How to Prepare Your Car for a Road Trip

Follow This Schedule to Head Off Road Trip Headaches

2007 Pontiac Solstice GXP tire pressure check
Aaron Gold

Many people have concerns about taking their cars on long trips, especially if they drive older or high-mileage cars. The truth is that long trips are actually easier on your car than day-to-day stop-and-go driving, but a breakdown far from home can slam the brakes on your vacation. A few simple checks can reduce your chances of trouble, and as with most things, it's best to start early.

Two to Four Weeks Before You Go

Get any major repairs done. If your car needs any repairs, or if you have any major maintenance items (like a heavy-duty scheduled service) coming up, get them taken care of at least one month before you go. That will allow plenty of time for any problems related to the repair to pop up.

Check the coolant. If your destination is a lot warmer or cooler than home, check (or have your mechanic check) the coolant's mixture of antifreeze and water to make sure the car is properly protected. If the coolant needs to be changed, do it (or have it done) now.

Check the tires. Make sure your tires are inflated to the proper pressure. Low pressure can cause extra heat buildup that can lead to a blowout at high speeds. Follow the instructions for checking tire pressure in your owner's manual. While you're down there, check the tire tread. Put a penny, edge on with Lincoln's head pointing down, in one the grooves of the tire. If you can see the space above Abe's head, it's time for new tires.

Check the spare tire. Make sure the spare is fully inflated and that the jack, wrench, and other tire-changing bits are in the trunk. If your car has wheel locks, make sure you have the adapter for the lock-nut.

Check the glovebox. Make sure your owner's manual, registration, and proof of insurance are present and accounted for. If the manual is missing, consider ordering a replacement before you go. Most automakers have manuals in PDF format on their web sites, and you can download them to your tablet. Make sure your registration and insurance won't expire on your trip. Consider carrying your car's paperwork in your wallet in case the car is stolen.

One Week Before You Go

Get any scheduled maintenance done. If you think your car is going to come due for an oil change or other maintenance during your trip, get it done now.

Check the tires again. The tire pressures should be about the same as they were last time you checked them.

Clean out your car. The more stuff you haul, the more fuel you burn. Clean mercilessly. If you're going to the Grand Canyon in the summer, do you really need those snow chains? My rule: If in doubt, take it out. If you miss anything in the next 6 days before your trip, you can always put it back.

Check the air filter. A clogged air filter reduces fuel economy. They're inexpensive and easy to change. If your current air filter has been in the car for more than 10,000 miles, it's time to clean it or change it.

Buy a road atlas. If you don't have a current road atlas, get one. Hours and hours of expressway can get boring. Getting off the beaten path can add an entirely new dimension to your trip.

Join a roadside assistance program. If you don't already have some sort of roadside assistance program, consider joining one. (Keep in mind that many new cars have roadside assistance as part of their warranty.) Roadside assistance companies will tow your car if it breaks, change the tire if it goes flat, jump start the car if the battery dies, open the doors if you get locked out, and give you gas if you run out. Any such membership will usually pay for itself the first time you run into trouble. AAA is the most popular, and as a bonus, they provide discounts at many roadside motels and restaurants.

One Day Before You Go

Wash and vacuum your car. Before you pack, give your car a good scrubbing and vacuuming. Clean cars always seem to run better. Besides, who wants to travel in a dirty car?

Check and change the tire pressures. Yep—tire pressures again! Many cars have two recommended ratings, one for light loads and one for heavy loads and/or high speeds. If you're taking the whole family, visit your local gas station and inflate the tires to the higher setting. You will find this information in the owners manual or on a sticker in the door jamb or fuel filler flap. Remember: Set the pressures when the tires are cold.

Fill the gas tank. Might as well get it out of the way now. Besides, gas is often more expensive on the road.

The Day of Your Trip

Look at what you've packed. Open your suitcases and take one last look—do you really need all that stuff? If there's anything you can do without, then do without.

Load evenly and carefully. If you're carrying lots of heavy objects, position them forward in the trunk and distribute the weight evenly side to side. Cars don't have unlimited carrying capacity, so don't overload.

Relax! Unexpected things can happen, but if you've followed these guidelines, you've headed off a lot of potential problems. Relax and enjoy your trip!