Car checks before a long journey: What you need to know

By , 15 December 2023

5 mins read

Car checks before a long journey: What you need to know

There is nothing worse than being stranded on a motorway or in the middle of nowhere with a car issue, whether it’s a flat tyre, no fuel or an electrical fault.

The problem can be more stressful when you’re using a hire car, which is why it’s worth considering our car hire excess insurance so that you can ensure you are covered for any accidental damage to your vehicle.

So, what must you check before you drive? Before you head out on any long journey, it’s worth knowing some basic car maintenance, which is why we’ve come up with this handy car checklist which you can refer to whenever you need it.

10 point car check

Tyre pressures

It’s important to check your tyre pressures before a long journey, because if you have an over or under inflated tyre it can impact your braking, steering and grip on the road.

Many cars these days have a built-in system which alerts you when a tyre needs inflating. Get clued up on the correct pressures (measured in PSI, Bar or both). This can differ depending on the load you’re expecting to carry, and often varies between the front and back axels. You can often find the tyre pressures on a sticker just inside the door aperture of your car, in your car manual, or by asking your car hire company.

Before needing to rush to the nearest air machine while you’re on the road, get this task out of the way. You can top up your air at your local petrol station in most cases – just make sure you’ve set the required pressure first.

You could also carry a portable air compressor in case you need to top up your pressures on the road, but in my experience, these can often be too weak to fully inflate your tyres, and you would be better using a machine at a petrol station.

Tyre tread

Once you have inflated your tyres, check the tread depth – especially if you’ve not changed them for a while. The minimum tread depth is 1.6mm along the central three quarters, where it makes contact with the road.

You can use a measuring gauge or get a 20p coin and use the raised outer edge to get a sense of where your tyre depth is at. If you slot the coin into the tread, and you will be able to judge whether your tyres should be replaced imminently.

Windscreen, wipers and screen wash

Take the time to top up your screen wash before your trip, as you never know what kind of weather you’ll encounter on the road. Even if the forecast predicts sunshine, you could still have your windscreen obstructed by pollen or squashed insects.

The good news is that if you accidentally chip or crack your hire car windscreen due to grit or pebbles hitting it, our tyres, windscreen and undercarriage cover will sort you out – as long as you weren’t driving off-road when it happened.

Oil level

You may remember being taught how to check your oil levels when you were learning to drive, but if you need a reminder then we’re here to help. Lift your car bonnet and find the dipstick, then check if the oil is at a high enough level.

Some cars may not have dipsticks and will display the oil level digitally instead, so check your car handbook to find out which applies to you.

Not checking your oil level before a long drive can be dangerous, as if you run low you could encounter problems with the engine.

Engine coolant

While you’re unlikely to need to check this yourself with a newer car – as this will be done by a mechanic when you take your vehicle in for regular servicing – those with older cars should check their coolant level themselves and top it up if necessary, before a trip.

As with the oil level, you will typically be able to check the fluid level by lifting up your bonnet and checking the level on the reservoir. There are different types of coolant (red, blue, green) which should never be mixed, but you can buy universal coolants that you can use to top up in an emergency, that will mix just fine.

Brake fluid

Your time under the bonnet isn’t done just yet – once you’ve checked your oil and coolant levels, look at the brake fluid. You don’t want to miss this step, as you could encounter issues with your brakes if the fluid levels are too low.

Check your manual if you aren’t sure where to check these levels – you are looking for a reservoir, as with the engine coolant.

It may sound obvious, but make sure your car is parked level before you conduct these checks, or you won’t get accurate readings!

While you’re checking, ensure the fluid is clean. Contaminated fluid is dark, and this could impact your brakes. In such a situation, visit a mechanic to have the fluid changed. For most people, this job will be done during regular servicing.

Emergency supplies

It’s never worth taking a chance, so ensure you have emergency supplies in the back of your vehicle in case you break down. In the UK, it’s recommended to have a red warning triangle so that you can warn others of your presence.

You may also want to keep spare clothes and snacks in case you end up stuck for several hours waiting for roadside assistance.

When you head into Europe you will need some additional supplies. French law dictates that you must have a first aid kit, high visibility vest, warning triangle, headlamp beam deflectors and more. Check out our guide to common road law questions for full details.


A car battery will typically last for a few years, but if you don’t keep an eye on signs that it’s wearing down then you risk being unable to start your car when you least expect it.

Keep an eye out for tell-tale signs such as your car being reluctant to start up, or the electric key fob functioning erratically.

If you want to get technical, you can use a multimeter or a car battery voltage tester to check the performance of the battery.

Head to your local mechanic or replace your battery yourself if you have the know-how, in any situation where you feel that the old one might be running out of juice.

Engine air filter

Every car has four filters – a cabin filter, oil filter, fuel filter and air filter. If you have a faulty air filter, or it has become clogged up over time, you may end up struggling with reduced engine power or fuel efficiency.

Professionals recommend getting the filter replaced every 12,000 miles or 12 months – whichever comes first.

If you’re a heavy driver, you might need to check your filter before this point. In most cases, it’s located in a black box under the bonnet. Check your vehicle manual for instructions or visit your local mechanic if you’re in any doubt.

Fuel level

It may sound obvious, but if you’re distracted by the kids, a complicated journey or in-car conversation then it can be easy to realise you need to refuel – but there are no petrol stations nearby.

Before heading out on your trip, make a note of where the petrol stations are located along your route and figure out when and where you’ll need to top up your fuel.

Finally, make sure your fuel tank is full before you head off!

About the author

Dom has loved cars since he was five years old. He has worked as a mechanic for years, relishing the opportunity to be around vehicles and keep them in top shape.

Dom trained as a driving instructor once his daughter got her first car so he could help people to stay safe on the roads.

Now he takes every chance he can to share his knowledge of cars with the general public, focusing on vehicle maintenance and safety.