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This is what I learned after my car broke down in Spain

Fiona Govan
Fiona Govan - [email protected]
This is what I learned after my car broke down in Spain
What should you do if you break down in Spain? Photo: Thamkc/Depositphotos"

The Local Spain's Editor shares her experience of breakdown on a roadside in Spain, and why it's best to avoid doing it during August.


As I found out this summer on my annual northeast drive from stifling Madrid to the breezier Mediterranean climes of the Costa Daurada south of Barcelona, breaking down can really put a downer on the holiday vibe.

First of all, you don't want to do it at night on an unlit highway, you probably don't want to do it when your only passenger is a dog, but what you most definitely want to avoid, at all costs, is breaking down on August 1st.

Thinking that I could beat the holiday traffic – that much talked about Operacion Salida when pretty much all of Spain clogs up the roads en route to the coast or ancestral pueblos for their hols – I left home at an unsociable 4.30am knowing that Spaniards on the whole, even those desperate to go on holiday, don't like to get up early.

But just one and a half hours into the journey on a lonely stretch of highway somewhere in Castilla La Mancha, my faithful steed, an old white Mercedes saloon dating from the 1990s, gave up the ghost.

Just as I was overtaking an extraordinarily long vehicle driving slowly with warning lights flashing along its length – it might well have been a replacement blade from one of the wind turbines that interrupt the horizon on such a drive across Spain – my lights dimmed, the engine cut and the car slowed.

Thankfully a turn-off appeared just to my right and I just about managed to pull off the A-2 and cruise up the slip road to finally judder to a halt on the side of a roundabout with a sign post to an industrial estate.

This is when you are supposed to leap out of your vehicle, don a reflective vest and place warning triangles on the road behind you but luckily for me, as even my hazard lights weren't working, a Civil Guard Trafico patrol car pulled up within seconds and told me not to bother as they would park behind me with flashing lights on to warn other drivers.


Stock photo: Guardia Civil

A panicky rummage around the glove compartment and I found the insurance document with the 24 hour roadside assistance number.

Within half an hour a tow truck arrived, just as the sun came up to reveal fields of sunflowers stretching as far as the eye could see, and after a quick glance beneath the bonnet, the driver informed me that it looked like I needed a new alternator.

The car was loaded onto the flat bed and I climbed into the cab to sit beside the tow truck driver in his cab, leaving a confused and yelping hound peeking over from the back seat of the Merc, and we headed back towards Madrid.

I'm sure it depends on your roadside assistance insurance package but my driver offered me the option of returning all the way to Madrid where he could drop me off at a garage of my choice, or heading to the nearest town to find one.

This is when I discovered that August 1st is not a good day to break down.

Many businesses close on August 1st, some for the whole month, and my usual mechanic, whose mobile number I happen to have stored in my contacts, wasn't best pleased at being called first thing on the first day of his holidays.

Closed for the holidays – the WHOLE month of August. Photo: Fiona Govan/The Local Spain

"We open again on September 2nd," he informed me rather grumpily. "And no, I don't know any other garages open in August."

My tow truck driver had an idea. We could drive around the industrial estates that encircle Guadalajara until we find some sign of life and hopefully a mechanic who wasn't that keen on holidays and who happened to have an alternator that would fit my car.

One hour and several stops later and we finally found an open garage door and a collection of overall clad men busily working in the interior.

"No promises, but we'll take a look and if we can get the part sent out here this morning – we'll need some luck as everyone is on holiday, you know – then we might just get you on the road again by this afternoon," said a cheery mechanic.

After a six hour wait with a restless dog in an airless portacabin I got the good news – the new alternator had arrived! It was fitted within 20 minutes and by 3pm, breathing a huge sigh of relief while thanking my lucky stars, we were back on the road heading towards Barcelona.

Apart from a rather awkward moment at a petrol station when the car refused to start after a fuel refill because the battery had been run down by the faulty alternator – luckily I had jump leads in the boot and an accommodating shop assistant to lend her car – we arrived at our destination, 12 hours later than expected but hugely grateful of the fact that the trip may well have had to have been aborted all together. 

Here are my tips: 

  • Make sure you have a torch in car
  • Ensure your phone is fully charged or that you have a portable charger so that you can phone roadside assistance
  • Have the roadside assistance number stored in your phone and in an easily accessible place in your car
  • Pay attention to where you are – knowing the exact kilometre on the road that you have broken down on really helps when talking to roadside assistance (they don't really appreciate being told "somewhere between junction 17 and 26")
  • Keep jump leads in your car, especially if it is old and temperamental like mine
  • Don't break down during the August holidays if you can help it

Before you go: 

The essential paperwork that must in the car at all times is:  

  • Driving Licence (Carnet de Conducir)
  • Car registration document or rental document (Permiso de Circulación)
  • ITV certificate (Ficha Técnica)
  • Insurance policy document
  • European Accident Statement (Declaración Amistosa de Accidente de Automóvil) DOWNLOAD HERE

Also compulsory:

  • Fluorescent high visibility jacket (one each for driver and all passengers)
  • Two warning triangles

Photo: woodsy007/Depositphotos

In case of a breakdown: 

If you do break down, the guidelines state that you should:

Stop in a safe a place as possible, and switch on hazard (warning) lights.

The driver should put on a hi-vis jacket and ask passengers to do the same.

Passengers should move away from the vehicle to a place of safety, behind a barrier or fencing away from oncoming traffic.

Place the two warning triangles to alert other drivers of the obstacle. If on a motorway, place one 50 metres behind the car and another 50 metres behind that. But if on a road with two-way traffic place one in front of the car and one behind.

Call roadside assistance:

They will send out a tow truck (grua in Spanish) to collect your vehicle but find out what options you have. 

For me it seemed all the car needed was a simple repair and a local garage was able to do it but it may be that you want to be taken home or towards your final destination and get it fixed there.

Depending on the insurance policy you have, you may be entitled to a replacement hire car while your vehicle is being fixed.

Discuss options with the road side assistance operator. 



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