Navigate your way to the best breakdown deal

Published by Sue Hayward on 26 October 2018.
Last updated on 26 October 2018

Navigate your way to the best breakdown deal

No one likes waiting for hours in their broken-down car for a mechanic to turn up. Here, we reveal what questions you should ask to get the best deal – and whether to pay all year round

Breakdown cover is one of motoring life’s extras. Unlike motor insurance, there is no legal obligation to buy it, and more than five million drivers in the UK don’t bother, according to Compare The Market.

But with basic roadside cover costing less than £20 a year, is it worth paying a few quid to avoid the potential cost of a motorway breakdown, which could mean bills running to hundreds of pounds if you need a tow home?

We look at if whether it’s worth buying this type of cover and compare the best deals around.

Does size of fleet matter?

Breakdown insurance is hugely competitive and while the AA and RAC have the biggest share of the market, there is a lot of competition from providers including Green Flag, Gem, Asda, as well as lesser known names such as Smart Rescue and Emergency Assist.

Many motor insurers have jumped on the breakdown bandwagon too and now offer cover as part of their policies or as an optional extra.

You might think that it is better to go with a bigger provider as they have larger fleets and therefore a greater chance of being close by and getting to you quickly. However, bigger is not always better when it comes to breakdown services, according to Matt Oliver, motor insurance expert at GoCompare.

“Instead of using their own fleet of recovery vehicles, smaller breakdown providers contract business out to local recovery services, which could potentially offer benefits in terms of reaching the scene in a shorter time. In less built-up areas, local services will have a smaller operating area than the nationwide providers.”

Bigger is not always better when it comes to roadside cover

What type of cover do you need?

“When comparing breakdown cover, motorists should check whom, or what, the policy covers,” says Amanda Stretton, motoring editor at Confused.com.

“Some policies will cover the car, regardless of who is driving, while others cover the drivers themselves, regardless of what car they are driving,” she adds.

Vehicle cover is cheapest and the one to go for if you only drive one car, but if you have access to other vehicles, then ‘personal cover’ can be a better, although pricier option.

Prices between these two options vary but, as a rough guide, you can pay £27 a year for Asda’s basic vehicle cover, but this doubles to £55 if you want personal cover.

Going for personal cover with LV= can boost your policy price by around £50 (depending on the level of cover you choose), and with Start Rescue, basic vehicle-based cover costs £16.45, compared to £49.34 for personal cover.

How much cover do you need?

There are typically three to four levels of cover, although each provider may have its own variations.

Roadside: This is the cheapest and most basic cover. It means a free call-out and around an hour’s help at the roadside. If the fault can’t be fixed, you’ll get towed to a local garage, usually within a 10-mile radius.

In most cases, you’ll need to be at least a quarter of a mile from home when you breakdown, although with some providers, such as Start Rescue, AXA and Swiftcover, it’s one mile.

Most firms don’t do call-outs within the first 24 to 48 hours after you sign up

“He drove me home even though it was miles out of his way”

Andrew Bloch, 44, from north London took out breakdown cover with Green Flag for his Mini JCW.

“I paid £66 for its Rescue Plus package, which was half the price of similar cover with the AA,” he says.

Just weeks later, Andrew was driving home late at night in torrential rain when he saw cars slowing down as they approached a huge puddle across the road.

“I drove through it slowly, came out the other side and thought all was good until I got on the M1, when I suddenly heard a ‘chugging’ sound and the engine died,” he explains.

After pulling over on to the hard shoulder, Andrew repeatedly tried to start the car without success, so he called Green Flag. “It was now around 11pm and pitch dark, so it was a massive relief when a recovery driver turned up to load my car on to the back of his trailer. He dropped it at a Mini garage and took me home, even though it was miles away in the opposite direction.”

Roadside with Home Start: The next level up means that, along with the benefits of roadside cover, you will get help if you break down at home.

Recovery and onward travel: The most comprehensive package, this usually includes Roadside and Home Start, and also means you and your passengers get taken to your final destination within the UK.

The onward part covers the cost of a hire car, accommodation or travel by public transport while your car is being fixed. There is usually the option to extend UK cover across Europe too.

Can you sign up at the roadside?

Most companies don’t do call-outs within the first 24 to 48 hours, so you can’t join online and ring for a rescue 10 minutes later.

Both the AA and RAC offer an ‘emergency’ service for non-members, but you’ll pay a penalty fee and will have to sign up for a year’s membership. For this, the RAC charges £89, which includes a 50-mile tow, (with potential additional charges), while the AA charges £99, plus the cost of membership in both cases.

Are you already covered?

Some motor insurers include breakdown cover as standard, so check if you’re already covered. According to independent financial information company Defaqto, 15% of comprehensive car insurance policies include breakdown cover as standard, and 64% offer it as an optional extra.

But even if breakdown cover is included, check what cover you will get. NFU Mutual provides basic roadside cover with the RAC as standard on all its motor policies, although it’s possible to pay to upgrade for more benefits.

