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What to Do When Your Car Breaks Down on a Road Trip

car breakdown

Your bags are packed. Your car is filled with friends and family. You press down on the gas and hit the open road. Few travel experiences are more enjoyable than a good-old-fashioned road trip. In fact, it’s one of the few times when the journey often beats the destination. The only thing that could put a roadblock on that journey is your car breaking down.

Dealing with a breakdown close to home, where you know your surroundings and good repair shops nearby, is fairly straightforward. Unfamiliar territory, however, presents a whole new set of hurdles. Here’s what to do when your car breaks down on a road trip.

Get Out of Harm’s Way

Regardless of where your car breaks down, you need to get off the road quickly and safely. As soon as you notice a mechanical problem, slow down and pull over to the side of the road. Try to find a flat area located as far away from traffic as possible. Look for a well-lit area if the breakdown occurs at night. Turn your hazard lights on and put down reflective warning triangles if you have them. Take a look at your surroundings and note any cross streets, landmarks, road signs, buildings or mile markers. This information will help technicians find you and your vehicle.

Call for Help

Once you’re in a safe location, reach out for help. AAA members can request Roadside Assistance 24/7 online, via the AAA Mobile App or by phone. Stay with your vehicle until a roadside technician arrives. If the issue is a flat tire, dead battery or other easily fixable problem, you’ll be on your way in no time.

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Need a Tow?

Of course, not all mechanical issues can be fixed on the spot. If more extensive work is required, you’ll need to get your car towed to a repair shop. This is when being out of town presents a problem. It’s unlikely that you know a mechanic wherever it is your road trip has taken you. Fear not. Your roadside technician will likely have suggestions and you can always do some quick research online. A good place to start is searching for AAA Approved Auto Repair shops. With 7,000 facilities in North America, including 350 in the Northeast, there’s likely one nearby.

Rest, Relax and Refuel

Once at the repair facility, your car’s mechanical issue can be properly diagnosed. Hopefully, it’s a problem that can be fixed in just a few hours. You’re likely to be stressed and drained, so use the time to relax physically and mentally. Get a full meal, hydrate (especially if it’s hot), find a local attraction or explore your new surroundings. All these steps will take your mind off of the stressful event that just transpired and put you in a better mindset to get back on the road.

If the repair is going to take one or more days to complete, you’ll have some decisions to make. You can rent a hotel room and wait for your car to be ready. If you prefer to get back on your road trip right away, renting a car is your best option. Many insurance plans will cover car rental if your vehicle is out of commission due to a mechanical issue.

How to Prevent Your Car From Breaking Down

The best car breakdowns are the ones that never happen. While certain mechanical issues beyond your control can occur on your journey, proper car maintenance goes a long way in ensuring you, your passengers and your vehicle get to the destination safely and soundly.

Before you head out for your road trip, make sure your car is up for the task by checking off these tasks:

  • Top off car fluids or change them if they are dirty or contaminated.
  • Inflate tires to the manufacturer’s recommended tire pressure.
  • Inspect your tires for any visible signs of damage and that the tread is not worn-down (no less than 4/32 of an inch).
  • Test your car battery. (Most roadside assistance calls AAA Northeast receives are for battery problems.) AAA Battery Service will come to you to complete this task and, if necessary, replace your battery.
  • It’s never a bad idea to have your vehicle undergo a thorough inspection before traveling. An auto repair shop can spot and fix potential problems before they put a detour on your road trip plans.

Broke down away from home? No need to worry. AAA members can save up to 20% on Hertz rentals to get back on the road in no time.

Need some road trip inspiration? From the sports-obsessed to couples looking for a romantic getaway, AAA has ideas for every type of traveler.


