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What to do Before Your Car Breaks Down on a Road Trip

Yep, that's my car going on the tow truck!

Yep, that’s my car going on the tow truck!

One of the disadvantages of living in a rural area is that we are at least four hours from the nearest major airport. It is very expensive and time consuming to fly out locallly.  As a result, we tend to drive if the destination can be reached in 12 hours or less. Jim and I had a wonderful road trip to San Diego recently. It was wonderful until our car died on the way home, and we were left stranded on the side of the interstate in 100+ degree temperatures. Hopefully, my experience will make you think about what to do BEFORE your car breaks down on a road trip.

Road Side Assistance

Now, I am all about saving money on car insurance. When we broke down, I honestly had no idea if our policy covered road side assistance. I assumed it didn’t because that sounds like something I would decline to save a few bucks. I called anyway, hoping I  hadn’t gone completely cheap when I ordered the policy. Luckily, we did have coverage, which included towing up to 25 miles. Since it was Sunday, I had to wait on hold for a few minutes until the representative located a towing service, but help was on the way! Looking at our policy, road side assistance only costs $3 per month. I will make sure I never go without it.

If you don’t have that option for your auto policy, I would recommend buying a AAA membership. A basic one costs around $75 per year. Some credit cards also offer this benefit, so check the sources you already have before you leave home, or get a membership to an organization that will help if you break down. When your car dies suddenly, it creates an awful feeling in the pit of your stomach, especially if you are in unfamiliar territory. Knowing there is someone you can call makes your mind rest much easier.

 Make Sure You Have Supplies

While we almost always pack a cooler and snacks on a road trip, I admit there have been times when we’ve rushed off after work without packing much, deciding to stop somewhere along the way to stock up. We broke down in Arizona, between Phoenix and Flagstaff, where the outside temperature was 118 degrees Fahrenheit that day. Luckily, we were closer to Flagstaff, so there were some trees we could sit under while waiting two hours for the tow truck . We also had lots of water. If we hadn’t, we might have gotten a bit thirsty. If it had been winter we would have been pretty cold.

It is also a good idea to put some basic repair things in your car before a road trip. I would assume you already carry a spare tire, but you never know when your battery might go dead or you could need a flare if it’s after dark when you have to stop on the side of the road. At minimum I would include the following things.

  • Water
  • Snacks
  • Jumper Cables
  • Flashlight
  • Blanket and/or sleeping bag
  • Road Flares
  • Towels or similar if you need to touch something hot
  • Sunscreen
  • Umbrella
  • Road side assistance documents so you know who to call and your account numbers

The Importance of an Emergency Fund

If you do break down on a road trip, your best friend in the whole world becomes the tow truck driver. Even if I hadn’t had road side assistance, I would have paid any amount of money for the guy (or gal) in the big truck to come pluck me off the side of the road. Likewise, you don’t always have the option of looking around for the best mechanic shop if you are stranded. You’ll take whichever one is open and able to fix your car. You could end up spending a good chunk of change to get back on the road, especially if you have to stay an extra night or rent a car.

If you don’t have any sort of emergency fund, these expenses will end up on the credit card. One emergency can certainly set anyone back, especially if you are trying to get out of debt. I’m sure there are times when a road trip has to be made, but I would avoid taking a pleasure trip until I had enough money to cover the cost of a possible breakdown.

Did We Make it Back?

You probably realize we did make it back home. We actually couldn’t have had better luck. There was a garage open on Sunday. I was expecting a shyster outfit that gave the tow truck driver a kick back for dropping off stranded travelers, but boy, was I wrong. Seven Day Auto in Flagstaff was one of the finest establishments I’ve ever had the pleasure of doing business with. Ron, the owner, came out and spoke with us and then assigned one of the mechanics to our car. He checked out everything, and wouldn’t you know it, it started right up. The computer analyzer thing they hooked up did show a problem with the transmission Our mechanic ended up driving the car around for about 30 minutes and said it seemed fine. Ron said he could replace the transmission for us, but he felt we could make it home and get it looked at there.

