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4 timely tips on taking a long road trip

Happy couple in car
Highlights
  • The family car might do just fine with a little maintenance beforehand.
  • Don't assume that just because your car is old, you can't take it on a long road trip.
  • Renting could be the better option, if your older car has a nagging mechanical problem.

You may be wondering whether the old jalopy is in good enough shape for that 1,500-mile holiday jaunt you have planned to Florida or the Rockies.

After all, the average car on American highways and byways is now more than 9 years old after a tough downturn that has driven home the virtue of making do, says John Paul, a spokesman for AAA of Southern New England and host of the "Car Doctor," a weekly radio program.

The family car might do just fine with a little maintenance beforehand. And a vacation for you also could prove to be a break for your car, especially if you slog your way to work each morning through stop-and-go commuter traffic. "Driving at a pretty steady, 60- to 65-mile-per-hour pace is actually pretty easy on a car," Paul says.

That said, renting could turn out to be the better option in some cases, especially if your older car has had a nagging, long-term mechanical problem. As you consider whether to take your own car or rent one, here are four things to do before deciding.

Put your car through a careful checkup. If you have been a neglectful owner, here's your chance to make it up to your long-suffering car. The top reasons people call AAA for roadside assistance is for dead batteries or flat tires, Paul says. Take your car to your local garage and get a thorough tuneup. Get that battery checked out, and see whether it's time to change your tires. Make sure your alternator and fan belt are in good working condition.

If you have a check-engine light popping up from time to time, this is the time to check it out. It may be just a faulty reading, but it could be a sign of real electrical problems, Paul says.

Crunch the numbers. Getting your car ready for a long road trip will require some cash, but it is likely to be more cost-effective than renting. Expect to lay out at least a few hundred dollars, depending on how much work needs to be done, says Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing at auto website Edmunds.com.

However, renting a full-size car such as a Chevy Impala for two weeks could cost you at least $530, according to rates posted on the Avis website. And, whether you rent or take your own car, you still have to pay for gas. The average price of unleaded gas was $3.28 per gallon as of Dec. 6, according to AAA's Daily Fuel Gauge Report.

Forget age. Look at condition. Don't assume just because your car is old, you can't take it on a long road trip. Cars are lasting longer than ever, Paul says. It is one reason, along with a tough economy, the average American car is now more than 9 years old.

Cars are built to last longer. A decade or two ago, a car was considered on its last legs if it neared the 100,000-mile mark. Today, cars are routinely making it to 200,000 miles. If fact, there is a thriving market for cars in good repair with as much as 130,000 miles, Paul says.

There are limits to this logic. If your car is approaching the 200,000-mile mark and you plan to rack up several thousand miles on an epic cross-continent tour, maybe it's time for a rental, Paul says. On the other hand, if your trip is the eight-hour drive from Washington, D.C., to Boston, you should be able to make that trip, he says.

Beware of elusive repair problems. It's not age but condition that needs to be reviewed most carefully. And sadly, not all of a car's problems will vanish after a tuneup and some basic maintenance.

If your car has a history of chronic problems, this should be taken into consideration, Edmunds says. If that shimmy in the steering wheel won't go away or you have to bang on the dashboard to get the radio to work, leave the old jalopy in the driveway.

"Renting is a way of having a nearly new car for that two-week period," Edmunds says. "If you don't really trust your car, if you have a car that is a little bit of a nagging worry, you don't want to take it."

Even if you do trust your car, take its strengths and weaknesses into account, says Tara Baukus Mello, Bankrate's Driving for Dollars columnist. If you have had overheating problems, taking the family car through the Southwest in July might not make good sense. Ditto for a jaunt through the Rockies with a car that has transmission problems, Mello says.

"Wear and tear is going to be the same regardless of the age of your car, though you might not want to wear out your old car faster by taking it on a long road trip," Mello says.

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