Driving for Thanksgiving? Avoid nasty surprises on the highway with our road trip checklist
For travelers planning to drive over Thanksgiving, here's one thing to put at the top of your to-do list: making sure your car is ready for a long trip.
Skipping that task could mean waiting a while on the side of the road before help comes.
Ellen Edmonds, a spokesperson for the motor club AAA, says her organization expects to respond to "about 400,000" calls for roadside assistance over the course of the next week.
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To make sure you're not one of those callers, she recommends getting a full vehicle inspection (available at car dealerships, auto parts stores like Pep Boys, as well as gas stations in states that require annual inspections) before you go — ideally by Monday — so you have time to address any issues before you hit the road.
But if you can't get a formal inspection, here's a priority list of things drivers can do to ensure a safe trip.
"We use an acronym, BET: Battery, engine tires," she says, ticking off three crucial systems.
"Make sure that your battery is well secured, that it's clean and the terminals don't have any corrosion on them," Edmonds says. "If your battery is more than 3 years old, we would recommend getting it adjusted because the battery lifespan depends on where you live. (She says batteries tend not to last as long in warm, humid climates.)
"Make sure you have no warning lights (on your dashboard) and that there's nothing leaking under the car like antifreeze," she advises.
If your car is displaying an engine light while you're still at home, take it to your dealer or a trusted mechanic to have the code read and find out exactly what's wrong and whether it needs to be addressed before you get on the road. If it happens while you're on the road, Google the closest dealership for that brand or auto parts store.
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"I recommend at least 4/32 tread," Edmonds says, referring to how thick a tread you need on your tire.
She says to insert an upside-down quarter into the tread and if the top of George Washington's head doesn't fall below the tread, it's time for new tires.
With gas prices at a seven-year high, having your tires inflated properly as also key to getting the most miles out of your $3.41 per gallon (the national average as of Friday). You can find the proper setting for your tires on the inside of the driver's side door jamb.
Be aware that if your region is undergoing major shifts in temperature, that might prompt your tire pressure light to come on. If the light goes off after a few miles, weather is likely the cause. If it stays on, you need to check for a leak.
Edmonds recommends checking your tire pressure over the weekend and then again before you leave to make sure you're not leaking air.
Among Edmonds' other suggestions:
Start with a clean windshield. "A clean windshield is important for a number of reasons," she says. For one thing, a dusty one can cause glare if you're driving into the sun. Plus, if your car has tech like adaptive cruise control or lane-keeping assistance, those functions rely on a camera housed behind the windshield. If it can't see, they won't work and you'll be pestered by warnings the rest of the way.
Take a good look at your windshield wipers – front and back. "Make sure they're clearing the rain with little to no streaking or noise, and that they're not cracked or brittle," she says. If you need new ones, you can look up your make and model on a manufacturer's website or consult the book in the wiper aisle at the auto parts store to see which type your car takes. And if you haven't put your ice scraper in the car for winter yet, go ahead and do that.
Top off those fluids. "Make sure you have plenty of windshield wiper fluid because if you're driving over several different states, you may run into different types of weather," Edmonds says.
And if your car has a habit of using oil (looking at you, 2013 and 2014 Subaru Foresters) top it off before you leave and bring another quart, funnel and rag with you just in case the oil light comes on.
Check to see whether roadside assistance is covered. Do not wait until the worst possible moment to discover that your roadside assistance coverage has lapsed. Check your status ahead of time.
If your car is three years old or less, you might still have coverage through your manufacturer. If you have a travel credit card, you might also be covered so check the issuer's website for a list of benefits and whether there's a fee to use it. If neither applies to you, you can add it to your car insurance policy for a nominal fee per month.
And if you plan to go the AAA route, be aware that there can be a 2-to-3 day waiting period before your policy takes effect. So if you plan to drive Wednesday, sign up by Monday to make sure you're covered once you hit the road.
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Pack an emergency kit. In the event you do end up stopped on the side of the road, be prepared with a bag containing coats or blankets, a portable cellphone charger (not just a cable), water and snacks, a shovel and flashlight. Edmonds recommends using triangular caution signs rather than flares, which can break down and become ineffective.
Get enough gas. Don't let your tank drop below a quarter-full, Edmonds advises. If you have an electric car, make sure you research where to find charging stations.
Remember COVID is still a thing. So pack masks for everyone in the car just in case and consider bringing along plastic bags to use as gloves when pumping gas. You can also consult AAA's nationwide guide to each state's current travel restrictions.
Edmonds also recommends using touch-free credit card sensors rather than inserting the card, both for hygiene and identity-theft protection. It's probably not a bad idea to have a copy of your vaccination card on your phone, either.
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Buckle up your pup. Rather than let your dog roam around the car, consider picking up a harness-and-seat-belt combo that clips into one of the seatbelts. This way, should you wind up in accident, your dog won't be flung around. Keep their leash in the side pocket of the door where the dog is seated so that you can quickly and easily leash them up when it's time to stretch their legs. (Another reminder: Don't forget to bring baggies to pick up after your dog.)
And what if you don't get around to doing all this before you leave for Thanksgiving?
"Then you need to do it before Christmas," Edmonds says.