Are you about to “hit the road” to visit friends or family and don’t want to ruin your road trip by bringing the literal meaning of the popular saying to life? Obviously, you don’t want to end up on the side of the road—or calling for a tow. While there’s no signed guarantee that your car can make the trip without problem, there are eight simple steps you can do to prep your car for your holiday road trip, and ensure you make it to your destination.
Change your oil.
A car engine without oil, enough oil, or very dirty oil, is an engine with a death wish and a limited life span. That’s why it’s so important to make regular appointments to get your oil changed, and to check it periodically between appointments—especially when you’re about to take a long trip. To check your oil, turn off your engine and grab a paper towel. Open the hood of your car and locate your dipstick. Pull your dipstick out and wipe off the end. Put the dipstick back in and pull it out. Your dipstick has little lines on it; make sure your oil level is between the two lines (and not above the max line). If your oil level is low, add oil. Make sure you added enough by checking the oil again when you are done.
If you find your oil level is consistently low, mention it to your mechanic at your next appointment or when you schedule your appointment. A low oil level can indicate an oil leak or another issue.
Double check your headlights and taillights.
Everyone assumes they’d notice if a headlight or taillight is out, but the reality of the matter is that’s just not true. Even if you don’t intend to drive through the dark during your stay, you’re going to need your headlights or taillights at some point. Do a thorough test of your headlights, taillights, and blinkers to make sure they work when you need them.
Check your tires.
You can’t check tire pressure by looking at them; some tires may be down 5 pounds of air pressure and you can’t tell! The best way to check your tire pressure is by using a tire pressure gauge periodically, or by asking your mechanic to check your tire pressure. Don’t forget to check your spare tire, in addition to all four tires. Here’s how you check your tire pressure:
- Get a tire pressure gauge. (We’ve also found this great video as a reference.)
- Remove the cap from the tire stem. (The tire stem is a small rubber piece sticking up from your tire.)
- Insert the tire pressure gauge into the tire stem. You will feel the gauge fit in there correctly. (If you have a gauge with a knob for deflation, you will know if you are using the right end if you DON’T hear air escaping.)
- The end of your tire pressure gauge will register a number electronically or the white numbers will rise at the other end of the tire pressure gauge.
The proper PSI (pounds per square inch-tire pressure) is in your car’s owner manual or on a decal on the bottom of your door frame on the driver’s side.
Make sure your tires can make the trip.
Not sure if you have enough tire tread for a long road trip? Use the old coin trick. Put a penny into the tread of your tire. If you can completely see Abraham Lincoln’s head, you need new tires. Make sure you try this trick in a few different places on the tire. Tires can wear differently, leaving some tires with uneven tread depth.
If your car tread is worn, your tires can’t hold air, the tread wear bar indicators show, or you have another sign that your tires are done, start tire shopping now—so you can make sure you’re ready to leave on time to get there for a holiday dinner.
Be confident in your brakes.
You don’t want to find out your brake pedal goes down to the floor when you need to make an emergency stop during your holiday trip. When wet, it’s normal for your car brakes to make an occasional squeaking sound. If the squeak doesn’t go away, your brake pads are wearing down and are letting you know it by squealing. The squealing sound is actually a warning indicator built in by the manufacturer just to let you know that it’s time to get them replaced. If you don’t get your brakes looked it, and possibly replaced, brake failure is inevitable.
There are other signs you need new brakes before your trip: a grinding noise that goes away you press the brakes, a soft or pulsating brake pedal, or when your car pulls to one side. If your car is doing the last symptom, pulling to one side, there are other car problems, such as a vehicle that needs an alignment, which could be the cause. Schedule an appointment with your mechanic to get a diagnosis so you can get to your destination safely.
Check your fluids
Once you’ve checked your oil, now it’s time to make sure your other fluids are full and ready for the trip. Fill your windshield washer reservoir, and double check your windshield wipers to confirm they can do the job. If your transmission fluid hasn’t been flushed (ever), schedule an appointment with your mechanic. Your car uses transmission fluid to shift gears, so a dirty transmission fluid can cause a very expensive transmission failure. To keep your transmission shifting, and you on the road, make an appointment to have your transmission fluid flushed every 30-60,000 miles (or as low as 15,000 miles for workhorse vehicles).
Pack an emergency travel kit.
Once you, or your mechanic, are done with your holiday travel prep checklist for your car, prepare for the unexpected with an emergency travel kit. Start by making sure you have your roadside assistance card or tow truck phone number. Program these numbers into your cell phone, and carry your card, and copies of your cards, at all times.
- Flashlight. Test the flashlight from time to time, and make sure the batteries are still strong.
- Blanket. Pack a warm, thick blanket that can keep you and your family warm when you are stranded.
- Jack and lug wrench. Most cars come with a jack and lug wrench for changing a tire, but some of the smaller, more compact car models do not.
- Jumper cables. Make sure you know how to use those jumper cables (for step-by-step instructions, read here).
- Boots. Pack an old, waterproof pair of boots that you can use in case you get stuck.
- Shovel. A foldable or small shovel is handy for digging your car out of a full day of snow, or cleaning out around when your tires when you go off the road.
- First aid kit. Make sure a pair of plastic gloves is included so you don’t come in contact with other people’s body fluids.
Plan ahead and schedule accordingly.
The amount of prep work you can do on your car to ready for your holiday drive depends on how comfortable you are with car maintenance; if you don’t feel you have the knowledge or the time, make an appointment with a mechanic that can get (and keep) you on the road over the holidays.