The weather forecast for the week ahead is predicting arctic conditions. Rail strikes are threatening to ruin Christmas for non-drivers. Which leaves the car as the only realistic option for getting about over the festive season for many people.

But as any seasoned driver will know, a lot can go wrong with a car. So with temperatures dropping and lots of other motorists on the road, I’d strongly encourage you to get to know your vehicle breakdown cover, so you know what to expect if you get unlucky while driving home for Christmas.

Breakdown cover is essential for any motorist, particularly over the Winter months. But these policies are varied and often misunderstood. Worryingly, there have been a number of cases reported in the media recently where people have been left stranded for considerable periods of time, sometimes in potentially hazardous situations. In one of the worst incidents, I was told by a woman in her late fifties that she’d been left stuck on an unlit road in the middle of nowhere for ages – eventually making it to a garage after 12 long hours.

These horror stories are the exceptions, but people are reporting increasingly long waits to be rescued. So before you set off on your Christmas journeys, dig out that policy and find out exactly what you are covered for. Here’s my guide on what to watch out for – and your rights when things go wrong.

What kind of cover do I have?

Lots of the people who contact me about problems with a car breakdown claim are confused about the type of cover they’ve purchased. This isn’t surprising as there are lots of terms to describe these policies. Yet the differences are really important, so it’s worth getting your heard around what you already have or are considering buying.

At its most basic, breakdown cover is designed to help you repair your vehicle at the roadside or get it to a garage if necessary. They type of cover that’s suitable for you depends on a range of factors, like whether you travel long distances or just use your car to pop to the shops. Other factors include the age of the car and the level of support you might need if something unexpected occurs leaving you stranded. Just to confuse things, you can ‘add on’ extras to these policies if the cover you’ve purchased doesn’t include every eventuality you want.

Roadside assistance is the most basic level of cover, protecting you when your vehicle breaks down away from your home. However, the most rudimentary policies will only attempt a fix on the spot and failing that, will tow you a short distance to a garage. The breakdown usually has to have occurred over a short distance from your home – around a quarter of a mile in most policies I’ve looked at.

Onward journey policies are designed to get you to your destination in the event of a breakdown that can’t be sorted out. These policies generally cover things like hire cars, accommodation and other travel expenses. These policies are the option for -people who drive some distance and can be great, but watch for the exclusions and caveats in the contract.

‘At home’ policies cover you for your car breaking down at or near your home (unsurprisingly). These policies are usually bought by people who don’t travel too far and are more concerned about breakdowns close to their address. Once again though, the devil is in the detail and most policies have a limit on the number of miles you can travel from home in order to make a claim.

National recovery policies do what they say on the tin. You can usually get your car towed to a location of your choice, which is a useful option if you drive long distances. Imagine if your car breaks down in Aberdeen but you live in Dorset. If you don’t have this level of cover, then you’ll be looking at a long schlep to collect your car if you’ve had to leave it at a garage for repairs.

Finally, European recovery will cover you for travels around Europe. Useful as these policies are, as the Times has previously reported, drivers could also potentially get caught out by the post Brexit rules, so check out the Government advice here.

Add-on policies

In recent years, insurers have realised that they can monetise ‘extra’ things as add-on or ‘bolt-on’ policies that sit alongside the main agreement. This has raised a few eyebrows as previously, many contracts included these things for free. Annoying though this may be, you should look at the add-on options available alongside your policy and consider if they are worthwhile.

Add-on extras look pretty affordable on first glance, but bear in mind that an extra fiver a month works out at £60 a year. So get the calculator out and work out what the total cost of a policy with all add-ons would be. It might be more affordable to buy a more comprehensive policy that includes more things, than a cheaper one with a range of additional add-on services.

Other common add-on policies include:

  • Flat battery cover
  • Lost keys
  • Tyre replacements
  • Legal cover
  • Hire cars

So what can go wrong?

Complaints about breakdown cover and roadside assistance were increasing significantly pre-pandemic as more and more people reported poor service, long delays in being ‘recovered’ and customer service issues. The Financial Ombudsman received just under 600 complaints about breakdown cover last year, despite the pandemic and severe limitations on the things that people can complain about to the service. Many motoring experts have told me that the lack of competition in this market – which has meant a few main players dominate – has led to problems as service and staffing cutbacks and the impact of lockdown has impacted on the sector.

Sadly, many of the people who are unhappy tell me they don’t pursue complaints because the immediate problem – being stranded for ages – is their main focus. When they make it home they’re often so fed up they let it go.

Complaints tend to fall in to two categories. Things that aren’t covered by the type of insurance or agreement people have taken out and issues arising from the recovery itself.

If you feel you’ve been misled when you took out breakdown cover you can make a complaint about a mis-sale. In theory, if you’ve incurred costs as a result of an unclear or ambiguous contract then you can ask for compensation. It pays to do a bit of research before you make the complaint though. For example, insurance contracts tend to be lengthy and cover all kinds of scenarios, but the business should let you know what the ‘key facts’ are that are essential to the policy. Just because a clause is in a contract doesn’t mean it’s fair or being appropriately applied. In addition, if you’ve been told by a sales agent something that turns out to be untrue or misleading, you should make that the focus of your complaint.

Compensation arising from the vehicle breakdown can sometimes be harder to quantify, but the implications are often much more serious. On one level, you can seek compensation as a result of the business failing to meet its obligations to you in the contract, like the time you are left waiting for assistance, for example. However, there’s a wider issue here too. If you feel you’re in a dangerous or unsafe situation then the business should do all it can to get assistance to you as a priority. If it’s failed to do so then you can ask them to address this and the impact the delay has had on you.

Taking things further

It’s a source of immense annoyance to me that breakdown cover is the only regulated form of insurance where you can make a complaint to the free Financial Ombudsman service about some, but not all things.

Explaining this is ludicrously complicated, but in a nutshell, you can usually complain about the selling or administration of the policy, but not about breaking down or issues arising as a result of the claim. In my opinion, that’s pretty bonkers. After all, most complaints are going to arise as a result of a poorly handled recovery of your vehicle. You can find out more here.

Don’t let this put you off though. You should still complain to the business about the situation regardless, setting out what you want them to do to resolve the problem. However, if you do decide to go to the Ombudsman, then phrase your complaint about the sale or management of the policy and why you feel that led to the problem with the claim. The Ombudsman has the unenviable job of trying to work out just what the regulations say they can and can’t consider. But during the process, the business might just decide to take a pragmatic view about the whole complaint.

Before you hit the road

One last thing! It might seem obvious but before you set off you your journey, plan for the worst. Make sure you’ve packed lots of blankets and warm clothes, heat packs and non-perishable food and water. Having a couple of phone charges and cables handy is essential. And make sure you’ve saved the policy details and telephone number to your phone – and keep paper documents handy too – just in case.

Featured in Times Money Mentor – Martyn James

Why you need to check your car breakdown cover this week

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