Cross-Country in a Clunker

What should you do before you travel if you're driving a high-mileage car that's been loved to pieces?
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Which came first: the red warning light on our car's dashboard or the ominous click, click, bang near our right front wheel? I don't remember.

All I know is that we were in the middle of the New Mexico desert and had about six hundred miles to go before we could stop for the night in Oklahoma.

That's not all. We could also hear the bounce-bounce-bounce of our license plate as it caught in the draught of the car as we sped down a lonely Highway 40. That was so bad that someone flagged us when we stopped at a gas station to warn us it looked as if it might fly right off.

To say that travel day was nerve-wracking would be an understatement.


Our 2004 Honda Accord isn't exactly a jalopy, clunker, or rust bucket. It's just our reliable, high-milage, nine-year-old sedan that we baby with frequent maintenance and oil change visits.

Sure it snugly transports our family of five, but we manage and have never really had any trouble -- yet.

But we hadn't really pushed it, until that trip. We were on the back end of a six-week family adventure from our home in Florida with stops in Texas, Arizona, California, New Mexico and Georgia.

It had us wondering: What should you do before you travel if you're driving a high-mileage car that's been loved to pieces?

Make maintenance stops. Have your car checked before you leave and let the mechanic know you're about to travel several thousands of miles. He'll also be able to tell you which indicators to watch and when you'll need to make maintenance stops along the way.

Limit the number of miles you drive per day. Have you heard of the six-hour rule? We try to be in the car no more than six hours a day. It was a lesson we learned from our first long-distance road trip. But it's not always possible. Instead you might just plan a few long driving breaks, just to keep yourself sane and alert.

Take driving breaks. We recommend getting out of the car at least every three hours to move around, stretch and get the blood flowing. Or have a snack. You could also plan mini visits on travel days to a town square or landmark along the way to give your car's engine a chance to cool down.

Stay in one place for a few days. On a later trip from our home to Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and Washington, D.C., we had extended stays at vacation rentals and with friends. We'd drive one or two days and take our time at the destinations. This also gave the car a break.

Carry AAA. I have a bad habit of locking the keys in the car. Or leaving the lights on. But even if you aren't afflicted with my absentmindedness, you'll find there are many benefits to belonging to AAA. One flat tire and you'll be grateful.

Be prepared, anyway. Pack fewer bags to make room for a bottle of distilled water or oil in the trunk. Whatever you do, don't take out the spare tire, jack or charge cords to make room for your stuff. You might need them.

Get travel insurance. How many movies have you seen where the roadtrippers get a flat tire and are stuck in noname desert for an extended period of time? Funny, they never talk about the tours, hotel reservations or entertainment tickets they paid for but will never use. Worse still if you miss a flight or cruise. Travel insurance is there to bring peace of mind for those times you just couldn't anticipate.

Rent a car. When we traveled along the east coast last summer we rented a Volkswagen Jetta. Sure, it was a low-mileage vehicle when we picked it up, but it also came with the peace of mind of having the car rental agency available to replace or maintain the vehicle if needed.

We'd put on thousands of miles in a small number of weeks and our vehicle's age was showing. We feared this might be its last big trip. Especially after driving through a stretch of highway lined with abandoned vehicles, and one boat, in Mississippi the next day.

Oh, about that trip through New Mexico. It was a close call, but it turned out to be a non-essential part that had come loose. The license plate got fixed in Oklahoma, and it's locked in real good.

The rest of the car? We're hoping for the best.