How to Road trips Travel US

How to Plan a Road Trip in California

I always wanted to travel across the United States and take one of these American classic road trips, but I had no idea this will happen so unexpectedly this year.

After moving to Germany, and some short trips around Berlin and some others in Europe, I’ve been dreaming of spending this year summer holiday somewhere on the beach, just enjoying the sun and, eventually, discover the local lifestyle, while I can simply give myself enough time to relax and feel the summer vibes.

But, one day, we found some cheap plane tickets, Berlin – San Francisco and suddenly, we forgot about everything else and start dreaming about a road trip that could be our greatest journey so far: a road trip in California!

We traveled for 19 days across California and I can assure you, the US is the absolute best country for road tripping.

Here are a few things you should keep in mind as you plan your California road trip (there are also basic tips that can help you when you are planning long road trips):

Planning a road trip in California

1. How long before you should start planning the road trip?

If you are going to take a long trip, definitely you need to plan in advance. We had two months for planning after we found the plane tickets, and it was more than enough. But, for sure, the more time (and energy for doing this) you have, the more you can read, plan, and discover points of interest you do not want to miss.

2. Choosing the route

The ideal way to experience California is to hit the road because that’s how you can fully taste its spirit. The “sunshine state” has everything: scenic roads, amazing beaches, natural parks, historical landmarks, bustling cities. Are you after the ocean and the south laid-back atmosphere? The mountains are calling you and want to spend few days in the wilderness? Want to try your luck in Vegas? History is your thing? Regardless of the answer, California has it all. But, funny as it is, that can be a problem. There are countless things to see and do, but, unfortunately, you can’t say the same thing about your time and budget. So, before embarking on the journey, you have to decide what you really want not to miss.

Not sure where you want to go or what to see? Take a look at our route:

  • Day 1: Arrival in San Francisco, overnight stop in Cupertino
  • Day 2: Cupertino to Los Angeles, with stops in Half Moon Bay, Santa Cruz, and Monterey
  • Days 3 – 4 – 5: Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Malibu, Venice
  • Day 6: Los Angeles to Las Vegas (also Route 66)
  • Days 7 – 8 – 9: Las Vegas and Grand Canyon
  • Day 10: Las Vegas to Bishop (through Death Valley)
  • Day 11: Bishop / Lone Pine
  • Day 12: Bishop to Mariposa (Yosemite)
  • Days 13 – 14: Yosemite
  • Day 15: Yosemite to San Francisco
  • Days 16 – 17 – 18 – 19: San Francisco

But there are also a lot of alternatives, depending on your preferences, time, budget and type of experiences you are looking for:

Alternative routes for a California Road Trip

  • A Coastal California Road Trip: San Diego – Los Angeles – Santa Barbara – Monterey & Carmel – Santa Cruz – San Francisco
  • Discover National Parks: San Francisco – Yosemite – Lake Tahoe – Redwood National Park – Muir Woods – San Francisco
  • From beaches to the mountains: Los Angeles – San Diego – Palm Springs – Joshua Tree National Park – Death Valley – Mammoth Lakes – Yosemite – San Francisco

Online Tools for Planning a Road Trip

If you need extra help, you can try one of these online tools for planning your road trip:

  • Road Trip USA  – you’ll find cross-country routes and road-tested advice for adventurers
  • Furkot.com  – plan the route, find accommodation and suggestions for sightseeing along the route you chose
  • Roadtrippers.com  – plan the route, explore amazing places, road trips guides
  • Tripit.com  – road trip planner with stops
  • RoadtripAmerica.com  – helps you to plan your road trips and share your roadtripping passion and expertise with others
  • Myscenicdrives.com  – pre-planned scenic routes highlighting captivating places of interest with a feature-rich road-trip planner.

3. Book your flight

Generally, flights from Europe to the USA are pretty expensive. But if you constantly check for deals (and you’re a little lucky), you can find money-saving tickets. Anyway, make sure to book your flight as early as you can, at least two or three months in advance.  We found an amazing cheap airfare, only 370 EUR from Berlin to San Francisco, with Lufthansa, two months before our departure.

Where you can search for flight fares

And some bonus tips:

Be flexible with dates – flying in the middle of the week is way cheaper than flying on weekends;

Use more airline search websites, because sometimes they can provide you different prices for the same flight, or they don’t always include all the budget airlines.

If you’re flying with a low-cost company, pay attention to all the possible costs they can add to your basic ticket (luggage, fees for selecting seats, fees for paying with credit card etc)

Choose the aisle seat instead of the window seat! For the long flights, this is the best option for me, cause I need to move from time to time (at least at two hours), and like this, there’s no need to disturb the other person sitting next to me.

 

4. Book your Accommodation

Hotels, motels, inns, camping, Airbnb, whatever you choose, book in advance. You can also add changes to your route taking into account accommodation prices. For example, we chose to stay in San Francisco at the end of our trip, because that was the time when the hotel prices were the lowest.

Tips:

If for whatever reason, it happens to have no accommodation for the night to come, and you don’t want to pay a fortune, use Hotel Tonight – an app that lets you book hotel rooms on the same day and at attractive rates (for iPhone only).

Book a hotel that has breakfast included. Even if you’re not a big fan of breakfast, like me (I usually get hungry in the “morning”, just after 11 o’clock), traveling all day can change things out, and a healthy breakfast in the morning will fuel you up for many hours.

Where to search for accommodation:

  • Booking.com
  • Airbnb.com

We loved staying at:

  • Hard Rock Cafe Hotel – Las Vegas
  • The Monarch Inn – Mariposa
  • Fusion Hotel – San Francisco

5. Rent your Car

For sure the car is one of the most important things to consider when you’re thinking about a road trip. So, rent a car before you go, and be sure to choose something appropriate for all kind of roads.

Where to rent your car:

  • Rentalcars.com
  • Sixt.com
  • Herz.com

6. Other bookings you should consider

After you’re done with all the essential bookings, take time to review some events that are going to happen during your road trip in one of your stops (festivals, concerts or any other kind of event you want to attend); it could be a good chance to buy tickets in advance and kill two birds with one stone. Furthermore, there are special tours or museums that require ahead of time bookings. Ice Cream Museum in San Francisco was completely sold out for the next 3 days, and to find a ticket for the night tours on Alcatraz (which I highly recommend), you need to reserve your entrance with at least 1 week before as well.

There are a lot of things to take into consideration when you start planning a road trip in California and, at the beginning,  all this can seem a bit overwhelming. Be sure not to miss anything important in the planning phase and do some research about the things you want to see. But also keep loose plans, because you never know when other interesting things will arise. And, most of all, just enjoy the experience! Whatever route you’ll choose, I can assure you, a California road trip will be one of your life top experiences!

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