Family road trips used to be a staple of American life. But as air travel grew more common, road trips fell out of style. With that, vacations become all about the destination, and people stopped caring about the journey itself.
Recently, though, the road trip has made a comeback, spurred partly by the Covid-19 pandemic (and the airline industry’s operational incompetence). People are again realizing some of the benefits of road trips:
- You can maintain social distancing and health safety measures,
- You can control the budget and spending,
- You can avoid early morning flights and airport delays,
- You can customize the trip based on your interests and schedule,
- You can bring pets!
Road trips require different kinds of preparation than air travel does. You won’t get in trouble for having an 8oz bottle of liquid, but your battery could die, your AC could give out, or your brakes could fail. Not only will having car troubles put a damper on your trip, but it will also increase your risk of getting into an accident.
Since you will be driving hundreds (maybe thousands) of miles, you definitely want to make sure your vehicle is tip-top shape, both inside and out. The steps below will help you get your vehicle ready for a long drive and create an optimal environment for you and your fellow travelers.
Critical Vehicle Maintenance
Periodic maintenance is a necessary and often neglected part of owning a vehicle. There are many moving parts (literally), and before putting your car through the strain of a long trip, you should give it a comprehensive checkup in the following areas.
Wipers and Wiper Fluid
Navigating an unfamiliar location can turn dangerous if you can’t see the road clearly. Check to see if your windshield wipers leave streaks or skip over large patches. if so, go buy a new set of wipers. Installing new wipers is a fairly easy task, and the auto parts store employees may even be willing to help you.
While you’re thinking about your wipers, go ahead and top off your windshield wiper fluid and stash the rest of the bottle in the trunk. You don’t want to run out of wiper fluid just when a giant bug decides to smear itself all over your windshield!
Headlights, Brake Lights, and Turn Signals
Driving with burnt-out headlights, turn signals, or any other exterior lights is not only a safety hazard, it’s also a good way to get a ticket, which is sure to ruin your day. Fortunately, checking and replacing these lights is also something you can do on your own.
If any lights are burnt out or appear hazy or dull, you can purchase new bulbs from almost any auto parts store. You can find out the correct bulb and how to install them in your owner’s manual or search for it on YouTube. Otherwise, you can have a mechanic do it (for a steep markup).
Pro Tip: The headlight bulbs themselves may be bright as the sun, but if the plastic shielding is splattered with bugs, your lights will seem hazy and dull. Be sure to give them a good scrub with a squeegee!
Tires and Brakes
Tires are more important than many people think. Over-inflated tires can:
- Increase wear and tear on brakes and suspension,
- Cause uneven wear on the tires,
- Reduce ride quality,
- Decrease control over the vehicle, and
- Increase stopping time.
Under-inflated tires can:
- Reduce fuel efficiency (generally, MPG drops by 1% for every 2 PSI of under-inflation),
- Impact control over vehicle in inclement weather, and
- Cause uneven tire wear and increase likelihood of blowouts.
So, check your tires’ inflation and tread levels. Most gas station air pumps have pressure gauges built in. You can find the correct tire pressure (PSI) for your vehicle on the sticker on the inside of the driver’s side door.
How to check your tread with the "penny test"
Place a penny into the shallowest groove on the tire with Lincoln’s head facing you and pointed down. If you can only see Lincoln’s chin and nose, you’re great. If you can see if eyes too, that’s OK. If you can see his forehead or the top of his head, your tread is too low, and you should replace your tires before going on a long road trip.
Do these same tests on your spare tire, even though you hope to not need it. Also locate your jack and lug wrench.
Finally, if your vehicle makes a piercing screeching or squealing noise when you stop, have a mechanic inspect your brake pads and replace them if necessary.
Under the Hood
Unless you are a mechanic yourself, you will likely need to have a professional inspect the various vehicle systems beneath your hood. These systems include your battery, engine fluids, drivetrain and belts, radiator, AC and heater, and more.
You can’t tell how much juice your battery has left, but you can check to see if there are obvious signs of corrosion or age. If your car has been slow to start or you see corrosion on the battery terminals, it may be wise to have a mechanic check the status of the battery.
There are various fluids that flow through your car like blood through veins. Your steering, braking, shifting, and more rely on these fluids to function properly. Before driving long distances, it’s good to get the following fluid levels checked:
- Radiator Fluid,
- Brake Fluid,
- Power Steering Fluid, and
- Transmission Fluid.
Belts and Hoses
Look under your hood, find any hoses, and check it and the connections on either end for signs of leakage. For the belts, check if there is any visible fraying or if they have excessive slack. Again, if you notice any of these red flags, it’s likely that you’ll need a professional to replace any worn or broken parts.
If these hoses spring a leak or belts snap during a long drive, it can cause additional damage to your engine. Not only will you be stranded, you may be facing a very expensive fix.
Despite your best preparations, your car may still break down. Plus, you never know what the weather will be like where you’re going or what kind of trouble you may have along the way.
As such, it’s a good idea to keep a well-stocked emergency supply kit in your car, especially if you’re planning for a road trip. Some items to consider including in your emergency kit are:
- Flashlight and batteries (don’t count solely on your phone!),
- Basic first-aid supplies,
- Water and snacks,
- Candles and matches,
- Jumper cables,
- Emergency flares,
- Small tool kit,
- Duct tape,
- Bedding, and
- Rags or paper towels.
Ambience and Fun
Since you will be spending hours and hours in the car with the other passengers, you want to make sure you prep the inside of the car as well.
- Interior: Tidy up the inside of your car, remove any trash, make sure your cupholders and other frequently used areas are clean and useable. Also, clean and organize your trunk space so items there are easily accessible. Especially if your dog or cat is coming along for the ride, you may want to pre-clean the seats and floor mats.
- Vehicle Papers and Cards: Locate your owner’s manual and other important vehicle documents. Make sure your glovebox has a copy of your vehicle registration, insurance card, and AAA card or other roadside assistance program. You may also consider adding a paper map of your route in case you lose GPS coverage.
- Electronics: Everyone in the vehicle will likely have a smart phone. There may also be a handful of tablets and laptops as well. Make sure you have cables and chargers for all of these devices, and consider buying a power splitter to charge multiple devices at once. Additionally, be sure you download any audiobooks, podcasts, or music. Finally, before leaving, ensure these various devices are easily accessible in the vehicle to avoid distractions.
- Miscellaneous: You won’t be able to stop easily, and you don’t want to take your eyes off the road to rummage through bags or underneath seats. So, make sure you know where tissues, sunglasses, napkins, water bottles, snacks, and garbage bags are located. Also, if you’re traveling with a pet, make sure you know where their items are located.
Safe and Fun Road Trips
We’ve seen so many clients here in Florida who have been in terrible accidents caused by poorly maintained vehicles, distracted drivers, or a mix of other factors. If you follow these steps and make sure your car’s mechanical systems, safety features, and interior are properly maintained, you can reduce the likelihood of being in an accident and increase the likelihood of a fantastic road trip.
If you are hitting the open road with your friends or family, we encourage you to do the necessary planning ahead of time to ensure that your journey is safe and fun. If you do happen to get injured in a car accident, call us right away to find out how we can help you and your loved ones get justice for your injuries.