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How To Prepare Your Car For Vacation

Every summer millions of Americans take to the highways and Interstates in search of fun, sun, and adventure. They want to take a much needed vacation from their everyday concerns and problems.

Tow truck operators in resort areas or along Interstate highways see all too many travelers forced to return home ahead of schedule. Car trouble, usually due to neglected preventive maintenance, brings an abrupt end to vacation plans.

The situation usually means more than just a repair bill, says the Car Care Council. It can involve towing charges, lodging and possibly a rental car. Add to that the cost of extra phone calls, meals and general inconvenience, and the ordeal becomes expensive. This scenario usually can be avoided with a pre-vacation inspection performed by the vehicle owner or a qualified automotive technician.

The most important thing in taking an automotive vacation is to make sure your vehicle is in top shape. A monster in the form of car troubles can destroy even the nicest vacations. So before packing suitcases, filling the cooler with drinks and snacks and whipping out your trusty road atlas, take some time to make sure that your vehicle is ready to take you to paradise. All it takes is a few minutes of preventative maintenance in your driveway and you can help eliminate hours of costly on-the-road problems.

The following items include things that most people can do for themselves very easily just by reading the vehicle's owner's manual. If you don't have the time or lack the confidence to do these things yourself, take it to your local dealership or trusted repair shop and have them give the car a good going over.
 If your vehicle is due for an oil change or other regular maintenance in the time you are away, get it done before you leave. However you choose to prep your vehicle, do it at least a week or so before the trip, so that if the car needs any servicing it can be done before your vacation.

Things To Check 


The fuse access panel is located on the left side or drivers side under the steering wheel on most vehicles. Check to see if all the fuses are there and good. Always carry extras, at least one of every size..

CAUTION! When replacing a blown fuse, it is important to use only a fuse having the correct amperage rating. The use of a fuse with a rating other than indicated may result in a dangerous electrical system overload. If a properly rated fuse continues to blow, it indicates a problem in the circuit. This must be corrected or the problem will not go away.

Windshield Wiper Blades:

The rubber edges of the wiper blades and the windshield should be cleaned periodically with a sponge or soft cloth and a mild non-abrasive cleaner. This will remove accumulations of salt or road film.

Inspect them often for wear, cracks, tears, dirt and road grime.

Operation of the wipers on dry glass for long periods may cause deterioration of the wiper blades and can scratch the glass.

Always use washer fluid when using the wipers to remove salt or dirt from a dry windshield.

Vital fluids:

Check all of your vehicle's fluid levels. 

This includes engine oil, coolant, transmission fluid, brake fluid, power steering fluid, and windshield washer fluid.
Most new cars have transparent reservoir tanks and in many cases, you don't even have to get your hands dirty. Refer to the owners' manual for the proper procedures for checking and adding fluids to your vehicle. In particular, when checking the brake fluid level, also look at the fluid color. It should be clear or light amber. If it's dark and cloudy, the brake fluid is contaminated and should be replaced and the brake system flushed.

You can also do a quick "leak test" in your driveway.
 Let your engine run for about 15 minutes so it reaches full operating temperature. Then park it over a large piece of cardboard a while and see if any fluids have dripped from underneath it.

Very often you can tell what fluid it is by feel and color. 
A reddish liquid is either power steering fluid or transmission fluid. 
Engine oil is usually black or brown. 
Pink or yellow green liquid is anti-freeze. 
Clear liquids are either water, condensation from the air conditioner, which is no problem,
clutch or brake fluid. 
If you are in unfamiliar territory, don't wait until the fuel gauge reads empty or the low fuel light comes on. Start looking for a refill at half a tank. Better to make one too many pit stops then one too few.

Engine Oil Requirements:

Checking Oil Level to assure proper engine lubrication, the engine oil must be maintained at the correct level. Check the oil level at regular intervals, such as every fuel stop.

The best time to check the oil level is about 5 minutes after a fully warmed-up engine is shut off, or before starting the vehicle after it has sat overnight.

Checking the oil while the vehicle is on level ground will improve the accuracy of the oil level readings.

Add oil only when the level on the dipstick is at or below the MIN or add mark on the dipstick.

Oil Filter:

The oil filter should be replaced with a new filter at every oil change. 

CAUTION! Do not overfill the crankcase. This will cause oil aeration and loss of oil pressure.

Power steering pumps:

Fluid level should be maintained at the proper level indicated on the dipstick. If necessary, add fluid to restore to the proper level. With a clean cloth, wipe any spilled fluid from all surfaces. Only petroleum fluids specially formulated for minimum effect on the rubber hoses should be used.

