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What is European breakdown cover and do I need it?

Written by Adrian Holliday, Finance Writer

18 August 2020

A European holiday breakdown is stressful but good quality protection isn’t expensive. Read more to discover the breakdown insurance basics you need at the right price – then get on and enjoy your break.

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The European breakdown cover basics

European breakdown cover means vehicle repairs in Europe are carried out at the roadside or a local garage, should the worst happen. 

Breakdown protection varies wildly: some policies arrange for your car to be repatriated if it can’t be fixed. But there may be limits on call-out costs or the number of breakdown call-outs you can make. You may even have to pay all costs up front and then claim back the costs, depending on your policy. 

You may need to continue your journey on public transport or begiven a hire car to continue your holiday. Different policies [lace restrictions on onward travel costs so check before buying.

As Covid-19 restrictions lift (summer 2020) and holiday planning gets under way, it makes sense to compare quotes in advance. The right protection can save you huge amounts of money and stress. Remember, most standard UK breakdown policies don’t include European mainland cover.

How much European cover do I need?

It depends on your vehicle, but most cars, vans, minibuses and motorbikes can be covered. 

How many European trips do you make a year? Do you need:

  • single trip and short-term cover only?

  • longer term cover that may include two or three regular trips? If so, an annual policy might be better value overall

  • any policy at all if you’re covered through your bank account, such as Nationwide’s FlexPlus account or Co-Op’s Everyday Extra Account, for example

How much does European breakdown cover cost? 

While a higher level of breakdown protection may cost more, it’s not always the case. Shop around, compare quotes and you may find better-value and better-quality protection. 

You generally build your cover according to what you want. Policy cost depends on how long you will be away for and any excess charges.

Most policies need details of your vehicle, including age and condition. You must also say if you’ve made any modifications. If you tow a caravan or trailer on your trip, then you will need to check any repatriation options carefully. 

Your existing UK breakdown policy might allow you to upgrade for a modest fee – but be careful if the fee seems too high. It may be cheaper to buy stand-alone cover.

The best way to get the right European breakdown cover is to compare quotes.

Personal cover or vehicle cover?

There are two types of cover: personal and vehicle. 

If you buy personal cover you’re covered for any breakdown, whatever car you’re in. The cover will be subject to some basic conditions such as the age of the vehicle and its condition. In other words, personal cover is specific to you. 

If your household has more than one vehicle then it’s an option to consider, though it might work out more expensive overall.

Covid-19 – how does it affect my travel plans now?

The government is clear that all overseas travel carries risk. It has published a full list of countries exempt from ‘all but essential travel’.

From early July 2020 France is exempt from non-essential travel UK government advice. This is significant as 17 million Britons visit France every year. Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Greece, Italy, Spain, Norway and Turkey are also open for international travel. 

You can check UK ferry services online quickly and easily. 

For example, DFDS claims Dover-Calais, Dover-Dunkirk and Newhaven-Dieppe crossings “are sailing to normal schedules”. Brittany Ferries says passenger services to Ireland, Frances and Spain have resumed though Covid “has forced us to consolidate some of our services during the summer”.

While the UK has left the European Union “rules on travel to EU countries will stay the same until 31 December 2020 while the UK and EU negotiate additional arrangements,” says UK government foreign travel advice

Separately, France remains on high alert for Daesh (formerly known as ISIL) as are other European countries.

Sensible precautions if you break down

If your car does break down, Covid-19 behaviour and social distancing protocols remain, they will be the same as in the UK. Be observant, respectful and be prepared too for holiday on-the-spot health screenings. Take a mask with you, even if you don’t wear it always when out and about.

Make a breakdown policy short-list

Have a think about what your breakdown priorities are. A good blend suits most people. Remember, holidays are supposed to be relaxing.

Vehicle Repatriation

Vehicle repatriation covers the costs of bringing your broken down car home on the back of a truck, plus you and your passengers. You need to check if it is offered and how many passengers are included?

Courtesy car

Does your policy include giving you a replacement car while yours is repaired or repatriated and will it be of similar size? 

Onward Transport costs

If you need to travel on without your car, will tickets for train, planes and buses be covered?

Lost keys

What about cover for lost keys? You don‘t want your holiday ruined if you lose your keys on the beach.

Wrong fuel

If you accidently put petrol in your diesel car or put derv in your unleaded and the car shudders to a stop, will your cover include flushing your engine and refueling?

Call-out limits?

Does your breakdown cover limit the number of call-outs they will attend on any given trip?

Accommodation

What about onward journey accommodation costs if you cannot use your car – are these offered?

Garage labour costs

Does the policy limit garage costs and are those limits appropriate for your vehicle?

English speaking help

Is there an English-speaking help-line?

Breakdown policy detail before buying – what else might you need?

Depending on your circumstances there’s a list of other possibilities to consider before making a decision. As the UK is quitting the EU, it’s a good idea to double-check details for exclusions that could trip you up. 

Check carefully which countries your cover includes. There are 44 countries across Europe and not all sit inside the European Economic Area.   

