What To Do If Your Car Breaks Down On A Road Trip: Be Prepared!

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Cars break down, sometimes at the worst time when you are on a road trip. Here is what to do with your car and yourself if your car breaks down midtrip. A car problem on a road trip represents a unique challenge because of how towing and insurance companies might react. This is not handled like a typical towing or repair situation.

What To Do If Your Car Breaks Down On A Road Trip 1 1 What To Do If Your Car Breaks Down On A Road Trip: Be Prepared!

Table of Contents

What should I do if my car breaks down in the middle of my road trip?

The first thing to do if your car breaks down on a road trip is to get to someplace safe – the side of the road or a parking lot. You’ll want to contact your roadside assistance company or find a tow company for the right price, then make arrangements to have your car fixed.

We’ll break down what to do if your vehicle breaks down. Who should you call and in what order? How do you stay safe? What should you consider when looking for a mechanic or tow company to fix you up and get you around?

We’ve worked with vehicles in service before, and drove some clunkers. We’ve also thoroughly read through vehicle insurance policies that tell us what some will do – and won’t do. 

My car broke down on a road trip. What should I do first?

The first and most important action to take is to ensure you are currently safe. Especially if you are on the highway, you’ll want to turn your hazard lights on to indicate that you are a disabled vehicle. Someone also might come and help.

To get your vehicle off the main road, you’ll either want to get the vehicle into neutral or drive. If the engine is not working, having a person or two behind the vehicle push while another drive is the safest way to move the vehicle the hopefully short distance needed to get off the roadway.

Leaving the roadway is important for safety. 

Some drivers might not notice a vehicle disabled – and there is a chance they’ll crash into the vehicle – potentially with you in it if it remains on a trafficked street.

If your vehicle is too heavy and there are other cars around, you could consider asking them to help push the vehicle if they don’t notice your need for help and come anyway.

Once the vehicle is pushed to a safe place, shift back into the park or use the parking brake. Leave the hazard lights on, even if you are staying in the car.

What if my vehicle was in the park?

Some breakdowns happen when your vehicle is still parked. If your vehicle isn’t in drive or neutral, there isn’t a need to worry. 

While you should check your vehicle’s manual, you’ll want to leave your key in and turn at least into an auxiliary mode, which turns the electronics on. Most vehicles can shift from park to neutral or drive if needed while in auxiliary.

What To Do If Your Car Breaks Down On A Road Trip What To Do If Your Car Breaks Down On A Road Trip: Be Prepared!

Call roadside assistance or other help

Once you are safe, you’ll want to make a call or request help. Assuming you have car insurance (legally required in most states), your car insurance might have a roadside assistance option built in.

There is a potential problem here: Sometimes roadside assistance only covers a certain distance from your primary address. They can either make you pay for the rest of potential towing or offer to have roadside come out and see if the problem is basic, like your battery.

What if I don’t have roadside assistance?

Call a tow company nearby. Some of them specialize in helping people who don’t have roadside assistance through the customer’s insurance company. Many are equipped with some basic tools like a battery charger or inflator for battery or tire problems.

Without insurance, you should check with a couple of tow companies to see who offers the lowest rate. Towing can be expensive over a long distance, and it might be worth towing your vehicle to a local mechanic’s garage or dealership instead of getting it to a shop local to you.

When calling for a tow truck, be ready with the following info:

  • Your current location
  • Where you want your vehicle towed
  • Some info about what is wrong with the vehicle (can it be towed?)
  • Make and model of vehicle to ensure it’s the right size

In some cases, a flatbed might be necessary. This is more so the case if your vehicle is 4 wheel drive without the ability to shift the transfer case to neutral. Something as simple as a flat tire could require a flatbed, as the rims on your vehicle would otherwise get damaged.

Finding a mechanic

Another option is to find a local mechanic. This can be a bit of a challenge, especially in a rural area. 

Are the mechanics open when you need them, especially on a Saturday or a Sunday? If a small town only has one or two mechanics, they might be busy or not available right away. It’s also entirely possible that you’ll find a local mechanic who is ready to take your vehicle in right away and fix it up.

If you have the option of more than a few mechanics, you should definitely check reviews online and see which ones are most reputable. Also, we would use this process when considering a new mechanic anyway – regardless of where you are.

If mechanics are not available

Some cities don’t have many mechanics, and they aren’t reachable on the weekends. If you can’t find a mechanic to look at your car in the next day or so, you might be better off just getting a ride – or walking to a hotel. 

