How to prep your car for vacation

Expert advice on how to keep your road trip trouble free

Last updated: March 2014


The key to any enjoyable road trip is to make sure you're not taking car problems with you. Take some time to ensure that your vehicle is as ready as you are to make that long-awaited getaway.

The tips in this report include checks that most people can easily do themselves by referring to the vehicle's owner's manual. If you lack the time or confidence to do these things yourself, have your dealership or repair shop give the car a once-over. If your vehicle is due for regular maintenance in the near future, have that taken care of before you hit the road. However if you decide to prep your vehicle, be sure to do it at least a week or so before the trip, so that if the car needs any servicing, it can be completed before your vacation.

While specific checks mentioned in this report are important, be aware of more general warning signs from your vehicle as well. Odd noises, a sudden shake or shimmy, or anything out of the ordinary can be an early indication of a potential problem that should be looked into before you take to the road.

Remember that even the most conscientious pre-trip prep work can be thwarted by the unexpected. To be prepared, you should always keep at least a basic emergency road kit in your vehicle. (See our report on roadside emergency kits.)


Under the hood


Vital fluids

Check the level of all of your vehicle's vital fluids. They includes engine oil, coolant, transmission fluid, brake fluid, power-steering fluid, and windshield washer fluid. With the transparent reservoir tanks in most newer vehicles, in many cases you don't even need to get your hands dirty. The owner's manual will outline the proper procedures for your vehicle in terms of checking and adding fluid. When checking the brake fluid, also look at the liquid's color. It should be clear or light amber. If it's dark and cloudy, the fluid should be replaced and the brake system flushed.

You should also perform a quick "spot check" in your driveway. Run your vehicle for about 10 minutes until the engine is up to its normal operating temperature, then park it for a few minutes and note any fluids that may have dripped from underneath. Often they can be identified by their color and feel. Red liquid is power-steering fluid or transmission fluid. Brown or black fluid is engine oil. A yellowish-green liquid is coolant. A clear liquid is either water (usually just condensation from the air conditioner, which is no problem) or brake or clutch fluid. You can tell the difference by the feel; brake or clutch fluid feels oily and doesn't dry quickly like water.

While virtually all manufacturers currently specify using a multiviscosity engine oil throughout the year, if you have an older vehicle and have been running a lighter single-weight "winter" oil, now is the time to switch to one that's formulated for hot weather. Use the grade of motor oil specified in your owner's manual.

Belts and hoses

High underhood temperatures are hard on rubber parts. The normal life span of a rubber radiator or heater hose is about four years. Check the hoses on a cool engine by pinching them. They should feel the same along their length, without any soft spots or ballooned-out areas. Check for leaks as well. A deteriorated hose can look fine on the outside; squeeze the hose while you roll it back and forth between your fingers, feeling for lengthwise cracks in the hose's inner liner.

Examine all the belts for cracks, worn spots, or shredding fabric reinforcement. V-belts (which have a V-like profile) also have a normal life span of about four or five years. You should be able to deflect a properly tensioned V-belt a half-inch or so by hand. If it's either too loose or too tight, it needs to be adjusted. See your owner's manual or have it serviced at a shop. A serpentine belt, which is flat and snakes around the front of the engine, normally drives all or almost all of the engine accessories. With its automatic tensioners, a serpentine belt should last between 50,000 and 70,000 miles. Check the belt annually and replace it at the first sign of cracks or noise.


Battery problems are a common cause of roadside trouble. If you have a battery that requires maintenance, check that the fluid is up to the proper level. Fill the battery with distilled water as described in your car's owner's manual. With a maintenance-free battery, the most common type found today, it's done by looking at the color of the small inspection window on the top of the case. With conventional batteries, you need to remove the caps on top of the battery to see into the six individual battery cells. Also check to see that there are no cracks or holes in the battery casing itself.

In addition, make sure that the battery cables are securely attached to the battery terminals. If the terminals and cables are covered with corrosion—evident by a white powdery substance—remove the cables from the battery and thoroughly clean all the parts. This can easily be done by scrubbing them with an old toothbrush dipped in a solution of baking soda and water. Then reconnect the cables and tighten them securely.