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16 Thoughts on “What to Do When Your Car Breaks Down on a Road Trip

  1. I was on the NJ Turnpike returning home with wife and dog to Massachusetts when a piece of ice flew off a truck traveling in the opposote direction and crashed through my front grill and into the transmission fan, severing the line and draining all my transmission fluid. I was able to get off the road into a safe position. Immediately call NJ State Police followed by AAA. The AAA Rep made sure I was OK before sending a tow truck. The driver arrived with 30 minutes. He was most helpful, towing me (with wife and dog in the front seat!) off at the next exit where I asked him to leave me and the vehicle at a hotel. (We were gone before the police ever showed). At the hotel I returned a call to AAA to ask for a tow back to Massachusetts. The AAA Rep found a towing company willing to tow the vehicle back to Massachusetts that night (175 miles) The tow was there within an hour and my vehicle was on its way back home to my local auto body shop. With the Plus Membership, AAA covered the first 100 miles and my auto insurance covered the rest. I checked into the hotel for the night and ordered dinner, all reimbursed by my AAA Membership. The next morning a family member picked us up and brought us home.
    Thanks to AAA, what could have been a major hassle turned into an easy and most cost efficient experience. Thanks AAA.

  2. article too simplistic. if car gets towed – how do occupants get “towed”? get hotel?, get food? get back to car when repaired? Also, not everyone has smart phone.

  3. During the summer of 2013, I took a road trip out from Somerville, MA, to Tanglewood, for a West Side Story (1961 film version)/Boston Symphony Orchestra, one Saturday afternoon, in mid-July. I left home at around noontime, and the concert was at 8 o’clock in the evening. Fortunately, as I always do when I driver long distances, I left home early enough in the day to allow for the possibility of something coming up.

    I was driving West on Route 90 (i. e. the Mass Take), and, 26 miles away from the last exit on the turnpike, I stopped at a large highway plaza for a bite to eat. I then got back into my car, and started it. The car started, and then stalled. I tried to start the car again. It moved a foot or so forward, then stalled. I went inside the plaza, and the guy behind the counter gave me the number for the state police, whom I called instantly and told what was going on. The staties, in turn, gave me the number of Red’s Towing company, who I told what happened. Forty-five minutes later, a young guy driving a flat-bed tow truck arrived, got my dead car up onto the flatbed tow truck. I told him that I was on my way to Tanglewood for an evening concert, and that I was only 26 miles away from the last exit on the turnpike, where I was getting off. The guy towed me to a Munroe’s, which was afew hundred feet up the road from the hotel where I’d made a reservation to stay for the night after the concert was over. I thanked the young guy who’d towed my dead car to Munroe’s and gave me a ride, and gave him a good tip. Munroe’s was open, and the guy who looked at my car said that a pulley in my A/C compressor was gone, and that it would take 3-4 days to order a new one and fix my car.

    Fast forward to that evening, the concert was wonderful, and, word had it that there were over 20, 000 people at the concert, and they’d sold out, despite adding several extra lawn benches. Since I’d bought my ticket and reserved my hotel room back in January, I had a good view of both the boston symphony orchestra, and the beautiful HD (hi-def) version of the 1961 film version of West Side Story. It was a fabulous concert.

    The next morning, I called several towing companies in the area, but none of them would tow my dead car back to Boston, MA. There’s no public transportation out in the Berkshires, and the nearest car rental place that was open was 8 miles west, in Pittsfield, MA. I finally called the dealer in Boston where I’d purchased my Honda Civic Hybrid 10 years before, and they had somebody from the towing company that they use drive the 120 miles out to where I was. Four hours later, the tow truck man arrived with a flat bed, got my dead car onto the flatbed, and I got a ride back to the Boston dealer where I’d purchased my car, with the towing guy and his young son.

    Since I had only the most basic membership of AAA at the time, I ended up paying over $800.00 in towing fees. The advisor that I had at the Boston dealer looked at my car and said that my whole Air Conditioner compressor was kaput, that it would cost me $1165.00 to fix, and we both agreed that such an expensive repair was not worth fixing on a 10 year old car. So, I left my dead car at the dealers’, and decided to trade it in for a new car, which, with the help of my brother, purchased the car that I have now. At the advice of the salesman who sold me the new car, I upgraded my AAA membership.

    The beautiful scenery, and the fabulous concert made it all worthwhile. Since I didn’t have my car, the owner of the hotel where I stayed was nice enough to give me a ride to Tanglewood, where the concert was.

    1. I’ll also add that I’d had my older car checked out, and inspected, after having some maintenance service done on it, prior to driving out to Tanglewood for the concert, and my car was given a clean bill of health. Somebody obviously overlooked something. The woman who was my advisor at the time and had my car taken care of obviously overlooked something. This was almost ten years ago, and she hasn’t been there since.

