Things To Do

Is Your Family Car “Road Trip” Ready?

Making plans for that summer family road trip? Now’s the time to make sure your car is ready to hit the road to ensure a fun, safe and successful trip. 

Last summer, I took the family car to a new-to-me auto-repair shop to get it checked out before a family trip. Aside from a few scheduled maintenance items, and the fact that the air condition was blowing hot instead of cold, I thought it was in pretty good shape. So imagine my surprise when I was told the car had a blown head gasket and needed a valve job, resurfaced cylinder heads and new freeze plugs.

Huh? The service manager might as well have been speaking Latin. Among running to work, school and soccer practice, what parent has time to learn all about car maintenance? So, we’ve asked the experts from the American Automobile Association (AAA), ACDelco, and others for advice on what busy parents can do to be smart about car care. Here are five tips to get you started. 

Find the right repair shop. 

There are four types of shops to choose from:

  1. Auto-dealership service department. While the dealership has experience with your car’s make and model, it’s generally the most-expensive option.
  2. General auto-repair shops. These shops can be corporate-owned or individually owned.
  3. Specialty repair shops. These shops specialize in brakes, oil changes, mufflers, and more. 
  4. Tire shops. Many of these shops now also do light auto repairs. 

Be tire smart.

Following these suggestions may help prolong the life and avoid a tire induced accident: 

  1. Pressure. Check tire pressure monthly when tires are cold, following owner’s manual recommendations. 
  2. Alignment. A bad jolt from hitting a curb or a pothole can throw your car’s front end out of alignment and damage your tires. 
  3. Rotation. Regularly rotate your tires for more uniform wear. Unless your owner’s manual has a specific recommendation, the RMA recommends rotating every 6,000 miles.
  4. Tread. Check your tires for uneven wear, looking for high and low areas, unusually smooth areas, and damage. 

Stay alert for problems. 

These tips can help you identify potential trouble:

  1. Use your senses. Listen for squeaks, clunks, hisses and other abnormal sounds and note where they’re coming from. Unusual vibrations, lurches or shimmying can indicate problems, too. Also, keep an eye out for fluid leaks on the garage floor. 
  2. Watch your engine temperature. The temperature gauge or light indicates the temperature of your vehicle’s coolant. An “H” (hot) reading means trouble. Pull over, shift into neutral and allow the engine to idle. Don’t continue to drive if the engine temperature doesn’t return to normal.
  3. Don’t ignore the “service engine soon” light. This light often comes on briefly when the car is started. That isn’t cause for concern. But if the light remains on while driving, there may be an engine problem.
  4. Stay “in charge.” The voltage gauge or battery light indicates the electrical system’s voltage when the engine is running. Get it checked if the gauge moves to either “high” or “low” or if the battery light comes on. 
  5. Watch your oil. The oil gauge or light indicates oil pressure, not the amount of oil in the engine. A continuous “high” or “low” reading indicates an engine-lubrication problem and the need for immediate service. If the oil light stays on after you start your engine, or comes on while you’re driving, you may have a problem. 

Plan ahead. 

These maintenance suggestions from ACDelco, the AAA and Kay Wynter, co-owner of Terry Wynter Auto Service Center can help prevent costly repairs:

  1. Know your vehicle. So you don’t know a condenser from a starter? ACDelco’s website ( provides an “About Your Vehicle” section that includes an automotive guide with an easy-to-follow look at the major systems on your vehicle to help with discussing your concerns.
  2. Put safety first. Always make sure your ‘safety items’—brakes, tires, steering, suspension, seat belts, air bags and lights—are in good shape.  
  3. Maintain a healthy battery. Battery cables, clamps and connections should be inspected with every oil change. Batteries that are more than three years old should be tested regularly.
  4. Protect your engine’s life blood. Change your engine’s oil and oil filter at the intervals listed in the owner’s manual, and use the weight of oil recommended in the manual for existing temperature conditions.
  5. Keep a clear view. Use windshield-washer fluid, not water, to help your wipers remove debris. During fall and winter, use a solution with anti-freeze protection. 
  6. Inspect the air filter. Check the filter every six months or 7,500 miles. Typically, repair shops will inspect the filter at each oil change.
  7. Don’t forget the anti-freeze. While its name would indicate that it’s more important to use anti-freeze in your vehicle’s cooling system in the winter, it is equally important to use it in the summer to help protect against corrosion. 

Keep an eye on your bottom line.

While we all want to keep the family car in great shape, keeping the family budget on solid ground is important, too. Perform only the maintenance operations recommended by the manufacturer, said Aymee V. Ruiz, the AAA’s national media spokesperson. It is a good idea to compare shops to try and save some money. Some use new parts, while others may use comparable remanufactured parts and the cost difference is worth asking. 

Lastly, save some money by being smart at the pump. Some drivers buy a higher grade of gasoline than their owner’s manual recommends, thinking they’ll get better performance. That’s money down the drain. So save your pennies at the pump.

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