeping soundly in the back. Then, the engine splutters and cuts out.

Lights appear on the dashboard and the power drops from the engine. You stick on the hazards and pull over to the side of the road before the momentum dies down and you stop.

Now you need help. You need a breakdown service.

Article contents:

What is breakdown cover?

What if I don’t have breakdown cover?

How do I get breakdown cover?

How much is it and who should I get it from?

How does cover work?

How do I contact my breakdown service?

What are the benefits of breakdown cover?

Does my work get breakdown cover for business vehicles?

Do I need breakdown cover?

What is breakdown cover?

Breakdown cover is a type of insurance that covers you when your car stops working for any reason apart from an accident.

You’ve done nothing wrong and no one else has done anything wrong, it’s just a mechanical fault. It can be anything from a flat tyre to a full-blown engine-on-fire catastrophe (if so, call the Fire Brigade first!).

Breakdown cover is completely independent to your car insurance (even if it has come from the same company) and it doesn’t affect your no-claims bonus to call on the breakdown service.

There are different levels of cover available, ranging from simple roadside assistance to a full level of cover that will get you and your family home and your vehicle into a garage.

What if I don’t have breakdown cover?

Not having breakdown cover makes breaking down in the UK a particular nightmare.

Imagine the following sequence:

  • Having to find a garage nearby who will come out to your vehicle to assess it

  • Waiting for them to come out (maybe an hour, maybe more)

  • Keeping the kids safe and happy while you wait

  • Having the man come out to declare that you need your vehicle to be towed to their garage

  • Being taken (with the kids) to a garage

  • Paying for his service (not likely to be cheap)

  • Finding yourself stranded at a garage with a broken vehicle

Now imagine all of that in the dark rain at 2am on a Sunday!

Thankfully, the major breakdown services have thought of this and are willing to take you on as an emergency member (having breakdown insurance is described as being a ‘member’ of the breakdown service, as it developed as a ‘club’).

It won’t be cheap, certainly not as cheap as it would have been to take out exactly the same membership from the comfort of your armchair a day earlier, but cheaper than finding your own garage to come and get you.

In short, plan ahead! Don’t be caught out without breakdown cover as it’ll cost you well over £100 if you do!

How do I get breakdown cover?

You might already have breakdown cover without realising it!

Many insurance companies include breakdown cover as part of their policies, and you might have chosen to take that option. For the most part, breakdown cover with an insurance company is passed to a third party, meaning that it isn’t the insurer themselves who sorts it out for you, but an established partner.

If you don’t have breakdown cover with your insurance, then you should look into getting it independently – and if you do have breakdown cover with your insurance policy, then you may want to get separate breakdown cover that is more suited to your needs than the basic cover you have, either by upgrading that cover or seeking completely new membership elsewhere.

How much is breakdown cover? Who should I get it from?

There are a lot of factors that can go in to choosing your breakdown cover:

  • The level of cover you want to have

  • The size of the breakdown service’s fleet

  • The average response times

  • The cost of cover

  • The member benefits

  • Any specialised needs (such as cover while driving in Europe)

In the UK there are two main breakdown services and several smaller ones. While the larger ones have bigger fleets and contracts with many small garages across the country to service you as quickly as possible, they may not be the most cost-effective option for you.

The AA and the RAC

Both the AA (Automobile Association) and the RAC (Royal Automobile Club) have been around for well over 100 years. They differ from the other breakdown services mainly because they have their own patrolling vans with trained mechanics who are able to respond quickly to problems and attempt a roadside fix.

This difference is usually enough to make either the AA or RAC the first choice for your breakdown service.

Everyone else

Other breakdown services (Green Flag, Tesco Breakdown Cover, AXA and others) rely on local garages and mechanics to provide a fast service to the roadside. This often means that there is no overall quality of service or training and while you may get an excellent mechanic one time, you may suffer from someone with a lack of knowledge the next.

Other breakdown providers are quicker to rely on taking your vehicle back to a garage for a full assessment and repair.

Often, however, the cost of cover with the smaller providers is considerably smaller – sometimes as much as 50% cheaper than the big-names.

The cost of cover

The average price of roadside cover for a year is under £40, though there are many factors that can make this increase substantially.

Does breakdown membership cover the car or the person? How does cover work?

Breakdown cover comes in two main varieties: personal cover, and vehicle cover. In the first, it doesn’t matter what car you are driving – they will come out to help, in the second it doesn’t matter who is driving the vehicle!

Personal cover – you are covered

Personal cover is a little more expensive than vehicle cover, but it covers you in any vehicle – even if you are not the one driving. It is a useful level of cover if you have more than one vehicle and also if you are driving older vehicles as breakdown services are often unwilling to provide vehicle cover for vehicles over ten years old.

Personal cover is the best and cheapest way to get multi-car breakdown cover.

Vehicle cover – the vehicle is covered

With vehicle cover, the car (or van, or bike) is covered no matter who is driving it. It is slightly cheaper than personal cover and is perfect for a family who own a single vehicle that may be driven by multiple people.

Even if you lend your car to a friend, with vehicle cover you have the backup of the breakdown service.

Once you have decided on the type of cover, you need to determine the level:

Roadside assistance

This is the most basic type of cover. It means that a mechanic will come to your vehicle and attempt to fix the problem while at the roadside. Most incidents can be dealt with in this manner – flat tyres, problems with a battery, etc.

