Long road trips promise an appealing mix of spontaneity and adventure — but they can also be surprisingly stressful to plan. From fuel mileage and battery life to load capacity and engine efficiency, making sure your car is up for the trip can seem overwhelming.
To help the non-mechanic traveler feel less intimidated, we turned to an expert: AAA Manager of Technical Services Mike Calkins. With years of experience dealing with auto maintenance and repair, Calkins knows the value of spending time on your car before a long trip — and has seen firsthand what happens when you don’t.
Before you hit the highway, follow these 12 tips for making sure your car is ready for the road trip ahead. As Calkins says, “Take care of your car and it will take care of you.”
Keep Up With Regular Maintenance
If it’s only days before your next big trip and you’ve been seriously neglecting your car, this tip won’t do you much good. That being said, it’s never too late to turn over a new leaf.
“The most important thing is and always has been to follow the manufacturer’s recommended schedule for maintenance and do so within the required interval,” Calkins says.
While older cars had many regular maintenance needs, newer cars don’t require as much work. That makes keeping on top of your regular car care a lot more manageable. If you’re not sure what types of regular care your car requires, you can almost always find a list in your owner’s manual. Lost your manual? Do a little Googling. Most car makes and models have manuals available in PDF form online.
Pay Attention to Fluid Levels
When things seem to be running smoothly, it can be easy to forget about your fluid levels. From engine oil to transmission fluid to coolant, there are a variety of fluids that keep your car functioning well.
Before you pour a new fluid in your vehicle, do your research and make sure it conforms to the manufacturer’s specifications for your car. Always read fluid labels carefully — putting the wrong product in your system can cause problems for some cars.
Especially as the weather gets warmer, it’s important to ensure that your car’s coolant levels are where they should be. When it comes to warm weather and long drives, antifreeze helps keep your car from overheating and boiling over. Make sure that this reservoir is full of a mixture that is half coolant and half water year round to keep your car from overheating on your next trip.
Don’t Overlook Inspections
Routine services like oil changes or tire rotations aren’t often overlooked, but Calkins encourages travelers not to skimp on systems inspections either. Scheduling time for routine inspections of your car’s belts, hoses and fluid systems is just as important as those more well-known maintenance needs.
Without an inspection it may be difficult to tell that your alternator is failing or a belt has snapped. But Calkins stresses that the failure of these systems can cause a lot of problems down the road — literally — if they aren’t addressed before you leave home.
Check Your Battery
Calkins says that most frequent roadside assistance calls that AAA receives are for car battery problems. To help ensure your battery will go the distance, be mindful of the two more prevalent battery issues: heat and vibration.
Depending on external conditions and usage, the typical life of a battery is between three and five years. Heat kills batteries more quickly, so if you live in a warmer climate you may be looking at a replacement more frequently.
Batteries also deteriorate based on usage. So if you’re putting lots of strain on your electrical system by constantly running your heated seats or blasting the AC, you may drain your battery more quickly.
Before you hop on the highway, make sure that your battery is solidly mounted under the hood of your car. If the mount setting is even a little bit loose, the vibrations from hours of driving can cause long-term damage to your battery.
Pump Up Your Tires
Inspecting your car’s tires may seem like an easy item to check off your to-do list, but it can be incredibly important to your safety on a long trip.
“Those four patches of rubber the size of your hand are the only thing between your 4,500-pound car and the road,” Calkins points out.
He recommends checking your tire pressure at least once a month, and every time you’re planning on heading out on a longer trip. If you can’t remember the proper pressure your car needs, the information is typically printed on a decal on the driver’s side door jam.
Don’t use the number molded on the side of your tire — this information relates to the tire size, not the correct air pressure for your car’s tires.
Calkins' last tire tip may seem like common sense, but can make a huge difference when things go awry. If your car came with a spare tire, don’t forget to make sure that it’s actually in the car before you leave home.
Bring On the Cold Air
It may seem like common sense that a long drive is less taxing when you’re comfortable. But making sure your air conditioning is functioning how it should be has some other more serious implications.
