What to Do if Your Rental Car Breaks Down

If your rental car breaks down, what should you do?
••• Benjamin Rondel / First Light / Getty Images

One of the benefits of renting a car is the peace of mind that comes from knowing that the car you are driving is relatively new and in good repair. What happens if your rental car breaks down? Do you know the steps you should take?

Plan for Breakdowns Before You Reserve Your Rental Car

Even before you start looking for a good rental car rate, take a look at your automobile insurance policy, credit card paperwork and automobile association information.

Find out whether your automobile insurance covers towing or roadside assistance for any vehicle you drive, including rental cars.  Call your credit card company and ask whether your card benefits include towing or other perks related to renting cars. If you belong to AAA, CAA, The AA or another automobile association, ask about towing, tire repairs and other roadside assistance benefits that might apply to rental cars.

If you do not have towing or roadside assistance coverage for rental cars, you may be able to purchase travel insurance that includes coverage for rental cars.

Tip: Remember to bring your policy, credit card and / or membership information with you on your trip.

Reserving Your Rental Car

Once you have found the best rate for the type of car you want, review the rental terms and conditions. These terms and conditions may or may not match the contract you will be offered when you pick up the car, but you will get a general idea of the services your car rental company offers and the extra fees you might have to pay.

Tip: Look for information about tires, windows, windshields, roofs, undercarriages and keys locked in cars. Many car rental companies exempt repairs and services for these items from Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) coverage, which means you will have to pay for the cost of these repairs and compensate the car rental company for loss of use of the vehicle during the repair period.

At the Car Rental Counter

Ask whether roadside assistance is included in your rental rate. In some countries, car rental companies charge extra for 24-hour roadside assistance.

Verify that your coverage from your insurance company, credit card issuer and / or automobile association will be honored if your rental car breaks down.

Find out what to do if your rental car breaks down and needs to be towed to a repair shop or car rental office.

Look to see if your rental car has a spare tire and, if it does, whether it is a small "doughnut" tire or a full-size spare. If there is no spare, ask what you should do if you get a flat tire.

Tip: Ask about the specific roads you plan to travel. In New York, for example, the state parkway system has a contract with a towing company. All vehicles that break down on a parkway must be towed by this company.  This means that if you have a problem with your rental car, you could be asked to pay for the contracted towing company to move your car off the parkway; you would then need to request a second tow truck to take the car to a nearby airport or rental office so you can exchange it for a different car.

If Your Rental Car Breaks Down

Situation #1: Your Rental Car Has a Problem, but You Can Drive It

You must contact your car rental company if you have a problem with your rental car.

Your contract requires you to do so, and the inconvenience of trading your original car for one that runs properly is a small matter compared to the difficulties of dealing with charges related to a breach of contract. Typically, you will be told to drive the car to the nearest airport or car rental office so you can trade it for another vehicle.

However, if you know you will be held responsible for a minor, fixable problem, it might be easier and cheaper pay for the repair yourself (which you would have to pay for anyway) and continue with your trip.

Tip: If you are involved in an accident while driving a rental car, always contact the local police as well as your car rental company. Get a police report, take photographs of the accident scene and surrounding area and do not admit to responsibility for the accident.

Situation #2: Your Rental Car Cannot Be Driven

If your rental car's oil light comes on or a major system fails, stop the car, call for help and wait for assistance to arrive. Do your best to get to a safe place, but do not continue driving if you know that doing so will damage the car.  Call your car rental company and tell them what your surroundings are like. Important: If you do not feel safe, say so. Your car rental company should respond in a way that makes you feel safer.

If you break down far from a car rental office and there is no quick way for your car rental company to help you, ask for authorization to have your car towed to a local automotive shop for repair.  Write down the name of the person who gave you authorization and save all documentation related to the repair so that you can be reimbursed when you return the car.

Tip: Never pay for a local repair unless your car rental company has authorized you to do so. Always get authorization for repairs, towing and rental car exchanges.