Being stranded by the side of the road in a broken down vehicle is never fun regardless of whether you were on your way to an important meeting, a weekend away or just driving into town.

At times like these the reassurance of vehicle breakdown cover is invaluable but with so many different providers and packages available how do you choose the best breakdown cover policy?

Before you get started

The first thing to do is to check your existing insurance policy.

Many car insurers offer a car recovery recovery service as an add-on, sometimes even as a freebie, so you may already have cover.

If the cover doesn't offer what you want, contact your insurer to see if you can upgrade the policy or ask whether your insurance premiums will reduce if you remove it.

Type of cover

The first step in your breakdown cover comparison should be deciding whether you want 'Vehicle' or 'Personal' car breakdown cover. Many, but not all providers offer both options so this is a good way to start narrowing down your search.

Vehicle based cover is often a cheaper option as it entitles you to breakdown assistance for a specific car regardless of who is driving. This can be an economical option if you only ever travel in your own car or share a car with a partner.

Personal based cover will provide you with breakdown recovery protection whatever car you are in. A policy of this type will be valid whether you are travelling as a driver or passenger and in your own or someone else's car. Because of its flexibility this type of cover is likely to be more economical if you often drive more than one car or frequently travel with others.

Once you have decided whether vehicle or person based cover is going to work better for you it's time to start looking at the different levels of cover available.

Level of cover

Most breakdown service providers offer a number of different levels of cover that differ in price as well as the services they include.

Choosing cheap car breakdown cover is all about matching the features offered by an individual package with the way you travel so that you only pay for protection you'll use.

While the specifics of each cover level will differ, there are 5 broad levels of cover that are commonly offered. These are.

Roadside assistance - This is the most basic level of cover available and will entitle you to have your car fixed by the roadside or towed to the nearest garage for repair. Free labour (usually for up to 60 minutes) will be included although it's likely that you will need to pay for any replacement parts needed yourself. So be sure to check this before taking out the policy.

It's worth bearing in mind that roadside assistance policies tend only to be valid if your car breaks down a certain distance from your home. The exact distance depends on the provider but it tends to vary between a and 1 mile radius of your property.

Vehicle recovery - Recovery packages will typically include roadside assistance as standard but if your car can't be fixed by the side of the road, you, your car and any additional passengers (usually up to a 7 person maximum) will be transported to a destination of your choice anywhere in the UK.

Home start - This level of protection extends the assistance a roadside policy provides and will cover you whether your car breaks down at home or on the road. Vehicle recovery may also be included by some providers.

Onward travel - Onward travel policies tend to be the most comprehensive available and usually include the aforementioned protection as well as benefits to cover the cost of accommodation or a hire car while your vehicle is being repaired.

European breakdown cover - This protection tends to be available either as a standard feature offering protection on the continent all year round, or as a 'single trip' add on. The type that is most suitable for you will depend on how often you plan to travel abroad with your car.

Most European breakdown policies will provide you with the reassurance of a 24 hour English speaking helpline, vehicle recovery to the UK should yours be irreparable and emergency roadside assistance provided by a local garage.

Choosing a provider

Once you've decided what type and level of cover you're likely to need you then need to start looking for the best car breakdown services.

While cost is likely to be an important factor in your decision (after all there is no point in paying more than you need to) it's also important to check the small print and compare the exact level of cover provided so that you have the reassurance that when you do break down you'll be protected with insurance that will get you back on the road - going for the cheapest breakdown cover you can find without checking the details is very risky.

Points to consider include:

Whether the provider has its own patrols?
While some breakdown cover providers run a dedicated network of patrols, others enlist the services of local garages across the country. If you're happy with either then it's not a problem, but if you'd prefer the reassurance and set standards provided by a patrol network then this is something to look for in a providers t's and c's.

How many patrols the provider has?
Obviously the bigger the network of patrol vehicles, the better the chance that there will be one near you when you break down.

What the average wait time is?
For most providers this tends to be between 30 and 40 minutes however it's worth checking when you compare the top breakdown cover quotes as some differ from this norm.

Whether you can build a no claims discount?
Many breakdown providers will enable you to build a no claims discount if you don't call them out during your policy year. Anything that helps to drive the cost of cover down is a good thing so this is worth checking out.

What the maximum number of callouts is?
Most breakdown insurance providers will specify a maximum number of times you can call out a patrol. This can differ between providers so it's important to compare the different offerings and get the maximum possible especially if your car isn't known for its reliability!

Whether callouts are prioritised?
Many breakdown providers will offer priority cover for individuals travelling alone or families with children in the car so it's worth checking if this is of concern to you.

Whether there are any membership benefits?
Some breakdown providers will offer their members additional benefits as an incentive to join. It's worth taking a look through these to see if they are going to be of any use as these perks may help to swing your decision.

What the package costs?
As with any type of insurance, going for the cheapest option is only worthwhile if you're convinced you won't need the reassurance or services that higher cover offers. However, that's not to say that the most comprehensive cover is going to be right for you.

By weighing the benefits offered against the cost you should be able to compare car breakdown cover policies and find breakdown cover that is going to provide you with value for money and peace of mind.