Check maintenance records
One of the first things you should do is check all your maintenance records to verify if any part of your vehicle is due for service. Are you due for an oil change or a transmission service? How many miles have you driven on your tires? If the time is getting close for any regular services, before you head out on a road trip is the perfect time to make it happen.
Check all fluids
Your engine oil isn’t the only fluid that needs checking and changing. Check your transmission fluid, brake fluid, steering fluid, and coolant, as well as the oil. As brake fluid ages, it turns the color of maple syrup and causes rust. Check your brake reservoir for the color of the fluid, and make sure that it is topped up to the “full” mark. If you haven’t had a flush in two or three years, get one before you leave. The color of your coolant is also important. There are different types of coolant, so if you need a top off, make sure you’re putting in a coolant that matches what’s already in the vehicle. Transmission and differential fluids have much longer change intervals than engine oil, so check your manual to see if you’re due. Top everything off even if it’s not critically low and get an oil change if you’re due or will be due by the time you get back.
Inspect your battery, hoses and belts
Because it’s something we don’t see or deal with every day, it’s easy to forget about the stuff under the hood. But the last thing you want to do is be stranded because of a dead battery or have a hose or belt rip or fly off while you’re driving. Check your hoses and belts for loose connections and bulges, cracks or blisters. If you hear loud screeches when you’re driving, that’s probably a loose belt. Listen to your starter as well – if it sounds sluggish or struggling, there is probably corrosion on your battery or it’s dying. If there is corrosion, clean it off with a wire cable brush and make sure everything is tight. You can also have a local station or auto parts store check the electrolytes or output voltage to test the battery power.
Tires are your contact with the road and losing that contact is one of the most dangerous situations you can be in. First, make sure your tires are in good shape and have enough tread. You can get a tread-depth gauge for a couple dollars at your local auto parts store. Most new tires come with about 10/32” of tread depth; if the gauge shows less than 2/32”, it’s time for new tires. If they’re wearing unevenly but still have enough tread, go ahead and get them rotated.
You’ll also want to check your tire pressure. Contrary to popular belief, the pressure number listed on the side of your tire is not the recommended pressure, but rather the maximum pressure the tire can hold. Be safe and find the actual suggested pressure on your driver’s side door, in the glove compartment or on the fuel filler door. Use a good gauge to make sure every tire’s pressure – including your spare – isn’t too high or low, but just right. Remember it’s always better to be safe than sorry, so err on the side of caution when it comes to your tires.
Take a test drive
Before you leave, take your car for a drive that’s purely dedicated to listening and inspecting, as opposed to commuting or running errands. Cruise up and down the local freeway and focus on any noises, shakes or trouble signs in the gauges. Listen for grinding in your wheels or brakes and check your rotors and brake pads if they’re grinding, shimmying or squealing. Also check your all your lights – blinkers, brakes, head and tail – and your windshield wipers.
Just in case
Since we live in the real world, let’s admit that even if you have done everything you can to prepare for the trip, there’s a still a chance of a break down no matter where you go. Have a jack and the all the tools you need to change a tire handy and make sure your roadside assistance membership is up to date so you can call for help if you need it. And speaking of calling, having a portable backup battery is key to making sure your phone isn’t dead when you need it most. And, it’s always smart to have extra water on hand to drink while you wait and to use as emergency coolant if needed.
Next step: have fun! This may seem like a daunting list, but doing these checks won’t take much time at all and are well worth the protection from a bad vacation break down and the financial ramifications of towing, extensive repairs and long nights in bad hotels. Make sure the story you’re telling for years to come is about your amazing road trip, not squeezing the entire family into the cab of a tow truck and the credit card debt that followed.