Want to know how to prepare car for a road trip with a road trip car checklist? Then be sure to read all the great car tips for road trips below and download your free printable car checklist for road trip below. We want to help you get your car ready for a road trip by sharing all the car maintenance before long road trip tips and other prep that is recommended.
It goes without saying, but a car is a big investment. I personally do not know anyone who can afford to simply drive their car into the ground and then get back up and replace it without batting an eye.
To compound things, when you go on vacation, you want to enjoy the vacation, not be forced to deal with your primary means of transportation breaking down at the most inconvenient time, which if we’re honest is any time, especially on vacation.
Finding yourself on the side of the road because your transmission isn’t working, or because your engine shut down is bad. Also having this happen in the middle of nowhere with your kids in the back seats screaming because the AC or heat isn’t running, and your spouse sitting in the driver seat fuming because you didn’t take the time to get the oil changed before leaving is not a vacation, it’s… well it’s bad.
Really, really bad.
Here are some common sense tips for preparing a car for a road trip so you won’t have to wonder “will my car make it on a road trip?”
Road Trip Car Checklist
Road Trip Car Maintenance Checklist
When it comes to car maintenance before a long road trip, you’ll want to make sure everything is running as smoothly as possible. Beyond changing and checking your oil and oil filter, you should check your car owners manual against your vehicle’s mileage for various other preventative maintenance that may need to be performed.
- flushing coolant and transmission fluid
- replacing transmission and air filters
- lubricating grease fittings
- checking brake wear and brake fluid levels
- checking power steering fluid
- checking the spark plugs and spark plug wires
- checking your battery and alternator (every auto parts store will do this for you for free)
- replacing old or worn out belts and hoses
Not all of these will need to be done, and some, if not most of these you may not be able to do yourself. I suggest finding an honest and skilled mechanic to help you on this part of your quest.
Pro Tip – Things will happen sometimes despite our best efforts. For this reason, make sure you have an emergency toolkit in your car so can change a flat tire, or jump-start your car. Basically, bring the tools you need to fix the things you are comfortable fixing in case of an unforeseen incident. Sometimes this consists of a wallet, cell phone and a Triple A or car insurance card.
Also, if you’re traveling in the summer it might be worth having your AC “recharged.”
This is something that isn’t too hard to do yourself, and in most cases isn’t too expensive to have someone else do either.
If you wish to go it alone, pick up an R-134a refrigerant kit at an automotive supply store. The kits come with step-by-step instructions on how to fill up your system. Make sure to read them completely before you start the job.
Pro Tip – If you are going to recharge your AC alone, buy the kit that has the gauge. Winging it and filling up the coolant to whatever “seems close” could damage your AC, in which case you’ll either have to go without or spend more money to fix the thing you just broke.
Get an Oil Change
One of the easiest things to prepare your vehicle for a long trip is to simply change the engine oil. Whether you still do this yourself, or you pay someone to do it, it’ll save you the hassle on the trip and even once the trip is over. If you take care of the engine with regular service, then your engine will take care of you.
Pro Tip – If you pay someone to change your oil for you, don’t take their word for it, check the oil yourself. It takes only a minute to pop the hood and pull the dipstick to check and make sure fresh oil was put in the engine block and it was the right amount.
Most places that specialize in oil changes – think Jiffy Lube – will top off the fluid in your vehicle if they were the ones to have done the service in the first place. Though, if they shorted you a quart of oil, have them top off the oil and then never go back there again. Who knows where else they are cheating you.
The relationship you have with your mechanic is like a marriage. If they’re good and honest, things will always work out. If they aren’t, then it may be time to end the relationship. Let them know that it wasn’t you, but them all along.
Road Trip Safety Checklist
Along with changing your oil, you should always check your tires in order to get your car ready for a road trip. It’s good practice to have them rotated, or if they are in bad shape replacing them all together, this includes your spare tire.
Before our last road trip, I had our front windshield replaced due to a long crack that had grown over the preceding months.
This may seem bogus, but once you take your vehicle into another state, you are beholden to their laws and believe it or not a cracked windshield – and excessive window tinting – are the kinds of traps that some states take advantage of to pull you over and cite you. You are pretty much at their whim, so it is worth noting if that crack is getting too long, or causing a glare while you drive, that you might want to take care of it. While you’re at it, you might even want to replace your windshield wipers and fill the windshield wiper fluid.
