Taking a classic road trip around the USA West Coast was something I’ve been planning to do for years. Inspired by stunning photography of Big Sur, the famous hippie culture of San Francisco and (most recently) the BBC’s Big Blue Live programme filmed in Monterey, it is such an exciting and diverse part of the world. As soon as we turned 25 (and therefore car hire was infinitely more affordable) I set to work planning the trip. It was the most complicated but ultimately rewarding holiday I have ever planned, so I hope that my few tips can help anybody else facing the same challenge.
It sounds obvious but the first crucial decision to make is how long you can spend in the States. We would have loved to start the trip in Seattle, visit Portland, and travel down to Los Angeles but, realistically, we can’t take more than two weeks off work in a row; our dream trip would have been a month! Therefore, we confined our trip to California (and a brief visit to Nevada for Las Vegas). Google Maps was my best friend when planning our itinerary, helping me to keep an accurate list of distance and drive time between locations.
After several revisions, our final route was:
Los Angeles (2 nights)
Las Vegas (2 nights)
Yosemite (2 nights)
San Francisco (3 nights)
Monterey (4 nights)
San Luis Obispo (1 night)
Santa Monica (1 night)
With hindsight, there is very little I would change. We would have loved another night in Yosemite, so potentially you could cut back in San Francisco or Monterey, but that inevitably means missing out elsewhere.
I initially thought it would be cheaper to fly in and out of different airports, but actually return flights from LAX were very reasonable when I was booking the trip. As we weren’t tied down to a particular date, I set up notifications on SkyScanner for flights from London to LAX for the entire month of May 2017, and monitored the prices religiously for a few weeks to get the best deal.
I wouldn’t recommend hiring a car in the States if you are under 25, as this can cost you £1000s and really affect your spending power for the rest of the holiday. We did splash out on the car however; Michael was adamant that we were doing this trip properly (stereotypical California dreamin’) and going for a Mustang convertible. He also did all the driving and definitely deserved a pretty special car. Driving down the coast road or through Yosemite with the roof down was definitely worth it!
After some thorough price comparison, I booked a Fly Drive through Virgin Atlantic, which included return flights from London Heathrow to LAX and that all important Mustang through Alamo car hire. I love flying Virgin, as the service and food are such high quality. However, if you are happy to book a cheaper hire car, it would be better value to book flights and car separately.
When booking our accommodation, I set a rough budget of $100 per night in all locations. This budget gets you very different quality hotels depending on the city. For example, the New York New York in Las Vegas was cheaper than a Super 8 Hotel in Hollywood. I went over budget in Yosemite, as we were really keen to stay in the national park, and Monterey, as we wanted a sea front location. Wherever possible I booked hotels with on-site parking (either free or for an additional cost) as this can be so tricky to find in major cities.
I used Booking.com to book the majority of our hotels because there is so much choice and you can often taken advantage of their free cancellation policy. This meant I could be flexible with our itinerary and also saved me money; a random check of our Monterey hotel revealed the price had dropped by £180, so I cancelled my first booking and re-booked at the dramatically lower price!
Every California road trip itinerary will look different depending on the places you want to see and activities you want to try. Our priorities were: taking a helicopter trip to the Grand Canyon, hiking in Yosemite, visiting Alcatraz, whale watching in Monterey and driving Big Sur. This affected how long we wanted to spend in each place and also helped me to budget for the trip. Booking activities in advance and paying upfront is so helpful when it comes to cost control!
I was given Moon’s California Road Trip guide for Christmas last year and would thoroughly recommend it as an invaluable source of help for route planning, restaurant recommendations and local’s tips.
I’m going to be posting guides to each place we visited on our California road trip with tips about where to stay, restaurants to visit and things to do. I hope these tips help, and inspire you to plan your own road trip. Let me know if you have any questions!