Not only will a well-functioning system make your drive more comfortable, but it can also make you a safer driver. A hot car coupled with loud noise from driving at high speeds with the windows down are both causes of driver fatigue.
Stay safe by making sure your system is functioning as it should be. While your car’s air conditioning system doesn’t necessarily require routine maintenance, there are simple steps you can take to ensure it’s working well.
If you can feel consistent, cold air blowing through the vents you’re probably in good shape. If not, it could be a sign of a leak or other system issue. Get your car checked out by a repair shop before putting the system under the additional strain of a long trip.
In addition to your car’s traditional air filter, an increasing number of newer cars also have interior cabin filters. These filters capture everything from bugs and debris to pollen and dirt that you would otherwise be breathing through your car’s ventilation system.
Most manufacturers recommend that these filters be swapped out every 15,000 to 30,000 miles. But if yours is looking especially dirty before a long drive, Calkins says you should consider replacing it.
Not only will it help you get the maximum amount of air flow through your car’s vents, but it will also more effectively filter out dirty air that you don’t want to be breathing for long periods of time.
If you do decide to replace your filter, save a few bucks and do it yourself. While many repair shops will charge for the service, these filters are typically inexpensive and can be found at most auto-parts shops.
Make Sure You Can See Clearly
“One thing I always do is clean the glass on my car, inside and out, before I leave,” Calkins says. No one likes trying to see through dirty car windows, especially for an extended period of time.
Not only is grimy glass annoying, but it can also be a safety hazard. Especially as dawn and dusk approach, interior dust and dirt can make it especially difficult to see as you drive.
Minimize your risk for accidents and give your car some additional love by wiping down all of its windows and surfaces before you set out. If you’re on an especially long trip you may also want to pack some glass cleaner and paper towels in your trunk for mid-trip touch-ups.
Take Time Out for Maintenance
Picture this: You’re a couple hundred miles into your trip and one of your vehicle’s warning lights clicks on. It might seem like a bummer to take time out of your vacation to deal with car problems, but it may be your best option long term.
Ignoring a potential problem in lieu of getting it checked as soon as you’re able can cause lasting damage to your vehicle and be more costly to repair when you get home.
“Usual routine services don’t typically take more than an hour,” Calkins says. “It’s time out of your vacation, but it also guarantees that you’ll get home safe.”
Pack an Emergency Kit
Even though you’ve meticulously planned for your road trip, unexpected accidents can still happen. Calkins recommends packing an emergency kit that includes some basic tools that you feel comfortable using. You probably have a car charger for your phone stashed somewhere in your car.
But consider also bringing along a first aid kit, flashlight, jumper cables, and small flares or triangles to warn other cars of a potential problem, so you’re prepared should an issue arise.
It’s also important to tailor the items in your emergency kit to the particular trip that you’re taking. For instance, “If you’re taking a trip to fairly empty areas, places where humans are few and far between, make sure that you also pack some emergency food and water,” Calkins says.
Don’t Let Your Fuel Gauge Drop
While many newer cars have technology that predicts the number of miles left on a tank of gas, a long road trip may not be the time to test its accuracy. The predicted number only reflects how many miles you could continue to drive in those exact conditions, and doesn’t account for changes in the drive.
What may be 20 miles in flat driving conditions, for example, could easily drop to less than half that if you encounter a large hill or strong winds.
To be safe, Calkins recommends not letting your fuel gauge dip below the one-third mark. Testing the accuracy of the system may seem fun at the time, but no one wants to end up stranded in the middle of the desert with no gas stations for miles.
Car maintenance can be intimidating, but Calkins stresses that you don’t need to be a professional mechanic to take control of your car’s health. Easy system checks like testing your battery, monitoring fluid levels and adjusting tire pressure are all things that any car owner can do on a regular basis.
To ensure your safety, these checks should always be performed when the car’s engine is cold to avoid burns from steam or hot engine fluids.
“These are all things that the average person can do themselves,” he says. “You might have to drive to the gas station to check and fill up your tires. But it’s better to know where your car stands before you go.”