When the Roberts family set off last summer from their home in Lamberhurst, near Tunbridge Wells in Kent, they couldn’t wait to reach the ferry terminal at Dover, board the boat and begin their summer holiday in France. But the excitement of grabbing dinner in the ship’s restaurant ahead of a drive to Montignac, in Dordogne, soon faded: Mum, Vicky and Dad, Alex realised that each had thought the other had arranged European breakdown cover.
It wasn’t the end of the world. They picked up the phone and set about sorting out European breakdown cover, which would be activated in 24 hours. With their nine-year old children, Holly and Kit, the plan was to drive through the afternoon in their Mercedes CLK240 and arrive at picturesque Montignac in time for a night cap.
Best known for its location close to the Lascaux caves, a UNESCO world heritage site that features Paleolithic cave paintings estimated to be more than 17,000 years old, Montignac offers historic buildings and a sedate feel as it traces the Vézère river.
The weather wasn’t promising, though. “We ended up driving through a horrendous hail storm,” recalls Vicky. “So we stopped for a break to refuel the car and grab a coffee just before the final leg past Limoges.”
Shortly after pulling out of the motorway service area, the engine of their Mercedes began to misfire badly, before warning lights flashed up on the instrument panel and they had to pull over onto the hard shoulder.
After phoning a mechanically-minded friend and describing the symptoms, the first question got straight to the root of the problem: have you just filled up with fuel?
“We were so cross when it dawned on us what we’d done that we were literally speechless,” Vicky said. “Not only were we stranded in a foreign country with terrible weather outside, but the European breakdown cover hadn’t started.”
Alex had put diesel fuel in their petrol-powered Mercedes. Happily, before they knew it, a breakdown truck arrived on the scene. Dispatched by the operators of the péage toll road, they had no choice but to accept a ride into nearby Limoges, where – at 10.30 on a Saturday night – the proprietor of the local garage announced that nothing could be done until Monday, when the mechanics returned for work.
It was not what they wanted to hear. Hotel rooms had to be found, and paid for, and on Sunday morning the family took a taxi to the train station and continued the last leg of their journey to Montignac. Alex planned to return by train to collect the car as soon as it had been repaired.
“The expenses started to hammer my credit card,” says Alex, with a grimace. “From memory, we paid something like 150 Euros for the recovery truck, 300 Euros for the hotel rooms and about 100 Euros for all the train tickets. I was quietly seething and thinking about what better things we could have spent that on during the holiday!”
It wasn’t all bad news. By Monday lunchtime, their car had been fixed. And when Alex arrived, the kindly garage proprietor charged just 60 Euros for some replacement petrol, and no fee for draining the diesel out of the Mercedes’ tank.
The total bill came to a little more than 600 Euros. “Let’s just say, we won’t be making the same mistake again,” laughs Vicky as she gives Alex a knowing look.