Some of my fondest childhood memories involved piling in the car with my parents and siblings to drive down to Nana and Papa’s house. My sister, the youngest, usually sat between my brother and I. Maybe  this was because she was smaller, or maybe because it reduced the amount of, “Mom! He’s touching me!” and “Mom, tell her not to…”. I can’t say the car rides were enjoyable, but the anticipation of being with family made them a faint memory compared to the visit itself.

Arriving at Nana and Papa’s involved a lot of fanfare and we got special treatment during the whole visit. Even though my sister and I never really liked the matching outfits – complete with hats, gloves, purses, and lacey socks – that Nana put us in, we put up with it because of how proud she was to show us off to her friends at church. The memories are so fond, I can still feel the hugs, smell the food, and picture the family sitting around the den on the orange shag carpet. Then, back in the car for 5 hours with my family and a humming carousel of photo slides projected on the wall to click through on our next visit at my grandparent’s house.

Now, as an adult, these trips are just as much about the drive as the time spent. Before I met Andrew, I used to just hop in the car and go. However, I’ve learned that a little planning can make the trip go a lot more smoothly with more assurance of a safe arrival to my destination and back home again.

Whether you are just visiting grandma a couple hours away for the weekend or staying with family and friends several states away, here are some things you should consider before you hit the road:

1. Don’t Wait Until the Last Minute to Schedule Service

If you have any concerns about your vehicle, do not wait until a day or two before your trip to have them addressed. Give your mechanic ample time to diagnose and repair the concern. Some issues can be handled within a day, but others may take a couple, or even several days depending on the problem, parts availability, and time needed to complete repairs. Keep in mind that repair shops tend to get really busy a couple weeks prior to a major holiday as people prepare to spend time with out of town family and friends.

2. Check Your Oil

You should be checking your oil level monthly, anyway. Whether due to oil leaking or burning, or normal engine operation, some vehicles require oil top-offs between oil changes, and road-trips put a lot of miles on the vehicle in a short time. Furthermore, oil will sometimes leak faster during extended cruising because it gets very hot and thins out with the heat! We suggest you check it before you leave, occasionally during your trip (gas stops are a good opportunity), and once more after you return.

3. Check Your Tire Pressure

The last thing you want is for your tire to blow-out half-way to your destination. A low tire reduces your vehicle’s ability to handle properly, and, strange as it may sound, increases the risk of a blow-out due to increased friction against the road and heat that builds up in the tire. Again, this is something you should check on a monthly basis, but right before a trip can prevent an especially unpleasant situation. Please remember that you should not use the maximum pressure shown on the tire sidewall, but rather the manufacturer’s recommended pressures listed in the driver’s door area.

Make sure your spare tire is inflated as well (we check them during inspections, and they usually aren’t!). Even if your tires seem to be in good condition and properly inflated when you leave, there are certain road hazards that simply can’t be controlled. You don’t want to be stuck with a flat only to find your spare is also flat!

4. Preventative Maintenance Items

For example, has your brake fluid ever been serviced? Since brake fluid is hygroscopic, it will pull water moisture out of the air over time, which lowers the boiling point of the fluid. This is particularly important if you expect to be driving in hilly or mountainous areas.

Also, check your wipers. You don’t want to get stuck driving in rain or snow with worn out wipers.

When did you last replace your battery? If it wasn’t recently, it may be worth getting it tested. Additionally, make sure you’ve got jumper cables in the car in case it runs low for some reason (I’m really good at leaving my lights on accidentally when I’m out of my usual routine).

How old are your tires? Limited use vehicles (or vehicles that sit for long periods) sometimes have dry-rotting tires that still have plenty of tread on them. If you’re not sure how old your tires are, or whether you have obvious, visible dry-rot, these are good questions to ask your mechanic.

5. Consider Your Driving Conditions

Driving through the mountains? Make sure your brakes are in good condition. Driving to the chilly north? You may need antifreeze washer fluid. Also, get up to speed on defensive driving tactics for ice and snow.

On top of that, you might consider how your car handles in wet and high-speed conditions. If your tire tread is low or your suspension has gone soft, you may have less control over your vehicle at higher speeds and/or in rain, sleet, snow, or ice. Low tire tread increases the risk of hydroplaning and increases your stopping distance. Worn out suspension components can reduce the car’s ability to handle emergency maneuvers (worn shocks or struts can increase stopping distance as well.).

6. Be Prepared

You and your family may be really looking forward to being together in the upcoming Holiday season and the last thing you want is for car trouble to interrupt that valuable time. Being prepared in advance can greatly reduce that risk. However, it’s smart to stay on top of your vehicle’s condition regardless of a planned road trip because you never know when a family emergency may warrant an unplanned trip. Being proactive can not only save you the stress of the unexpected, it can also help you plan your budget and possibly even save you money by preventing a domino effect of surprises.

Most importantly, enjoy the precious moments you are able to spend with your friends and family. Have a fun trip and enjoy the journey!

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