California’s natural beauty and diverse attractions make it the perfect place to plan a family road trip. With so many places to see in one very large state, there are multiple routes you can take to accommodate time limits and family interests. Guide your planning with these tips and then develop your itinerary with our California road trip ideas.
1. Check car safety laws. Before you embark, look at California’s car laws, which include the following: Children under two years old must sit in a rear-facing infant seat in the back seat; kids age 8 and under should be buckled in with a booster or car seat; and those 8 and older (or kids who are at least 4’9”) need to wear just a seat belt.
2. Plan around rush hour. In the metro areas, the “rush hours” can start before 8 a.m. and as early as 3 p.m. or 4 p.m., so map out your routes accordingly, or program your GPS to non-freeway routes, where you’ll see more neighborhoods and scenery anyway.
3. Need a pit stop? For nicer restrooms—and a higher likelihood of finding changing areas for babies—and wider lunch or snack selections, consider pulling over at a shopping mall right off the freeway instead of a gas station. It’s also a nice way to stretch the legs, pick up something you forgot to pack, or wait out traffic.
4. Stop by a California Welcome Center. Load up on materials for your next destination or activity, pick up a free California Visitor’s Guide, and give your kids brochures to peruse at one of the state’s California Welcome Centers.
5. Budget at least two days in the major cities. San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco are California’s three largest cities, and each warrants a vacation on its own. But during a road trip, you should plan to stop for more than a day at these gateway cities to see the major sights on your bucket list.
6. Save with CityPASS. If you’re targeting multiple theme parks and museums, consider CityPASS tickets (valid for 30 days) to save money by bundling them together in Southern California (where the pass is entirely mobile) and San Francisco.
7. Consider the best route. The trip down Highway 1 is the most famous in the state (and the country, for that matter), but if you have kids who get carsick easily, they might be sensitive to the twists and turns along the coast. The good news is that there are major highways that parallel Hwy 1 for the little ones who might need a straighter route.
8. Plot out break spots. Ahead of time, find museums, historic small towns, state parks, or beaches that are worth a break every couple hours. Pack a jump rope or beach ball to get kids moving during the long hauls, or consider finding an easy hiking trail along the way.
9. See locations from a unique perspective. Water adventures are a California coastal must-do: Learn to surf, go paddleboarding, kayak, or take a whale-watching tour. Consider seeing part of the state from two wheels: Rent bikes to ride up and down the coast, around town, or across the Golden Gate Bridge.
10. Snack locally. California is an agricultural hub, and you can often taste food right at the source. Farmers’ markets abound in every region of the state, and often offer live music and local crafts in addition to from-the-farmer produce. Skip the gas station and stock up on fresh snacks from a market instead.
11. Bring interactive car entertainment. Create your own California-themed puzzle for the drive at Discoveryschool.com. Depending on age, give your kids disposable cameras or let them use your digital one to document the California trip from their perspective—then create a scrapbook afterwards.