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Monday, 10 July 2017

Top Tips For Planning The Best USA Westcoast Road Trip. How To Plan an American road trip in California

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As I sit on the flight back from a month road trip in America, I thought I’d put together a blog post on how to plan the best, dreamiest West Coast USA road trip. I wanted to do this because if I’m honest, I found planning the month long USA dream Westcoast road trip way more stressful than any trip I’ve ever planned. This comes from someone who loves making lists, plans, spreadsheets and moved her life to Canada for a year. For some reason, the logistics of this trip stressed me out so much so I’m hoping this blog post will help you out if you’re wanting to visit the USA for a road trip. Let’s do this. I wanted to put together my whole itinerary for my USA road trip and my tips for planning in a quick and easy to read blog post so you guys can screenshot or save it. Individual location posts will follow, I had no idea how long they would take which is why I'm giving you this huge how to plan the ultimate American road trip guide first and foremost!

Read my guide to the best pizza in New York
Read my 2020 guide to visiting New York!
Read the best places for breakfast and brunch in New York

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ESTA - First and foremost and something that’s often overlooked, make sure your passport is in date and you have an up to date ESTA. I travel to the US quite frequently and have an ESTA but you cannot fly to the US without one. It’s easy to do online and is really cheap too. Do it or you won’t be able to go.

Don’t go during a busy period - It’s a difficult one depending on what your job is but try to avoid dates like Independence Day, graduations and more. We really struggled to get hotels in some areas (or the cost was through the roof) because apparently everything seems to happen in June in the USA!

Organise your flights efficiently - We always planned to start in San Fran and assumed we’d fly home from there but actually, we got a lot more time out of our trip by booking two single tickets, one from Gatwick to San Fran and then one home from the final stop of our destination, Los Angeles. We flew with Norwegian both ways because they’re by far the cheapest but also, the most comfortable. I swear by them as most of you will know by now. Top tip: paying the extra for premium is so worth it, you also get to check in two bags (great if it's a long flight), get crazy leg room, epic service and super fast security and lounge access. I wish I could fly Norwegian everywhere.

Money and budgeting -
Everyone has different monetary situations, for us, we decided to go all out and I’m not going to lie, we spent an absolute fortune on this trip. Doing a USA road trip isn’t like travelling around Asia that’s for sure and unless you want to camp or stay in a car every night and live on pizza slices, (which is fine by the way) be prepared to spend a bit of money. We just kept saying to ourselves, in a few months time it won’t matter, we will just work hard to make up for it. For example, on the last night of our trip we could have stayed at a really crappy hotel or paid an extra $30 for a lovely hotel. We went for the extra $30 because in the grand scheme of things, we wanted our last night to be special. This is a personal opinion though, you may want to get a camper van and sleep in it every night to save money or camp on the trip. We chose to do more of a luxury road trip. We budgeted around $100 per day for food and did end up going over this because I am a huge foodie and wanted to try so many different restaurants out. Again, it’s a personal opinion but when you’re away for a month, eating out 3x a day (in America too) gets really expensive.

How to get around America on your USA road trip - your two biggest costs on a road trip are definitely the car hire (particularly if you’re under 25) and the flights. As mentioned, look at Norwegian for affordable flights (tip, fly to Oakland and grab a cheap taxi into San Fran). Car hire wise we had a total nightmare, as we are under 25 they put the prices through the roof and I honestly have no idea how people manage to hire Mustangs and fancy Jeeps or Corvettes. When we looked and trust me, we looked on every single website, they cost thousands and thousands of pounds. I guess it’s okay if you’re only doing a week long trip but we were away for a month. We found Hertz to be the cheapest for care hire and ended up paying around £1700 for a month and a Jeep. Sadly we couldn’t get a really amazing suped up Jeep as they were just so expensive but we still got a Jeep. I have to say, the service from Hertz was incredible from start to finish and renting a car was so smooth. Originally, we planned to fly between destinations but when you add it all up, getting a car does work out better plus its way more comfortable. We couldn’t have seen as much as we did without the car, it meant we could pull in if we saw something cool, divert if we heard about something cool and just have the freedom to really explore. Top tip: Don't forget to budget for parking, it can be as steep as $50 per day in expensive cities. Try and get free hotel parking or only look for hotels that offer free parking!

