I recently dealt with one of the worst calamities that can befall a road warrior consultant: My 1998 Toyota Camry died in Tuxedo, NY. I didn't have a plan in place for such a business disaster, and some of the hasty decisions I made while sorting things out were horrible. I was, however, convinced that I would get through the awful event, and of course I did. I'm sharing the lessons I learned from this nightmare.
Draw on your troubleshooting skills
The emotive impact of a car disaster is horrendous. If you cannot drive to clients, you cannot do work, get paid, keep creditors in line, etc. The future seems to be reduced to asking your customer if they want fries with their order is suddenly very real, provided you can even get to the fast food place at all! I had a real sense of failure, and it clouded my judgment at times. Don't let that happen to you.
When car problems bring your business to a grinding halt, you should apply the same troubleshooting skills that you would employ when confronting a downed server. Break the problem into parts and solve one issue at a time. That is the only practical way the mind can operate in stressful situations.
Be honest with your clients
Whether your car is dead or will require a longish stay in the repair shop, let your clients know of your travel difficulties immediately, and the ones you were set to visit tomorrow morning come first. Some clients will understand (they may even help); the clients who don't understand are probably ones you shouldn't care about very much.
Figure out your temporary transportationWe don't have an extra vehicle for use in emergencies (I know a family that had five Volkswagen Bugs parked in their yard), so sharing my wife's car and taking public transport were temporary solutions. Now, sharing a car with your significant other is a burden, too. I made it clear to my wife that I was using her car and that she had primary rights to it at all times.
Public transportation is a good option as long as you can use it with minimum discomfort to clients. Be sure to check online for bus and train schedules, or you might consider whether walking, biking, or taking a taxi are good options for you.
You have to hope that you've done a good job with your clients so that emergency calls do not wreck your schedule. Some clients will get mad, and you have to accept that as best as you can.
Prioritize quick paying customers
Since you'll be in need of money, you should prioritize the customers who pay their invoices on time. (In Business Continuity, the first department a company should get up and running after a disaster is Accounts Receivable).
Ask other consultants for help
My recent car situation was somewhat similar to a seven-day hospital stay I had back in May 2010 when my business turned itself off. When I was hospital bound, I used a co-consultant to do emergency work for me and such a relationship can save your business and client relationships. Do not be afraid to share your clients with a trusted consultant. He or she may even drive you around a bit, and the company can be invaluable. (Related: Five contingency planning tips for independent consultants.)
Plan ahead before disaster strikes
I drove my Camry into the ground, and before the engine fell apart, I had just shelled out $800 for repairs -- that money that is non-recoverable. Then, the process of selling the wreck was wrenching to the extreme. One night I went to bed early, following the wise axiom "I shall lay down for a while to bleed, and rise to fight again on another day."
Car shopping in a rush is a horror, and this path to a replacement car took me to some dark and frightening places. I recommend that you periodically look at and price cars (there is nothing at all wrong with Certified Used Cars or an inspected used car), so you can possibly start putting aside money in an emergency fund and so you'll have an idea of what's available in case you do have to make a quick car buying decision.
The first law of being a road warrior is to keep your vehicle in good working order. If you hear a knock, sense a change in sound, feel something different when driving around town, get your car looked at by a reputable and trustworthy mechanic before you head off on that long drive to see a client. Your vehicle may not break down today, but it could collapse tomorrow.