Your turn to visit the in-laws who live on the other side of the country this Christmas? Ben Griffin provides 13 driving tips on how to get your car ready for a long drive – and make the journey more bearable.
Many of us probably jump into the car before undertaking a long drive without any pre-flight checks, but the last thing you want is to be spending Christmas eve in a lay-by waiting for a breakdown recovery truck. Unless your in-laws are really that bad.
Luckily there are a few easy checks you can perform to minimise the chance of motoring misery – and you don’t even need a degree in mechanics to perform them. Plus we have included some handy accessories to make life easier.
1) Read the manual
Unsure where everything is in the engine bay? Consult the manual and use the glossary to find specific items. Though it means less space for Haribo in the glove box, it is worth keeping the manual in the car in case the worst happens – if only to see what fault light just appeared on the dashboard.
Failing that, use the internet and Google what you want to know – an electronic version of your manual will be out there somewhere or you can ask other owners for help. Car forums are great for that sort of stuff.
2) Top-up wiper water
Winter drives invariably involve rain and muddy roads so it is essential to maintain full visibility. So ensure your water level is at the full mark in case you need to use the wipers and wiper jets a lot. Take an ice scraper if the temperature really drops because your water jets will either not work or end up turning your windscreen into a slice of ice.
3) Check the engine oil level
Oil is vital for keeping the various parts in your engine moving, so it is therefore one of the most important checks. Park on a level area, start the car and wait for it to warm up (use the temperature gauge in the car for an idea). Then switch off, wait for around a minute for the oil to settle down and pull out the dipstick located in the engine bay.
Really black oil means a change might be needed. If it’s more brown, just make sure the level is close to ‘full’ on the dipstick and top up as needed but avoid overfilling. Wipe the dipstick clean with a rag before re-inserting.
For cars that drink a lot of oil, have some spare in the boot just in case you need it. Generally, oil is cheaper to buy online, but supermarkets can come up trumps, too. Check your car manufacturer’s oil recommendations to make sure use the right stuff.
4) Check engine coolant level
Be sure to check the engine coolant level by finding an indication on the side of the tank (usually ‘full’ and ‘low’). Aim for full using a recommended mix of coolant (AKA antifreeze) and water, the correct ratio of which is likely to be written in the manual or go with the coolant manufacturer’s recommendation. 50:50 is common.
Avoid over-filling as that can cause problems, too, and make sure the engine is cool when you pop the cap or things could get painful.
5) Consider a car service
If all of this seems like hassle, get someone to do a service for you. Given the cost of a car, it is worth ensuring everything is running as it should because when things go wrong it can get expensive. Use a reputable local garage or a stealer, sorry, dealer if you know they are reliable. Internet forums and a quick Google search should help you find somewhere that won’t do their best to relieve you of all your hard-earned money.
6) Charge the car battery
It is probably worth having one of those battery chargers to keep the one in your car topped up, especially if it sits around a lot between journeys. Failing that take some jump leads and hope you come across a friendly motorist willing to let you borrow their car for a bit or invest in those jump leads linked to a battery pack, such as the Cobra JumPack 8000, as these require no help from a fellow motorist.
7) Check the spare tyre and jack
If you get a puncture, you will need to whack on the spare. So make sure the jack is operable, the spare is in place and you have the wheel lock key if your wheels require it. Cars without a spare should consider a tire sealer, which will allow you to roll into a garage for a more permanent fix.
On the subject of tyres, you should make sure you have at least the minimum level of tread or face getting in trouble with the boys in blue and, even worse, endangering yourself and your passengers.
8) Take a blanket
In a worst case scenario when the car completely dies, you will be without heating. So bring a blanket to keep everyone warm, a few snacks to keep everyone fed and some water to keep everyone hydrated.
9) Consider breakdown cover
Breakdown cover is quite cheap for a year for customers and it is possible for existing customers to haggle for a better deal when the year is up, making it a no-brainer for those who drive a lot. The AA, RAC and Green Flag are some of the providers available in the UK so do some shopping online to find a good deal. The alternative is a sizable emergency callout fee on top of the membership cost, which is around £160-plus.
10) Buy a sat-nav…
Getting lost with low fuel is a situation that will test any relationship to the core, as will an argument over directions. So consider buying a sat-nav such as the Snooper SC5800 DVR, which also happens to come with an in-built dashcam, or the TomTom Go 5200, which can be updated via WiFi so no need to dig out a USB cable and comes with a lifetime of map, speed camera and traffic updates.
11) …Or download a sat-nav app
Fewer pennies to spend? It may be worth downloading a navigation app with maps and getting at least one other passenger to do the same in case your phone or tablet runs out of battery. Here Maps, for instance, has maps for most countries worldwide, including the UK, and they all work offline so big data bills can be avoided. Waze is another useful app that helps you avoid traffic jams, while TomTom Speed Cameras helps you avoid, well, you can guess.
12) Buy an in-car charger
Gadgets have an uncanny ability to run out of battery at that crucial moment. Luckily most modern cars have a USB connection and older ones will likely have a cigarette 12v socket, both of which allow you to plug in a car charger with one or two USB connections. There are very cheap options out there, but it is best to buy from a reputable brand such as Belkin to avoid any damage to your phone or tablet and to enable fast charging.
13) Keep the little passengers entertained
Travelling with young children or annoying teenagers need not be miserable. A DVD player and screen, tablet or laptop with Frozen and headphones will keep your kids happy and your sanity in place, which in turn will make your journey safer and less tiring.