Expensive cities in America - We didn’t realise how expensive San Fransisco would be, we just didn’t factor it in or really even think about it but to eat in San Fran, it’s crazy expensive. We stupidly didn’t book Alcatraz tickets in advance and ended up paying hundreds between us for late tickets with a bus tour. Such an error on our side, do pre-book things you know you want to do. I personally hate pre-booking because I like to be free to plan my days as and when they come around but on this occasion, that came back to bite my purse! Vegas was another really expensive one but we used TripAdvisor to ensure we were looking for high ranking restaurants under the $$ section. Getting around in Ubers in Vegas (as we were drinking we couldn’t drive) was so expensive as it was constantly on surge, it’s worth bearing this in mind. It was too hot to walk anywhere in Vegas (50 degrees) so we really did have to Uber!

SIM cards - We used Apple/Google maps more than anything on our trip. We actually used it as our sat nav for the whole trip and it was fine, we also used it as walking maps and for TripAdvisor. We really did need a phone with strong 3g. I contacted my provider and they charge £5 per day for data which I think is pretty steep when you’re away for a month, so instead I got my phone unlocked before we flew and then just inputted a sim with unlimited data worldwide. I bought a pay as you go one from a phone provider (it cost me £20) and then used it for the whole month. It was a godsend.

Write it down - I’d definitely say keep writing your plans down, we had our full itinerary written down with the dates and even though I checked them we still had one night where I forgot to book a hotel!

Hotels - As I said, hotel choices are up to you, whether you camp, get a camper van or stay in hotels. A good idea is to stay in hotels you trust, for example, we tried to stay in W where you can, we tried to stick to Starwood properties and if you’re a member (SPG member) it means you get points on every stay so technically you’re earning back stays as you book! It was great to see how different each W hotel was in each place too, they still remained beautiful, vibrant and luxurious but had little twists of each place in them. I always count on Starwood for things like parking, super fast wifi, great service so for me it was a no brainer. In places like Carmel we stayed in gorgeous little boutique hotels which were so special. I would say, hotels are quite expensive in America though from what we found.

Our USA road trip Itinerary, see the places we visited below: (please note, full blog post about each place coming up!) I really struggled with the itinerary as I couldn’t figure out where to start and where to end. The easiest way to plan it? Go on Google maps and type in your start location (for us it was San Fran but you could always start higher up and do Vancouver or Seattle too depending on how long you have to spend and where you want to visit). On Google maps, do directions to each place and literally plan your whole route on the map. It’s really that easy!

views from W hotel hollywood
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NOTE: I really struggled to just find bitesized information about where I should stop on my road trip and why, where is really worth spending your time and money. See the below as a little bitesized guide of where I'd recommend on a West coast road trip. Full blog posts featuring every place in detail and my recommendations will follow. Subscribe to my YouTube here too for more vlogs coming up.

Starting point: Flight, Gatwick -> Oakland

Location 1: San Fransisco = 4 nights - we chose to stay in San Fran for 4 nights because we knew there was a lot to do and really wanted to properly explore. The reason we went away for a month is because we seriously wanted to see America with no rush. I would highly recommend at least 3 nights in San Fran, 4 was enough and we weren’t rushed but you could rush it and see everything in 3. Watch my San Fran vlog below until my full blog post guide is ready.

