First of all, book your hotel in Los Angeles and make sure the hotel offers a parking space. Then, one to two weeks before you fly to California, apply for the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which is an automated system that determines the eligibility of visitors to travel to the United States under the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Without your ESTA, you cannot enter the United States. Enter the address of your hotel in the address section of the application form. Next, rent an SUV from Avis, Budget, or Hertz and, unless you arrive and depart from other airports, select Los Angeles International Airport as the pick up destination and San Francisco International Airport as the drop off location. Do not forget to insure your car.
One to two days in Los Angeles
You start your road trip in Los Angeles. Once you arrive, go through Customs and Border Protection (CBP), pick up your luggage, and head outside to the bus station, which is in front of the airport. Then, go to the right side to find free shuttles operated by Avis, Budget, or Hertz, which will bring you directly to their car rental place.
You will need to fill out a few documents before receiving the car keys and starting your adventure. First, drive to your hotel. If you booked a hotel near Beverly Hills or Hoolywood, leave your car at the hotel and head to the city to explore Universal Studios Hollywood, Walk of Fame, Santa Monica Pier, Venice Beach, Natural History Museum, or the Museum of Art.
One to two days in Santa Barbara
Start driving early in the morning on the road 101 to drive near the coast. Depending on traffic, it will take you three to four hours, simply use Google Maps for your navigation.
Once in Santa Barbara, walk on State Street to explore the inner city. I stayed at the Santa Barbara Hotel, which is very central. Check out Butterfly Beach and Santa Barbara County Courthouse. In Santa Barbara, grab a pizza at Olio Pizzeria. If you are interested in university life, then also check out University of California, Santa Barbara.
One to two days in Monterey
Drive early on the road 1 towards Monterey. On the way, stop at Pismo Beach and at the Big Sur. The drive on the coastal area is beautiful but make sure to bring your sunglasses along, as the water often reflects the sun.
During the next day, check out the Old Fisherman’s Wharf. If you want to go on a whale watching tour, you should do it in Monterey. Discovery Whale Watch offers a sight guarantee but their tour departs early and is often booked out, so book a tour online as soon as you can.
Three to four days in Yosemite National Park
During the next day, drive towards Yosemite National Park. There is no or barely any signal on the way towards and in the park. Therefore, download relevant Google Maps cards onto your phone to have them as an offline version. It will take you approximately four to five hours including a stop for lunch. I stayed at the Yosemite Westgate Lodge, which offers a great restaurant nearby, called Lucky Buck Cafe. If you go there, try their Lucky Buck Patty Melt and order the double sized burger. You will not regret it. From Yosemite Westgate Lodge, it takes one hour to the Yosemite Village, where parking is available.
Alternatively, instead of driving each day one hour back and forth, you can also check out whether you can rent a room in Yosemite Valley Lodge but you would need to book two to three months in advance to ascertain availability. Another alternative is to stay at one of Yosemite National Park’s 13 campgrounds. Check out the official Yosemite National Park’s website here, where you can find information on camping and lodging.
To enter Yosemite National Park, you must pay an entrance fee at one of its gates. The car entrance fee for seven days cost $35. Once in Yosemite, you can enjoy Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias, the Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and do much more, such as climbing and hiking. Take a few hours to study the Yosemite National Park’s website to learn about the things you can do. Due to weak signal in the park and for safety reasons, you should consider buying the Garmin inReach Mini 2-Way Satellite Communicator or the Garmin inReach Explorer+ 2-Way Satellite Communicator.
If you spend the night in the valley, then definitely check out the evening programmes, which include hikes and stargazing experiences.
Should you plan to camp and hike in the Yosemite National Park, then bring along a backpack, a rain jacket, plenty of water, only canned food to not attract bears, a hand torch, a lantern, a tent, an inflatable sleeping mattress, a sleeping bag, and a small carry on pillow. You can buy everything you need from the outdoor store Kathmandu. For rain jackets, check out The North Face and for shoes, use a pair with a strong profile for grip. I used Nike’s Pegasus but most wore hiking shoes by Salomon. Wear long pants and socks to avoid getting lyme disease from ticks. You can sightsee the attractions by a guided two hour long bus tour with a park ranger, which costs $38. However, I advise to hike and sightsee by foot, either with a group or by yourself.
Three to four days in San Francisco Bay Area
When driving towards San Franciso, check out Standford University and take a guided tour. It is similar to walking through a beautiful and old village in Italy and definitely worth a visit, especially if you like university life. In San Francisco, you can also check out the University of California, Berkeley. Both are top universities and worth to see.
In San Francisco, check out the iconic Golden Gate Bridge from Battery Lancaster. You should also see Pier 39 and San Francisco’s Down Town. Make also sure to check out San Francisco’s night life. It is quite astonishing that wherever you go, you always find international brands, making your new environment look more familiar than expected. Wherever you go, you find Chiquita, Coca Cola, Pringles, Mercedes Benz, Porsche, and many more international brands. All this familiarity makes one barely feel aboard, for the better or worse.
At the end of your trip, drive to San Francisco International Airport and refuel your car to avoid fuel service charges when giving back the car. Most, if not all, car rental companies are located at the Rental Car Center on different floors inside the terminal parking garage. Make sure to plan enough time to refuel the car, find the Rental Car Centre, and drive with the free AirTrain to the domestic or international terminals.
I hope this guide inspired you on how to plan your road trip through California. Feel free to write me a message about how you planned your road trip and about any missing advise you want to see included in this post. I wish you safe travels and a great adventure.