Cramming the last bite of breakfast in your mouth, you scramble out the door, running behind for work yet again. When you fire up your car, the TPMS light stays on after the bulb check, which you notice just before slamming your car into gear. A quick inspection reveals the worst: You have a flat tire. No spare in the trunk. You’re going to be late.
Flat tires never happen at opportune times. It’s even worse when you don’t think you can help yourself out of the jam because your car’s spare tire is flat or you don’t have one. But you have options. A flat tire isn’t that big of a deal. Here are a few ways to try and get all four tires rolling once again.
Where’s my spare tire?
It takes only about 20 minutes to install your spare tire … but wait a sec—where is it? If there isn’t a spare tire in your trunk or mounted under your car in the rear or middle, your vehicle might’ve intentionally come from the factory without a spare.
Around 30% of new cars don’t have a spare tire. Some carmakers don’t include a spare to save on manufacturing costs while others do it for weight savings to achieve the best fuel mileage possible. Others use run-flat tires and include an inflator kit rather than a spare. A quick model lookup may tell you if your vehicle comes with a spare.
But the absence of a donut in the trunk can leave you in a pickle: how to fix a flat tire without a spare.
Flat tire, no spare? Here’s what to do
Stay calm and follow along.
If you’re driving when you get a flat tire, regain control of your car, pull over to the shoulder or another safe place and put your hazard lights on. Avoid driving on a flat tire if at all possible as it could shred the inner tire lining to bits, not to mention grind into your very expensive rim.
Once you’re in a safe location, work through these potential solutions.
Call your roadside service provider or insurer
Do you recall getting an AAA membership from grandpa last December? Does your car still have factory warranty in effect? Or maybe you purchased your car insurance through a provider such as Allstate, which offers available roadside assistance plans. Your Visa or Mastercard might even offer complimentary 24-hour roadside service at no charge.
Explore your options for roadside assistance where someone will come rescue you for little to no cost. In most cases, they’ll install your spare tire for you so you can continue driving. But if you have a flat spare tire, you’ll probably be towed to the nearest repair center instead.
Call a tow truck
So say that roadside assistance isn’t on the table. One option is just like roadside assistance, but without the “free” aspect. Nationwide, tow services and wreckers will come to your aid at the roadside when you have a flat. Some tow truck drivers will perform a service call, installing your spare tire, and many tow trucks carry an air compressor to fill a flat, too. But make sure you explicitly say you want to get driving again, as some tow trucks will only drag your car to a shop.
An average short-distance tow will cost you between $30 and $100, depending on your location and when you need service.
Use a tire repair kit
If your car didn’t come with a full-size or compact spare tire, odds are that it has a tire repair kit provided instead. It’s a little compressor that plugs into the power outlet and a can of goopy sealant that it injects into the tire. The sealant plugs holes up to six millimeters in diameter, like those from a nail or screw, from the inside—at least temporarily—so you can get around until you have the tire fixed. Fill the tire to the recommended pressure, found on the placard on the driver’s door pillar.
Here’s the kicker about tire repair kits: They can ruin your tire. Some sealants never fully set and can create an imbalance in the wheel, plug up the valve stem and make a huge mess on the rim. You’ll also need to replace the sealant can after use so that you aren’t stranded next time around. If you don’t have one of these kits, you can buy one as an aftermarket accessory.
It’s good in a pinch, but perhaps it isn’t the first thing you should use if you have other options.
So you don’t have a spare tire (or you have a flat spare tire) and you don’t have a factory tire repair kit? Run to the nearest auto parts store and check the shelf for Fix-A-Flat. Heck, consider carrying one as a safety precaution. Like a tire repair kit with a compressor, Fix-A-Flat injects foam or slime into the tire that seals small punctures like nail holes along with adding a bit of air pressure inside the tire. When it’s out of the can and exposed to the air, it hardens into an epoxy-like substance.
It’s also a mess to clean up afterward. Most tire shops will refuse to clean the tire and you’re bound to get an extra charge for cleaning the rim. Expect dirty looks for sure. It’s great when you’re out of other options, but the associated costs mean it isn’t anywhere near as cheap as the $10-dollar can of goop suggests.
Tire plug kit
Another option that can be more permanent is a tire plug. Kits are available at auto parts stores and include a T-handled tool and strips of sticky, self-vulcanizing rubber. Essentially, they’re good to plug a hole that you can identify, but they’re not helpful if you don’t know where the tire is leaking. You’ll also need an air source afterward to fill the tire, so hopefully you have a compressor on hand.
To use a tire plug kit:
- Locate the source of the leak and mark it clearly.
- If it’s still in the tire, pull out the offending nail or object.
- Clean the hole with the rough T-handled tool.
- Put a plug into the hook or hole in the tool and force it into the hole.
- Remove the tool and trim the plug flat with the tread.
A plug isn’t considered a permanent fix. But if it’s in the tread, you can usually drive safely leak-free for quite some time. If you’re plugging a sidewall leak, don’t tempt fate—get the tire replaced right away.
How can I avoid having a flat tire in the future?
Waiting who-knows-how-long for roadside assistance, plugging a tire on the side of the road and essentially ruining a tire to get to safety are imperfect solutions. Everyone can think of better things to do with their day. So how can you avoid getting yourself in this type of quandary next time around?
Get a spare tire
The traditional option is to buy a spare tire. Even if your car didn’t originally come with a spare tire or it’s already equipped with an inflator or sealant, you can still add a spare. Check with your dealer’s parts department to source a direct-fit spare for your car or check with a well-known tire manufacturer like Goodyear to find either a full-size or compact spare that fits your car.
If your car wasn’t delivered with a spare tire, there may not be a well in the trunk or a winch in the undercarriage. No matter. It might take up some of your cargo space, but you can put your spare tire in the trunk or hatch. Don’t forget to invest in a good-quality, compact tire iron and jack to go with it.
Consider run-flat tires
Luxury and performance cars might come with run-flat tires from the factory but they aren’t exclusively for expensive vehicles. Run-flat tires are a great option if your car doesn’t have a factory spare tire and you’d rather not lose any room for your stuff in the back.
What are run-flat tires? They have a reinforced sidewall or a support ring on the rim that prevents your rims from riding on the pavement, even when the tire is completely deflated. This gives you a chance to get your car to the shop for a repair before it’s completely toast.
Take Bridgestone DriveGuard tires, for instance. For around $130 per tire, you can drive up to 50 miles at 50 miles per hour even with no tire pressure at all. They can be repaired, too, so you aren’t out the cost of a replacement tire.
For any emergency, including a flat tire, having these precautionary measures on hand can help get you back on the road safely:
- Have an emergency kit that includes reflective triangles, first-aid supplies and a “HELP” sign to assist you in a serious situation.
- A small compressor, a tire plug kit and Fix-A-Flat all have their merits, and having all three is as close to ideal as it gets for tackling tire problems.
- Jumper cables are a simple way to revive a dead battery.
- Keep bottled water and a few high-energy snacks in your car in case you’re stranded somewhere without help available.
- Find out if you have emergency roadside assistance from any of your current service providers and invest in a subscription with AAA if you don’t.
- Never ignore warning lights on your dash like a TPMS light, and inspect your fluids and tires regularly.
You can’t avoid every road hazard, but you can prepare for it. Keep your spare tire properly inflated and ready to use and carry the necessary equipment to either change a flat or get yourself back on the road temporarily. For safety’s sake, prepare for the worst, but hope for the best.