Summer is nearly here, and that means vacation season is upon us. This summer, like many Americans, my family will be hitting the highway, rather than the skies, to curb the costs of this year’s vacation travels. We drive a 2002 Chrysler Town N Country with over 100,000 miles on it. Preparing the car for the open road is an important element in our planning for an enjoyable vacation.
1. My top tip is to check all fluids in your vehicle. My top tip for any and all automobile maintenance is to have a regular oil change. It is one of the least expensive and most beneficial maintenance acts you can perform on your car. Besides clean oil, check your coolant/antifreeze as well as your brake, power steering, and windshield wiper fluids. I always carry an extra quart of oil, just in case.
2. Check air pressure and tread on all tires. Trust me, nothing is more alarming than doing the “Penny Check” and discovering you have no tread and are still 1,000 miles from home. What is the Penny Check? Take a Lincoln-head penny and insert it into one of the grooves of your tire. Place it head first so “In God We Trust” is inserted into the groove. If the tread obscures any part of Lincoln’s head, you are good to go. If, however, the tread ends above the head – or worse, if you can read “In God We Trust,” go directly to your local tire store. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.
This check should be done at several locations on each tire as tread can wear unevenly due to a number of factors.
3. Check your wiper blades. Your blades should be in good repair. If not, replace them. This is another inexpensive item that can save you greatly in increased visibility during bad weather on unfamiliar roads. Most auto supply stores, like Auto Zone or Discount Auto, will install your new blades free of charge. I also like to apply a healthy coating of Rain-X on my windshield prior to heading out on any road trip. This amazing glass treatment allows water to bead up and roll off your windshield.
4. Check all your lights. Even a burned out license plate light can get you pulled over, I have discovered. Make sure turn signals, parking lights, and brake lights are all in working order as well as the head lights. Replacement bulbs are cheap, and, like windshield wiper blades, I’ve found most auto supply stores will install them for you for free.
5. Have your brakes checked by a professional. My father, Bill Ford, had a cardinal rule he insisted that I follow – do not drive with bad brakes. His simple words of wisdom, “If the car won’t start, you’re not going to get into an accident. If it won’t stop, you’re in trouble.”
6. Pack a road-side survival kit. An important item for this kit is a flashlight. If you’re using the old-fashioned variety, make sure you have fresh batteries. Because my children tend to leave flashlights on, I like the shakable ones that operate without batteries. About 30 seconds of shaking produces approximately five minutes of illumination. The Shake Everlife Flashlight, a waterproof variety is widely available on www.amazon.com.
Make sure your kit includes some form of fire starter – matches (put in a water-tight zip-lock bag) or a lighter. Foldable ponchos are also great. You can find them at the dollar store and, when new, they are folded into extremely neat and small packages.
7. Check your automobile tool kit. The contents of this kit will vary depending on your skill level. When I traveled with my ex-husband, we always had a tire repair kit. This was a man, however, who could overhaul an engine with a salad fork. Now, I carry a can of Fix-A-Flat. (He’s probably rolling over in his grave!)
Other essential tools for a road trip include a good set of jumper cables, lug nut wrench (in case the Fix-A-Flat won’t work), duct tape, screw driver, and spare fuses. Only pack an emergency flare if you know how to use it or you may end up with another type of emergency on your hands.
8. Pack a food bucket and cooler. While we anticipate stopping for food on vacation, we always have emergency rations in the car. (My children are amazed each year as stories of stranded motorists appear on the news, and they had nothing but chewing gum in the vehicle.) In a rubberized bucket with a tight-fitting lid, we put crackers, chips, peanut butter, dried fruit, beef jerky, and breakfast bars. We also include plastic utensils. In the cooler we have frozen juice packets, frozen bottles of water, and usually some Diet Coke for mom. The frozen drinks reduce our need for ice – and the mess that is often associated with it. As the drinks thaw, we have ice cold beverages.
9. Clean your car. This might not seem necessary – you’re heading out on the highway where it’s just going to get dirty again, right? Right. However, a good cleaning – inside and out – is still a good preparation activity for any road trip. Remove any clutter that has accumulated in the trunk or under the seats. Less weight actually means better gas mileage, but it also means more room for the things you really need. Removing old bugs from windshields will also improve visibility. Removing bugs and road tar from your vehicle can save your paint job.
10. Check the glove box. Make sure all necessary documents are still in there. You should have your insurance card, the vehicle’s registration, and the vehicle’s owner manual. A foldable atlas is also a good idea – GPS is not always reliable. My other necessity – a copy of my AAA card; I never leave home without it.
These tips come from extensive personal experience in taking family and business road trips and from living with an expert mechanic, Ric Wilson, for many years.