See our complete Ratings and recommendations on a variety of common battery models.


If you hear any grinding noises or feel unusual vibrations in the brake pedal or the steering wheel when you apply the brakes—or if the vehicle pulls to one side—you should take the vehicle to a mechanic for a comprehensive checkup.

Outside the car

Tires: Keeping the pressure up

As the outside temperature warms up, the air pressure in the tires can also rise. Still, if the tires haven't been checked in awhile, they could be underinflated. With the tires cold (or before the car's been driven for more than a mile or two), check the pressure in each tire with an accurate tire gauge. Adjust the pressure if necessary, following the car manufacturer's recommendation (typically shown on a sticker on the inner door edge or door sill, or in the glove box). In addition, check the tires for adequate tread depth and for any cuts, bulges, or other damage.

Now is also a good time to make sure you're prepared for a flat tire. Check the pressure in the spare tire and make sure the jack and lug wrench are onboard. If you think you might change your own tire, keep a pair of work gloves in the trunk. Try using the lug wrench to check the lug nuts on each wheel. Make sure you can loosen them, which you'll need to do in order to change the tire. Then retighten the nuts. Also try out the jack to familiarize yourself with how it works. For more on the best tire-pressure gauges, see our Ratings and buying guide.


Verify that all of the exterior lights on your vehicle are in good working condition. Do a comprehensive walkaround that starts with the headlights and includes the taillights, brake lights, directional signals, and fog lamps. Also make sure their lenses are clean so that the lights are as bright as possible.

While driving at night, also check that the headlights are not positioned too low or too high, and have them aligned if necessary.

Washer and wipers

Make sure your vehicle's washer and wiper systems are fully operational--both front and rear, where applicable. Inspect each of the rubber wiper blades for cracks, tears, or warping and check that it's securely attached to the wiper arm. Replace worn blades, and condition those that are still serviceable by running a soft cloth moistened with windshield washer fluid down their edges to remove dirt and grit. See our wiper blade Ratings and buying guide.

Cooling systems

Is your car keeping its cool?

Make sure the coolant (antifreeze) in the cooling system is at the proper level. This is easy to check by looking at the translucent plastic reservoir in the engine compartment (see the owner's manual for details). You should do this check when the engine is cold. If the coolant is below the minimum mark, pour a 50/50 mixture of antifreeze and water into the reservoir until the coolant is at the proper level. If your tap water is hard, use distilled water. Be sure to use the type of coolant specified in the owner's manual. The traditional green coolant that needs to be flushed and filled every two years has been supplanted with several new types, some of them orange or red, that can be left in for much longer. Never mix the types, as the additive package in each type is incompatible and may cause sludging or corrosion. But you're safe if you stay with whichever type the car came with—all types are freely available.

If you want to check the proportion of coolant to water that's currently in your vehicle, use a simple floating-ball hydrometer, available at any auto-parts store.

Is the air getting through?

Every spring clean any bugs, debris, or leaves out of the radiator fins, where they may have collected over the winter. The easiest way to do this is to gently spray water from a garden hose through the radiator from the back. This will also remove any corrosive road salt.

You should also check that no pieces of the vehicle, such as an air dam, underhood baffling, or radiator shroud, have come loose and are disrupting airflow to or from the radiator.

Many cars have an electric cooling fan, or sometimes two, instead of a belt-driven fan. Make sure they're working. Once the engine is fully warmed up, the electric fans should cycle on and off when, say, you're stopped at traffic lights. And, at least one fan should be on constantly if the air conditioner is running.

Air conditioning

Make sure your car's heating/air-conditioning system is working properly. Run it in each of its modes and check that the airflow is coming from all appropriate vents. If the air-conditioning system seems to take a long time to chill or if the air never gets cold enough, a recharge is probably in order. The presence of a musty, mildewy odor generally indicates that the drain vents also need to be cleaned.

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