Tuning up the family car before a trip may take time, but a little maintenance can prevent a host of dangers once you're on the road. Pilots know the best way to avoid a mechanical problem in the air is to thoroughly check the aircraft before each takeoff.
According to The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, taking the same care with your car before a big trip can mean the difference between a smooth-sailing vacation and one that takes you down a bumpy road. Following components and systems to include in your pre-vacation automotive tune-up.
Air conditioning: A marginally operating system will fail in hot weather and can waste gasoline. Have your car's air conditioning system examined by a qualified technician.
Cooling system: The greatest cause of summer breakdowns is overheating, so make sure to completely flush and refill your car's cooling system every 24 months. The level, condition, and concentration of the coolant should also be checked periodically (a 50/50 mix of anti-freeze and water is usually recommended). If you're checking levels yourself, do not remove the radiator cap until the engine has thoroughly cooled. And be sure your maintenance includes having a pro check the tightness and condition of drive belts, clamps and hoses.
Engine performance: Replace other filters (air, fuel, PCV, etc.) as recommended and more often in dusty conditions. Get engine drive-ability problems (hard starts, rough idling, stalling, diminished power, etc.) corrected at a good shop.
Windshield wipers: A dirty windshield causes eye fatigue and can pose a safety hazard. As part of your tune-up, replace worn blades and top off your car's supply of windshield washer solvent.
Lights: Inspect all lights and bulbs, replacing burned-out bulbs and periodically cleaning dirt and insects from all lenses. To prevent scratching, clean lenses with a dampened rag.
Tires: Keep your car's tires in tune by having them rotated every 5,000 miles. Check tire pressure once a month, being sure to let the tires "cool down" first. Don't forget your spare, and be sure the jack is in good condition. Examine tires for tread life, uneven wearing and cupping, and check the sidewalls for cuts and nicks. A maintenance alignment is warranted if there's uneven tread wear or if your vehicle pulls to one side.
Brakes: Brakes should be inspected as recommended in your manual, or sooner if you notice pulsations, grabbing, noises or longer stopping distance. Correct minor brake problems promptly.
Battery: Car batteries can fail any time of year, and the only accurate way to detect a weak battery is with professional equipment. Routine care includes scraping away corrosion from posts and cable connections, cleaning all surfaces and re-tightening all connections. If battery caps are removable, check the fluid level monthly. Avoid contact with corrosive deposits and battery acid, and wear eye protection and rubber gloves while giving your car battery a tune-up.
Oil: Practice good engine maintenance with your car's oil. Change your car's oil and oil filter as specified in your manual, and more often (every 3,000 miles) if you make frequent short jaunts, extended trips with lots of luggage, or tow a trailer.