If you've been maintaining your car according to at least a semblance of the maintenance schedule recommended by its maker, chances are it will take that summer vacation trip in stride. To be extra safe, use this quick checklist a couple of days before departure.
Under the hood
* Engine oil—The engine should be off and the car level. If the car has been running, let it sit a few minutes so the oil can find its way back down to the bottom of the engine. Pull out the oil dipstick and wipe it clean, then put it all the way back in. Pull it out again and verify that the oil level is between the "add" and "full" marks. If it's low, add oil; avoid overfilling.
* Coolant—Look at the translucent plastic overflow tank and verify that the coolant level is between the "high" and "low" marks. If necessary, add coolant according to the directions in your car's owner's manual. Taking off a hot engine's radiator cap creates a geyser of superheated liquid that scorches all it touches. Don't do it.
* Brake fluid—Most cars have a translucent reservoir near the fire wall in front of the driver. Fluid should be at the proper level as indicated on the reservoir wall. Don't open the reservoir unless it's necessary to add fluid, as the stuff is easily contaminated. If you do open it, clean around the top with a cloth first. Use only the correct type of fluid from a newly opened container.
* Automatic transmission fluid—You check this with a dipstick very similar to the motor oil dipstick. If it isn't labeled, see the owner's manual for its location. Finding it won't be difficult—there aren't that many dipsticks congregating under the hood. The car should be level, the engine on and all warmed up. This means there will be some hot components, so mind what you touch. With your foot on the brake, run the gear indicator through the entire range of gears so all the chambers are filled with fluid. Then you may need to have the transmission in neutral, or maybe in park; the owner's manual will say (set the hand brake). Pull the dipstick out and wipe it clean. Put it back, then pull it out again; fluid level should be in the operating range indicated by marks on the dipstick. If you need to add fluid, use only the kind indicated in the owner's manual and only enough to bring the level up to operating range.
* Power steering fluid—The power steering pump has a little reservoir on top or nearby; its cap usually is labeled or colored yellow. You can check the fluid level with the engine either hot or cold. There's a stubby dipstick attached to the cap with one side labeled for hot readings, the other for cold (fluid level varies with temperature) so be sure to check the appropriate side. There are several varieties of power steering fluid, but only one that's right for your car. Check the owner's manual.
* Belts and hoses—Do this when the engine is completely cool because the fan can start up even if the engine is off. Unplugging the electric fan connection, if you can find it, is a good precaution. Look on the underside of belts for fraying and cracks. Sometimes belts will acquire a hard, slick surface where they touch pulleys. Any of these conditions mean a new belt is in order. With coolant hoses, look for leakage and cracks. If they seem unduly brittle or squishy when you squeeze them, they're ready to be replaced.
* Tires—If the tires have good tread and no cuts or bulges, inflate them to the proper pressure, measured when they're cool. Be sure the spare has adequate pressure. Note that the compact spares many cars have take more pressure than normal tires, often around 50 psi.
* Lights—Turn them on and walk around the car to make sure they work, are clean, and have sound lenses. Check blinkers and turn signals, too.
* Emergency kit—If self-sufficiency appeals to you, here's a list of equipment you might find helpful: a quart of motor oil, a gallon of water, jumper cables, flares, some old clothes, gloves, a flashlight and spare batteries, wheel chocks, duct tape, a first-aid kit, and an assortment of wrenches, screwdrivers, and pliers. The most useful tool of all is a cell phone.
This article was first published in May 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.