How to Tow a Car

by Jodi "Jato" ThorntonUpdated July 28, 2017
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Roadside on a Road Trip: What to Do When Your Car Needs a Tow

It's bad enough if your car breaks down when you're driving around your home town. Add on a road trip with a carload of kids, a cooler full of food and plenty of suitcases, and you have all the makings of a nightmare. Before you have a breakdown of your own, here are some things you can do before, during and after a roadside emergency to make things go as smoothly as possible.

1. Prepare Your Vehicle

"Plan for the best but be prepared for the worst," is a good rule of thumb when taking a road trip. Before heading out, take care of these pre-trip items to reduce the likelihood of a breakdown and make things go more smoothly if you do experience one.

Check it out: Grandpa probably told you to "check under the hood" before you start a driving journey, but having your mechanic do it for you is an even better plan. Schedule an oil change, and ask your mechanic to check belts, hoses, tires and the general mechanical soundness of your vehicle about 30 days before you plan to hit the road. This will give you a little more time to plan financially if something needs to be fixed and get the repairs done without delays to your trip. It also leaves you enough time to make alternate plans should you decide to reschedule or rent a vehicle.

Equip it: Make your own roadside emergency kit. Include flares and warning triangles to help traffic see your disabled vehicle. A portable jump starter and tire inflator takes up little space but can get you back on the road if you have a minor leak or dead battery. Gloves, a flashlight, tire pressure gauge, electric tape and spare fuses are also handy for simple fixes.

Insure it: Vehicle towing insurance is available through AAA, your insurance company and many credit cards. Check to make sure you're covered and what the terms are before you roll down the road.

2. React Quickly and Safely

Breakdowns can come in many forms, such as steam escaping the hood, a flat tire or a sudden disturbing sound or smell from the engine. Your car might stop running altogether. Turn on your hazard lights, and move the car as far to the right shoulder as possible. Keep your vehicle's engine compartment over the pavement to prevent accidentally sparking a brush fire if you're in an area with dry grass. Should you smell a gassy aroma, don't light flares. Instead, set out triangles, get the kids and pets as far away from the car and highway as possible and call 911.

If your vehicle refuses to run and leaves you stranded in traffic, turn on your hazard lights, have everyone remain with seat belts fastened inside the vehicle and call 911.

3. Call for Help

Once your vehicle is safely off the road or you've contacted roadside assistance, open the hood to let other drivers know the vehicle is disabled, and then call for roadside assistance. If you're in a rental car, call the rental car agency directly and don't let anyone attempt to jumpstart or do anything else to get you back on the road or you may be liable for possible damage.

  • Be prepared to identify the exact location where you're broken down. Check out the mile marker and number of the highway you're on or, if you're in the city, the exact address or cross streets. You'll need to know your license plate number and car description also, along with your membership number. 
  • Ask whether the company can provide transportation to the mechanic so you know whether you need to call a taxi or ride sharing service. 
  • Use your smartphone to figure out where to tow the car for repairs while you're waiting for the tow truck to arrive. Car Talk's Mechanics Files has a database of over 75,000 reviews that can help you find a reputable shop nearby. 

4. Decide Your Course of Action

Determine how long the needed repairs will take. If you're in a small town, the mechanic may need to order parts, leaving you stuck with the need to decide whether you'll adjust your plans and rent a room for a night or two. Loaner vehicles are a rarity, but most mechanics will transport your family and necessary items to a hotel.

5. If Your Car is a Rental

Read the fine print on your rental car agreement: Some companies include language in the contract that could leave you liable for repairs if the car breaks down during the agreement term. According to Consumer Reports, buying the collision damage waiver can sometimes prevent you from being charged for any damage to the car, but you need to read the fine print. Finally, take pictures of the inside and outside of the car both before driving away and upon its return. A shot of the mileage, time and date will help you prove the condition of your car should it become necessary.

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