What do you do if your car breaks down abroad?

2 minutes

Are you loading up the car and heading for a winter getaway? Read our guide on how to prepare for your road trip – and what to do in the less desirable event of a breakdown.

  • How to stay safe if you’ve broken down abroad
  • Extra kit you’ll need while driving in Europe
  • Call '112' in any EU country in the case of an emergency

What do you do if your car breaks down abroad?

For a lot of Britons, winter involves packing the bags and heading on a road trip to either escape the colder climates, or explore the festivities abroad.

To make sure the journey is more Herbie Rides Again than Trains, Planes and Automobiles, it's a good idea to check that your car insurance protects against any potential mishaps abroad – LV= offers free cover for 180 days a year to our comprehensive car insurance customers driving in Europe – and that your breakdown cover extends to the countries you’ll be visiting.

Leon Poultney talks to motoring experts for a guide on what to do in the event of a breakdown abroad and how to properly prepare for your travels.

How should I prepare my car for a European road trip?

First things first: it’s a good idea to check that your vehicle is up to the task of tackling a long, and potentially arduous trip abroad.

‘Prepare your car beforehand,’ recommends Peter Rodger, the Institute of Advanced Motorists' chief examiner (@IAMRoadSmart).

‘An easy way to do this is by taking your car in for a service, if it’s due. There are also checks you can make yourself, like checking tyre pressures and tread, as well as topping up oil and coolant,’ he adds.

Holidaymakers should also check the road rules of the country they plan on visiting, as some require drivers to pack high-visibility vests and breathalysers.

‘French law states that all drivers must carry breathalyser alcohol test kits and, in Spain, a high-vis vest is an essential item. In some countries, a speed camera warning system on a satnav can land motorists in hot water,’ says Richard Gladman, head of driving and riding standards at the Institute of Advanced Motorists.

In some countries, you will also need a red warning triangle, while a first aid kit is compulsory in Austria. Also, be aware of toll roads on your route, and make sure that you have change handy to pay your way, just in case they don’t accept card payments.

Many motoring retailers and shops aboard popular ferry crossings sell kits that contain a comprehensive list of required safety equipment, but they can be expensive.

Anything I should know about driving abroad?

Yes, there are plenty of things that make driving abroad different – travelling on the right-hand side of the road being one of the most important.

‘It could be worth having passengers remind you to drive on the right,’ suggests Peter. ‘But a few kilometres of driving on the other side of the road is usually enough for it to become second nature.

‘You’ll also need to take appropriate documentation to comply with immigration and customs requirements,’ he adds.

The documentation you’ll need to have when driving in a foreign country includes:

  • passports for those travelling
  • driving licence
  • driving licence counterpart (if applicable)
  • vehicle registration document
  • car insurance certificate (an insurance cover note)
  • a Green Card (if applicable)
  • a V5C registration certificate (log book)

If you’ve got European cover on your insurance policy, make sure to keep your insurer’s phone number to hand.
On top of this, some countries require a vehicle to display a GB sign on the rear of the car, unless the number plate already features this, while headlights will need a small adjustment to avoid dazzling oncoming drivers in the dark.

Some modern cars can do this electronically, but it will require a cheap headlamp adaptor stick-on kit in most other circumstances, which can be picked up online.

But what happens if my car stops working?

Remember not to panic – just treat the breakdown abroad as you would in the UK. This means pulling over to a hard shoulder, if possible, and moving yourself and passengers to a safe spot, ideally behind a barrier at the side of the road.

‘It’s incredibly important to get out of the vehicle safely, and stand away from and behind the stopped car, when you break down on a motorway anywhere in Europe,’ emphasises David Redmond, underwriting manager at LV=.

Taking note of that country's emergency number and keeping it in the car is also wise, although it is typically 112 throughout most of Europe.

Good European breakdown cover will not only have an emergency breakdown vehicle dispatched to your location, it will also recover a stricken vehicle so make sure to keep that number in the car too. The phone number for European breakdown may be different abroad to make it cheaper to call.  

Make sure you read the small print of any policy: are you liable for hire vehicle and accommodation costs if your car decides it's too cold?

‘Most good car insurance policies will include driving abroad, but breakdown cover is different,’ says Gladman. ‘There’s nothing worse than being stuck on the side of a European road, with no grasp of the local language, trying to arrange a recovery truck.’

How do I stay safe in a breakdown situation?

From a safe place, it will be possible to seek further assistance or use a public phone if, for some reason, your mobile phone isn't working. Just be sure to have the specific European number of your breakdown provider handy.

‘Sometimes it's not possible to get to a service station or garage and you might simply have to pull over at the side of the road,’ explains Nick Francis (@Nick_TheSun), motoring editor at The Sun on Sunday.

‘When it is safe to do so, many countries require that you place a warning triangle behind your vehicle to warn other motorists, then get your passengers to a safe place.

‘You might also have to don a high-vis jacket, but calling your breakdown provider to notify them of your location should be a priority once everyone is standing safely away from any traffic,’ he adds.

Rural breakdown recoveries, in particular, could take a little longer, so it pays to have cold drinks to hand in hot weather, or cosy jumpers in the cold.

What do I do after I've broken down?

Just as in the UK, any good breakdown service will aim to have you fixed at the side of the road so you can be on your way as quickly as possible.

If your car can't be fixed at the side of the road it will often be taken to a local garage to be repaired, which can mean some local lingo will be needed, so keep a phrasebook or an equivalent smartphone app handy.

Of course, any good breakdown cover will furnish you with a hire car (and cover the costs), so you can get on with enjoying your holiday while the family wheels are brought back to life.

‘Always make sure your breakdown cover extends to the countries you’ll be visiting and that it includes benefits such as a hire car if yours can’t be fixed,’ recommends David. ‘Also check that your car will be repatriated to the UK if it can’t be fixed in time for your return journey.’

What do I do if I’m in an accident?

Firstly, don’t panic. As you would in the UK, call the emergency services if it’s a serious incident and contact your insurer as soon as you can. Depending on the severity of the accident and if there are any injuries, try to move to a safe place as described above (behind a barrier and behind the final stopped vehicle) before making any calls.  

When you call your insurer, give as many details as you can about the incident – including details of any other vehicle or person. If you can take any photographs of the vehicles and incident scene, then these may also be useful.

You may get asked to sign a Constat or incident report form; this is a legally binding accident report form in European countries providing the circumstances and party details that has to be signed by both parties.  If you can, check the document before signing and keep a copy.  

It pays to prepare for every eventuality – especially as some EU countries require you to carry safety equipment as standard. And getting the right breakdown cover will give you peace of mind for the journey ahead.