The best auto insurance has

  • Easy-to-reach representatives. Some companies encourage you to use local agents, while others prefer to do business online or over the phone. In either case, you should be able to report an accident and file a claim 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
  • Flexible plans. You should be able to customize coverage to fit your needs instead of being forced into a policy that offers options you don't need or want.
  • A wide range of discounts. Most insurers will knock a bit off your rate for a variety of factors: having a good driving record or owning a newer car with a security system are just a couple of examples.

Know before you go

How much coverage do you need? Each state has certain minimum requirements for bodily injury and property damage coverage. It's always worth double-checking the numbers on your state insurance commissioner's website. Most experts recommend purchasing more than the minimum, however; you need at least enough coverage to cover your assets, and purchasing the state minimum is generally only enough to keep you driving legally. Check out CarInsurance.com's guide to three common levels of coverage for a good baseline.

What type of coverage do you need? Insure.com provides a handy overview of insurance basics. Liability coverage is required of car owners, but it covers only expenses related to bodily injury or property damage you do to others. If you want your own vehicle covered in the event of a crash, you'll need collision coverage, and if you want it covered for anything other than a crash -- a nasty hailstorm or vandalism, for instance -- you'll need comprehensive coverage. Another major consideration is uninsured/underinsured motorist coverage, which will cover you if the person who hits you didn't pony up for his or her own policy.

Is the company reputable? Insurance companies can be tricky to evaluate using individual consumer reviews -- horror stories are common no matter the company. For a more balanced picture, check out the results of large consumer surveys, including national rankings by J.D. Power and Associates. Regional rankings are also worth a look -- some insurers fare much better in certain areas than others, and some highly ranked smaller companies don't provide coverage in every state. Of course, it's also worth asking for recommendations from friends -- especially those with similar assets and driving habits -- or a trusted mechanic.

Buying tactics and strategies

  • Know roughly what you should pay. Figure out whether you're in a high- or low-cost state for car insurance, and check your state's insurance department website for hypothetical rates for customers with similar circumstances. Remember that your credit score may affect your quotes -- if you have poor credit, you could be penalized with higher rates.
  • Compare, compare, compare. Rate-comparison sites such as those at Insure.com, Insurance.com and Netquote.com can help you get several car insurance quotes. Remember to contact other insurers who might not use such tools to see whether they can beat the quotes you receive.
  • Take advantage of discounts. Nearly all major auto insurers provide a variety of ways to save, but be sure to ask for a full list -- they may give you a break for everything from demographics to driving habits to what car you drive. Note that available discounts may also vary by state.
  • Think about a higher deductible. If you can afford to pay more in the event of a crash or other catastrophe, you may be able to lower your premiums. But it's a risk worth taking only if you actually have substantial savings, experts say.
  • Reassess your situation every year. Your insurer may lower your rate for several reasons: if your credit score rises or if you're driving less, for example. On the flip side, you may pay more because of driving infractions or the purchase of a pricey new car.

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