Belts and Hoses:

Check all the drive belts and hoses for any signs of wear and deterioration. Belts that are frayed, glazed, cracked, cut or have chunks missing should be replaced immediately. With the engine off and cold, look at each hose and see if there are leaks, bulges, cracks, or swelling. If they look good, give them a squeeze test. Good hoses are firm but flexible. Any hoses that feel spongy, soft, or brittle should be replaced.


Your tires should be inspected periodically for unusual wear. Look close for cuts, punctures, embedded screws, nails and other objects big or small.

Tire pressure should be checked and maintained at specified pressures. Correct air pressure will help to increase the life of your tires. You cannot accurately estimate tire pressure by just looking at it. Always use a good quality tire pressure gauge. The gauges attached to the air hoses at your local gas stations are rarely accurate.

If there is a plug in any of your tires from a previous puncture. Using soapy water, spray the area where the plug is. If bubble start to appear, you may need to seek help from a tire shop to have it repaired again or replaced.

It is equally important to keep your spare tire up to par. 
You do not need to find out that it is low in air pressure when you need it most.

Front wheel-drive:

Drive Shaft Universal Joints: Your vehicle has four constant velocity universal joints. Periodic lubrication of these joints is not required. However, the joint boots should be inspected for external leakage or damage when other maintenance is per-formed. If leakage or damage is evident, the universal joint boot and grease should be replaced immediately.

Continued operation could result in failure of the universal joint due to water and dirt contamination of the grease. This would require complete replacement of the joint assembly.


One of the leading causes of roadside problems is the battery. Check that the battery electrolyte is up to the proper level by removing the battery caps and looking inside. The proper level is about =" to >" above the battery plates. The most common battery type today are maintenance free batteries. Maintenance free batteries have sealed caps and require no checking. But some batteries say maintenance free but do have removable caps. These should be checked in the usual manner. Finally, check the battery to see that there are no cracks or holes in the battery casing itself. If the battery is four or five years old, consider replacing it.

Also, make sure that the battery terminals and cables are clean and securely attached to the battery terminals. If the terminals and cables are covered with "snow", remove the cables from the battery and thoroughly clean the cables and terminals. You can use a mixture of baking soda and water, which will neutralize the battery acid. You can clean the cables and terminals with a battery cleaning brush or some medium emory cloth. Check the terminals and if they are eaten away, replace them. When they are nice and clean, reattach the cables and make sure they are tight. You can coat the terminals with white lithium grease or Vasoline® to protect them from corroding again.

Spark Plugs and Spark Plug wires:

Spark plugs must fire properly to assure engine performance and emission control. New plugs should be installed at the specified mileage. The entire set should be replaced if there is any malfunction due to a faulty spark plug. Check the specification section of your manual for the proper type of spark plugs for vehicle. Spark Plug wires should also be inspected for evidence of cuts, cracks, splits and corrosion. Replace as needed or according to the specification and procedures described in the Service Manual.


If you hear any grinding noises or feel unusual vibrations when you apply the brakes, or if the vehicle pulls to one side, take the vehicle in for a comprehensive checkup. It would be a good idea just to have your brakes looked at to be sure they won't need replacing 1,000 miles into your trip.

Engine Air Filter:

Under normal driving conditions, replacement of the engine air filter is recommended at the intervals shown on the maintenance chart. If however, the vehicle is driven frequently under dusty or severe conditions, the filter element should be inspected periodically (at least every 15,000 miles) and replaced if necessary.

Fuel Filter:

A plugged fuel filter can limit the speed at which a vehicle can be driven and can cause hard starting. Should an excessive amount of dirt accumulate in the fuel tank, frequent filter replacement may be necessary.

Cooling system:

WARNING! When working near the electric radiator-cooling fan, disconnect the fan motor lead or turn the ignition key to the OFF position. The fan is temperature control led and can start at any time when the ignition key is in the ON position.

Sustained high speed driving and hot summer days combine to put a lot of stress on an engine's cooling system. If your vehicles is using conventional green anti-freeze and hasn't been flushed for two years, now is an excellent time to do it. If it has extended life anti-freeze go with the manufacturers recommended change intervals. If this interval occurs during the trip, do it now. The cooling system should be refilled with a 50/50 mix of new antifreeze and water. Don't refill with just straight anti-freeze. If the system needs to be flushed, it is a fairly easy job for a DIY. Just make sure you put the old antifreeze in a container and take it to a proper recycling location.