If the mechanic is unable to get you going again, then you will be towed to a nearby garage. This can cause issues during night-time recovery when the garages are closed and you are effectively left stranded – for this reason, many people upgrade their roadside assistance to another level of cover.

Roadside assistance does not cover your vehicle if it is within ¼ of a mile of your home – it is designed for you while you are on the road.

Roadside assistance is the cheapest type of cover and when you see a quote for the cost of breakdown cover it is usually limited to roadside assistance to make the figure more appealing. Breakdown cover that comes with your car insurance is also very likely to be nothing more than roadside assistance.

Vehicle recovery

Giving you a little more room to manoeuvre, vehicle recovery gives you the option to have your car towed anywhere in the UK if it cannot be fixed at the roadside.

Often this means being taken all the way back home, to your usual garage, or to your final destination. If you do choose to go back to your home or to your end destination then you will, of course, be stranded there with a car in need of repair but this can often be the best outcome – especially if you have family with you.

At-home breakdown

One of the most frustrating experiences with your breakdown service will be the day you can’t start the car in the driveway and cannot get help under your cover because you do not have at-home cover!

At-home breakdown cover increases your level of cover so that you get the same level of assistance from your house (and within ¼ mile) as you do elsewhere in the country.

It’s worth noting that with both at-home and vehicle recovery, you can almost use the breakdown service as an oversized taxi, taking you, your car and your family to a location of your choice. They don’t like it though, and they’ll do their best to argue you out of it!

Onward travel

If your vehicle is going to be in for repair for a long time, onward travel gives you the ability to get a replacement car for your use while your main vehicle is off the road.

It can also provide addition help, such as hotels for the night or other accommodation. Most situations do not require the additional benefit of onward travel and you may go years without using it, but it’ll be worth it for that one time.

Initiating assistance – how do I contact my breakdown service?

Many of the breakdown cover providers have their own app, enabling you to call for assistance quickly and without worrying about sitting on the phone. Simply press the button requesting help, and the GPS of your smartphone will let them know where you are – if they want to know more details, they’ll call, but otherwise, you’ll be able to see the status of your breakdown assistance and even track the vehicle that’s on its way to save you.

It’s a great addition to the service that makes it light-years more convenient and safer than it was a decade or longer ago.

If your provider doesn’t have an app (or you don’t have a smartphone), then calling them will get them to you just as quickly. There’s a few more questions, especially regarding your location, but they’ll do their best to get to you as soon as possible.

Its always worth having your membership card in your wallet, the breakdown service’s phone number in your phone contacts and a copy of both in the glove box for emergencies.

What to do while you wait

If you can get the car out of the way of other road users, then do, but if not, don’t panic about it – it’s more important that you and all your passengers are safe.

Put the hazard lights on your car, pull the handbrake and if you can, leave it and get safely off the road. Always stand behind the barrier of a motorway and never stay in the car in fast moving traffic if you can safely leave.

It’s obviously helpful if you can remain near the vehicle for the mechanic when they arrive but always prioritise the safety of you and your family.

Follow any instructions given by the operator if you speak to one, and then just wait. They’ll be there – eventually.

Offsetting the cost – what are the additional benefits of breakdown cover?

Once you start adding all the different options on to your personal breakdown cover it can start to add up. Breaking it down and paying by monthly direct debit can help your finances but with all the options available, both the AA and RAC will be asking for more than £20 per month – that’s approaching £250 per year for cover.

One of the ways you can offset this cost is by looking at the various member benefits that the big breakdown services offer:

The RAC gives a discount on many regular car maintenance expenditures, such as MOT and brake pads, helps your family entertainment costs with savings of around 50% on a huge number of family attractions across the UK, and provides discounts with their insurance services.

The AA has a wide range of restaurant discounts that can be used regularly, which saves you money when stopping at services and offers cut price cinema tickets. Like the RAC, they also offer insurance discounts.

While at a first glance, these additional extras may seem like an irrelevancy - in reality, they can bring the cost of your breakdown cover down to almost nothing. If you regularly visit Harvester or Toby Carvery, for example, then getting a quarter off your bill a couple of times a month may surpass the cost of your direct debit with the AA. If you plan a yearly trip to some of the big theme parks with your family, then the discounts offered by the RAC can greatly reduce that annual membership – add in a cut-price yearly MOT and fixing your brakes and you might start to think they’re paying you!

Member benefits increase the longer you stay with your breakdown service, with some of the better ones only becoming available once you’ve been with the same company for three or more years, but they can be worth hanging on for.

What about my company car? Does my work get breakdown cover for business vehicles?

Almost all the breakdown services do a fleet version of their membership, allowing a business to cover every van, car and other vehicle in a single agreement.

If you use a company car, then check with your employer to make sure they have breakdown cover, and ensure you have the details so that you can call for rescue should you need it. If they don’t, then remember you are covered under any personal cover you might have or take out your own vehicle cover if your company car is your main vehicle.

Leased cars and hire cars

If you have a lease car under a personal contract, then you will need to obtain breakdown cover for it in the usual way. If it is a company lease car, then it may be covered under the business or you may need to get additional cover.

Hire cars almost always come with breakdown cover as part of the overall hire package – check with your hire company before leaving the premises. Your personal cover will also cover you in any hire car or borrowed car you drive.

Do I need breakdown cover?

While breakdown cover isn’t a legal requirement, it’s something you really should consider. With basic cover coming in around £30 per year, there’s little reason to scrimp.


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