Truly, nothing ruins a vacation like being broken down on the side of the road. Except maybe that one time your cousin vomited all over the back seat on the way home from Six Flags. Because, somehow, six hours of roller coasters was totally bearable but twenty minutes in the back of a Dodge Caravan was enough to waken amusement park nachos and waffle fries from their digestive slumber like the great eruption of Krakatoa. But violent puking aside, vehicle failure is the pits. And there are so many things that can go wrong! Flat tires, bum starters, failed brake lines, shoddy suspension components, buzzing sensors. The list goes on.
Regardless of the make or model and no matter how well-maintained your vehicle is, parts will break. And unless you are prepared for that unavoidable situation, you could find yourself stranded for a good long while on a lonely stretch of highway, with only a shifty-looking opossum for company and a granola bar for protection. So, when travel repairs pop up, there’s a few things you should keep in mind.
Prepare and Prevent
First, start prepared. If you know you’re heading out for a long trip, make an appointment with your mechanic the week before to make sure your ride is up for the haul. Was something squeaking the other day? And what was that thwap-thwapping sound? These are not things to ignore in the hopes that the radio will simply drown them out and they’ll go away. They won’t. And guess when they’ll rear their ugly head? That’s right, the second you get off the wrong exit and land in the dodgy part of town.
Similarly, make sure you have enough gas before you hit the road. This may sound like an obvious bit of advice, but ask any station attendant how often they deal with this and you’ll start to get a better picture of how often it happens. Top off the tank before you get too far from home. Or better yet, cough up twenty bucks and buy yourself a five-gallon gas jug for emergencies.
Keep the Cavalry on Call
Obviously, not all travel repairs can be solved by an inspection and some spare gas. So, one of the best things you can do to avoid the major headache of winding up stranded is to invest in some roadside assistance. Some insurance companies like Progressive and Allstate bundle these options into their insurance policies, with many services like towing and battery jump start included in your coverage.
Allstate also offers a pay-per-use program called Good Hands Rescue which doesn’t require you to be an Allstate insurance customer to use. Currently, it charges $50 to change a tire and $75 to be towed the first ten miles to a repair shop, then $3/mile after that. (Which can add up fast.) By comparison, a company like AAA charges a yearly fee—usually somewhere between $70 and $100 depending on the chosen program—and offers free travel repairs and discounted or free towing. AAA also provides hotel and restaurant discounts, travel booking services, and even deals on flights and vacations.
Know Your Repair Options
Another way you can help yourself to expect the unexpected is to do some research about the area you’re visiting. When travel repairs pop up, campgrounds, hotels and truck stops might be able to point you in the right direction, but thorough research can help you find reliable shops that aren’t booked and won’t rob you. The internet is your best friend in this scenario. You can read reviews from past customers and even see data on their busiest times of day, giving you a working timeline of when you’ll be back on the road.
And for those of you who are well-trained in the way of the wrench, this tidbit still stands. Knowing basic mechanics is obviously a skill worth having when the figurative poop hits the fan. You can save yourself major money on repair fees and give everyone riding in the backseat a great story about how cool you were under the pressure. That being said, save yourself a headache by researching parts stores in the area you’re headed, or even along the travel route—you never know when that cell service is gonna cut out. This is especially important if you drive a specialty vehicle, as you’ll need to know who can get the parts you need and what kind of turnaround time you may be facing.
Have Some Supplies on Standby
Even those who aren’t mechanically-inclined should have a few necessities tucked in the glove box or trunk for these kinds of hiccups. Many companies sell pre-packaged emergency travel kits that range from $30 to $300, but you can easily make your own. The DMV lays out a pretty comprehensive guide of recommended tools and supplies here.
Ultimately, the key factors to think about are location, climate, medical needs, and family needs. Are you headed somewhere rural? A battery charger and some extra gas might be a good thing to have on hand. Are you traveling in cold weather? Any resident of the eastern seaboard will tell you they often don’t leave home in the winter without some spare blankets, a sturdy ice scraper, and a bag of kitty litter (for traction) tossed in the back. Do you suffer from any health complications? A first aid kit and some extra meds would be a good idea. And if you have children, a spare pack of diapers, some wet wipes, drinks and snacks are must-haves. Additionally, items like duct tape, jumper cables, and a flare can be the difference between a “minor inconvenience” and “Mom says vacation’s cancelled.”
C’est La Vie
Teaching yourself the basics like how to replace a tire, checking and changing oil, hooking up a new car battery, replacing wipers, lights, and spark plugs, and operating jumper cables can go a long way when you find yourself faced with quick travel repairs. Because at the end of the day, preparation is key and knowledge is power. Understanding these concepts will put you ahead of the curve when things go wrong, and help get you back to enjoying your vacation. And remember, if something major fails, like the engine or transmission, take a deep breath, make sure everyone in the car is safe and sound, make use of that roadside assistance program you just signed up for, and wait it out. While it might put a damper on your travels, we promise you’ll laugh about it someday.