A California Road Trip makes for an absolutely epic holiday. Ahh the romance of drifting along the Route 1 highway, just like in the movies. But there is so much more to this state than La La Land. California is incredibly vast and varied; with it’s rugged, cliff-lined coast in the north, to the vast, golden sandy beaches in the south, deserts, mountain ranges and ancient Redwood forests in between. Two weeks on the road in the Sunshine State and you feel you’ve seen it all. But how to plan a California Road Trip? Where do you even start? Having been for the second time this Summer, I have a few ideas.
I’ve had so many comments on my YouTube videos and on Instagram on the posts I shared from our recent trip. It seems so many people have the same idea and are planning a road trip in the near future. I’ve had lots of questions about the route we took, how much we spent on the trip, and where we stayed, I thought it could be useful to compile the whole planning process into one monster blog post.
The first step to planning a California Road Trip is to plot out the non-negotiable places you want to visit. Vegas, Yosemite National Park, San Francisco, Los Angeles? They are the four corners of the state (well, technically Vegas is in Nevada but you get the picture). California is enormous, and my advice would be that unless you’re planning on going for an extended trip, there’s going to be places you’re better off saving for next time. There are loads of routes online to take a look at, but in case it’s helpful, here is our itinerary for our two week trip:
We flew Manchester – San Francisco
San Francisco – 4 nights
Yosemite National Park – 3 nights
Los Angeles – 3 nights
Santa Barbara – 2 nights
Big Sur – 1 night
Monterey – 2 nights
Flew home from San Francisco
Check out my previous blog posts and videos to see what we did in each place and where we stayed. If I could do it again, I wouldn’t change any part of our itinerary, we were really happy with everything we did and the pace of our trip. With it being quite a quick turn around in some places, I was pre-empting that we would wish we had longer in some places. For a two week trip though, we felt like we saw enough of each place to leave us wanting more… in a good way. The drives were long but never more than 6 hours, and we would stop along the way to break it up. We actually really enjoyed the driving part. We’d have the windows down, I’d be singing incredibly well along to our California themed playlist. Marc LOVED it…
So you’ve got your hit list, now it’s time to work out where to fly in and out of. I’ll share the worst kept secret with you, I use Jack’s Flight Club to find the best flight deals. For those who’ve been living under a rock, you register your email address and then you’ll start to receive emails with all the best flight deals. Long-haul, short-haul, they scour all of the comparison sites and find the best deals. I got our non-stop Manchester to San Francisco flights for £300 return via a Jack’s Flight Club email.
If I can be flexible with my dates, I’ll often use Skyscanner’s cheapest month function to find out the cheapest time of year to go.
Another consideration is that there are alternative options to San Francisco and Los Angeles International airports in California. Oakland International Airport is very close to San Francisco, security is likely to be much quicker, and it may be significantly cheaper to fly to and from there. Similarly, Palm Springs International Airport isn’t a million miles from Vegas or Los Angeles, and may also be the cheaper option. Do some digging and don’t forget to factor in extra costs such as trains, car hire or taxis.
California is expensive, by most peoples standards. We knew we’d have to save hard to afford to do everything we wanted to. Before we booked the flights, we did some digging to work out the rough cost per night for each area we wanted to go to. We worked out we would have to budget for approximately £100 per night for accommodation, plus the car hire, gas, activities, food and extras which we budgeted at another £100 per day. We had 7 months from booking our flights to going, so we knew we had enough time to save. We each put aside £200 per month to cover everything including spending money, and then did lots of research to find the best hotels and Airbnb’s under £100 per night.
Sidenote: We were lucky in that our family friends in Oakland near San Francisco had offered to have us for three nights, and so what would have easily been the most expensive part of the trip, became the least expensive.
£200 all in per day was our rough calculation, but I suppose everybody has different standards when it comes to hotels, cars, eating out, and activities. We knew that unlike most of our trips where we like to eat out all the time and drink in loads of cool places, that was something we were going to compromise on, because our budget just wouldn’t stretch that far. Perhaps that’s the same for you, or maybe you’re prepared to compromise on accommodation. California has a whole host of budget hotels and motels, which are worth checking out. I go into more detail below on how we found our accommodation so read on for my tips.
Some staples that we relied on were pre-prepared crunchy cabbage salads (the ones that come in the bags with different dressings and toppings), corn tacos, tins of refried beans, avocados, tortilla chips, salsa and grated cheese, and would basically eat some variation of tacos for dinner most nights. The fruit and vegetables are incredible in California, we loved to pick up cherries, almonds, stone fruits and berries from the local markets to snack on through the day and to eat with yoghurt for breakfast.
