Summer road trips are as American as apple pie and baseball — and often include both!
Ah. The Great American Road Trip. Who doesn’t remember those long summer days playing the license plate game while secretly hitting your siblings as you fought over the limited space in the back seat? I swear my mom never saw anything on our road trips. She spent the entire time turned around, facing the back seat and trying to negotiate peace between my brother and I.
Mom also did the bulk of the summer road trip planning while Dad worked two jobs to pay for our fun. That included getting the car to the mechanic for a thorough pre-vacation check.
Gender roles have changed a lot since then. Regardless of who earns the money and who does the planning these days, there is plenty to do before you pack the car. That starts with making sure your car is road trip ready.
Here is our 12-point summer road trip planning list for your car!
Pre-Travel Checklist For Your Car
Few things can sour a road trip faster than a car that won’t go. There are no guarantees in life, but these 12 summer road trip planning tips for your car will go a long way toward giving you peace of mind and increasing the chances that the memories will be about who won the license plate game rather than how long it took the tow truck to arrive.
Some are things you can easily check on yourself; others require a professional But you should know what they are and ask specifically for them to be checked so you know your car is road-ready. We asked Audra Fordin, the founder of Women Auto Know and owner of Great Bear Auto in Queens, NY, for advice on what should be on your pre-travel checklist:
Things You Can Do Yourself
1. Check Your Owner’s Manual For Scheduled Maintenance
Your owner’s manual will have a list of scheduled maintenance items listed by age of the car and/or mileage. If you no longer have the printed manual, look at an electronic version online. If your car is due for any of those services — or will be due after your 2,000-mile odyssey — have them taken care of before you hit the road.
2. Check the Tire Pressure – In Every Tire
Check the tire pressure. You’ll find the correct tire pressure for your car on a sticker on the driver’s side door jamb.
Improper tire pressure:
- Stresses the engine
- Adds unnecessary wear and tear on the brakes and suspension
- Causes uneven tire wear
- Makes your tires susceptible to tire blowouts
- Uses more fuel: Under-inflated tires reduces fuel economy by 1% for every 2 PSI (psi=pounds per square inch of pressure) of under-inflation
Do the penny test to see if you tires have enough tread. If not, consider buying new tires before you leave. Here’s how to do the penny test:
3. Change the Air Filter and Cabin Filter
Change the air filter and cabin filter if they haven’t been replaced lately (see your owner’s manual or look for a tutorial on Youtube). An air filter is like your lungs; imagine trying to breathe with your hand over your face. A restricted air filter can increase your fuel cost by 10 percent, putting stress on other components. And the quality of cabin air? On a seven-day-hundreds-of-miles-
4. Buy New Wiper Blades and Fill the Washer Fluid
If your wiper blades haven’t been changed recently, buy a new set. Look for them at any auto parts store, or even your local Target or Walmart. Changing wiper blades is easy. Just follow the directions on the package. While you’re there, pick up a gallon of windshield washer fluid and top off the tank. You’ll be glad you did as soon as the first giant bug splats in the middle of the driver’s side windshield.
5. Check the Headlights, Taillights and Turn Signals
Make sure headlights, fog lights, taillights, turn signals and brake lights are all working. If any of the lights are burned out, you likely can replace them yourself. Bulbs only cost a few bucks. Or you can ask you mechanic to change it for you. (I once went to the neighborhood gas station that still does car repair work. A kid working there did it for me in 5 minutes. I tipped him $10 and headed on my merry way.)
If you look at the lights and they are still working, but the glow is hazy, dull, cloudy or yellow, it may need nothing more than a good car wash. Clean head lights and tail lights make a huge difference for visibility. That’s something to remember each time you gas up during the trip as well. Those same bugs that splatted on your windshield also are splatting on your headlights. Give them a once-over with the window-washing squeegee as well.
Things a Mechanic Should Do
6. Determine Why that Dashboard Light Is On
If you have any engine lights on, (e.g., service engine soon, brake, battery, oil, ABS, airbag) have them looked at by a mechanic. This shouldn’t wait until you are prepping for a road trip. Any time a light comes on, your car is trying to tell you something. Get it checked out–the sooner, the better. The longer you let the light stay on, the more expensive the trouble becomes.
7. Check the Radiator, Heater and Bypass Hoses
The hoses can all cause overheating and coolant leaks. If the hoses have any cracks or lumps, or look like they are about to break, have the mechanic replace them. A silly little hose ($15-$200 replacement) can do severe engine damage ($1500-$7000 damage). Not to mention the interrupt-your-vacation pain it will cause.
8. Check the Belts
Belts run all the accessories of your car (power steering, charging system, air conditioning, water pump). If a belt is dry, frayed, broken or worn, just replace it. Audra says it’s one of those things that causes cars to come into the shop on a tow truck. If your car has a timing belt, and you’re near its replacement mileage… replace it. The damage that can be done by a belt breaking can be fatal to your engine. And your vacation.
9. Check the Brakes
Brakes must be in tip-top shape. Stopping is crucial – especially when you’re doing 55 mph on the highway and the person in front of you slams on the brakes.
10. Check the Suspension
Unless you want to feel like you’re on a roller coaster summer road trip, check your suspension. Struts and shocks influence the control and handling of your car by absorbing the impact and keeping the tires to the road. If you’re already bottoming-out, rebounding, or dipping, the long and winding road is going to make that 10 times worse–especially if you travel with someone who gets car sick.
11. Change the Oil and Top Off the Fluids
OK, you can do this yourself, but the price of having a garage or quick-change service station change your oil and fluids sometimes costs just slightly more than buying the products yourself. And they’re the ones who get dirty.
12. Check the Air Conditioning
Nothing says painful like driving 500 miles in summer heat with no A/C. Be sure yours is in good working order.