How to prepare your car for a long road trip

Updated: June 13, 2021
A long road trip is an exam for your car and getting your vehicle in top shape will make your trip more enjoyable. Start with simple things:

Check the exterior lights, horn and wipers

Check the lights One of the brake lights is out in this car
Check the horn and all the exterior lights. Do your headlights look faded?. Faded headlights make it hard to see the road at night, compromising your safety. Watch these YouTube videos on how to restore faded headlights; it's easy to do.

If the wipers squeak or leave streaks, replace them. Check if the front and rear windshield washer jets are spraying properly. Clean the windshield from the inside.

Under the hood

Oil level on the dipstick The oil level should be close to the "FULL" mark on the dipstick
You can find detailed instructions on underhood maintenance in the Maintenance Section of your vehicle's owner's manual.

Engine Oil: To check the engine oil, warm up the engine. Park the car on a level surface and shut the engine off. Engage the parking brake and open the hood. Wait a minute or two to let the oil drain into the oil pan.

The engine oil dipstick usually has a bright red, orange or yellow handle that says "Engine Oil" or "Oil". Be careful, some parts might be hot. Pull the dipstick out and wipe it with a clean cloth or paper towel. Insert it back until it feels fully seated. Remove it again and check the oil level. It should be close to the "FULL" mark on the dipstick, see the photo.

If the oil looks clean, but the level is low, you can top it up using the oil grade specified for your car (e.g., 0W-20 or 5W-30).

Check other fluids

Engine coolant (antifreeze)  level Coolant level should be between "Low" and "Full" marks.
Most cars also have coolant, brake fluid and some cars have power steering fluid. Driving with low coolant level can cause overheating. Visually check the engine coolant level in the overflow tank. Your vehicle's owner's manual has the directions. The coolant level should be between "Low" and "Full" marks.
Careful, the cooling system is pressurized when hot, read safety precautions in your owner's manual.

If the coolant level is just a bit low, you can ask your dealer to top it up at the pre-trip service. If the level is well below the "Low" mark, have your cooling system checked for leaks. Any coolant leak should be fixed before the trip.

Visually check your battery

Car Battery Check the battery condition visually.
Check the condition of the battery terminals. Corroded or loose terminals will cause a no-start, electric power steering problems and many other troubles. An average car battery lasts for 5-7 years. If your battery is more than 5 years old, have it tested; replace it if you suspect it's getting weak. Signs of a weak battery include slow cranking, headlights getting dim at idle and excessive corrosion around the battery terminals.

How does your drive (serpentine) belt look?

Cracked drive belt This drive belt shows cracks
Most cars have one or two drive (serpentine) belts. Over time, a drive belt wears out. If a drive belt breaks, the car will have to be towed to the shop.

Your mechanic can check the condition of the belts during a pre-trip service. If a drive belt shows some wear or has cracks like the one in the photo, replace it before the trip. Read more about the drive belt.

Is your engine air filter clean?

Checking the air filter Dirty air filter can cause lack of power
If your air filter is dirty, change it before the trip. A dirty air filter will cause a lack of power. This will be noticeable when towing a trailer or driving uphill with a full load. If you want to change it yourself, your owner's manual has directions. Changing the air filter in the shop costs from $30 to $59.

Top up windshield washer fluid

Adding windshield washer fluid Top up your windshield washer fluid
Top up the windshield washer fluid. If you are traveling in winter, use only the windshield washer fluid graded for cold temperatures. If the roads are wet or slushy, it's a good idea to keep an extra bottle of windshield washer fluid in the car.

Are your tires in good shape?

Worn out tire This tire is worn out beyond the safe limit.
There is a safe limit of tire tread wear. If one of your tires is worn beyond this limit, it's unsafe. This one in the photo definitely needs to be replaced, click on the photo to see the larger image. Check for cracks or damages in the sidewall. Adjust the tire pressure.

Check your spare tire, jack, lug nut wrench and wheel lock key

Spare tire and the jack Check your spare tire, jack and the lug nut wrench
Check the spare tire pressure. If it's a full-size tire, the pressure should be the same as in the other tires. If it's a small temporary-use tire (donut), the proper pressure is indicated on the sidewall of the tire (usually 50-60 psi).

If your car has a spare tire that is secured underneath, make sure it can be easily removed; the mechanism could be rusted. Check if you have a working jack and a lug nut wrench. If your car has wheel locks, make sure you have the key and the wrench to remove the locks.

Check the roof rack, cargo box, bike rack or other accessories you have on your car

Cargo box Cargo box
If your car has any of the additional accessories installed, test its operation, make sure you have the key for it and that it's installed/secured properly.

Basic emergency kit for your car

Emergency car kit Basic emergency kit
A basic emergency kit for your car can include:
- Jumper (booster) cables
- A can of tire sealer-inflator
- Tire pressure gauge
- Couple of rags and work gloves
- Reflective vest
- Flashlight
- Basic tool kit with screwdrivers, pliers and a set of the most common sockets.
- Bungee cords
- An emergency stop sign or flares, electrical tape.
- Some people like to have a portable fire extinguisher on a trip.
Don't forget First Aid Kit and items like a bottle of water, a couple of energy bars, as well as a charging adaptor/cables for your phone, spare ignition key. If you are traveling in winter, add a warm blanket and a portable shovel, as well as a towing strap. If you know that your car consumes oil, take one small bottle of extra engine oil in case you need to top it up.

Pre-trip service

Tires, brakes, struts, CV axles and other underneath components can only be checked in an auto repair shop by a qualified mechanic. For this reason, we recommend taking your car to your dealer or a reputable auto repair shop for a check-up/pre-trip service. Many dealers offer maintenance packages that include oil change, tire rotation, multi-point inspection, as well as brake service and inspection.
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Book the service in advance, so if something needs to be done, you will have enough time. Consider changing your transmission fluid and rear differential and transfer case fluids (in AWD) if you are planning on towing a trailer or driving through a mountainous area.

If you feel a vibration at highway speeds, have your tires balanced. Balancing four tires costs from $59 to $99.
Do any of your tires show uneven wear? Does your car pull to one side when driving on a flat road? Does your steering wheel look off-center when driving straight? Have your wheel alignment adjusted. The 4-wheel alignment costs from $59 to $139.