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The ultimate road trip car checklist

Stay safe (and save gas) on your next long drive



The ultimate road trip car checklist

Summertime is prime time for road trips. More than 80% of Americans will take a summer road trip in 2022, according to a survey by AutoNation.  But when the open road beckons, there’s always a chance of a breakdown in a distant town. That’s why it’s important to make sure your vehicle is roadworthy before leaving home.

Driving an older car?  A pre-trip checkup is even more critical. According to the American Automobile Association (AAA), cars older than 10 years are twice as likely to break down on a road trip than newer vehicles. They’re also “four times more likely to…require a tow to a repair facility,” says John Nielsen, AAA’s managing director of automotive engineering and repair.

The good news: A proper car inspection can greatly reduce the chance of breakdown or other unexpected malfunction on a long trip. 

Our road trip checklist can keep you safe and trouble-free when you’re away from home. It includes car maintenance items a qualified mechanic should double-check in advance, as well as tips for saving gas—so high fuel prices won’t drain your bank account.


General maintenance
Tire safety
Fluid levels
System check
Gas-saving hacks
Emergency kits
Get a pro inspection
How to find a mechanic


Check these parts—now!

Check these parts—now!
By checking out your car beforehand, you’ll help ensure a safe and enjoyable trip.

Ready to get under the hood? 

There are at least 16 critical auto parts and systems that should be checked, maintained, and repaired on all vehicles—including hybrid and electric cars—before a road trip. For best results, a trusted mechanic should do a complete vehicle inspection.

General maintenance: The easy stuff

Do you delay regular servicing until there’s a problem with your car? If so, these quick DIY checks can help you dodge or detect issues in advance.

  • Oil change and cabin filter. Does your owner’s manual say it’s nearing time for an oil change and filter replacement? If so, have that maintenance done now.
  • Fluids and coolants. When was the last time you replaced or topped off coolant, transmission fluid, and brake fluid? Your owner’s manual will tell you recommended mileage and or time intervals for each one.
  • Belts and hoses. Open the hood and inspect these parts, which can wear out over time or degrade in summer heat. If you see bulges, blisters, or cracking in a hose, it may need to be replaced.
  • Lights. Make sure headlights, turn signals, tail lights, brake lights, reverse lights, parking lights, and fog lights turn on and function correctly.
  • Battery. Check for corrosion—a white substance that sticks to battery terminals and can interfere with the connection. Heavy corrosion could signal a leaking battery that needs replacing.
  • Windshield wipers. Faulty windshield wipers significantly reduce visibility in the rain. If wipers feel dry or brittle—or the blades leave streaks on your windshield—it’s time to replace them.

Get help from a pro:
Find a mechanic near you.
Learn how to choose a good mechanic.
Find out the cost of auto repair
Read: Your car maintenance checklist: 14 musts for a safe ride.

Treading carefully: Tire safety 

Watch ‘The secret life of tires: Abnormal tire wear’:
Wedge a coin in between treads; if the head of the coin is visible, your tire needs replacing.

Tires support your car and connect it to the road. If they aren’t in good shape, they won’t take you very far. So check the following to make sure they’ll go the distance. 

  • Tire pressure. Underinflated tires can make driving less safe (and reduce gas mileage—see “Gas-saving hacks,” below). Check all 4 tires while cold—before driving the vehicle—and compare readings to the tire pressure listed in the owner’s manual or placard on the door frame.
  • Tire tread. Worn treads can stress the tire and cause hydroplaning (sliding uncontrollably on a wet road). Check your tread with this penny test: Slip the penny between tread blocks, with the head upside-down. If you can see the top of Lincoln’s head, the tire needs replacement. Uneven wear may require wheel alignment.
  • Spare tire. Check its pressure and overall condition, and inflate if necessary. Instead of spares, some new cars come with a tire-sealing kit and a small compressor. Make sure you know how to use them.
  • Jack. If your vehicle has a spare tire, it should also have a jack and lug or torque wrench. Make sure they work properly. 

Get help from a pro:
Find a tire shop near you.
Get the cost of tire repair.
Get the cost of tire rotation.
Get the cost of tire balancing.
Read: When to replace your tires.

Staying fluid: Check your levels 

Staying fluid: Check your levels
Make sure car fluids are at prescribed levels to avoid overheating.

Cars get thirsty, especially on long road trips. To prevent “dehydration” that can lead to overheating and other serious problems, be sure to check these important fluids—both their levels and colors (which can signal other mechanical problems).

  • Engine oil level. Low oil on a long trip can cause the engine to overheat or become damaged—leaving you stranded. If oil level is continually low, have a mechanic check for leaks.
  • Transmission fluid. Make sure levels match those in your owner’s manual. If transmission fluid is discolored or has a foul smell, you might need help from a transmission specialist.
  • Brake fluid. If fluid is below the “low” line or the levels noted in your owner’s manual, there could be an issue that requires a mechanic.
  • Power steering fluid. Your owner’s manual should indicate whether low levels or discoloration mean it needs replacing.

Get help from a pro:
Find an oil-change service near you.
Find out the cost of an oil change.
Find a transmission specialist near you
Get the cost of tire balancing.
Read: Transmission trouble: Repair, replace, or rebuild?

