Cold, dark winter months make driving conditions more hazardous, and increase your chances of a breakdown.

The winter weather leads to soaring numbers of call-outs for breakdowns, according to motoring groups. So it’s important to make sure your car is as ready as it can be for cold weather, and this includes considering whether it’s worth investing in breakdown cover if you don’t already have it.

Here, we look at what you need to know about breakdown cover, and some of the things you need to watch out for when you’re choosing a policy.

Do you already have breakdown cover?

When you bought your car insurance you may have opted for certain extras, such as breakdown cover. This means you will receive free roadside assistance if your car breaks down. You may also have breakdown cover as part of a packaged bank account, if you didn’t buy it as an add-on with your car insurance policy. So before buying a standalone policy, or calling for help if you’re stuck on the roadside, check whether you’re already covered.

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Can you get emergency cover if you break down?

You can call a breakdown provider if you don’t have cover in place already to request an emergency call-out. However, you’ll be charged more for this service than if you’re a policyholder, although it will ensure you get the help you need, such as a car tow to a garage or roadside repair. You’ll usually pay a one-off call-out fee plus the cost of breakdown cover in this scenario. If you need help and don’t have breakdown cover, you can call the AA on 03300 046 046, the RAC on 0330 159 0740 or Green Flag on 0345 246 1558.

Choosing standalone breakdown cover

Ideally, taking out breakdown cover before your car conks out is the most stress-free and cheapest option. But it’s not simply a case of buying the first policy you come across, as cover can vary widely and you usually need to choose between several options, including vehicle cover, which covers only your car if it breaks down and is usually the cheapest option, or personal cover, which includes any vehicle you drive that breaks down. This may be useful if, for example, you have several cars in your household that you drive.

You also have to choose the level of cover you want:

Roadside assistance (basic) cover: This type of cover enables you to call someone out to fix your car if it breaks down on the roadside, rather than at home. If they cannot fix your vehicle, it’ll be towed to the nearest garage.

Home Start breakdown recovery: This includes cover if your vehicle fails to start at home, or within a certain distance from home. Most policies include a tow to a garage near your home address. 

National recovery breakdown cover: WIth this type of cover, your vehicle may be towed to any destination in the UK for repair, so if you often travel far from home, this will probably be the best cover for you. 

European cover: If you frequently drive in Europe, you may also choose to add European breakdown cover as an extra.

How much does breakdown cover cost?

Here is a selection of policy costs sourced from some of the major providers at the time of writing for single vehicle and single person cover. 

Bear in mind that these prices frequently change and are therefore only to be taken as a guide. The exact cost of cover will depend on your particular vehicle, and your personal circumstances:

ProviderBasic coverWith home
cover included
With national
cover included
Admiral£45From £90From £90
Green Flag£24£49+£45+

Rates correct as at 11.10.23

What to check for when buying breakdown cover

It’s vital to read the small print carefully when buying breakdown cover, so you don’t get caught out when you need help. For example, check how many call-outs are included, as some of the cheapest policies will limit the number of times you can request help in a year. You also need to look for limits on the number of people covered for onward travel in the event your car needs to be towed away. If you have a large family, this is particularly important, and some policies limit this number to four. 

Check for extras and other benefits before buying breakdown cover too. Some providers offer special vouchers, discounts and benefits such as reduced price MOTs. Cheaper providers often use local recovery vans rather than fleets of branded cars, which significantly reduces their cost. 

Beware that the cost of breakdown cover may increase once you provide your personal and vehicle details. For example, you may be asked to pay more if you have a really old car, as there’s a higher risk that it’ll break down.

Which is the best breakdown cover provider?

This depends on your personal requirements and budget. According to Times Money Mentor, which uses research from independent research group Fairer Finance, the following providers offer some of the best breakdown policies:

Comprehensive cover

AutoAid’s Total UK policy from £39.91 a year is a cheap, comprehensive option that offers substantial cover and is awarded five stars by Fairer Finance. It includes roadside assistance, national recovery, HomeStart and Onward Travel, among other things. 

Affordable cover

RAC’s basic cover costs £7 a month, compared to £7.50 for the AA.

According to Fairer Finance, it ranks above many other providers for customer service, and is the eighth most recommended brand in its customer poll. 

Best all-round breakdown cover

The AA’s premium breakdown cover is one of the best overall policies, as it doesn’t impose any limits on callouts, and includes home cover, onward travel and overnight emergency accommodation. Fairer Finance ranks the AA top for customer trust, too, although it’s not the cheapest on the market (from about £17 a month).

How can I reduce the cost of breakdown cover?

You don’t have to accept the price you’re offered for breakdown cover. It’s perfectly acceptable to haggle, and providers expect you to do what you can to reduce the cost. According to consumer association Which?, more than eight out of 10 (82%) of people who haggled with their breakdown provider on renewal lowered their price. You can haggle on the phone or use online chat if you find this an easier option. This way, you can prepare what you want to say and have a record of what’s agreed. 

Let your provider know if you’ve found a cheaper policy elsewhere, for example, or if you’ve been a customer for several years, ask for a loyalty discount. If you’ve had any issues with your cover, use these as leverage to reduce the policy cost.

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Is it a legal requirement to have breakdown cover?

You don’t legally have breakdown cover as a driver, but it can provide you with peace of mind that you won’t be left stranded at the roadside if something goes wrong with your car. Besides, if you need help in that scenario, paying for cover on the spot will be more expensive than buying an annual policy. 

If you’re driving overseas, it’s a good idea to have breakdown cover in place too, as recovery costs can be even more expensive than in the UK, depending on where you’re travelling.

How can you reduce the chances of breaking down this winter?

There are several steps you can take to reduce the chances of a breakdown when you’re on the road this winter. Before setting off, make sure to check these things:

Windscreen: Make sure your windscreen is free from ice and that you can see clearly. Use a de-icer tool or spray to clear it if necessary to ensure that your vision is clear. You can use your air conditioning/fans to speed up the process, and remove condensation from the inside of your windscreen with a cloth before you set off. 

Check your headlights: Ensure that your headlights are free from dirt or snow, so that you can see clearly in wintry weather conditions.

Radiators: Check your vehicle’s anti-freeze levels are sufficient (between maximum and minimum). This is the coloured liquid which is used to stop your engine and radiators freezing. Making sure it’s topped up will be much less expensive than fixing damage to frozen parts.

Check your oil level: You should ideally check your oil level on a weekly basis. This can be checked by using a dipstick with marks that show the minimum and maximum oil level (your level should fall between these two lines). 

Battery: Breakdowns are often caused by flat batteries, so make sure that your battery isn’t nearing the end of its life. They usually last for about five years maximum, but can be run down by using vehicle heaters, lights and other parts and leaving these on for long periods. 

Tyre tread: According to the AA, your tyre tread should be a minimum of 2mm and ideally, 3mm in the winter. Your tyres’ tread helps to disperse water and snow from the roads to prevent accidents. You can check your tyre’s tread using a 20p piece, and inserting this into the grooves on your tyres. Ideally, you shouldn’t be able to see the outer band on the coin. 

Tyre pressure: Check that your tyres are sufficiently inflated during the winter. You can find your tyre’s recommended level printed on the inside of the driver’s door, or in your vehicle’s handbook, and use a garage’s air pump to check this and inflate if necessary.

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