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?

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27 Comments

  1. These are some really great tips! It is almost always a stressful situation when you need to have a vehicle towed. So anything you can do while you wait for the tow truck to set your mind at ease is usually worth it. That’s why it’s a great idea to keep your car or truck stocked with emergency supplies and blankets, in case you are out in the middle of nowhere. You don’t want to be stressed, hungry, AND cold. Thanks for writing!

  2. What ever you do, don’t forget those cables! These are the most important things you can have in your car. Don’t think that others will have cables, they most likely won’t.

  3. It really is so important that you are prepared for an emergencies when you go on a road trip. This is so important because you never know when something bad is going to happen. I really like the idea of making sure that you have snacks, blankets and jackets. This would be especially useful if you were stranded for a long time without any help. However, it is really comforting to know that there are good towing companies out there to help you out.

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