      Five years later, I drove to Tanglewood for the same concert, after having both purchased my ticket at Boston’s Symphony Hall, and reserved my hotel room, back in January of 2018. Ases always, I had the car checked out before heading out to Western Massachusetts for the Tanglewood concert. Happily, I got to and from this other concert without a hitch, and stayed in the Court Hotel Marriot, which was a bit less than five miles away from Tanglewood. It was a beautiful concert, and, the next morning, I drove back to Brookline, MA to help my younger sister celebrate her 65th birthday, and then, after the celebration was over, I went home. It had been a beautiful weekend.

    1. Fortunately, my car does have a donut-sized spare tire, in my trunk. So far, however, I have not had to use it.

  4. When I was 18, we went on a road trip to the Amish country. My dad took the car into the dealer to have it checked, as described in the article, but in the middle of the drive, the power steering fluid leaked out, causing the car to steer like a truck. We had to stop in a tiny town with maybe one gas station., and later my dad brought the car to the dealership in Lancaster who fixed the car. Our local dealership reimbursed my dad. It turns out somebody in our local dealership put the cap back on the power steer fluid reservoir crooked and all the fluid leaked out, so make sure those fluid reservoirs are properly capped as well as filled up.

    1. After having your vehicle serviced, pop the hood and do a visual inspection. Had my oil changed at a dealership in Brooklyn back in 2004, then took a road trip to Baltimore whereupon I discovered a half-eaten Pop-Tart sitting atop the engine when I opened the hood.

      1. Oh, my god!! Somebody was careless and forgot to depose of their snack pop-tart properly!
        Did you ever contact the dealership where you had the oil change and tell them what happened? If so, what did the dealership back in Brooklyn, NY do or say? A curious, inquiring mind wants to know.

  5. My husband was lucky as he had just finished dropping off stuff at our son’s home in the next town over when his truck broke down so he could call AAA and wait it out. He called AAA and spoke to someone and AAA had a tow vehicle there within the hour. He was able to get it towed to our local repair shop. AAA was there when he needed help.

    1. Last month on a Road Trip coming home from South Carolina our car broke down. Without going into many details, we pulled over to the side of the road, turned flashers on and called AAA. Explained the situation and they sent a tow truck driver faster than I expected considering that we were on Highway 95 in the middle of nowhere. The driver recommended a reputable mechanic and was able to get us a driver(car-service) to take my wife and I to the mechanic. The reason for the driver(car-service) is because the tow truck was not allowed to carry more than One person. In general, the tow truck driver will take you to the mechanic. By the way, the cost for the driver was minimal.

      1. Not long ago, when my car’s battery was kaput and I wasn’t able to start it, I took a Lyft to my dental appointment in Brookline, MA, a town near Boston, Cambridge, and Somerville.

        I called AAA, and had somebody come out to jump-start my car, to see if that would work. The AAA guy who came out to start my car advised me to drive it for a half hour to see if it would start. That did not work, so I called AAA again, telling them that my car was in an underground garage, in the basement of my building of residence, the garage door was only 7 feet long, and that I needed a low-clearance truck. Again, an hour passed before an AAA driver in a low-clearance truck arrived. I waited outside, led him to the garage, and, with my garage card, I opened the garage door for the AAA driver to enter. I had both of my car keys with me, so I gave the AAA driver my car keys, had the AAA driver drop the car off at my dealer down in Dorchester, MA (a section of Boston, MA), where my dead battery and my floor mats were replaced, and some maintenance service done. My car has been working like a charm since.

      2. When the AAA driver entered the garage in my building in his low-clearance truck (The garage door in my building was only 7 feet in height.), I waited until the AAA driver got my dead car up onto the tow truck, and gave him my car keys, so that he was able to drive my car down to Herb Chambers Honda down in Dorchester, MA (where they’d moved from Allston, MA), without my going with him. (Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I did not want to get a ride down to the dealer with the AAA driver.). That afternoon, I took a Lyft down to my Honda dealer to pick the car up, when it was ready.

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