Hopefully Uber and other rideshare programs are available in the area.

Unfortunately at this point, if your vehicle has a problem beyond the battery, there isn’t much you can do besides wait.

What to do while waiting

Between waiting for a tow truck and potentially waiting for a car repair, you are about to have lots of time on your hands. 

We strongly recommend getting something to eat. Simply finding something to eat and drink can help you make better decisions and improve your mood. If we had an issue on the side of the road and had to rearrange a road trip because of car issues, we wouldn’t be happy either!

Getting the diagnoses

We recommended getting food and water before receiving your vehicle diagnosis because you might not like the result- and are better off being well equipped to deal with bad news.

Once you learn the price to repair your car, you might either be thrilled that the problem is just a couple of hundred dollars for a new battery – or overwhelmed that the vehicle has a major issue that will cost a lot more time and money to fix.

What’s the best diagnosis?

Aside from a weird flukey issue, the easiest problem to fix is usually the battery or starter. These are easier to identify and take relatively little time and money to replace.

What’s the worst diagnosis?

Though many things can go wrong, the worst we can think of involves an engine problem that involves an obscure part. Some mechanics and dealers have had to wait days, weeks, or months for particular parts during current supply chain snarls.

Also, anything costing a lot of money is usually bad!

Planning to stay awhile

Should you learn that the vehicle is going to take a day or two to fix due to parts – or the problem takes that many hours, consider how you are going to use the rest of your time.

A couple of options include simply renting a hotel room – which you were probably going to do anyway for your road trip. You also have the option in many places to get a taxi, Uber, or a rental car while you wait.

If your car is kaput

Let’s say you left on your road trip knowing that your vehicle isn’t in great shape and a breakdown isn’t unexpected. You do have a couple of options

Sell the car

A broken-down car is still worth money to someone. If you are not a big fan of your vehicle and don’t want to pay to have it fixed, you can sell it and find your way home another way. Many small towns have cash buyers for cars readily available – usually one phone call away Just do your research and see what it’s worth.

Fly home

If you are on a road trip and are a ways away from home – and have some money, you could fly home instead. 

Buy a car

Got decent credit or cash in the bank? You could purchase a vehicle and trade in your current car and get home that way. We don’t recommend doing this on a whim, but it may be necessary and possible for you.

Get a ride

While the above are somewhat extreme scenarios, it might be worth just asking family or friends to come to get you.

Preparing for breakdowns

There are a few things you can do prior to leaving for a road trip that will at least reduce your chances of having a mechanical issue.

Regular maintenance

Schedule your regular oil change right before a road trip to leave with fresh oil. Have your local mechanic look for problems like leaks, brakes, filters, and other safety and engine components.

Check your tire tread depth too. While some problems with tires, like nails, are more difficult to avoid, having a tire pop because it was well worn is definitely avoidable. One very common test that can be done without a tire gauge (which is still fairly cheap in itself) is to find a penny and place it upside down in your tire tread. 

The tire tread should be good enough that you can’t see the top of President Abraham Lincoln’s head. If you can see more, you should get new tires soon.

Emergency Kit

We mentioned earlier that being comfortable is important when your vehicle breaks down. Bring an emergency kit with snacks and water at the very least. Some commercially available emergency kits include other supplies like an inflator, blanket, and many more things that would be very helpful regardless of the weather on your trip.

We recommend emergency kits, especially for winter road trips. Your vehicle might not be able to maintain warmth for you if you get stuck on a forest road outside of cell phone range. Being prepared really helps in these situations.

Should your vehicle go on a road trip?

Some vehicles just shouldn’t be used for a road trip. It might also be worth considering which vehicles are the most and least reliable. 

The least reliable vehicles are a bit more likely to have a problem on a road trip. A poorly maintained vehicle is also more likely to break down though realistically, any vehicle could have a problem at any time.

If your vehicle already feels extra creaky and potentially problematic, maybe consider heeding our warning about a tuneup – or just not going with that particular car.


Check with your insurance company ahead of time and see what is available for roadside assistance. Having a particular plan available through roadside assistance or AAA is very helpful in knowing what to do and what is available in the event of a mechanical problem.

AAA isn’t quite insurance and might have stronger benefits than anything your insurance company can offer. You should consider looking into it before leaving on your road trip.

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