Coolant protection checks should be made every 12 months (prior to the onset of freezing weather, where applicable). If coolant is dirty or rusty in appearance, the system should be drained, flushed and refilled with fresh coolant. Check face of radiator for any accumulation of bugs, leaves, etc. If dirty, clean the radiator core by gently spraying water from a garden hose at the back of the core.

Check the reserve tank tubing for condition and tightness of connection at reserve tank and radiator.
Inspect the entire system for leaks.

Adding Coolant:

When adding coolant or refilling system, a minimum of 50% solution of ethylene glycol antifreeze coolant in water should be used. Higher concentrations (not to exceed 70%) are required if temperatures below -35*F are anticipated.

WARNING! Never add coolant to the radiator when the engine is overheated. Do not loosen or remove radiator cap to cool overheated engine! The coolant is Under pressure and severe scalding could result.

Radiator Cap:

The radiator cap must be fully tightened to prevent loss of coolant, and to insure that coolant will return to the radiator from the coolant reserve tank.

The radiator cap should be inspected and cleaned if there is any accumulation of foreign material on the sealing surfaces.

The warning words "DO NOT OPEN HOT" on the radiator pressure cap are a safety precaution.
Heat causes pressure to build up in the cooling system.
 To prevent scalding or injury, 
do not remove the pressure cap while the system is hot or under pressure.

Coolant Level:

The coolant reserve system provides a quick visual method for determining that the coolant level is adequate. With the engine idling and warmed to normal operating temperature, the level of the coolant in the overflow bottle should be between the "MAX" and "MIN" marks. The radiator normally remains completely full, so there is no need to remove the radiator cap except for checking coolant freeze point or replacement with new antifreeze coolant. Your' service attendant should be advised of this. So long as the engine operating temperature is satisfactory, the overflow bottle need only be checked once a month.

When additional coolant is needed to maintain the proper level, it should be added to the overflow bottle. Do not overfill.

Points to Remember:

When the vehicle is stopped after a few miles of operation. You may observe vapor coming from the front of the engine compartment. This is normally a result of moisture from rain, snow, or high humidity accumulating on the radiator and being vaporized when the thermostat opens, allowing hot water to enter the radiator.

If an examination of your engine compartment shows no evidence of radiator or hose leaks, the vehicle may be safely driven. The vapors will soon dissipate.

A Do not overfill the reserve tank (bottle). 

If frequent coolant additions are required, or if the level in the reserve tank does not drop when the engine cools, the cooling system should be pressure tested for leaks.

Maintain coolant concentration of 50% ethylene glycol (minimum) with recommended antifreeze for proper corrosion protection of your engine, which contains aluminum components.

Make sure that the radiator and reserve tank overflow hoses are not kinked or obstructed.

Keep the front of the radiator clean. If your vehicle is equipped with air conditioning, keep the front of the condenser clean also.

Increasing engine speed at idle does not reduce coolant temperature! Put transaxle in NEUTRAL and let engine idle at normal engine idle speed.


Make sure your car's heating and A/C is working properly. Run it for a while in each of its operating modes and check that the airflow is coming from all appropriate vents. If the A/C system takes an inordinately long time to cool the inside of the car, or if the air never gets cold enough, the system probably needs to be checked for leaks and recharged. If the A/C smells like your sons gym socks, the drain hose is probably clogged or restricted.


While following this list of checks and inspections are a good idea,
 you should be aware of other,
 more general warning signs as well. 
Ticking, clunking or knocking noises, a sudden vibration or shimmy, or anything out of the ordinary is probably a symptom of a hidden problem that should be checked before hitting the road.

Keep in mind that no matter how careful and thorough you were in doing your pre-trip preparations,
unexpected problems can still happen. 
So it is a good idea to have some basic emergency gear onboard if something does happen.
Jumper cables
cell phone
a gallon of anti-freeze
a gallon of water
three quarts of oil
a couple of quarts of ATF
 and a couple of gallons of bug juice can be worth ten times their weight in gold when you need it 50 miles from nowhere.
 Another good idea is to make a check list of things to check when you make a pit stop so you can be sure to cover all your bases.
Do these simple checks and what happened to the Griswalds will not happen to you.

And finally, not only can a pre-trip inspection help reduce chances of costly and possibly dangerous road trouble, it also provides an opportunity to have needed repairs made at home, with your own technician who knows your vehicle.
 Especially important, it provides peace of mind. 
While no inspection can guarantee a car's performance, 
it's comforting to know proper precautions were taken.


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