Is Your Car Road Trip Ready? Easy Checks Anyone Can Do – and What a Mechanic Should Look at – Before You Hit the Road

Summer Road Trips
The Chevy Suburban is made for family road trips.

Our 12-point checklist offers peace of mind on the road this summer.

Ah. The Great American Road Trip. Who doesn’t doesn’t need this more than ever these days? It’s worth cramming everyone and everything into your car for a trip to the lake or the beach and suffering yet another game of license plate bingo just to get away.

The fact is, this summer getting away by car may be your only way to travel. And the last thing you want is to have car trouble delay that much needed getaway. Make sure your car is road trip ready.

Related: Online Car Sales Are Changing How Cars are Sold, Maybe Forever

Road Trip

? Jill Robbins

12-Point Checklist To Get Your Car Summer Road Trip Ready

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:

Related: 9 Old School Road Trip Games You Have to Play With Your Kids

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-with-the-loves-of-your-life trip, priceless.

Related: So, You Think You Need New Tires. Here’s How to Know, and What to Do

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 headlights 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 splattered on your windshield also are splatting on your headlights. Give them a once-over with the window-washing squeegee as well.

Road Trip Ready

Think it will all fit? ?Scotty Reiss

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.

Road Trip Ready


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.

Road Trip Ready

?Anuja de Silva

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.

Don'T Head Off On Your Summer Road Trip Until You Have Gone Through This Checklist! Some You Can Do, Some Will Require A Mechanic. But All Are Important!

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Cindy Richards is a Pulitzer Prize nominated journalist who serves as the Editor-in-Chief of the TravelingMom LLC companies,,... More about Cindy Richards