Ron said sometimes in cars with computer systems, extreme heat will cause something to shut down, but when it cools off, it runs just fine. We decided to give it a go because it was much cooler by this point. The kicker of the day was that he didn’t even charge us. His team spent about an hour total on the car, and he didn’t even want us to pay! We ended up giving our mechanic $20 for his time. I would  highly recommend them if you live anywhere near Flagstaff.

The car did make it home just fine, and the repair we need is still under warranty! Although our break down only cost $20 plus about four hours of our time, it certainly could have been lots worse. I would like to say we were prepared, but most of it was by accident. Hopefully, my mistakes can help you to be ready if you ever break down on a road trip.

What things would you pack for emergencies? Have you ever broken down in extreme weather conditions?

About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.

24 comments

  1. Wow that’s awesome that he didn’t even charge you! I am a member of the BP motor club, which is very similar to AAA. In the winter here in Minnesota it’s very important to have an extra sweatshirt and blanket in the car in case your car breaks down or your car slides off the road into a ditch. During bad weather you might be in the ditch for an hour or two before you can get assistance.
    DC @ Young Adult Money recently posted..The Spender and The SaverMy Profile

  2. I have had a stranger change my tire on the side of the road on several occasions. Every time, I think “this is something I should learn how to do!” I’m glad that everything worked out for you!
    Holly@ClubThrifty recently posted..Retirement Planning: 3 Tips to Get StartedMy Profile

  3. That’s awesome it worked out so well for you Kim! We have AAA and roadside assistance and thankfully have never really had to use them much at all – other than a random tow in town. So glad you got a good tow truck driver & mechanic. You could’ve easily gotten someone quite opposite which could have made it much different.
    John S @ Frugal Rules recently posted..How to Become Rich the Right WayMy Profile

  4. That’s a frustrating experience. I’ve been stranded a couple times on the side of the road and it’s no fun. I’ve been a AAA member ever since college. I look at that yearly premium as part of my insurance plan. Well worth the money for the peace of mind knowing you have someone reliable to call for help in such a situation.
    Brian @ Luke1428 recently posted..Investing Made Easy (Part IV) – How to Pick a Good Mutual FundMy Profile

  5. Wow, great mechanic!! We have an AAA membership because with 4 kids and older vehicles, we figure it’s the safest route. One time as a 20-something kid, I let the gas level get too low during a 30below zero trip out of town (at midnight, mind you) and the fuel line froze. There I was, by myself, at midnight with ZERO traffic around stuck on the side of the highway with a frozen fuel line and no chance of making it walking 10 miles to the next exit in 30 below weather. By the grace of God, after SEVERAL tries, the car finally started. Boy did I learn a lesson or two that night about preparedness and avoiding stupid decisions. :-)
    Laurie @thefrugalfarmer recently posted..Recipe of the Week: Napolean BarsMy Profile

  6. Great tips here. The roadside assistance is a lifesaver for sure. I’ve used it a few times and have always been extremely happy to have the coverage. I think your list of things to have on hand is great and gives me a few things to do myself. I could definitely use a flashlight and a towel in there. It’s tough to be prepared for all situations, but some of the basic ones are pretty simple.
    Matt Becker recently posted..How to Beat 80% of Investors With 1% of the EffortMy Profile

  7. For travel in winter, I always include a small, collapsible shovel and a bag of kitty litter–great for a little extra traction when you need it. Also, a basic first aid kit!
    Frugal Nurse recently posted..First aid for poisoningMy Profile

  8. One of the things that is really important is to maintain your car. I hate the idea of being stuck somewhere because my car breaks down. I also have the Auto Club (AAA) for emergencies.
    krantcents recently posted..Top Secrets to Make Recruiters Find YouMy Profile

  9. I have AAA but I didn’t even think about checking my auto insurance (ok granted I was in the middle of the 405 freeway so my brain wasn’t thinking clearly) to see if they towed further than my AAA policy, which is only 9 miles I think. I know you can pay a little extra for AAA to have unlimited miles (or at least way more) and to me…with an old car…totally worth it to get it towed to a trusted mechanic. I can’t stress that enough. Also another tip would be, don’t leave home without enough juice in your cell phone. The last think you’d want to happen is not have battery power in your phone because you end up making a lot of calls…even if it’s to your friends and family to cry about what just happened. :)
    Budget and the Beach recently posted..My BudgetMy Profile

  10. We have roadside assistance through our insurance, but luckily haven’t had to use it.

    I did wreck in a rental car once and I think the big lesson I learned from that one is to not go into uncharted territories without a full cell phone charge. I was watching the power bars dwindle on my phone waiting hours for the police. (I needed a report for the rental co insurance, but it wasn’t urgent so I was pushed to the back of the line.).