All systems go?

Like people, cars develop more serious systemic problems as they age. Before taking your vehicle on a long trip, have a mechanic check out the health of these 2 critical systems. 

  • Steering and suspension. A pro should check the steering and suspension systems on vehicles that are at least 5 years old or have been driven more than 50,000 miles. They’ll inspect shocks, struts, mounts, tie rod ends, and ball joints for excessive wear. Excessive wear can cause minor steering issues, but eventually it may lead to more serious problems, such as breakage—so don’t delay repairs.
  • Air conditioning. Make sure the air conditioner works on all fan speeds. If it’s blowing warm air or makes excessive noise, contact a vehicle air-conditioning professional for more in-depth inspection.

Get help from a pro:
Find a suspension shop near you.
Read: Car A/C not blowing cold air? Here’s what to do.

Gas-saving hacks 

You’re probably resigned to paying high pump prices on your upcoming getaway—but there are ways to reduce the bite to your wallet. Did you know that a well-maintained vehicle uses less gas

These 3 key car maintenance tips can save you a bundle on your next road trip. 

Watch tire pressure. Underinflated tires reduce gas mileage by as much as 10%, according to fuel-economy expert David Bennett, repair-systems manager for AAA. So don’t wait for the tire-pressure warning light to come on. Check tires monthly, and have them rotated and inspected regularly at a good tire shop

Check engine. Engine or emissions problems can slash fuel economy by 4–40% (or up to $1.74 per gallon at today’s prices), warns the Department of Energy (DOE).

“If your ‘check engine’ light is on—or you’ve noticed a significant drop in gas mileage—get the vehicle inspected, to make sure your air filter is clean and all systems are running properly,” AAA’s Bennett advises. 

Lighten your load. Carrying an extra 100 pounds can reduce fuel economy, according to the DOE. If your SUV has a removable third-row seat, leave it at home, if possible. And avoid rooftop cargo. It can cut gas mileage by 10–25% on the highway, and add up to 74 cents more per gallon at the gas station. 

Watch ‘How to save gas while driving (8 hacks)’:
Try these tips for saving the most fuel while you’re behind the wheel.

Get more gas-saving hacks, read: How to save money on gas: 20 tips and myths.

Emergency supplies

Emergency supplies
Keep a pair of jumper cables in the car in case your battery dies. 

Proper maintenance will reduce the chance of a breakdown or accident, but you should always stock your car with emergency supplies just in case.

  • Emergency road kits. You should carry an emergency kit and first-aid kit stocked with road flares, cones, ponchos, water, flashlight, tools, bandages, and other necessities. Make sure the flashlight has working batteries and a set of spares.
  • Jumper cables or jumper box. Keep them in the trunk and make sure your jumper box—a portable battery pack to jumpstart your vehicle—is fully charged.
  • Portable cell-phone charger. If you get stuck somewhere for an extended time, you’ll need this. Make sure the device is fully charged.
  • Road map. In case you end up in an area without cell service, always keep a backup paper road map or atlas in the car.
  • Roadside assistance card and phone number. Maintain up-to-date roadside-assistance coverage (and keep the number handy). Without it, you’ll pay at least a $75 fee to hook your car to a tow truck, then $2–4 per mile. 

You may also want to check for recalls before your trip. Use the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Recalls Look-up Tool to learn if your vehicle has a critical safety issue, and how to get that repair done for free. 

Get help from a pro:
Find a towing service near you.
Find out the cost to tow a car.
Find out the cost of roadside assistance.

Get a professional inspection

Even newer cars can have problems, so consider getting a professional inspection before a long trip. Photo: AutoHaus of Boulder, Boulder, Colorado 

It’s always best to have a mechanic handle your pre-trip checkup. 

A professional mechanic will be able to detect hidden issues, such as worn brake pads or weak belts. They can also perform advanced maintenance, such as transmission fluid exchanges, coolant flushes, and timing belt replacement. 

Many auto repair shops will do a pre-trip inspection for less than $100. They’ll check all vehicle fluids—coolant, brake fluid, engine oil, power steering fluid, windshield-washer fluid—and inspect all major components, such as belts, hoses, tires (including air pressure), and brakes. 

If the mechanic recommends costly repairs and you’re not sure you need them, get a second opinion from another shop.

Get help from a pro:
Find a car inspection station near you.
Read: The smart consumer’s car inspection checklist

How to hire a pro mechanic

How to hire a pro mechanic
Find a mechanic who specializes in your make of car; they’ll likely have the latest training and proper equipment. Photo: AutoHaus of Boulder, Boulder, Colorado

Whether you’re having your car fixed before you leave, or need emergency service on the road, here’s how to find a good repair shop.

  • Ask nearby family and friends for recommendations.
  • Whether you have a Honda or a Tesla, find a shop that specializes in your car make and model.
  • Look for quality certification from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE).
  • Check hours of shop operation, especially for your travel dates.
  • Search online reviews, and look for high ratings in competence, honesty, and price.

Get help from a pro:
Find an auto mechanic near you.
Find out the cost of Tesla maintenance. 
Find out the cost of Honda maintenance

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