How to buy the best breakdown cover
Getting the right breakdown cover isn't only about finding the best provider. You'll want to make sure you get the right level of cover for your needs, which won't leave you having to pay extra costs.
For instance, did you know basic roadside assistance doesn’t cover you within a quarter mile of your home? If your car doesn’t start one morning, you may have to pay up to £165 on top of your regular breakdown cover just to be seen at home.
Our research shows that people called more breakdown services to their home than any other location. It’s very important to get the right level of cover.
Here is our full guide, explaining car breakdown cover:
Types of car breakdown cover explained
You can get breakdown cover in several forms. Here are the basic types explained:
- Third-party cover: You pay an annual fee. If your car breaks down, the provider will either attempt to fix your car at the side of the road, or tow you to a garage. The AA, RAC and Green Flag are the biggest and best-known third-party providers.
- Pay-and-claim: You still pay an annual fee, but it's typically a bit less. If your car breaks down, you have to pay for the roadside repair or recovery yourself, and then claim it back.
- Carmaker cover: If you buy a new car, it should come with free breakdown cover that's branded by the manufacturer. For instance, if you buy a Honda you get free three-year breakdown cover from Hondacare Assist. The actual service is supplied by a third-party provider (the AA, in the case of Honda).
- Bank account and car insurance: You can get car breakdown cover bundled in with your packaged bank account or car insurance. For example Nationwide’s packaged account comes with breakdown cover supplied by LV Britannia, and NFU Mutual car insurance comes with breakdown cover supplied by the RAC.
Pay-and-claim cover seems to be disappearing. Only one out of the 11 providers we’ve rated this year offers a pay-and-claim option – GEM Motoring Assist. At the time of writing, it would save you just £15 a year.
Car breakdown cover levels: is basic enough?
Many people get their breakdown cover through third-party companies, and many of these offer different levels of cover. What the companies call these levels will vary, but here are the main ones explained:
Roadside assistance (the most basic cover)
A breakdown van will come out to you and will either fix your car on the spot, or tow to you to the closest garage. Note that if you’re within a quarter of a mile of your home (or a full mile if you're with Axa Insurance), basic roadside assistance doesn't apply.
Home cover (extends basic roadside assistance to cover you at home)
This can be a pricey addition to basic cover, but more people call out a breakdown service when they're at home compared with any other single location.
If you need to upgrade your cover from basic to home cover, the cost can be up to £165.
National recovery (towed to your destination)
You and your passengers will get a tow to your destination, or the closest garage to your destination. If you only have roadside assistance, you'll be towed to a local garage.
Personal cover (you're covered for any car you're in)
Regardless of whether you are the passenger or the driver, personal cover means you can call out a breakdown service for any car you happen to be in (as opposed to vehicle-level cover, which applies to a specific car).
This might useful if you have several vehicles, or regularly get lifts from someone else (you could even use it as a bargaining chip to get upgraded from rear seat to front passenger seat).
Is car breakdown cover a legal requirement?
No. You are under no obligation to buy car breakdown cover.
In fact, you can buy breakdown cover after breaking down, but it will cost you. Signing up at the scene of a breakdown invokes hefty charges, possibly in excess of £400 depending on your situation.
You can also upgrade your cover on the spot if you’re in a situation that's not included in basic roadside cover, such as breaking down at home or wanting to be towed 100 miles to your destination.
Is breakdown cover worth having?
In short, yes – especially if you own a less reliable car. You can find out if your car is fault-prone in our guide to the. If you need to call a breakdown service and have no cover at all, it could cost you hundreds of pounds.
And while it might be tempting to save money upfront by just getting basic cover, you could have to pay out large sums of money if you break down on your driveway (the most likely location for you to need to call out a breakdown service), or far away from home.
We've asked leading car breakdown providers how much it would cost to call out a recovery vehicle in three different situations, whether you have basic cover, or no cover at all. Usually, these charges include the cost of joining, plus an additional 'emergency call-out' fee, which can make the costs much higher than simply opting for more comprehensive cover in the first place.
Where do cars break down?
How much does it cost to buy cover in an emergency?
|No cover||Basic cover only|
|Broken down at home||Up to £245||Up to £165|
|Broken down 15 miles from home||Up to £180||Included|
|Broken down 100 miles from home1||Up to £430||Up to £255|
1 Assuming you want to be towed to a garage near your home, 100 miles away
2 Prices are based on data provided by leading car breakdown providers, correct as of May 2020. Prices are based on the most expensive company to call out in a given scenario. We assume that customers will choose to upgrade to the minimum level of cover needed for the mechanic to attend to them. If a customer chooses to upgrade to a higher level of cover, e.g. personal rather than vehicle cover, they will incur extra fees. Some fees depend on how recently you bought or renewed your membership, decreasing as your period of insurance goes on. In these instances, figures are based on a customer whose car breaks down early in their cover, when the maximum charge applies.
Cut your cover costs
Use our expert advice to cut the cost of your breakdown cover.
Shop around for breakdown cover
- Use our results to put together a shortlist of companies.
- Consider your needs and choose an appropriate level of service.
- Compare prices online or give the companies a call. If you’ve found a cheaper quote elsewhere, speak to your favoured provider and see if it will meet the quote or beat it.
