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10 Car Maintenance Tips for Summer Road Trips

This checklist will get your vehicle ready to travel

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​Planning a road trip this summer? With the price of gas about one-third lower than last year, there’s likely to be an uptick in vacationers hitting the road instead of flying this season.​

 ​Forty-two percent of people surveyed for a recent Forbes Advisor report said they planned to drive to their vacation destinations in 2023, and 43 percent of households chose road trips as their top travel plan, according to TransUnion’s 2023 Spring and Summer Travel Report.​

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 ​While it’s important to keep your car well-maintained year-round, proper maintenance is especially crucial when you’re traveling during hotter months. Nothing is less relaxing than having your vehicle break down when you’re on a summer vacation. AAA reports that it expects to receive 8.9 million calls for help from stranded motorists between late June and late September. If you don’t want to be part of that statistic, it’s time to get your vehicle road-trip ready.​

 ​Here’s what you need to check or get checked by a mechanic before hitting the road.​

 ​1. Do a visual inspection, inside and out

 ​“Everybody’s getting ready for vacations or business trips, so we’re getting a lot of maintenance questions,” says Marc O’Dell, an Automotive Service Excellence-certified master mechanic in Helena, Montana, and an on-call car repair expert with JustAnswer, which connects professionals with people who need immediate online help.​

 ​JustAnswer is seeing about 10 percent more car questions for its auto mechanics this summer and expects to field 5,200 questions a week through Labor Day.​

 ​O’Dell suggests taking a good look at your car to see if anything needs attention. Inspect your wiper blades: If they’re torn or brittle, replace them with a new set. Check that outside mirrors are in good working order, and look underneath the car to be sure there’s no oil dripping out.​

Get someone to help you test your turn signals, headlights, brake lights, hazard lights and bright lights. Turn on the ignition while your helper stands first in front of and then behind the car in order to confirm everything is functioning.​

 ​“Check if you hear any weird noises. If any warning lights come on, that could indicate a fuel system issue or that the fuel injectors are getting a little dirty,” O'Dell says. “It’s always a good idea to add some fuel injector cleaner to the gas tank before taking a road trip.”​

 ​And at this time of year, make sure the air-conditioning works. Hot summer road trips are not exactly enjoyable when you’re stuck in a car with no AC. So if you don’t feel an icy breeze, have the system checked by a mechanic.​

 ​2. Examine the battery

 ​Pop the hood and see if your car’s battery terminals are coated with a white-, green- or blue-tinged substance. If so, that’s corrosion, which can decrease the life of a battery and hamper a car’s performance. To clean off the corrosion, disconnect the battery, sprinkle the terminals with baking soda, and pour a small amount of water to dampen the baking soda. Once the solution bubbles, that means the baking soda has neutralized the corrosion, so it’s safe to lightly scrub the terminals with an old toothbrush.​

 ​“You run into battery troubles with really cold temperatures and really hot temperatures, so keep an eye on yours,” O’Dell says. “Have your garage run a quick load test on the battery to make sure it can recharge itself correctly and hold the charge.”​

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 ​3. Test the brakes

 ​O’Dell suggests giving your brake pedal a good pump to test for responsiveness. If it feels spongy, you might need new brakes. Brake pads, which supply the friction required to slow and stop your car, wear away over time. So if you hear a screechy or squealing noise, your pads need replacing.​

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 ​4. Check the tires

 ​Tires are critical for car safety and fuel efficiency, so make sure yours are in road-worthy shape by inspecting for signs of wear on the side walls. Check that you have enough tread depth and enough tire pressure. You can find out how much air your tires need on the sticker located inside the driver’s door, or in your owner’s manual.​

 ​5. Top up fluids

 ​In order to run properly, your car’s six essential fluids — oil, radiator fluid, brake fluid, power steering fluid, transmission fluid and windshield fluid — must be checked and topped up regularly. Have your oil changed every three months or every 5,000 to 7,500 miles, and check it every time you fill up with gas during your road trip.​

 ​6. Replace the filters

 ​Air filters prevent dirt, dust and insects from infiltrating the engine and the inside of your car. Clogged air filters decrease your engine’s performance, gas mileage and interior air quality, so it’s important to swap them out for clean ones at least once a year or every 10,000 miles. Cabin filters should be replaced every 12,000 miles.​

 ​7. Check belts and hoses

 ​If you look under the hood and see significant damage on your serpentine belt — located beside your engine — it will need to be replaced, O’Dell says.​

 ​“Start checking the belt when the car is at 30,000 to 40,000 miles,” he says. “You’ll start to see little cracks in the rubber. And when you see enough of those cracks within an inch or so, I would replace it.”​

 ​Check your hoses; if you see any fluid leaks, get them verified by a mechanic. Having a belt or a hose fail in the middle of a road trip could mean major engine trouble, leaving you without a car and with a hefty repair bill.​

 ​8. Get to know your car’s ‘smart’ features

 ​Drivers should familiarize themselves with their car’s smart features, such as the safety systems and navigation tools, O’Dell says.​

 ​“The technology in today’s vehicles can seem daunting, even to experienced mechanics and salespeople,” he says. ​

 ​Dealership salespeople used to teach new vehicle owners how to use things like adaptive cruise control and the onboard entertainment system, but that’s fallen out of practice, he adds. If your car didn’t come with a printed owner’s manual, you can find and download one through the manufacturer’s website.​

 ​“Try checking the resources tab, which should display current model year owner information such as how the safety features work. Or you can call the manufacturer’s customer service hotline. Dealership and specialized mechanics are another great source of information,” O’Dell says.​

 ​And if this is your first road trip in a hybrid or electric vehicle, plan when and where to charge it along your route, he adds.​

 ​“Find out how much range the EV has and where the charging stations are,” he says. “Most EVs have navigation systems that can guide you to the closest charging station when needed, and EVs with gas engines will still be able to run the engine if the larger battery gets low.” ​

 ​9. Don’t leave tune-ups to the last minute

 ​Most drivers stay on top of regular car maintenance, but some wait until right before they head out on a road trip. O’Dell suggests car owners develop a good relationship with a repair shop or mechanic to get a diagnosis and repair when needed.​

 ​“If it’s just running a quick scan, checking why an engine light is on, that usually doesn't take very long,” he notes.​

 ​Generally, if you’ve put 70,000 miles on your car since its last tune-up, it’s time to get it checked by a mechanic. It’s better to bring your vehicle in far enough in advance of your trip so that if something needs to be fixed, there’s enough time to order replacement parts and complete the work before you leave.​

 ​10. Bring along a few repair necessities

 ​If your car does break down on the road, have some basic tools on hand, such as wrenches, pliers and screwdrivers, so you can make small repairs, O’Dell says. He also suggests buying a Bluetooth code reader that connects to your phone to help diagnose any error messages that pop up.​

 ​“Get a small volt meter so you can check if the battery’s charged up, and bring along a good set of jumper cables, too,” he says. ​

 ​You might also want a small air compressor and a can of foam, like Fix-a-Flat, to patch a punctured tire, he adds.​

 ​Find out more before venturing out on your trip from  AAA’s guide to preparing your car for summer travel.​

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