Secrets to planning the ultimate Californian road trip

The thrill of a Californian road trip begins long before you touch down in the Golden State. Get the map out — planning your experience is part of the fun…

From the celebrity-studded beaches of Malibu, cabernet sauvignon tasting in Napa, cross-country skiing in Lake Tahoe, and strolls in the High Sierra, California is a delightfully diverse state that far exceeds the classic Californian stereotypes immortalised in TV and movies. But if you’re planning to embark on an epic Californian road trip, where do you start?

Travel north to south

One of California’s iconic routes is California’s Highway 1 Road Trip – aka the Pacific Coast Highway – which hugs the coastline. Following the PCH from north to south means you’re on the right side of the road (literally) for the best ocean views. Plus, it’s a little easier to pull into the many scenic lookout points that make this route special. As you drive, the weather slowly gets warmer, so you can end your road trip with a sunny beach break, whether you hit the shores of Santa Monica – perhaps with a few indulgent days at Shutters on the Beach – or continue to San Diego to relax at Hotel Del Coronado.  

Don’t rush your car selection

On some holidays, a hire car might be a last thought. Not so on a Californian road trip. You’ll be spending a lot of time in the vehicle, so it’s worth taking a little extra time to make sure it’s exactly what you want and need. Cruising down Highway 1 in a convertible with the roof down is a snapshot of the classic Californian road trip — we include a convertible on most of our road trips because, well, that’s the way it should be done. 

If you’re on a family road trip, consider a bigger car. And on longer trips, you’ll be grateful for a comfier ride. If you’re on an extended trip, you’ll likely have a lot of luggage, so always check that the car you book will fit everyone and everything comfortably. Just remember to pack a little lighter and in soft cases that fit in the snug ‘trunks’ more easily. And don’t forget sunblock and a hat — the breeze means you won’t necessarily notice the intensity of the sun until it’s too late.

Give yourself at least a couple of weeks

With a geographic area comparable to Sweden, California is a big place. If you fancy a bit of everything on a first-time visit to California, dedicating two to three weeks to the adventure will check off many of the most famous highlights. Our Ultimate California Road Trip has seven stops and takes you inland to Yosemite and Palm Springs, as well as clinging to the Pacific Coast Highway to classic beach towns, with the option to add extra nights in places you’d like to linger longer.

Short of time? Zoom in…

Don’t have the luxury of time? No problem. Focus on a particular Californian region and get to know it well. Our Southern California Self Drive is an eight-night, three-destination journey focusing on California’s sunniest spots. And our California Winelands Road Trip includes nights in both Napa and Sonoma, but you can increase time in these scenic hotspots and skip Santa Barbara and Los Angeles if you don’t have enough time to travel that far south. 

Plan an epic route — and stick to it

Sat navs and map apps can be brilliant, helping avoid traffic jams and getting you from A to B in the most efficient way possible. But when you’re on the ultimate California road trip, think twice before following the algorithm-recommended route. If you’re taking the classic Highway 1 route, your sat nav might try to re-route to a faster inland route. Unless there are road closures, stick with your plan. Use Scenic Byways to familiarise yourself with some of the classic, All-American routes and what makes them unique, and be sure to factor them into your plans. 

Savour slow travel

Resist the urge to hotfoot it from one hotel to the next. The joy of a Californian road trip is taking it easier and stopping frequently to appreciate it. Take the stress out of where and when to stop and where to eat and research before you go, although there are plenty of well-marked scenic lookout points. For instance, don’t rush through Big Sur — it’s one of California’s most beautiful places — and linger in the Monterey area to take the 17-mile Drive around the peninsula to catch sight of seals and otters in picturesque surroundings, as well as some extraordinary multi-million dollar homes.

Embrace classic road trip food

Local diners can often be a good bet when finding a generously portioned meal with All-American vibes. You can start your day off right by loading up on fluffy pancakes and crispy bacon. And if you're in the mood for some classic seafood, clam shacks and roadhouses are a must-try for every hungry road tripper. On other days, you might want to make the most of the scenic lookout points and go prepared with a picnic — picking up supplies from the supermarkets is easy.

Weigh up Yosemite

Yosemite is an awe-inspiring place to visit. However, it is important to know that it takes about four hours to travel there from San Francisco. For some people, this might be too far out of the way if the focus of your road trip is travelling down the PCH, so it's important to familiarise yourself with the driving distances between destinations in California. That said, a stop in Yosemite is unmissable if you’re there for the big sights and epic hikes and want to experience a more rugged side of California. You’ll find Yosemite on our California Highlights, California’s National Parks and Ultimate California road trips. 

Consider the weather

California is truly one of those all-year-round destinations — particularly the further south you travel. San Diego, California’s southernmost city, is within touching distance of Mexico and is typically warm and sunny year-round.  But in a state over one thousand miles long from north to south, there may be more temperature fluctuations than you expect, and the north of the state can remain cool all year. If your road trip includes San Francisco, you’ll want to pack layers, even in July and August.

Plan around the seasons

If you’re eyeing a romantic Winelands trip to Napa or Sonoma, consider travelling during the region’s harvest from around August to October. You’ll see the grapes being picked, and there’s a hint of gold in the foliage in the latter part of the season as the autumn creeps closer, but the weather remains fine and dry. You might consider pairing the Winelands with a stop in Sacramento, California's farm-to-fork (and literal) capital, to make it a complete food and wine adventure.

Be savvy about your hotel choices

Road trips in California can blow the budget if you want them to. Celebrity favourite hotels, including Beverly Wilshire - A Four Seasons Hotel, Post Ranch Inn, Big Sur and El Encanto, A Belmond Hotel, Santa Barbara will provide an incredible and memorable experience. But if you’re hopping from place to place, you might want to consider a blend of luxe and convenience. What’s a road trip without a least a night or two in a classic motel like Best Western Plus Pepper Tree Inn Santa Barbara? Or ease your budget by opting for surf-chic-and-simple places like SeaCrest Oceanfront Hotel Pismo Beach, where location is king.

Think about some practicalities

If you’re taking a multi-week road trip, you might want to weave in accommodation where you can access a laundry service, particularly if you’re travelling with children. Vespera Resort on Pismo Beach, Autograph Collection is the perfect family stopover where you can refresh everyone’s wardrobes ready for the next leg of the adventure, while the kids enjoy a huge array of recreational facilities and a superb beach. Our California Family Road Trip has been designed with families in mind and includes a few days of beach bliss on Pismo alongside city fun and coastal charms.

Pre-plan your activities

It can help with budget planning if you know what you’ll do when you’re there.  Adding extras like the Go City Passes in Los Angeles gives you access to over 40 things to do, including Universal Studios. In San Francisco, you can pre-book your hop-on, hop-off City Sightseeing tour or add a day trip to Napa, making the experiences part of the upfront cost of your holiday and giving you even more to look forward to. 

Curate a road trip playlist

Last but not least, go prepared with the ultimate playlist. You’ll have some long stretches of driving, and what’s a good road trip without some epic tunes? This is the time to go full-on cliché with classic Californian tracks. Most American hire cars have Bluetooth or a way to hook up your phone to the car’s stereo.

Inspired?


There’s no better way to experience America than by hitting the open road. Discover more routes in our California multi-centre collection then get in touch and we’ll plan everything to perfection.


This feature was updated on 30th January 2024. The information within this feature is correct to the best of our knowledge at the time of print. Feature by Anna Hann.

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