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Drive San Fran -> Santa Cruz

Location 2: Santa Cruz = 2 nights - you don’t particularly need two nights in Santa Cruz but we really didn’t want to rush ourselves so chose to spend 2 nights here. It’s a really cute, little quirky town which doesn’t get enough airtime. We ate at the most incredible local Mexican too (El Palomar) and met the sweetest shop assistant in a local surf shop. It’s one of those cute little towns you can’t really skip as it’s not really touristy. We loved it. You can also see Capitola the most beautiful multicoloured little town too. There are loads of gorgeous hidden beaches along the way worth stopping off at and cute little neighbourhoods. We just searched Google maps, looked at where we went past and then stopped off at any that took our fancy.

beige jeep
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Drive Santa Cruz -> Monterey

Location 3: Monterey = 2 nights - this wasn’t my favourite place and I’d say one night is more than enough here but there are a few places around here that you can see. Sadly the Bixby Bridge area was closed and the Big Sur so maybe if they were open we could have seen more. We did find the cutest little local and independent restaurants in Monterey though, another highlight of the trip because whilst chains are nice, I loved meeting locals and finding out about them and their culture. We found a place called Old Monterey Cafe and loved people watching all the locals in there. I love feeling like a local rather than a tourist and going off the beaten track and finding out where the locals hang out is key I find.

privacy please revolve dress

Drive: Monterey -> Carmel

Location 4: Carmel = 2 nights - this is where we did the 17 mile drive and what a treat it was. I thoroughly fell in love with Pebble Beach (the area you drive through from Monterey to Carmel) it was the most beautiful, coastal drive and worth the $10 entrance fee. It was so quiet when we did it and we just took it all in, really took a whole day about it and got out of the car at every stop and explored the stunning beaches and dreamed about the even better houses. We stayed in Carmel for 2 nights and I’m so glad. You don’t really need 2 nights there but we fell in love with the cute little neighbour hood and spent day 1 doing the 17 mile drive and day 2 exploring the gorgeous little town. Don’t forget to do the wine walk! For me, doing 2 nights at most places meant we could pace ourselves and really take it all in rather than rushing it all. We stayed at the most insane hotel called Playa Del Carmel (more on that soon) and it was just a dream come true. I can imagine getting married there and hosting all my family in the hotel. You can watch my Carmel vlog below and read my huge blog post with Carmel travel tips. 

asos pink playsuit in Santa barbara
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Drive: Carmel -> Santa Barbara

Location 5: Santa Barbara = 2 nights - we loved Santa Barbara but there wasn’t as much to see and do as I imagined. Maybe we just did it all wrong but I kind of wish we had a bit longer to explore so I could have seen if there was more to explore. We started off with dinner at La Bella Vista which kicked off our Santa Barbra leg epically, we had the most delicious Italian meal with the best service and watched the waves crash.

Drive: Santa Barbara -> Death Valley

Location 6: Death Valley = 1 night - We didn’t have the time to go into Yosemite and Matt was shooting something very special in Death Valley (his clothing brand, ROE) so we chose Death Valley as our ‘inbound’ route over Yosemite. Death Valley was our furthest drive and was away from the coast but it was well worth it. I was petrified but honestly, I’ve never heard silence like it, seen sunsets like it or explored a desert before. It was definitely a once in a lifetime thing! I’d say 1 night is more than enough in Death Valley but it depends what you’re after, there’s nothing to do there apart from hike and explore and it’s way too hot after 10am so it’s up to you. We stayed over because the drive was so long (around 6 hours there) it would have been too much to do it all in 24 hours. We spent our evening in 50 degree heat in a naturally hot spring pool and watched the stars. It was just heavenly, we drove for ours and saw no-one.

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Drive: Death Valley -> Las Vegas

Location 7: Las Vegas = 3 nights - Las Vegas is so close to Death Vally so it only made sense to visit whilst there. We’d heard there was a new W hotel and I was desperate to stay there and it definitely didn’t dissapoint! The W Vegas is one of the nicest and if you visit, you NEED to go for sushi inside the hotel. We had the best sushi, ever ever. I’d say 3-4 nights is good in Vegas but there is so so much to see and do. I’d have preferred to do another night actually as we didn’t have the chance to see the Grand Canyon, if you’re wanting to do that kind of stuff definitely aim for 4 nights. Vegas is crazy and I don't think I'm cool enough for it but will definitely head back when it's not 50 degrees and try to explore a little more. We did head out to the Valley of Fire when in Vegas and that was just phenomenal to see.