Some packaged current accounts also offer optional breakdown cover, which may be cheaper than buying it separately. For example, Nationwide’s FlexPlus offers breakdown cover for £13 a month.

How do breakdown providers stack up?

Provider Number of patrols Who comes out? Annual call-out limits Basic annual vehicle cover
AA 2,700-plus AA Unlimited From £39*
RAC 1,600 RAC Five a year on some policies From £34.99
Green Flag 2,400 vehicles Independent agents Unlimited From £25
Gem 425 recovery operators Independent agents Unlimited From £84.80**
Asda 3,000 Britannia Rescue Six a year From £27
Emergency Assist 3,000 Independent agents Four to six call-outs, depending on cover From £19
Aviva 1,600 RAC Five a year with some policies No standard pricing. Quotes based on individual circumstances
Start Rescue 4,000 Independent agents Unlimited From £16.45
LV= 3,000 Britannia Rescue Unlimited From £30
Axa/Swiftcover 350 network partners with 3,000 contractors Independent agents Seven a year From £44.99
Provider Number of patrols Who comes out? Annual call-out limits Basic annual vehicle cover
AA 2,700-plus AA Unlimited From £39*
RAC 1,600 RAC Five a year on some policies From £34.99
Green Flag 2,400 vehicles Independent agents Unlimited From £25
Gem 425 recovery operators Independent agents Unlimited From £84.80**
Asda 3,000 Britannia Rescue Six a year From £27
Emergency Assist 3,000 Independent agents Four to six call-outs, depending on cover From £19
Aviva 1,600 RAC Five a year with some policies No standard pricing. Quotes based on individual circumstances
Start Rescue 4,000 Independent agents Unlimited From £16.45
LV= 3,000 Britannia Rescue Unlimited From £30
Axa/Swiftcover 350 network partners with 3,000 contractors Independent agents Seven a year From £44.99

Notes: *Includes an introductory discount. **No ‘roadside’ only option available, so this package covers home start, recovery and onward journey. Source: Moneywise.co.uk

More ways to save

Happy with your existing cover? Then don’t be afraid to try to haggle the price down at renewal. It’s amazing how much you can get off just by asking.

Some providers claim to undercut competitors, and Green Flag promises to save you 50% off any AA or RAC renewal quote.

Check deals through cashback sites such as TopCashback.co.uk to cut policy prices. If you want to go with the RAC, consider trading in Tesco Clubcard vouchers for a membership.

I’ve always bought breakdown cover and regularly shop around to find the best deals. However, I’ve switched to the AA after being stranded for two hours in a supermarket car park when my convertible roof jammed in mid-air.

Try to haggle at renewal – it’s amazing how much you can save just by asking

It was unexpected and inconvenient, but after making a call to my provider, I was told someone would arrive within 40 minutes. But as time ticked by and after chasing them several times, I was finally told nobody was accepting the job.

This was quite worrying as I knew it didn’t have its own patrols, so if it was reliant on independent contractors who were all busy, did this mean I’d be spending the night in a car park?

Finally, after two hours, a recovery vehicle arrived and the driver managed to get my roof closed sufficiently so I could drive home.

Of course, there is no guarantee how quickly a breakdown company will come out, despite many giving ‘average’ response times.

Breakdown cover checklist

Policy small print

Check terms and conditions carefully.

“The word ‘roadside’ may be used quite literally,” warns Matt Oliver. “If your car breaks down on private land, such as the car park of a tourist attraction or shopping centre, your breakdown provider might not come to your rescue”.

Look after your car

Breakdown cover isn’t a licence to call a mechanic to fix every niggling problem. Policies usually specify cover caused by mechanical and electrical faults and while you can expect a 24/7 service, calls-outs for recurrent faults may be refused.

For example, LV= insists you must “service and maintain your vehicle in line with manufacturer’s guidelines”, which could mean without a regular service, you’re stuck.

Auto-renewal

Lots of insurers set up policies this way, which can mean you pay over the odds the following year. If you auto-renew, you may miss out on a cheaper deal elsewhere. Decline this option and shop around when your renewal quote comes in. Put it in your diary if you’re worried you’ll forget.

Extras

Filling up with the wrong fuel or running out of it, or locking your keys in your car, can count as exclusions on some policies, while others may cover them. Check what yours covers.

SUE HAYWARD is a freelance personal finance and consumer writer who has a money column in My Weekly magazine

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I love the RAC! A few years

I love the RAC! A few years ago I took my car to a local garage and got a new battery fitted. The following day my car wouldn't start, so, as I'm a member of the RAC, I called them out. The RAC man told me that the battery was flat. I explained to him that I had had a brand new battery fitted the previous day. It transpired that the garage had fitted a used, almost dead, battery and not a new one, but had charged me for a new one. The RAC man insisted on coming with me to the garage who had supplied and fitted the battery. He told them off politely, but in no uncertain terms, and insisted that they replace it immediately with a new one and that they apologise to me, which they did, very sheepishly! Thank you, RAC, you guys are wonderful!