Time off work? Check. Accommodations booked? Check. Itinerary planned? Check. Bags packed? Check. Auto maintenance complete? Uh oh.
If you can’t remember the last time your vehicle had a date with a mechanic, then you aren’t quite ready to embark on that epic road trip you’ve been dreaming about.
"Long road trips can test your vehicle's strength and not every part in a vehicle gives you fair warning," says Lauren Fix, an ASE-certified technician, race car driver, and award-winning author of three automotive books. "When going on a road trip, it's important to have your vehicle's brakes, tires, and fluids checked, along with any moving or rubber parts that can fail and leave you stranded on the side of the road."
The following items should be checked at least every six months (or sooner, depending on the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule)—spring and fall, before the weather changes—and also before heading out of town:
No, it's not just a ploy to get you into a repair shop—oil is the lifeblood of your vehicle. "If your vehicle is due for an oil change or close, have that service completed before you hit the road, especially if your vehicle is not normally driven at highway speeds," says Kevin Fawthorp, a master certified technician with Community Tire Pros and Auto Repair in Arizona and part of the Network of Neighborhood Auto Repair Professionals (NARPRO). "Today's engines and oils are better than ever; however, timely oil changes are very important."
Once inside your vehicle, tires often become an “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” automobile component. But their condition is essential to your vehicle’s safety, fuel efficiency, performance, and traction. Fix says to check the pressure of all tires, including your spare once a month—either by using a digital tire pressure gauge and comparing the results to the information on the decal inside your driver’s side door or by popping into a shop that will take care of this service free of charge. Next, take a look at the tread depth to see if your tires are damaged or worn unevenly. “When tires are worn unevenly or damaged, don’t wait to replace them,” says Fix. Finally, make sure you’re having your tires rotated per the owner’s manual recommendations, which often takes place during an oil change.
Often, brakes will give the driver some warning signs of upcoming issues. “Most disc brake pads have a squeal sensor mounted on the pad and when you are nearing the end of useful pad life will start to squeal to let the driver know before other parts—such as rotors or calipers—become damaged, causing a relatively inexpensive repair to become quite expensive,” says Fawthorp. “You cannot mistake this squeal.” Also, pay attention to other warnings, such as a sudden “spongy” pedal, pulling one direction or the other when brakes are applied, or a brake pedal that either shakes or moves up and down slightly while you are braking.
Windshield Washer Fluid and Wiper Blades
This one’s usually easy enough to do yourself: Refill the fluid in the windshield washer reservoir and replace wiper blades that are torn, cracked, or don’t properly clean your windshield. “Eighty percent of driving decisions are based on vision, so clear, unobstructed sight is critical,” says Fix, who suggests replacing your traditional blades with “beam” blades, which are curved to hug the windshield better.
Battery life spans differ depending on your climate and driving habits—for instance, the average lasts from three to five years. Still, Fawthorp says a battery in the Arizona heat has an average life span of only 30 months. When starting your car, he suggests listening for sounds indicating the battery may be losing some of its power, takes longer to start, or has a slight hesitancy on the first start of the day. Most service shops have equipment that can test your battery for condition, which should prevent you from experiencing a battery failure on the road.
Interior and Exterior Light Bulbs
With the help of a family member or neighbor, complete an exterior lighting check. “Don’t chance getting a warning or repair order from the police, or having someone rear-end you because your brake lights or turn signals weren’t working,” says Fawthorp. Some bulbs are easy to replace yourself, while others may require the assistance of a pro. Also, take a moment to double-check all interior lights to ensure you’ll have lighting inside your vehicle when you need it.
Cabin Air Filter
This little filter is responsible for trapping contaminants from the outside air and ensuring your air conditioner airflow will not be challenged on the road—but not if it’s old and dirty. Signs include a musty smell when turning on your air conditioning, poor airflow, and air not blowing as cold as usual. Ask about the condition of your cabin air filter during your next oil change.
Inspect for Leaks, Smells and Noises
“If you see a leak under your car, this is the sign of a problem,” says Fix. “Take a picture of the leak to show the repair shop, as it will help them diagnose the issue. Use your senses. What does it smell like? What does it look like? Do you hear any unusual sounds? This information will help, as well.”
Fawthrop recommends bringing your vehicle in two weeks before your trip—if extensive repairs are necessary, this will not only ensure there’s plenty of time to complete them, but it will also allow you a few extra days afterward to drive around your neighborhood just to make sure everything is working well.
“Your automobile is a very complex piece of machinery, with a lot of things that must work together to get you where you want to go on time and safely,” says Fawthrop. “Have a professional put his or her eyes on the vehicle before you jump on the highway and find yourself stranded in unfamiliar territory while trying to find help and a quality repair professional.”