  • 24/7 cover: not all European breakdown protection include 24/7 cover so check for any day or night restrictions

  • Garage parts expense costs: are parts included or not? Generally they’re not but check

  • Towing restrictions: what conditions lie in the small print? If your car needs towing to a garage, is this extra?

  • Onward public transport costs – if you continue your journey by public transport while your vehicle’s repaired, are these costs covered? And if your vehicle can’t be fixed and is repatriated, are there limits on passenger repatriation numbers? Again, check

  • Overall claims limits – are there any?

  • Number of people in vehicle – what are the limits? This is particularly important for mini-bus cover as well as any car cover with repatriation promises.

Compare European breakdown insurance quotes.

How do I compare European breakdown costs? 

USwitch makes comparing breakdown costs and options easy. After entering a few details about yourself, your vehicle and the type of cover you’re after, you can then compare quotes quickly. 

It’s straightforward to work out quotes by price and what’s included as well as courtesy car availability and any excesses.

Prepare your vehicle before leaving for Europe

Lower the risk of being stranded by making sure your car is properly prepared for a long haul trip. Some garages offer a pre-holiday check in the summer months. Or, get your annual service done if it looms close to your break. 

Bear in mind any electrical or mechanical failure that occurred before your journey may well not be covered. Insurers will have tight rules about prior maintenance. 

For example, if you’ve neglected to get a cam-belt change in line with manufacturer recommendations, then claim costs may be reasonably rejected. Some sensible steps beforehand will lower your stress and breakdown risk – so don’t scrimp on these. 

Checklists of essentials to pack for a European trip

Each country has its own rules of what you should carry in the car at all times. 

For example, consider France’s requirements:

  • Emergency warning triangle (two in Spain)

  • Headlight beam deflectors

  • Unused breathalyser, which shows the French certification mark ‘NF’

  • High visibility reflective jackets for each occupant of your vehicle

  • Spare headlight bulb kit 

  • If your car registration plates don’t display the EU symbol/Union Flag then you need a GB sticker

  • Spare pair of driving glasses if you use driving glasses

  • Some French cities now demand emissions stickers – ‘clean air’ vignettes – on your windscreen

Pay close attention to mobile phone use. Using a Bluetooth hands-free mobile in France is illegal. In some cases, you can have your licence suspended regardless of nationality if caught using a mobile at the wheel – which would seriously disrupt your driving holiday. 

Satnavs that warn you of speed cameras in France are also illegal – so turn off your satnav speed camera alerts.

Extra driving rules to consider

Winter tyres are mandatory in Austria, Czech Republic and compulsory in Italy on certain roads. In mountainous regions of France, Germany and Italy snow chains must be carried in the car. 

If you are not sure about highly specific local requirements, check carefully before leaving. Typically, European winter tyre regulations come into force between 1 November and the middle of April.

Rude or offensive gestures towards other road users can attract steep fines in Germany, for example. Be aware too of local rules around eating at the wheel and distraction risk.

What to do if you break down

If you do breakdown while abroad: 

  • Pull over. If possible stop on a hard shoulder as soon as you can. Or, find a safe space away from fast-moving traffic

  • Turn on your hazard lights

  • Leave the vehicle if sensible. If your car is close to busy traffic, such as an auto-route, it’s a good idea for all occupants to find a safer space near the car. Try and get all occupants to leave the car by the door nearest the verge

  • Call your breakdown provider. Update them with your location plus any detail of the breakdown that’s helpful

A breakdown far from home is unnerving for you and your passengers. Keep in mind a few simple actions to keep everyone safe. It’s helpful to know what to do in advance so you can take full advantage of your insurance policy protections. 

10 tips to keep your European holiday worry-free

Here’s a few more ideas to help you get the best policy deal:

  1. Remember, you don’t want to duplicate cover or spend money you don’t need to. Does your bank offer you European breakdown cover via your current or savings accounts? The same goes for your insurance cover – you might already have cover

  2. Likewise, if your car’s fairly new your manufacturer warranty might include European breakdown protection. Check?

  3. Does your car have a spare wheel – if not, are you covered in a blow-out? (Some countries will demand that you carry a full-size spare)

  4. Documentation – take your driving licence, insurance cover note and your V5 log book. Not taking all these documents risks a fine from European police

  5. If your car is lower value – say under £2,000 – are there any repatriation cost limits burrowed away in the small print? 

  6. GB sticker - some department stores can charge £10 plus. They’re less than half that price on eBay

  7. Bear in mind some policies may need you to pay up front for any costs – so keep any breakdown paperwork and receipts so you can claim back later

  8. Take a car spare key and find a safe place in your luggage to keep it

  9. And don’t forget your European breakdown cover documentation – policy numbers, ‘phone numbers. You may need to upgrade your car insurance if you’re heading overseas

  10. A cheap policy can be cheap for a reason and riddled with get-out clauses. But there are good value policies that offer high quality cover too. A low quality policy is always a bad deal

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