    Now I like to bring a phone charger on all road trips so I’m at 100% if something bad happens!
    Mrs PoP @ Planting Our Pennies recently posted..Why I Don’t Like The Word SavingMy Profile

  11. Oh no that is horrible. I don;t remember the car ever breaking down, but my Dad definitely ran out of gas in the middle of Nebraska one summer when I was a kid.

  12. What a great story! We had a funny one happen in Arkansas a year ago when we were headed to Michigan for Cheryl’s dad’s memorial service. This guy not only charged us very little to put a new starter in my car, but he also was a fireworks expert and the local Baptist preacher. Talk about multi-talented!
    AverageJoe recently posted..Is It Time To Fire Your Advisor?My Profile

  13. I’m sorry to hear you broke down. As a not so handy drive, I have AAA. It includes roadside assistance and will tow my car 100 miles for free. I just always try to make sure I have a blanket and some water so I can wait for them to arrive.
    Blair@LifeDollarsandSense recently posted..Road Trip and the King of Rock ‘n’ RollMy Profile

  14. Wow, that’s very fortunate! I’m pretty sure we don’t have roadside assistance right now, but maybe I should think about adding it. For that cheap, it seems like it would almost always be worth it.
    Jake @ Common Cents Wealth recently posted..We’re Debt FREE!!My Profile

  15. Your post sounds very familiar to me as my husband and I broke down recently on the way to my sister’s house in Phoenix. We are used to 100+ heat but being on the side of the road without a/c can quickly turn a person into mush. We had our dog with us which complicated things quite a bit. Without roadside assistance it would have been quite expensive to tow our car. Unlike your experience, our repair was quite costly. I think it’s time for a new car.
    Suzanne @ Financial Advisor Coach recently posted..My Gift to YOU – Financial Advisor Marketing Plan TemplateMy Profile

  16. Sorry to hear that, but it sounds like it could have been much worse. I have seen a post with numbers on renting a car vs using your own for the holidays, since you would need an oil change, risks of breakdowns, etc. sometimes it makes more sense to rent even if you have a car.
    Pauline recently posted..Side Hustle series: Make money at partiesMy Profile

  17. Sorry to hear about your bad luck Kim, don’t feel bad though I’ve had my gas pump on my Chevy Tahoe go out right in front of Walmart in rush hour traffic.

    One thing I bring on any major road trip is my jumper box. This is a basic battery box that allows you to jump your vehicle in the event your battery is dead. On top of that it also has a built in light, and air compressor in case we get a flat tire. Some also have radios built into them as well.

    Aside from that I also have AAA Gold which allows you to tow your car up to a 100 miles at no cost. I believe the basic AAA coverage only tows for 10 miles and then you pay per mile after that.
    Chris @ Stumble Forward recently posted..June 2013 Budget UpdateMy Profile

  18. Sounds like you were really fortunate within that tough situation! I’m glad you made it home fine with only a little loss of time.
    Emily @ evolvingPF recently posted..Is “Live Like a College Student” Good Advice?My Profile

  19. Sounds like you were very happy to find out you had the coverage. We get CAA and have for many years. I know we can look back and think of all the years we didn’t use but it’s at that moment when you cancel that something is bound to happen. We’ve never broke down in extreme conditions but we have had to use the service.
    Canadianbudgetbinder recently posted..June 2013 net worth update: Everything is not lost (+0.09%)My Profile

  20. Thank you for mentioning two of the most important things to ALWAYS have in the car with you- an emergency fund and an emergency bag. I grew up in a very rural place, and actually did slide off the road and get stuck one snowy day- I was sure glad I had a duffel bag with a coat, boots, and warm socks in the trunk, because it was still a couple miles home! It’s so important to be prepared for things like that, and I’m glad you brought up roadside assistance too- I’m checking my policy now to make sure I’ve got it!

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