Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Travel advice: Driving abroad

Keep an eye on the road - and your car insurance, says travel expert Sophie Butler.

If you plan to drive your own car on holiday this summer, it’s important to know where things can go wrong. I recently heard from two readers who came a cropper on a long motoring trip in Europe. Because they were touring and only wanted to stay one or two nights in each place, they knew that there would be times when their luggage would be left in the boot.

Aware that some insurance policies won’t cover unattended luggage in cars – even if the boot is locked and the bags are out of view – they were anxious to make sure they would be properly compensated in the event of a break-in. So they talked through their requirements carefully with their insurer before they set off.

Unfortunately, their fears were confirmed and, despite leaving their car locked, alarmed and parked in a residential area, it was broken into in Sicily. The window was smashed and some of their personal belongings were stolen. They contacted the police to obtain a theft report so they could make a claim once they got home.

“We firmly believed we were fully covered on our insurance,” they said. However, this turned out not to be the case. The insurer rejected the claim on two counts: first, because their vehicle was UK-registered and therefore “a target for thieves”; and second, because Sicily is – according to the insurer – one of the poorest places in the world, making cars there particularly vulnerable to theft.

But the readers decided to pursue their claim because nobody from the company had pointed out these exemptions when they bought the insurance. After they threatened to take the case to the Small Claims Court, their insurer eventually agreed to settle the claim.

Good news for these readers, but it could have turned out differently had the insurer decided to dig its heels in. So what other potential pitfalls should you be aware of before you take your car abroad?

To avoid the sort of problem these readers encountered, it’s worth asking your travel insurer whether there are any factors that may disqualify you for cover in the specific countries you are planning to visit. Make a note of whom you speak to and what they advise. If there is any aspect of the cover that is particularly important to you, or needs clarifying, put it in writing.

You should also tell both your travel insurer and your car insurer of your travel dates. Note that some ask for at least two weeks’, or even a month’s notice of departure.

British motor insurance policies are obliged by law to provide third-party cover in all EU countries, but unless you’ve made special arrangements with your insurer, you’re unlikely to have full comprehensive cover, even if you have it at home. Most insurers also provide a European “accident statement” form, which might come in useful for noting on-the-spot details if you have an accident involving another motorist.

Third-party cover won’t cover damage or loss of your car or the cost of getting it home, so you’ll also need separate breakdown cover. This should include roadside assistance, emergency repairs, car hire, the cost of returning your car to Britain and emergency accommodation. Also bear in mind that most insurers will only cover you for a limited amount of time. If you are away for a few weeks, you may need to request an extension to cover the duration of your trip.

Driving abroad: a checklist

Take your driving licence, insurance certificate and vehicle registration document.
Plan your route in advance. There are good online route-finders which are free to use and can save the bother of poring over maps. Visit www.greenflag.co.uk/routeplanning.
Service your car and do the essential checks on oil, tyres, petrol, battery and water (these are the most common causes of breakdown).
Buy headlamp deflector strips and a warning triangle (many countries make this a legal requirement).
Check you have a spare wheel and a jack, first-aid kit, jump leads, a torch, fuse kits, reflective jacket and spare car light bulbs (these are compulsory in some European countries).
Blood-alcohol limits vary and are not always the same as in Britain (typically around 50mg or a single glass of wine on the Continent, compared with 80mg at home). In some countries the limit is 20mg.
Most European Union countries allow higher maximum speeds than Britain but limits are lowered during wet weather.
Readers' queries

PQ, Kent, writes
What are your tips for finding the best-value short ferry crossings this summer? Have I left it too late to find a bargain?

Sophie Butler replies
Fares rise as the ferries fill, so the earlier you book the better. You can find lower prices by booking midweek on late-night or early-morning crossings. Even if you book an hour or two either side of the peak times it can be far cheaper. Compare prices on websites such as www.ferrysavers.com and www.aferry.co.uk.

TO, by email, writes
My friend thinks there’s a hotel dedicated to puddings in the UK.

Sophie Butler replies
She may mean Three Ways House Hotel in Gloucestershire (01386 438429; www.puddingclub.com; from £135), which is the Pudding Club’s headquarters and a good place to sample a range of classic puddings.

KL, by email, writes
Inspired by a recent visit to Vindolanda near Hadrian’s Wall, I’d like to try an archaeological holiday abroad. Can you suggest any operators that organise such trips?

Sophie Butler replies
Try Andante Travels (01722 713800; www.andantetravels.co.uk) or Martin Randall Travel (020 8742 3355; www.martinrandall.com). Digs worldwide are listed at www.archaeology.co.uk.