How To Plan A Road Trip In California


“Because the greatest part of a road trip is not arriving at your destination. It's all the wild stuff that happens along the way.“ 

landscape on road trip through death valley California USA

Looking back on my travelling adventures in 2016, I have to admit that our road trip through beautiful California, USA was definitely one of my favourites. I basically planned our whole road trip myself, which is why I feel like I have quite some experience now. Therefore I want to share with you my favourite California road trip ideas and stops as well as our 3 week California itinerary.

1. Choose a route 
As you can probably imagine - planning a 3-week road trip demands a lot of time and effort. What really helped me with planning is taking advice and inspiration from people who have already done a similar road trip, may that be talking to my friends, reading travel blogs, scrolling through Pinterest or watching some travel Vlogs on Youtube. The internet is full of awesome insider tips, you simply need to take the time to look for them.

PRO TIP: A great travel guide book I can recommend for my German readers is the DuMont Reise-Handbuch Reisef├╝hrer Kalifornien: mit Extra-Reisekarte - a detailed and truly helpful book with a lot of great tips from sights, accommodations and places to eat to general insights about things like ESTA, renting a car and giving tips in restaurants.

If you need some inspiration on how a 3-week road trip could look like, here is a little self-made map of the one we did. From vibrant cities and breathtaking landscapes to wonderful people and delicious food - our 3-week-long road trip had it all. What we loved is that we had enough time at every destination to really enjoy it, didn’t sit in car all day and could also schedule some relaxed days by the beach.


Arrival in San Francisco 

San Francisco - 3 nights 

Yosemite National Park - 4 nights

Las Vegas - 2 nights (day trip to Grand Canyon)

Los Angeles - 4 nights

Santa Barbara - 3 nights 

Monterey - 3 nights

Santa Cruz - 2 nights 

Departure in San Francisco

Book flights and a rental car
  On Lufthansa flight to San Francisco

We booked our Lufthansa flights from Germany to San Francisco and back over one year ahead of our departure due to the prices being quite reasonable. Therefore I would definitely recommend you to start looking for flights as soon as the dates are out (mostly 1 year in advance) and also to be flexible in your airport choice. In our chase a flight from Frankfurt to San Francisco and vice versa was more expensive than adding a domestic flight from Dresden to Frankfurt and then to San Francisco, odd right? And by starting in Dresden we even saved time as the flight from Dresden to Frankfurt was only 1 hour long whereas a car ride would have been 6 hours! So definitely make sure you check different airports, airlines and times as during the week flights tend to be more affordable. 

SUV rental car on road trip through California USA

Rental car 

I got our rental car through the website, because it was simple, easy and you could cancel up until 24 hours before lease free of charge - so just in chase you find a better offer from another website, you can just cancel this one. We were 3 persons and got a mid-class SUV for about 700€ for 3 weeks. For insurance we went with the one that was inclusive to the offer, which was: comprehensive and anti-theft protection: without self-participation (by reimbursement), liability 1,000,000 USD. We would recommend everyone to choose a SUV over a normal car as the roads in California are not the best all the time. Size wise, the mid-class SUV was fine, although quite tight for the ones sitting in the back (but nothing too crazy). Also the petrol in the USA is cheaper than (at least) in Germany, so overall the car is not the most expensive part of the trip.

Another note: be prepared that the guy on the car rental station wants to sell you upgrades (car classes or insurances) and make sure you say “No, thank you“ because your chosen car size and insurance should be absolutely fine.

Book accommodations
 Whether to book everything in advance or to look for an accommodation there is up to everyone themselves. However, we found it really relaxing not having to run around and look for an affordable and good accommodation as we booked everything except our last week (Santa Barbara, Monterey, Santa Cruz) in advance. And even for our last week we booked our motels 2 or 3 days in advance via our smartphones, so basically you could have done that from home as well. On that note, booking accommodations quite some time in advance can be very beneficial as especially during summer weekends, popular National Parks like the Yosemite National Park (our favourite stop of our road trip) can be quite crowded and good/affordable accommodations can be booked up quickly.

For our accommodations we wanted a clean place for a good price so we usually stayed in Motel 6. For Yosemite National Park I just browsed the internet for some lovely B&B’s and for Los Angeles we chose to try out Airbnb which was a quite cool experience, as we stayed in a rather nice house and neighbourhood. 


Road trip through California USA

Start planning far ahead of time: I started over 1 year earlier, which enabled me a broad choice of accommodations, flights and other offers and an overall stress-free planning process. 

Start your trip with demanding activities: when you want to do a road trip that is several weeks long, one of the best advice I can give you is to do the exhausting and demanding activities like big cities and National Parks in the FIRST weeks of your trip and leave the more chill and relaxing ones like beach days for the end. Why? Because when you are not used to travelling this many places in a row and not to forget: driving such long distances, you will get exhausted after 1 or 2 weeks. We where really happy that we decided to do Yosemite National Park more in the beginning of our trip as we still had energy to do hikes and physically demanding activities - something we couldn’t have done in our last week of our trip when we where a little bit exhausted and rather spend chill days by the beach or wandering through the smaller cities of the west coast like Santa Barbara and Santa Cruz. It’s important to schedule relaxed days with probably only 1 or 2 activities because it doesn’t make any sense do rush and be stressed all the time.

Don’t sit in the car all day: Especially because the distances in California (and the USA in general) are quite far, you don’t want to spend all your time in the car rushing from one place to the other. Of course you want to see as much as possible during your trip, however for us it was more important to experience the places deeper than just visiting the standard tourist attractions - and for that, you simply need some time.

Don’t spend too much time in the cities: This is more of a personal preference but for me, what really made California breathtaking were not cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas, but mesmerising landscapes such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite National Park and Big Sur. Admittedly, San Francisco and Monterey where absolutely wonderful but somehow cities for me are just not as multi-faceted, varied and diverse such as natural sights. Therefore I would suggest planning on more time for National Parks rather than cities: we f.e. spent 4 nights in Yosemite National Park, which we absolutely needed and only 2 nights in Las Vegas with a Grand Canyon day trip in between, which were just enough as well.
  Injury on California road trip

Remember little things: Beside flights, a rental car and accommodations, don’t forget to get an ESTA-visa as you need this to be allowed to enter the United States. Also (if you are a little nervous and it’s your first time travelling to the USA) make sure your read about the questions they ask you at your arrival and what you generally have to expect. Furthermore, a credit card is absolutely vital for travelling through the USA as you basically pay everything with it. Make sure you have the phone number of your bank with you at all times just in chase something doesn’t work - for us one time our credit card was blocked in a store and didn’t work anymore, for those cases always have some cash with you. And lastly definitely get a travel insurance, because I can tell you from experience that you don’t want to pay a fortune in US hospitals: I fell down in Yosemite National Park and scratched my wrists, knees and ankles; my parents had to pay 136$ to get my wounds cleaned and bandaged in a medical centre. Luckily we had a travel insurance so we got the money back.

If you have ANY other questions, make sure you put them in the comments or message me on my social media because I would be more happy than help you planning your own road trip through California. Kisses, Laura 

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