I also recommend having the cabin air filters replaced if it has been a while since you last had it done. You’ll be breathing in whatever makes it through those filters for long periods of time over a couple of days. You owe it to your lungs and your family’s lungs to get this done.
Finally, as far as you cars mechanical and electrical functions are concerned, make sure all lights – headlights, high beams, blinkers, brake lights, interior and dashboard lights – are working properly.
Cleaning a Car for a Road Trip
Once your car is purring like a happy kitten, it’s time to clean your car.
Cleaning your car regularly won’t necessarily improve fuel economy, nor will it improve engine life. It’s just a good habit to have. Cleanliness is next to godliness, after all.
On those long road trips, your car is going to get dirty, but it is a lot easier to clean as you go, then to have to start cleaning, especially the interior when you are hundreds and even thousands of miles from home. Go ahead and give it a good scrub down from the inside of windows to the door interiors, dashboards, and floor mats.
You also want to clear out the clutter from trunk spaces, chair back pockets, cup holders, door storage, and glove compartments so you can actually use them fully and easily on your road trip! If you’ve got a stockpile of loose change hiding out in your car, you might take the time to roll it up, as tolls sometimes are an inevitable beast depending on where you are traveling.
If you would like some pointers on how to clean your vehicle, check out these helpful posts:
- How to Wash Car in an Apartment (Without a Hose)
- How to Clean Chrome Rims at Home (and Even Remove Rust)
- How to Prep Car and Clean Out Car for a New Baby (Cleaning tips in this one!)
- Rules to “Kid Proof” Your Car
- How to Get Rid of Vomit Smell in Car
Once you have your car clean, make sure to bring some items to help keep it that way. Check out this hack for a sealable car trash can.
Also, you might want to bring along wipes for keeping little hands clean so your car’s upholstery doesn’t turn into their napkins. A few minutes focusing on prevention is worth hours of maintenance and cleaning.
Preparing a Car for a Road Trip – Adjust the Seating and Storage
It seems like just about every trip we take, we spend some amount of time rearranging the interior of our vehicle. This is both to accommodate our growing number of children and to accommodate our similarly growing amount of stuff we need to take. This means folding down some seats and folding up others.
We sometimes change seating assignments both before and during the trip to help change the scenery throughout the trip. Sometimes child 1 and child 2 just need a couple hour break from one another, keep this in mind as you’re on the go.
You may want to check out these posts:
Also, if you are like us and your vehicle is suddenly not as roomy as it once was, you might consider adding a little storage space by taking advantage of your vehicle’s roof rack. We just picked up a Yakima Skybox before our last trip and put all the non-essential road luggage in it, and kept all the food and games in our trunk for easy access. This meant that when we needed some food or wanted to play a game, we didn’t have to first take all the luggage out and then repack the car after.
Pro Tip – If you have a young baby or a potty training child and you purchase an exterior cargo carrier of some sort, make sure to have a small bag for inside the car that has a change of clothes or diapers for those inevitable accidents along the way.
Whether it’s books, car bingo, portable DVD players, or audiobooks, you’re going to want to think about entertainment.
If you’re going the route of movies and your vehicle doesn’t already have a DVD player built in, these can be purchased for not too much money, and are worth setting up in advance. Setting these up on the go can be difficult simply because they often have multiple cables, you or your spouse are sitting in the front, and the screen(s) are in the back. The other options is to have it ready to set up on a rest stop somewhere.
Our vehicle is a little older, and so the stock stereo had neither an auxiliary port nor did it have bluetooth functionality. I had recently noticed that the sound quality was poor and that some of the speakers weren’t working at all, so I decided to take the opportunity to install a new (modern) stereo and new speakers so that we could enjoy audiobooks and music via our phones’ bluetooth.
This was well worth the investment and might be something to consider if your vehicle doesn’t have all the modern conveniences. I did the task myself, but if you aren’t willing to figure it out, have the people at Best Buy do the job for you, and in most cases you’ll be happy with their work.
In the end, this is your vacation! You want the vacation to be you and your family and all the cool things you’re going to do, not the endless hassle of repairs, loading and unload the car, or sorting through trash to find that one thing you need. Take the time to properly prepare your vehicle and then enjoy your time on the road.
After all, life is not the destination, it’s the journey!
Free Printable Road Trip Vehicle Checklist
To download a printable road trip car checklist, as well as a free packing checklist for the whole family, and a road trip food and drink checklist, as well as a before you leave home checklist, sign up for my newsletter in the box below!