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How to Get Your Car Ready for a Summer Road Trip | Frommer's Vadim Georgiev / Shutterstock

How to Get Your Car Ready for a Summer Road Trip

Avoid breakdowns and other automotive mishaps with these simple tips for prepping your vehicle for a long summer drive.

Planning for a summer road trip? Somewhere amid mapping your route, buying the appropriate Frommer's guides (ahem), making the perfect playlist, and stocking up on Cheez-Its, you should take some time to get your car ready for the journey as well.

Traversing hundreds of miles in sometimes blazing temperatures puts a strain on vehicles ordinarily accustomed to work commutes and grocery runs, and you don't want the car to break down in the middle of nowhere. That might be a crucial plot point in any road trip movie requiring a compelling obstacle, but nobody needs that drama in real life. 

Follow these essential steps to prep your ride for the open road.

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Check the tires

Take a few minutes to inspect the condition and inflation pressure of all four tires and the spare. You'll find the correct pressure listed in the owner's manual for the car and on a sticker posted on the driver's doorframe. Don't go by the number printed on the tire, and only test pressure when the car hasn't been driven for several hours. 

Here's a quick video tutorial from O'Reilly Auto Parts on checking inflation pressure using a tire gauge: 

To find out whether tire treads are excessively worn down, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends placing a penny in the tread with Abraham Lincoln’s image upside down. If you can see the top of Abe's head, it's time to replace that tire. 

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Top off fluids

If your car doesn't have an electronic oil monitor, use a dipstick to make sure the oil level is near the maximum and that the stuff is neither gritty nor too dark in color. You should be checking the oil level about once a month already. (Here's a step-by-step guide to checking engine oil.)

The owner's manual will specify the number of miles after which you should get an oil change. The traditional 3,000-mile interval has been extended, thanks to technological advances, to around 7,500 miles for most newer engines, according to Consumer Reports.

Coolant and other important fluids, including those for brakes, transmission, power steering, and windshield washing, also require periodic checks based on the vehicle's mileage. Again, consult the manual for the appropriate intervals. 

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If an oil change or other fluid-related maintenance is due or will become due during your trip, be sure to get that taken care of before you leave home.

Automotive service pros can of course take a look at these things for you, but if you'd like to make your dad proud, consult Popular Mechanics for instructions on checking the six essential fluids in your car.   

Try the lights, brakes, and AC

Remember that you'll likely be driving at night for portions of the trip. So make sure the headlights, brake lights, turn signals, hazards, and interior lights are all working properly. 

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As for daytime driving, you don't want to fry yourself in the summer sun. Before warm-weather vacations, the American Automobile Association (AAA) advises car owners to take a test drive with the air conditioner running, paying special attention to any dips in cooling capacity. If anything seems off with the AC, drop by the auto repair shop for an inspection.

During that test drive, stay alert for any grinding or vibrating when you apply the brakes—another sign that a mechanic's attentions are needed. 

Look under the hood  

Examine all the belts and hoses under the hood for "bulges, blisters, cracks, or cuts in the rubber," says the NHTSA. Replace anything showing obvious signs of wear, keeping in mind that high temperatures speed up the rate at which rubber degrades. 

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While you're under there, confirm that all the hose connections and the battery are secure. 

You might also consider having your mechanic test the car's battery, or do it yourself. J.D. Power has online instructions for measuring voltage with a multimeter; Firestone Complete Auto Care can walk you through checking the battery at home without extra equipment.  

Assemble an emergency kit

Finally, prepare for the worst-case scenario by putting together an emergency kit to stash in the trunk just in case. Include first aid supplies, a flashlight, jumper cables, basic auto repair tools (a jack, tire gauge, and such), nonperishable snacks, bottled water, and stuff for flagging down help (flares, reflectors, flags).

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A standard AAA membership comes with free towing services for up 7 miles; you can pay more for a subscription at a higher level for towing up to 200 miles. Beyond that, you will have to rely on your insurance to pay for towing.

And now your car's ready to hit the highway! Have fun, stay safe, and go to the bathroom now because we're not stopping five times before we even get out of the city. 

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