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In 2020, many people chose not to travel during the holiday season due to the events surrounding the pandemic. But this year, experts expect to see a resurgence in holiday travel, with approximately six and a half million more travelers than last year. While some people will undoubtedly choose to travel by air, AAA expects that 90% will instead decide to drive

You might be one of those millions of Americans who plan to travel by car this holiday season. If so, you’ll want to make sure your vehicle is in good condition before you hit the open road. Going through a pre-travel checklist is a great way to help prevent a breakdown that could ruin your holiday plans.

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The Essential Holiday Pre-Travel Checklist

The holidays are an exciting (and sometimes stressful) time of the year. To experience the season to the fullest, you’ll want to make sure your car is prepared for any trips that you plan to take. The checklist below will give you an idea of what to do to help prevent a breakdown and keep your family safe. 

1. Repair Any Known Problems

Putting off car repair is all too easy, especially amidst the madness of the holiday season. If you’ve been ignoring an illuminated check engine light, a strange noise from the undercarriage—or any other type of problem—you’ll want to fix the issue before you depart for the holidays. Otherwise, you could find yourself stranded in freezing temperatures.

2. Take Care of Outstanding Maintenance

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Routine maintenance includes everything from flushing coolant to replacing spark plugs.

Before you begin your holiday travels, it’s also important to take care of any routine maintenance that’s due (or overdue)—and we’re not just talking about oil changes. Routine maintenance includes everything from flushing coolant to replacing spark plugs. 

To determine what maintenance is required for your vehicle, consult the service schedule in your owner’s manual or supplemental service booklet.

3. Check the Fluids

Even if you keep up on routine maintenance, your car could develop leaks and other problems between service intervals. That’s why it’s important to inspect all of the underhood fluids before setting out on a road trip.

You can usually check the engine oil, brake fluid, transmission fluid (if your car has a dipstick), power steering fluid (if equipped), and coolant from under the hood. But remember: You should never check the coolant by removing the cooling system cap while the engine is hot. Doing so could result in severe personal injury.

Many vehicles also have fluids (e.g., differential fluid) that must be checked from underneath the car. If you have the know-how, you can safely support your vehicle on jack stands and check these fluids yourself.

Otherwise, the next time your car is in for an oil change, you can ask a professional to do the job for you.

4. Test the Heater

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Now’s the time to test the heating system to make sure it’s working as it should.

You might not have used your car’s heater much (or at all) so far this year, especially if you live somewhere warm. Now’s the time to test the heating system to make sure it’s working as it should. After all, you don’t want to discover your heater is on the fritz while traveling through winter conditions.

5. Get the Right Blend of Washer Fluid

Many drivers don’t realize that there are three primary types of washer fluid: summer, winter, and all-season. When it’s really cold outside, the summer blend is not recommended because it tends to ice over in freezing temperatures. 

If you plan on traveling somewhere cold this holiday season, it’s a good idea to replace your summer washer fluid with either an all-season or winter mixture. All-season products generally resist freezing and are good for moderate winters but do not have the anti-freeze properties of winter blends (also known as de-icers). Because winter blends contain ethylene glycol (the same ingredient found in engine anti-freeze), they help melt frost and ice while also preventing refreezing. 

But wait—how do you change the washer fluid in your car? It’s easy; just run the washers until the reservoir is out of fluid. Then, once the reservoir is completely empty, fill it up with an all-season or winter fluid mixture. The final step is to use the washers a couple more times to ensure all of the summer blend is out of the lines.

6. Inspect the Tires

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Most professionals recommend replacing a tire when there’s 4/32” of tread or less remaining at any given point.

You’ll definitely want to check your car’s tires to help ensure a safe and trouble-free trip. Even though tires are important year-round, having good tread is especially important during autumn and winter when ice and snow might be covering the roadways. 

To inspect your car’s tires, you’ll first want to look for any obvious signs of damage, such as bubbles in the sidewall or chunks of missing rubber, which indicate an immediate need for replacement.

If everything looks okay, you can move on to measuring the tread depth with a dedicated gauge. Most professionals recommend replacing a tire when there’s 4/32” of tread or less remaining at any given point.

You’ll also want to check the tire pressure with a dedicated gauge. Inside the driver’s side door jamb, you’ll find a placard that lists the correct tire pressure for your vehicle. You do not want to inflate the tires to the specification written on the tire’s sidewall, as that’s the maximum pressure instead of the recommended pressure.

7. Check the Wipers

Naturally, you’ll want to check your car’s wiper blades before departing for the holidays. You never know when you could encounter rain, snow—or even a blizzard—during your travels.  

The good news is that checking a set of wipers is easy. All you need to do is turn on both the wipers and windshield washers. A good set of blades should produce a streak-free sweep and leave the windshield clear. 

If you find the wipers are worn-out, you’ll want to replace them right away. The job is usually straightforward enough that you can do it yourself.

8. Inspect the Brakes

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Pads with 3mm of friction material or less are considered a safety hazard that should be addressed immediately.

The brakes are one of the most (if not the most) important parts of your car when it comes to safety. You need all of the stopping power you can get, particularly during the holiday season when snow and other dangerous conditions might lie ahead. 

You (or your mechanic) should check the brakes a least twice a year to ensure they’re in good condition. If you haven’t looked at your car’s brakes recently, now is the time to do so. 

Most professionals recommend replacing a set of brake pads (and machining or replacing the rotors) when 4mm of friction material is left. Pads with 3mm of friction material or less are considered a safety hazard that should be addressed immediately.

9. Remember to Pack Cold-Weather Road Trip Essentials

While you’re focusing on car care, you might also want to take a few minutes to consider the well-being of the occupants inside your vehicle. You never know what you might encounter on the open road this holiday season, so it’s best to be prepared for anything with a collection of cold-weather road trip essentials. 

Some of the items you might want to bring along include: 

  • Water and food
  • Blankets and warm clothing
  • Medication (if you need it)
  • Flashlight and batteries
  • Cell phone charger
  • First aid kit
  • Pet food (if you’re bringing your furry friend along)
  • Roadside emergency flares and hazard triangles
  • Gloves
  • Ice scraper and snow shovel

10. Consider Having a Professional Perform a Pre-Trip Inspection

If you have any doubts about the condition of your car (or your ability to assess its condition), it’s a good idea to have a professional take a look before you leave town. Most repair shops will perform a complimentary “courtesy check” whenever you bring your car in for service, even if it’s just for an oil change. 

A courtesy check is a visual inspection that looks at easily-accessible components, such as the tires and suspension. But if you’re looking for a more in-depth report, you might want to ask if the shop offers a pre-road trip inspection. Ask for a sample report to see what’s covered and how the inspection differs from a regular courtesy check.

Although bringing your car to a professional repair facility costs time and money, it’s worthwhile if it helps you reach your holiday destination safely. 

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