People all over the country will be hitting the roads today, heading home for the Christmas holidays. Make it as stress-free as possible by checking a few vital things before buckling up.
The weather plays a big part in vehicle issues during the Christmas period. Batteries and engines can play up due to the drop in temperature, and wet or icy roads can affect your car’s handling.
However, general wear and tear also means that you should always make the time to assess your car before any big journey. Are your tyres in good condition? Is the oil a little low or do your headlights need replacing?
So before you press play on your favourite festive playlist, tick off our driving home for Christmas checklist. It might just help you to avoid a stressful – and potentially dangerous – breakdown.
You can never be too prepared. Have you got the best breakdown cover? We reveal the six best car breakdown providers.
How to check your car battery
Depleted batteries is one of the biggest causes of cars breaking down, according to data we’ve gathered in our annual breakdown surveys – and cold weather is not kind to battery life.
Depending on your level of experience, you could check your battery yourself, or you could take it to a garage. If you have the tools and the knowledge then most car manuals will give guidelines on how to make sure your battery is still connected and if it needs charging; a good healthy car battery should register no less than 12.6 volts.
If not, many garages offer free battery checks to their customers.
Always pack a set of jump leads though. This could help you or another driver reach their family before the Christmas festivities begin!
Does your car’s oil need changing?
Every car is built differently. So if you don’t know where your oil dipstick is, refer to your car’s manual. The dipstick will allow you to check levels and quality of the oil.
First, pull the dipstick out and wipe it clean; always allow ten minutes after turning off your engine in case it is still hot.
Insert the stick back in and then remove again. If the oil just reaches or sits under the add bar, then it needs topping up. Your car’s oil may need replacing if it smells or looks dirty. A healthy oil filter will ensure your engine runs smoothly and doesn’t overheat.
How to check your windscreen wash
Rain (unfortunately forecast) combined with mucky motorways means your windscreen is going to get filthy. With the extra traffic on the roads, you can’t afford to have your visibility affected. So open your bonnet and find your washer reservoir.
Most vehicles will have a min and max mark on the side, so you can gauge whether it needs topping up. You don’t want to run out so make sure you’ve got plenty in there.
Your car manual will state how much your reservoir will hold – be careful not to overfill.
Are your headlights working?
Check all your lights – indicator, dip, full beam, brake, fog, reverse, and so on – are working correctly. Either park by a white wall or window when it’s dark to see them yourself or get a friend to look while you’re in the car. If they’ve blown, it can be extremely dangerous.
You can try replacing them yourself by taking the broken bulb to a garage to get the correct replacement and following your manual instructions – but some cars make it virtually impossible for you to easily change the bulb yourself.
If that describes your car, or you’re just not confident about changing the bulb yourself, get a mechanic to do it for you. Check Which? Local for a recommended garage near you.
Are your tyres safe to drive on?
Tyres going flat are the other most-common cause of breakdown, alongside batteries going flat. Given the possible difficult driving conditions that Jack Frost can usher in, you need to check your tyres before setting off.
The minimum legal limit is 1.6mm of tread depth. Handily you can check this using a 20p coin, as the border of the coin is exactly 1.6mm. Remember to check all the way round the tyre.
If you’re close to the limit, then consider changing your tyres anyway as you don’t want to rely on the minimum when on potentially slippery roads.
If you’re driving where it might be icy or a risk of snow, then you could change over to winter models that have a thicker tread of 3mm. Alternatively, you could invest in a pair of snow socks for your car. Find out how they work and how to use them – see snow socks explained.
Remember that if driving abroad, you may be legally required to carry snowchains.
How to change a car tyre video
If your car has a spare tyre, make sure it is also fully inflated and that the tread depth is also legal. If you get a puncture, here’s our simple video guide to changing a tyre:
Driving abroad? Check the rules and regulations
Aside from an up-to-date road map and your driving licence, what else do you need for your festive road trip?
If ‘votre conduite’ in France, you will need to carry your own breathalyser. You’ll be fined if you’re caught without one and that’s just one way to ruin Christmas day.
Spanish laws state that if you need to wear glasses you’re required to carry a second pair with you while driving. And whatever you do, please stay calm in Germany. Abusive language and derogatory gestures are fineable.
To stop yourself from being caught out, check the rules of the country you’re driving to – and any other countries you’ll drive through on the way. If you’re driving in Europe, organisations like the AA and RAC list what is needed for each country on their websites.
Have you packed a survival kit?
Unfortunately, even after all this prep there is still a chance you could run into problems when you’re travelling home for Christmas. So always pack a survival kit just in case.
This could include a first aid box, blanket, torch, phone charger, ice scraper, high-visibility jacket, map, empty fuel can and a reflective warning sign.
Snacks, water and a thermos with a hot drink in won’t go amiss, either.
Stay safe and enjoy the festive celebrations!
If you’re still breaking down after ticking off this checklist, it might be time to think about getting a new car. We reveal the most reliable cars brands in the UK to help you choose a model that won’t let you down.