Go beyond the big three
The AA, RAC and Green Flag have the largest market share of everyone we survey, but our results show that other companies can provide top-quality service – often at a lower price.
Don’t pay monthly
If you can afford it, you can cut your costs by paying annually instead of monthly. All the prices below applied at the time of writing.
- The AA charges £139 and RAC charges £150 as a one-off annual payment for cover that includes basic roadside assistance, at-home cover and national recovery.
- Both the AA and RAC websites default to showing monthly payments. This costs £14 a month for the AA and £15 for the RAC, totaling £168 and £180 respectively for a year's worth of cover.
- If you opt to pay annually rather than monthly, you can save £30 with RAC and £29 with AA.
Buying a new car in the next year?
If you’re thinking about getting a new car in the next year, question your breakdown provider at renewal time (but before you actually renew) to find out what its cancellation/refund policy is, as you'll get free cover from your new car's manufacturer. If you don’t like what your existing firm is offering, try another provider.
Typically you get a pro-rata refund based on how much time you’ve got left on your current agreement, but not always.
Sometimes the pro-rata refund comes with an admin charge. If you’ve made a claim in the year your cover applies to, you might not be entitled to a refund, and some companies don't offer a refund regardless.
There is a 14-day cooling-off period for all new policies, so if you choose to cancel within 14 days of setting up or renewing a policy, you should get a full refund.
The AA is the only third party we’ve rated that will let you freeze your policy and allow you to resume it at a later date when you need it again. Typically, you must interrupt your cover for a minimum of 90 days, although the AA lowered this to 30 days to allow customers to take breaks from their cover during the coronavirus lockdown..
How to get free breakdown cover
You can get free breakdown cover bundled in with your car insurance or a packaged bank account.
Car insurance add-ons
Try finding a car insurance policy that offers a breakdown add-on from a company you like, assuming the car insurance deal itself is right.
If you choose to get car insurance with NFU Mutual, for example, you'll get free basic breakdown cover from the RAC. If you want home cover as well (and we recommend this) it will cost £35, and include national recovery as well. That's a saving of £105, compared with RAC's named cover.
Packaged bank accounts
Nationwide Flexplus is our highest-rated packaged bank account. It costs £13 a month, or £156 a year.
You’ll get worldwide travel insurance with winter sports, mobile phone cover up to £1,000, plus UK and European breakdown recovery from LV Britannia Rescue (which charges £142 for European breakdown cover).
The value of fee-charging bank accounts is questionable. But if you're planning on driving your car to Europe, perhaps with skis in the boot to take advantage of that winter sport insurance, this account could be worth considering.
How to get a better service
Use our top tips to make sure your breakdown company can go that extra mile.
Use the app
Assuming you have a smartphone and can get a signal, using your breakdown cover company's app has distinct advantages.
The biggest is that it can tell your breakdown provider your exact location. No more describing the lay-by you’re in as ‘by the tree, the one with the leaves, just after a bridge’.
Start Rescue is the provider with the highest number of people using its app to report breakdowns (29% in our survey), compared with other providers we've rated.
We’ve had complaints from people who say their vehicle was damaged while being towed, and the breakdown company denied responsibility.
You can try to avoid this by taking photos of your broken-down car, just like you would if you’d had an accident. Then, if further damage occurs during the tow, take photos of that as well.
Be careful, though – only take photos if it's safe to do so.
Haggling made easy with our script
Car breakdown companies expect you to haggle. It's generally cheaper for them to keep existing customers, rather than acquire new ones, so haggling is being built in to pricing structures.
Most people still haggle over the phone. But if the fear of an awkward conversation is holding you back, then try live chat instead. This also means you get to keep a written record of what was said.
We asked ex-salespeople and successful hagglers for their top haggling tips, which include:
- bringing up any issues you've had with the provider
- saying the length of time you've been a customer
- saying how often you've used the service.
How to haggle
To make haggling easier, here's our script that should boost your chances of cutting your cover costs:
- 'I've received my renewal and would like to know why I'll be paying more this year.'
Wait for the response. It's likely the company will mention that new customers are often offered introductory prices.
- 'I've seen better deals from other providers than I'm currently getting with you.'
Wait and see what the call handler says. If they don't offer to reduce your premium, you can push a little harder.
- 'I can get a cheaper deal with [name of provider]. If you can't match or better it, I will cancel my policy with you.'
If you're not happy with the deal you're offered, don't put up with it. There's no sense paying over the odds. Instead, use our research into car breakdown cover companies to help you find a good provider that's rated highly by its customers.
European cover and Brexit
The good news is that Brexit should not affect European cover.
When we spoke to the big three breakdown companies – the AA, RAC and Green Flag – all three said those with European cover policies will not be impacted by Brexit. This means no stop to services and no mid-policy price rises.
The bad news is that you must remember to get European breakdown before you leave the UK. Your provider may not be able to help you if you break down overseas without appropriate cover.
Companies may be able to provide existing customers with tailored quotes depending on their circumstances, or put them in touch with overseas partners. But if you're driving in Europe, you'll save yourself a lot of hassle and expense if you have European cover in place before you go.
You can typically buy single-trip policies from car breakdown providers, so look into that before you travel.