We’ve just completed our third California road trip in five years, and friends often ask us for tips on their own California adventure.
And why not? California is the perfect place to do a road trip. Where else can you spend a day in the mountains, visit a theme park, swim in a lake, drive down a scenic coastline and finish off with some surfing?
With that in mind, today I’m sharing my top tips for PLANNING your California road trip – stay tuned for more tips on the very best things to do in California with kids.
If you’ve got a question we haven’t covered here then do let me know in the comments!
What’s Your Route?
The first decision you’ll want to make is your start and end point for your California road trip. Personally, I think the highlight of a California trip is driving the iconic Highway One, or Pacific Coast Highway.
The very best way to do this is North to South, since you’ll get the best views, and being on the right side of the road makes it easy to pull into any of the hundreds of viewpoints that are dotted along the highway at scenic points.
Your route will also depend on how long you have to travel.
- 2 weeks? I suggest starting in San Francisco and heading down to San Diego (about 8 hours total drive)
- 3 weeks? Start at Mendocino and Yosemite then South to San Diego (about 11 hours total drive)
- 4 weeks? You should do the 3 week trip and add on a trip inland to Grand Canyon (about 15 hours total drive)
Once you know your approximate route, then you can start to look at flights. When you’re looking at flights, I have a few tips:
Flights to the US for a family are expensive, so you want to use any tricks you can to cut the cost. Our #1 tip is to use airmiles and Avios whenever you can.
We collect Virgin Miles whenever we book trains or buy from a Virgin website. Dozens of my friends over the years have celebrated birthdays with cases of Virgin Wine! I also use Avios, which you get with BA. If you have an Avios account, you collect points for shopping at Apple and John Lewis, which you can combine with BA Avios to spend.
It’s definitely worth doing – our last set of flights, we were able to use around 90,000 Avios to save £500 on our tickets.
Book a “holiday”
I don’t recommend booking a package holiday for your California road trip but I do recommend booking your flights together with car hire.
This is because both Virgin and BA will class this as a holiday booking – meaning you can secure your flights and car with a small deposit (usually around 10%) and pay off the balance in instalments. With BA, the final balance is only due a month before your departure date.
Booking a car with BA also gets you a minimum of 700 Avios points. Bonus.
Of course, if you don’t mind an indirect flight, then Skyscanner is your friend, and will show you the best budget tickets to your chosen destination.
Even though you’re booking a holiday, you don’t necessarily have to fly in and out of the same airport. We have done California road trips flying in and out of LA, and this works well if you’re going to Grand Canyon.
But where we’ve done a simple North to South drive, then we tend to fly into San Francisco and out of LA.
Timing is Everything
When you’re taking a road trip with kids, timing is everything.
From long and bitter experience, I can tell you the best time to fly to California is on a late morning flight from the UK. If you leave London around 10am, you’ll land in California just after lunchtime.
By the time you’re through the airport, and at your accommodation, it will be late afternoon, and you only need to stay awake for a couple of hours to keep jetlag at bay. Just time to head into Venice Beach for sunset, right?
On the return leg, book the flight that leaves California late afternoon and do whatever it takes to get everyone to sleep on the flight. Providing you do this, you’ll be in reasonably good shape when you flight lands in London early the next morning. Now all you have to do is stay awake all day…
Plan Your Accommodation
When you’re travelling with kids, having your own place with a kitchen means you’re able to deal with fussy eaters, and save a small fortune on food bills. While we’re on the road, we’ll almost always eat breakfast at ‘home’ and we often make sandwiches and take our own drinks and snacks to the beach.
There are a gazillion options online – I’d just say look for properties that have air conditioning in Southern California, some outside space is a bonus, and definitely look for Netflix, or a decent WiFi connection. If you’re travelling for three or four weeks, some days kids just need to lounge on the sofa for a few hours watching cartoons.
Plan Some Activities
California can be overwhelming. You land in a new city and there are SO many thing to do. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all those leaflets at the tourist information centre.
What we tend to do is plot out the key cities on our itinerary, and book one activity per city, in advance. Usually we use Day 1 in a new place to find our feet, and book something for the following day.
A good idea is to book BIG ticket items in advance. Tickets for the two of us to Disneyland plus parking came in at around $300, so booking in advance helped me to spread the cost. It also meant less of a queue on the day, of course.
I swear by the Viator site for booking activities when we travel. Some things you know before you arrive that you DEFINITELY want to do. But Viator is a great place to scout out options you might not otherwise have known about. We’ve used it for everything from jet ski rides in Santa Barbara to sushi making classes in LA.
Depending on the age of your kids, mobile internet access is likely to be a big feature of your road trip. We use PAYG Sim Cards from 3 when we travel. Their “Feel at Home” service means that the £20 calls and 12GB data package you buy in the UK works seamlessly in the US.
Two things to note here. First, you MUST use the SIM card in the UK before you leave – even if it’s just to make a single, paid phone call. Second, 3 just introduced a cap on Feel at Home data. This means your £20 allowance will top out at 9GB. Depending how much data you use, then, you might want to take along a second activated SIM card with a £20 credit.
When we travel, I’m always working remotely, and Flea is an Internet-addicted tween. We used three bundles of £20 between us over four weeks in the US this summer.
When in doubt, Starbucks always has great Internet, courtesy of Google, and it’s free.
Money and Stuff
Most of us are well used to spending money overseas. The only tip I have is that the US has moved almost entirely to chip and PIN over the past three or four years. So make sure you know your PIN numbers and remember that American machines consider UK debit cards to be credit cards.
It goes without saying you want to ensure everyone has a valid ESTA for travel to the US. Remember the ESTA is tied to a passport so if (hypothetically speaking) the dog ate your daughter’s passport and you’d just got a new passport, you wouldn’t want to arrive at the check-in desk to be told that your daughter couldn’t board the flight due to not having an ESTA. You know, hypothetically. Although if it did happen, it would be worth knowing you can apply via the mobile website, and get an ESTA in 10-minutes.
Driving in California
It can seem scary driving overseas, but California is pretty simple.
The roads are ENORMOUS compared to Europe, lanes are wide, and signs make sense. Don’t feel pressured into getting a GPS from the car hire firm – Google Maps works well, and we’ve found decent signal everywhere on our California road trips, except for the wilder parts of Big Sur and Grand Canyon. But do spend the extra for CDW. Just in case this happens…
I do however, seem to find petrol very complicated in America.
You have to select the sort of petrol before you lift the handle, and I always forget and have to ask the assistant to reset the pump. Sometimes more than once. However, I have learned that you don’t need to panic when the pump asks for your card and a zip code.
You can actually just use a random zip code of a local hotel, and if that fails, just go inside and pre-pay for petrol. I like this because the pump automatically shuts off after, say, $40.
My only other observation is try and get a hire car that has those blind spot alerts – American drivers are, in my experience, WAY less likely to use signals when changing lanes, and they’ll simply pull into a gap and assume you’re going to make space for them.
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So that’s it!
I hope these tips have inspired you to get planning your own California road trip! It’s a fantastic adventure for the family, and a perfect, perfect destination for kids. Got questions? Let me know in the comments!