Summer is the ideal time to hit the road. The weather is gorgeous, the kids are out of school, and the country is full of innumerable opportunities for adventure. Like every adventure, however, a road trip can be dangerous if you aren’t properly prepared. For help understanding how to plan a road trip, we reached out to ASE-certified mechanic Lauren Fix, also known as The Car Coach. Aside from having an exceptional name for her profession, Fix is a spokesperson for the Car Care Council, a not-for-profit consumer education organization.
Your vehicle is the star of your road trip. You must take care of your ride to ensure that you don’t end up in a ditch somewhere between Sioux Falls and Rapid City. Fix says it best: “Think about how expensive it is to have your car repaired on the road. You don’t know a technician — you’re just going with whoever recommends what, or wherever the towing service tows you to. Don’t use your vacation money to repair your car, because that just makes for a miserable trip.” In other words, an inch of prevention is worth 3,000 miles of cure.
Since the tires are literally the only parts of your vehicle that touch the road, you’ll need to make sure they’re in top-notch condition. You might consider getting them rotated to promote even wear (some places rotate tires for free), or even replace them if the tires are super worn. The “penny test” is a tried and true method of measuring tire wear. Put a penny in the tread groove upside down — if the tread doesn’t reach Lincoln’s head, you’re likely due for new tires.
At the very least, you should identify the recommended tire pressure from the driver side door jamb and make sure your tires are properly inflated. “A tire can fit multiple vehicles, so if you get the number off the tire, it may be totally wrong for your car,” says Fix. “Tire pressure will impact your fuel economy by as much as 2-3 miles to the gallon. It also impacts your braking, safety, handling, and wet traction.”
It’s easy for some drivers to forget about their wiper blades — particularly during the summer, when rainstorms are few and far between. “80% of your driving decisions are based on visibility,” says Fix. “So that means your headlights and your wiper blades are critical factors. Plus, when you run your wiper blades in most states, law requires you to have the headlights on, too.”
Don’t know how to change your wiper blades? No problem. Fix has a great suggestion for you: “Go to your favorite auto parts store — one that does not have a service department — and tell them, ‘I would like new wiper blades.’ They will install them for you for free — all you need to do is pay for them.”
Your vehicle’s lights aren’t just important for your own visibility, but for others’ visibility as well. As Fix points out, your turn signals, brake lights, reverse lights, headlights, and horn provide the only communication between you and other drivers. To avoid getting a ticket during your road trip, enlist a friend to help you test all the lights on your car. If anything isn’t working, take your vehicle to the shop.
If you’re a motorhead, then you probably don’t need to be reading this guide. If you don’t know much about cars, however, you might be tempted to get your vehicle’s nine fluids changed at a quick-stop lube shop. Fix advises against this, and instead recommends taking your vehicle to an ASE (Automotive Service Excellence)-certified technician. “Quick oil change employees are trained to change oil quickly and get the next car in,” says Fix, “and the guy at the counter will try to sell you things that you don’t even need. The best thing about an ASE-certified technician is that they’re trained to work on air conditioning, they can do oil changes, they do coolant, and they can check the nine fluids in your car.”
In general, it’s a good idea to take your vehicle to an ASE-certified technician a few weeks before you depart on your road trip. You want to see Mount Rushmore, not break down 50 miles away from it. We could put together a whole other guide on how not to be skewered by your mechanic, but for now we’ll just provide a couple choice tips.
Fix is a huge fan of RepairPal.com, an easy-to-use site that can help you find skilled technicians and hone in on fair prices for repairs. Fix also recommends treating a visit to the auto shop like a visit to the doctor. Just as you would give your doctor a list of symptoms to aid with diagnosis, so should you give your technician a detailed list of weird noises, smells, and other oddities. “The more information you can offer, the quicker the car gets repaired, the less expensive it is to you,” says Fix.
The possibility of danger can make any adventure exciting. However, the possibility of danger can also make adventure, well, dangerous. For safety’s sake, put together an emergency kit before you embark. Fix recommends packing jumper cables (or a jump box, which doesn’t require a second car), a first aid kit, a blanket, a rain poncho, an LED light source, gloves, a handful of zip ties, and a roll of duct tape.
If you’re stressing out about how to plan a road trip, we recommend that you take a deep breath and chill out. After all, some of the best road trips involve little or no planning. All we ask is that you make sure your vehicle is in tip-top shape before you embark. If you think for a second that your vehicle can’t handle a road trip, don’t take it on one. For more excellent car maintenance suggestions, we recommend that you check out Lauren Fix’s website and also poke around the Car Care Council’s website.