It was actually delicious and we loved eating this way, because it was all gluten free (for some reason I was sensitive to gluten over there), every store had 10 different types of salsa/tortillas/beans/tacos to choose from, and we saved an absolute fortune. We also bought pre-prepared crudite trays with ranch dressing which served as the perfect healthy lunch on the go (although I hate to think about the amount of single use plastic). That’s not to say we didn’t eat out at all, we just chose carefully and sparingly, and decided to eat lunch out rather than dinners when we’d also be having a few drinks, and facing the temptation of dessert.
I don’t have any shortcuts for finding amazing accommodation unfortunately. It took a long time to research, but in the end we booked some awesome Airbnb’s and hotels. We didn’t have any bad experiences and would choose them again in a heartbeat. If you’re on a similar budget to ours, do check out my previous blog posts where I’ve linked to places we stayed in San Fran, Yosemite and Venice Beach. Some general advice for finding great places in California…
- For Airbnb’s, we went for private rooms, which were much cheaper. However we chose them really carefully, going for ones that were completely separate from peoples homes (rather than just a spare bedroom), so had their own entrance, own bathroom and at least a fridge and kettle. They tend to be much cheaper than when you have the whole place, but actually it feels like you do have the whole place. You don’t have to make awkward small talk with the home owners, and can come and go with no fuss. Make sure you read the reviews, don’t choose ones with only a few reviews, check the walking distance from places you’ll want to go, and do a quick google of the area to check it’s not a crime hot spot (especially important in L.A.)
- We booked some of our hotels via Hotels.com. They have a really good reward scheme where you get your tenth night free. It’s a great idea and perfect for road trips, especially if you’re booking somewhere to stay that night whilst on the road.
- My main piece of advice would be to start researching as early as possible.
- Make lists on Airbnb (use the heart button to save places into lists) for places in each destination that you’re heading to, so that you’ve got a shortlist to pick from.
- If you’re choosing hotels, compare the price on a few different sites, as weirdly they can really differ from site to site.
- If you’re arriving late at night somewhere and know you’ll just want to crash with minimal hassle, check out hotels in business districts which are going to be super easy to find. I like Marriott and Radisson hotels for this purpose. The service is guaranteed to be pretty good, as is the breakfast, and you can often get a cheaper rate on a weekend when they tend to be quiet. Sometimes I just don’t want to take any chances with an Airbnb.
Planning a road trip on a tight budget is a big job! We would spend a few hours every Sunday or whenever we could, on the sofa, researching and planning, and booking things gradually. I’m a spreadsheet nerd, I love Google Sheets. Have a tab for planning the itinerary, where you’re staying and what you’re doing, day by day. Have another tab for savings and budget plans, and if you’re travelling with someone, have a tab for who’s booked what and paid for on which card, etc.
It made the whole trip so much easier to plan, and we’re actually doing the same thing for our 4 month trip now (lol). Planning it is half the fun in my opinion, and although it seemed like a daunting task initially, doing it together and having regular ‘Cali planning sofa meetings’, it all went off without a hitch and we came in just under budget.
Lastly, just a few little tips for an easy life on a California Road Trip.
Take cutlery; we took a set from a picnic hamper, a Tuppaware box or two if you have space, your own metal or glass straws (if you would use them), water bottles obviously, and decant some washing up liquid into a little bottle. It means you’re not limited to buying bread, sandwiches, pastries and easy-to-eat-on-the-go carbs all the time. Although that kind of sounds like heaven, eating heavy white carbs everyday doesn’t exactly give you that holiday glow.
If you’ve got your own lunch box, you can make your own salads to take out with you, or use them as plates if you pick something up whilst you’re out. It really did make life easier, and meant that we could take that half eaten pot of salsa, and that leftover half an avo to the next place rather than wasting it, without it spilling everywhere in the car. Having washing up liquid meant we could quickly wash cutlery and Tuppawear with a bit of bottled water, roadside (I’m a spreadsheet nerd and a hygiene freak).
Buy those huge barrels of mineral water, keep one in the boot of your car and use to fill water bottles.
Use a Revolut card or other pre-paid currency card. There are loads out there now, but we like Revolut because there’s an app that updates in real time so you can see immediately what you’ve spent. Pre-paid currency cards mean that you don’t get charged a fortune in non-sterling transaction fees, or for withdrawing cash. We loaded it with our joint spending money and used it for everything.
Have you done a California Road Trip? Share your tips below.