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What to do if you break down on the way to the airport

Breaking down is never convenient, but there are some scenarios where it can be particularly bad, like when you’re about to risk missing a flight. You’ve spent a lot of time saving up for that awesome trip, but now you’re waiting on the side of the road as the clock ticks down to the final boarding call. Some insurance policies will cover you if you miss your flight because of this, although you may need proof. It’s a good reason to always leave plenty of time to get to the airport and, if possible, take a taxi instead (at least you won’t be paying for parking). 

If you can make it to the airport (e.g. your engine is spluttering but still going), do this, then call a friend who might be able to deal with it for you. Remember to leave the parking ticket and key in the car so that they can get out. Or, you could retain the key but be aware that you’ll need o find a way home when you fly back.

If you can’t make it, pull over as far as you can, but be careful of soft verges and long grass.

If the engine has stopped or you experienced some kind of electric error or warning light, try restarting and seeing if the car settles into an idle.

If not, check the flight status by going to the airport’s website and seeing if there are any delays. For example, this is Heathrow’s departures page. If your flight is running late, it gives you a few more options.

Evaluate the problem. If it’s just a flat tyre, you can probably fix this yourself in under 15 minutes, but don’t put yourself in danger. You will have to take your luggage out of the boot to get at the spare tyre; if it’s raining this is not ideal. Stay out of the way of other traffic. If your car has overheated but you are only a short distance from the airport, you might still be able to make it. It takes about 30 minutes for your car to cool down. Once it has cooled down, open the radiator (carefully) and pour more water in (you’ll have the 30 minutes to go and find some); don’t pour cold water in a hot engine. Assuming you’ve not done too much damage you should be able to drive, at minimum, several more miles. If the oil light came on, the easy fix is to buy more oil.

Search online using your phone to see if this is a known problem that’s easy to fix. It might be something as simple as a fuse that’s blown.

If you don’t know what is wrong, you’ll have to have a guess. Call your roadside assistance provider and explain the issue, but check how long they will be before they arrive. If they think it could be fixed, you might want to wait; if not, you’ll need to have it towed by a vehicle recovery firm. If you are driving a rental car, call them as they may be able to give you specific instructions that will be more efficient.

Call a taxi or ride-sharing service – they’ll be able to get you the rest of the way and there will be plenty milling around the airport area.

You can’t leave your car on the side of the road. Call a friend who can come and wait with the car while a tow truck arrives; you will need to leave the car key in the car if you have to leave the car before your friend or the tow truck arrives. You will need to have a place for the tow truck to tow the car to, otherwise you’ll be paying towing yard storage fees. This could either be to your driveway or the road outside your house or, if you know a mechanic, you might be able to book it in with them and have it ready for you when you come back.

If you are sure you won’t make it to the airport on time, check your insurance policy. There may be a provision for a scenario like this. Call them and ask their advice. They may be able to book you on a later flight at no extra cost.

Call the airline and inform them of your delay. The flight will take off whether you are on-board or not, but they may have some advice for you or might be able to arrange for you to be fast-tracked through the check-in process.

If you have no insurance and no way of getting there on time, see if you can either purchase a ticket for the same day, or wait until the next day (this will give you time to sort the car out but without missing too much of your holiday). Of course, connecting flights need to be considered.

Darren has owned several companies in the automotive, advertising and education industries. He has run driving theory educational websites since 2010.

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