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What to Do If You Lose Your Only Car Key

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By Kristen Seymour on November 16, 2020 in life hacks

If you’ve been a car owner for even a short time, you’ve likely experienced that stomach-dropping, heart-pounding feeling that crops up when you reach into the pocket where you always keep your key and realize it’s not there.

Of course, where you are when you notice your key is missing will greatly affect how you react. Learning that you misplaced a key when you’re in your own home is a far cry from realizing you lost your only car key when you’re standing in the parking lot of a remote trailhead at the end of a six-hour hike.

Still, no matter where you are when you realize you lost your key, you may want to keep a few things in mind. Losing your only car key can cost you time, money, and frustration, but if you follow the tips below, this not-so-grand adventure will be behind you in no time.

What to Do When You Lose Your Only Car Key

  1. First up, take a cue from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and don’t panic. Take a deep breath and try to stay calm — not only because panicking won’t help, but also because a measured approach makes it more likely you’ll find the lost key. If you can’t find it, staying calm will help you take the most reasonable course of action.
  2. Think about where you saw the key last. Was it when you got out of your car? Did you do something with it — or with the bag or pocket it was in — between then and now that could give you a clue as to where it may be? For example, if you went for a run with the key in a pouch alongside your phone, the corner where you stopped and pulled your phone out would be a smart place to check for a dropped key.
  3. If possible, search the area where you saw it last. In cases where you’ve covered many miles, this may be more difficult (if not impossible). If, for instance, you remember carrying your keys into your office but haven’t seen them since, it’s time to do a thorough exploration of the space.
  4. Think you’ll be able to locate your lost keys if you just give it a little more time? If you have an older car and have a valet key (which won’t have the remote lock and unlock buttons), you should be able to make do for a short period of time. Cars that don’t have an exposed keyhole will likely still have one someplace in the door handle; if you can access your owner’s manual, you should be able to figure out how to use a valet key for your purposes.
  5. Check inside the vehicle. Even if you have never, ever, not even once in your life left your keys in the car, it’s worth scouring the car from top to bottom just to be safe. We all have a lot on our minds, which makes forgetfulness one of the leading causes of car lockouts.
  6. If your keys are locked in your car, you’ll need to contact a locksmith or car dealer. However, before you make that call, there are a couple of considerations. For one, keep in mind that your insurance may cover a locksmith (or even towing, if necessary), so call your insurance company or check your policy to see if that’s the case before you spend money out of pocket. And be aware that locksmith scams are common, so be certain that any locksmith you call is licensed and has good BBB ratings. Owners of newer car models may not be able to go the locksmith route due to intricate keys, so the car dealer may be your only option.
  7. If you suspect your keys have been stolen, not just lost, you should call the police and file a police report with your local department.

Five Types of Car Keys (and What to Do When You Lose Them)

All lost car keys aren’t created equally, so the type of key you have will impact the course of action you need to take in order to get back behind the wheel.

  • Traditional car keys: Got a key with no chip or buttons? That’s considered a traditional key, and unless you have a car that’s quite old or really unusual, a locksmith should be able to make you a new key for an affordable fee, right there.
  • Car key fob: Key fobs pair with an ignition key and have buttons to lock and unlock the car, but they can’t start the car on their own. If you lose yours but still have the regular key, you can use the key to lock and unlock your doors, and you should be able to easily purchase and program an aftermarket fob. They’re generally less than $20 and can be found at dealerships and auto parts stores as well as many online retailers.
  • Car key fob and switchblade key: This two-in-one option was the next step auto manufacturers took in the key realm. It combines a key (which may be spring-loaded to fold in like a switchblade) with a fob that will lock and unlock the car. These are a bit more costly to replace, running around $125. Your best bet is to head to a dealership and have it cut and programmed on-site, although you can also likely find what you need online.
  • Transponder key: Common in most fairly modern cars (meaning those manufactured after the late ‘90s), a programmed transponder key may be on its own or it could pair with a keyless entry remote. These keys are designed with security in mind, which is great in most cases, but not so great if you lose it and don’t have a backup key. If this happens, you’ll need to have your car towed to a dealership and present proof of ownership papers; then you should be able to purchase a key (which will likely cost around $200 to $250, not including the towing costs). Having a key in stock is not guaranteed, so you may find yourself needing to wait a few days before the dealer can get the key and electronically pair that new computer chip with your vehicle. Some dealers will program the key for free while others charge a fee for labor.
  • Smart key: Cars with a keyless ignition use these smart keys, which need to be within the car in order for the start button on the dash to work. As is the case with a lost transponder key, a missing smart key with no back up means you’ll need to tow your car to the dealership, prove you own the vehicle, and have them order and pair a key to your car. Replacing a smart key is not an inexpensive undertaking, generally costing $320 on top of towing (and potential labor costs).

Be aware that some car dealers — those of European cars in particular — do not work with aftermarket key fobs that they don’t provide themselves. So depending on what you drive, going to a dealer for a replacement may be your only option.

How to Avoid Losing Another Car Key

You’ve lost your key and paid good money to replace it, and in doing so, you probably realized that it’s not an experience you’re keen to replicate. Here are a couple of tips to make sure you’re never without a key again.

  • Pay for an extra key now so you have a spare when you need it. Yes, it’s expensive, and when you have a perfectly good key in hand, it might be hard to justify the cost. That said, if you have only one key and you lose it, you won’t only pay more at that time, you’ll also be stressed and inconvenienced while you’re at it. And while it’s hard to put a price on your mental wellbeing, we can probably all agree that it’s worth a lot. Definitely more than a replacement key, right?
  • Get a Bluetooth tag to attach to your keychain. There are all kinds of electronic tags that make it easy to keep tabs on your keyring by connecting it to your cellphone via Bluetooth so you’ll never run into the lost key situation again.

No matter where you lose your key or what kind of vehicle you drive, remember — a lost key is frustrating, but it’s not the end of the world. Keep your cool, take the necessary steps, and then, once you’re back in the driver’s seat, take the aforementioned precautions to ensure you’re always able to find your keys in the future.

Kristen Seymour is a consultant for Say Insurance. She brought her passion for both pets and writing to the online space nearly a decade ago, working as an editor at AOL’s Paw Nation and then Vetstreet.com. She’s also a regular contributor to HealthyPet Magazine. Additionally, Seymour covers fitness, food and healthy (and yes, sometimes pets!) on her Fit Bottomed Girls website and podcast.

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