(MoneyWatch) As summer vacation season starts, motorists are casting a wary eye on the gas pump, concerned that rising prices could siphon off money they would rather spend on having fun.
In Minnesota, one of the country's hardest-hit states, gas prices have spiked by more than 40 cents to reach $4.26 a gallon. Still, surging prices in the Midwest are a regional issue caused by refinery disruptions in Illinois, Indiana, Oklahoma and Kansas, and that hike is considerably higher than what other parts of the country are experiencing.
Nationally, the average price for a gallon of regular gas was $3.63 this week, up six cents from a month ago and nine cents from a year earlier, according to AAA. And despite that recent increase, analysts believe gas prices will level off or even decrease soon for most U.S. regions. "Prices should drop below a national average of $3.50 a gallon if refineries can transition smoothly from ongoing maintenance to full production," said AAA analyst Avery Ash.
Another leading forecaster, Patrick DeHaan of the website GasBuddy.com, has looked at projected gas costs by region. He expects summer prices of just below $4 a gallon in the Great Lakes area and on the West Coast, around $3.50 in the Rocky Mountain area and close to $3 in Gulf Coast states, where refineries are the most plentiful.
Gas Price Snapshot for June 11, 2013
So chances are the budget for your summer plans won't be bloated by rising gas prices. But even more of a vacation killer is having mechanical trouble on the road. So whether you are driving cross country or just to the next state, make sure your car, SUV or pickup is roadworthy.
Here is a check list of items to make sure your vehicle is in good working order:
Tires: Unsafe tires can threaten your family. If your tires are getting worn, take a penny and insert it into the tread. If the tread reaches only to the top of Lincoln's forehead (or lower), you need to buy new tires. New or old, tires need to be kept at the proper inflation level (usually on a small metal plaque visible on the end of the driver's door when open). Experts say tires inflated even four or five pounds too low are dangerous.
Brakes: Like tires, brakes that work properly are crucial to your safety. Find a deserted parking lot or quiet road and accelerate to 50 mph. Then hit the brakes hard. If they are sound, you should stop within 100 feet. If the brakes make squealing noises or the steering wheel pulls to one side, those are danger signals.
Battery: Failed batteries result in more calls to roadside service than any other cause, according to AAA. And it isn't just hot weather that is tough on batteries. If your battery is more than three years old, have a mechanic check it with a measuring device to see if it needs replacement.
Belts and hoses. These little-noticed items are the second-most likely item to break down after batteries. Always have the belts and hoses checked during an oil change or other service visit.
If you do break down, hope it is not in New Jersey. According to rankings released this week by automotive website CarMD, that state has the highest average car repair costs. Vermont has the lowest.