It's Labor Day Weekend and summer driving season is coming to a close. But not before one last trip. With gas prices much lower this season than the summers of recent past, the annual family road-trip vacation could be making a comeback. But before you hit the highways, you will want to think about a few things to make your journey safer and more enjoyable.

1. Flashing lights are only fun in an amusement park.

There's no reason to risk a run-in with the gendarmes. Keep in mind that in some jurisdictions even a common speeding ticket can result in a lengthy delay -- or worse. Your out-of-state license could mean an immediate trip to traffic court with a bond payment required before you'll be let go. Speeding isn't the only sort of traffic citation cops write, so be doubly cautious. Some practices you might take for granted at home, like turning left from a one-way street to another one-way on a red light, can be illegal elsewhere. And again, your out-of-state plate makes you fresh meat for local ticket writers, including meter maids.

2. Get a free vehicle inspection.

The local Chrysler dealer sends me coupons in the mail almost weekly offering a free vehicle inspection for my minivan. My wife gets similar offers from the BMW shop. Why not take them up on their inspection offer? You've got nothing to lose and everything to gain. If they identify potentially trip-interrupting issues, like loose tie rods or frayed drive belts, you can have them remedied before your departure. Just remember that you're not obligated to have any service performed then and there. Before you spend all your vacation money on repairs, you might want to get a second opinion, both to compare price and to determine how serious the problem really is.

Hitting the road for the holidays? Before you leave, check out these helpful links!

3. Change the oil? Buy new tires?

If you're going on a cross-country trip and you're 500 miles away from your next scheduled oil change, go ahead and get it done early. You'll probably get a better deal at home than trying to have the service performed on the road. Either choice is probably better than putting it off until you get return. Similar advice on the tires: If they're close to the end of their useful tread life, replace them. Nothing screws up a road trip more than getting in an accident, and having good tires improves handling and braking performance more than any other factor.

4. Set your tire pressure.

Yes, I probably could have included this in tip #3, but it's so important that it deserves its own bullet point. Most people are driving around on underinflated tires, sacrificing a mile (or in some conditions, more) per gallon in fuel economy. Inflate your tires to the pressure recommended by the manufacturer, and do it when the tires are cold. (Air pressure can increase by several pounds per square inch as the tires heat up.) Use a real tire pressure gauge, not the one built into the air hose. Besides maximizing fuel economy, correctly inflated tires will improve handling and are more resistant to punctures.

5. Plan your route.?

By whatever means necessary: GPS, AAA TripTik, MapqQuest, or good old-fashioned paper road atlas. But after you've picked out what appears to be the ideal route, spend a few more minutes researching summer road construction plans. There is a wealth of information available online, starting with each state's own department of transportation Web pages. Real-time traffic information can plot out backups and is provided for free by Web-based mapping services like MapQuest. There are also applications of this sort available for mobile devices, including GPS units and smart phones. Regardless of which method you use, the information is there for the taking and can help prevent wasting time in traffic.

6. Clean out your vehicle.

Perhaps this doesn't bear mentioning, but from the looks of my wife's car, everyone could use a little reminder. The last thing you need when setting out on a multi-state drive is a funky-smelling, cluttered car, so go ahead and drop it off at the local auto detailer – or just clean it yourself. It will get smelly enough with the entire family traveling in close confines soon enough, but you might as well begin the trip on a fresh note. While you're at it, take the ice scraper, the vintage road atlas, and the worthless socket set that's missing the drive wrench out of the trunk. Leave those useless items in the garage, along with anything else you don't really need, like that third row of minivan seats that serves no purpose other than 50 pounds of dead weight.

7. Slow down.

It's the best way to increase fuel economy, yet most drivers are reticent to sacrifice those precious few minutes they "save" by driving at or over the speed limit. I'm not going to turn this into a math-based lecture on lawbreaking, but in some cases slowing your rate of travel by 5-10 miles per hour can improve gas mileage by 5-10 percent. (Not to mention the potential safety implications of your reduced speed.) And if you're really worried about the effect that slower rate of travel will have on your drive time, try improving your time management skills. Forego a half-hour of sleep or fill up the tank while the rest of the family packs its suitcases. Remember, there's not a kid on earth who can't hurry it up a bit at the rest area.

8. Get off the Interstate.

If you'll permit a bit of editorializing, there is nothing that will increase the amount of fun you have on your next family vacation more than taking the back roads to wherever you're going. Yes, there will be complaining (isn't there always?) when you stop at a local diner for lunch and your brood is not served the same homogenous food found at every freeway exit. Yes, it will take longer to get there and you may find yourself driving into the wee hours of the night. Yes, you may be forced to stop at one of those hotels that's not part of a national chain and doesn't have a satisfied-or-it's-free policy. Yes, you will have to stop for directions and talk to people who talk funny or look at you funny or just plain are funny. But isn't that point of leaving home in the first place?