asos palm print swimsuit
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Drive: Las Vegas -> Los Angeles

Location 8: Los Angeles = 4 nights - In Los Angeles we did 4 nights. That definitely was not enough! Los Angeles is huge and even with a car it takes you hours to get around. The traffic is way worse than London and I wish we had a whole week there. I’d highly recommend visiting but just make sure you give yourself time and make a proper itinerary. We stayed in the W Hollywood which was great but we seriously just didn't have enough time to see all we wanted to see, mainly because of the traffic. The pool at the W Hollywood is seriously beautiful. We know we’ll definitely be back! Urth Coffee and W Hotel made LA brilliant but I did find everything else a little overrated and actually quite scary and sketchy. I was quite dissapointed so think I'll have to head back and give it a proper chance. I have been told it's best if you go with people who really know their way around.

We went back to California a few years later and had a MUCH better time, we had a whole week there and really did it properly like locals, they always say people don't like LA the first time round so I'd recommend reading my huge updated Los Angeles guide here.  We love it now! 

2018 Los Angeles vlog:

Palm Springs wind mills
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Drive: Los Angeles to Palm Springs

Location 9: Palm Springs = 3 nights - Palm Springs is truly a beautiful place. I had absolutely no expectations and left feeling all fuzzy and in love. A main highlight was eating at the loveliest bar called Trust and Twine. We were blown away by the service and the food, all the produce from nearby, exceptional service and exceptionally fresh, divine food. You don’t really need 3 days in Palm Springs and could easily do it in 1 night but we wanted to enjoy it, soak it up and wonder around so we found 3 days was great. Warning: It is very very hot. It's definitely more of a chilled place but worth grabbing a bike and exploring it, Avanti hotel is the cutest. More on that on my Palm Springs tourist tips post! I need to head back to Palm Springs for Coachella this year, the line up looks insanely good.

joshua tree national park

Drive: Palm Springs to Joshua Tree

Location 10: Joshua Tree = 1 night - this wasn’t on our original itinerary but we decided to stay here anyway because we fell so in love with Palm springs, we didn’t get the chance to take a day out and drive to Joshua Tree. This was my first ever Air BnB experience and I highly recommend. One day is more than enough there but we totally ‘yolo’d’ (you only live once) and the night before booked a gorgeous Airbnb in the middle of Joshua Tree. We stayed in the most beautiful house you have ever seen literally bang in the middle of the desert. It was spooky but a once in a lifetime experience.

laguna beach

Drive: Joshua Tree -> Laguna Beach = 2 nights - We planned to finish our trip in San Diego but hotel prices were crazy and it was seriously booked up due to events in San Diego. We also wanted to spend a few days there as had heard it’s a great place with lots to do. Instead, we decided to go somewhere closer to LA airport as that’s where we were flying home from with Norwegian (their flights are definitely the cheapest from LA to the UK and you can get premium too, plus the LA lounge is amazing in the airport). On a total whim we booked a hotel in Laguna Beach and totally fell in love with the place. Again, I wish we had more nights here as actually, there's so much to do in Laguna beach. I'd say it's like a luxury little town, it feels very homely and warm, people are so friendly.

coachella palm springs

As you can tell from our itinerary, we chopped and changed things to suit us. That’s the beauty of a road trip. We only really had our W hotels set in stone but apart from that, we could add on nights wherever we fancied and that was great, if we fell in love with somewhere we could stay longer! I’d highly recommend not rushing the roadtrip, taking your time and doing a lot of planning. We could have stayed a lot longer and added in Yosemite, some more days in LA and San Diego but to do everything properly we’d have probably needed another 2 weeks.

So there we have it, a little overview of our huge USA road trip, I hope this helps anyone planning a road trip. Do let me know if you’ve been on one or plan on going on one!

Would we go back? Most definitely, next time we’d like to start up in Vancouver or Seattle, we’d also like to do a lot more from LA downwards and then fly from San Diego to Hawaii. Watch this space!

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Lots of love, Em x

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