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Preparing Your Car for a Road Trip – 2021 Update

If you're considering a road trip adventure this year, be sure to get your car ready first with these handy tips.

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

This post may contain affiliate links. Read my Affiliate Disclosure here.

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Nothing feels better than the fresh, cool evening air flowing through the open windows of a car while cruising down a scenic road. And nothing feels worse than the check engine light burning bright amber and the engine chugging to a violent stop on the side of the road. Unfortunately, car problems are a common plague during road trip adventures, but fortunately, there are many things you can do to prevent them.

Before the global pandemic, I advocated for renting a car for road trips. Rental cars came with clean engine reports, equally clean interiors, and were covered for mechanic issues. But car rental companies were forced to sell off thousands of vehicles to survive the shutdown, leaving car rentals scarce and insanely expensive.

In 2021, I recommend taking your personal vehicle on any road trip adventures. There are many things you can do with the car before pulling out of the driveway to make sure your road trip goes off without a hitch.

Get an Inspection

Not everyone wants to pop the car’s hood and begin checking fluid levels, belt conditions, and spark plugs. But checking those items is essential to maintaining a healthy vehicle for a road trip – even if you’re just going away for the weekend.

Nationwide auto care centers like Firestone and Jiffy Lube offer inspections – and some care centers even off them for free! The professional inspections will reveal potential problems with everything from the engine to the tailpipe and ensure you hit the road with a healthy car ready for an adventure.

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Check the Tires

One of the most frequently overlooked car maintenance items is the tires. Did you know underinflated tires reduce fuel efficiency and cause tires to wear out faster than usual?

All auto manufacturers place an information card inside the driver’s side door with the recommended PSI rating for each tire. Modern cars – like the Honda Pilot I’m driving now on road trips – come with a Tire Pressure Monitoring System – or TPMS. The TPMS uses sensors built into the tire valves to wirelessly monitor tire pressure. If your vehicle doesn’t have a TPMS, you’ll need to check it the old-fashioned way – with a tire gauge you keep in the glove box.

After checking the tire pressure, do a visual inspection of the tire tread condition. The old rule of thumb is the place a quarter into the groove of the tread – if you can see the top of Washington’s head, your tread is in good condition. Also, look for worn edges – a sign of a front-end alignment issue – and exposed wires along the sidewall.

National Park Week 2024

Learn about the annual celebration of the National Park System and read my travel guides to national park units across the country.

Check the Car Insurance Coverage

Do you know if your auto insurance covers windshield damage? Do you have roadside assistance? How do you file a claim while on the road trip?

Check with your auto insurance provider to find out just what is covered with your plan. Specifically, mention the upcoming road trip and ask how to file claims while traveling out of state.

Roadside assistance is one of the most valuable coverage options for road trip adventures. These assistance programs – offered through car insurance companies, cellular providers, and AAA – offer services like jumpstarts, tire changes, and fuel if you run out. Often, roadside assistance is an add-on for your car insurance coverage.


Bring a Spare Key

Bringing a spare key has become even more important in the modern age with push-button ignitions. In the old days, locking your keys inside the vehicle would have simply required a police officer to open the door – or lost keys could have been bypassed. But in modern cars, the wireless key fob is required to start a vehicle.

To avoid the headache – and the expensive replacement – pack a spare key fob with you during the road trip. Modern cars like my Honda Pilot have a safety feature to prevent drivers from locking key fobs inside the vehicle – to get around this, wrap the key fob in aluminum foil!

Pack a Roadside Emergency Kit and First Aid Kit

When you realize you need a roadside emergency kit or first aid kit, it will be too late to buy one. Instead, be sure to pack these important items at the beginning of the road trip because chances are you’ll only need to use them once.

Roadside emergency kits are commonly found at big-box retailers, auto parts stores, and Amazon. They are becoming more common – which means cheap knockoffs are becoming more popular. Look for a roadside emergency kit that includes premium jumper cables, an LED flashlight, screwdrivers, towing rope, and various tie-downs. Avoid roadside emergency kits with more than about 100 items because most of them will be functionally useless.

First aid kits are just as common to find, and fortunately, you can’t go wrong with any option. REI has several kinds of first aid kits depending on activity and duration. Although these kits are meant for backpackers and campers, they work just as well for road trippers.

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Learn About Car Maintenance

I’m a big advocate for roadside assistance and car inspections, but there may come a time when cellular service is nonexistent and you have a flat tire.

Although you don’t have to learn how to rebuild a car engine, it is important to learn some basics. For example, how do you change a tire in your car? Check the fluid levels and refill each as needed? What do you do if the vehicle overheats?

The owner’s manual – that thick book in the glove box you probably never read – contains a lot of useful information on these topics. Most importantly, the manual will show you specifics for your car, like where the tire iron is stored and the location of the fluid refills. But don’t wait until something goes wrong to learn this – plan ahead.

National Park Week 2024

Learn about the annual celebration of the National Park System and read my travel guides to national park units across the country.

Install a Handsfree Cellular System

One thing I was adamant about when purchasing my Honda Pilot was compatibility with CarPlay – the ability to connect Apple cellphones directly to the touchscreen displays of certain vehicles. Although it’s nice to have access to the Music app and the ability to send text messages using Siri, my favorite feature is the hands-free calling.

Many states are adding traffic laws to the books that forbid drivers to hold a phone in their hand while the car is in motion. That means talking on a cellphone while holding it to your ear is a thing of the past. Handsfree systems are not just a safety and convenience issue – it’s the law.

After-market car stereo systems from Pioneer, Sony, JBL, and others almost always include hands-free compatibility – and sometimes it comes standard. If you don’t have the option for installing a new car stereo, there are Bluetooth options and wired options that use a 3.5mm input jack on the stereo.


Get the Car Detailed

The day before I begin a long drive – keeping in mind I only drive a maximum of 100 miles per day – I take my Honda Pilot to a local car wash. Wouldn’t it be nice to start every road trip with that new car smell?

If you’re hitting the road for a long road trip, give yourself an extra treat and splurge on getting the car detailed. Prices vary on location around the country, but for a couple of hundred dollars, you can see your car as shiny and clean as the day you bought it.

If you’re going for a shorter road trip or don’t want to spend the money getting it detailed, find a great local car wash to do it yourself. The conveyor belt-driven car washes have become my favorite – it’s fun to sit in the car as it is pulled through a car wash. These types of car washes include free vacuums after you exit – and some even have free windshield and dashboard cleaner with towels.

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Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.
Do you have a question about travel or road trips? Are you a CVB or DMO interested in working with me? I typically respond to emails within 24 hours. Quicker if you include a good riddle.

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