Breakdowns can happen at home just as easily as on the road, throwing your plans into disarray and leaving you stranded.

But a little forward planning can help you minimise the chaos if and when your car rolls to an unwelcome stop:

What to do if you breakdown

Where your car breaks down has a big impact on what you need to do; outside your front door is a little different to half way down the M6. Here's what you need to know:

Broken down on a minor road?

  • Safety is paramount, so getting your car off the road and away from traffic is your priority.

  • If you need to pull over immediately put on your hazard lights and do so, although if you are able to carry on until you find a suitable stopping place you should.

  • Leave your hazard lights and once it is safe to do so set up your car's red warning triangle at least 50 yards behind your car.

  • If it's dark or there is poor visibility you can also leave your sidelights on to alert oncoming cars in both directions.

  • If you've stopped in a safe place away from traffic, get back into your car to wait; otherwise leave your vehicle and wait well away from traffic.

  • Finally, call your breakdown service and stay warm.

Broken down on a motorway?

Breaking down on a motorway is another kettle of fish entirely, as it can be much more dangerous. Follow these instructions to stay safe:

  • Put your hazard lights on and pull over as soon as it's safe to do so

  • Slow down on the hard shoulder, not in the lanes

  • Leave your hazard lights on and turn on your car's sidelights too

  • Keep your steering wheel turned left, pointing towards the side of the road, so if your car gets hit it won't be pushed into traffic

  • Get all passengers out of the car from left-hand doors, and wait behind the crash barrier as far away from the road as possible

  • Don't attempt to fix your car on the hard shoulder even if you think you know how

  • Keep an eye on children at all times; but leave pets in the car

  • If you have a mobile phone with you, call your breakdown service from behind the crash barriers.

  • Find the nearest blue and white marker post (these are spaced about 100 yards apart) and note down the number - this will give your breakdown company your accurate location.

  • UK motorways are also equipped with bright orange emergency telephones spaced about one mile apart along the hard shoulder, use this if you don't have a mobile

  • Motorway telephones connect directly to the police control centre; quote the number of the emergency phone you're using to give them your position

  • Stay put behind the barrier until someone comes to get you

Broken down at home?

If you are stationary or haven't even left home yet things become a little bit easier - you probably didn't park in the middle of the road at least, so no faffing with red plastic triangles is needed!

It doesn't make your journey any less urgent, but at least you can choose whether to sort it out now (providing your cover allows) or use alternative transport and sort the car out later.

If your policy includes 'home start' or 'home cover' you can call out your breakdown provider there and then; otherwise see the Broken down without cover? section below.

What happens when you call out breakdown?

Once you've called your breakdown service they'll generally give you an indication of how long it will take to get to you; this will depend on the priority of your call out and the current demand on their services.

Make sure you let them know if you're travelling alone, if your car is in a dangerous place, or if you have children or someone elderly, ill or disabled with you because your call may get priority.

  • If your car can be fixed at the roadside the breakdown patrol will do so under roadside assistance, if not they'll give you a tow to the nearest garage - if this happens it's likely you'll need to cover the cost of further repairs.

  • Breakdown policies with vehicle recovery will give you, your car and your passengers a tow to any nominated location within the UK.

  • Breakdown cover with onward travel includes the above benefits plus provision for changes to your travel plans (including accommodation, car hire and public transport)

It's unlikely you will have to pay anything upfront unless you've gone above any maximum labour or callout limits, or you need a service not listed on your policy.

The exception is if you have a breakdown policy that uses a network of local garages; with these types of cover you'll need to cover the cost of repairs yourself and then place a claim for reimbursement from your breakdown policy.

Broken down without cover?

If you breakdown without breakdown cover then you can still call for assistance... you're just likely to pay a lot more for it.

However, it's not something all providers cater for so your options will be more limited.

The assistance on offer for your first call out is likely to be limited to roadside assistance only and your emergency callout is likely to incur a one off fee. You'll need to sign up for a full year too which is why it's worth carrying out a breakdown service comparison so you get the best cover ongoing even though it's likely you'll pay more.

If you can't find a breakdown service to attend to your car because those that do offer it are prioritising callouts from existing members your other option is to call out a local garage or vehicle recovery service. These tend to be very expensive so it always pays to have valid breakdown cover in place beforehand.

Ring around for quotes from any local services you can get hold of and compare these to the cost of an unregistered callout from a breakdown service, where available.

If you have a breakdown policy already but want to upgrade when you're already broken down you may be able to do so. This is only likely to be possible if you purchase the relevant add-on for the year at full price. It's likely there will be a penalty fee to pay too, and some providers may not let you upgrade to cover more comprehensive than home start or roadside assistance.

What to keep in your car in case of breakdown

You can pre-empt a lot of problems that people encounter when they've broken down just by keeping a number of useful items in your car, such as:

  • A red warning triangle.

  • A physical road map in the car in order to explain where you are, just in case your phone doesn't have signal or battery.

  • A written copy of your breakdown company's number (e.g. the policy certificate) in your glove box, plus coins or a phonecard in case you need to use a phonebox.

  • A pair of flat shoes or trainers in case the nearest emergency telephone is a long way off

  • A torch and a waterproof jacket - preferably reflective.

  • Extra food for longer journeys, and in the winter a snow-shovel is handy.

  • Finally, keep some warm clothes and a blanket in the car in case of cold weather; people have been known to be stuck in their cars overnight in midwinter.

Get breakdown cover before you need it

Getting the best breakdown cover in the first place will save you time, energy and money should the worst actually happen.

Importantly, best doesn't necessarily mean the most comprehensive or, on the other end of the scale, the cheapest. Instead it means cover that is appropriate for your circumstances.

If you rely on your vehicle for work, for example, you really can't afford for it to be out of action and a more comprehensive level of cover might suit. Read our breakdown insurance guide and compare breakdown insurance to choose your policy.