How to plan a trip to California: everything you need to know

Author: Veruska Anconitano, Award-Winning Food Travel Journalist, Sommelier & Outdoor LoverAuthor information
About the author
Veruska Anconitano
Veruska is a a food travel journalist with awards to her credit, such as World Best Food Travel Journalist. She holds a certification as a sommelier and she is also an ardent lover of the outdoors. Aside from this, Veruska is a Multilingual SEO and Localization Consultant and co-owns multiple websites that cater to a global audience.
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How to organize a trip to California? Is it easy to organize a trip to California? What kind of trip do I have to pick? How early do I have to book it? These are all recurring questions among those who want to start organizing a trip to California. Now, we all know that California one of the most famous holiday destinations in the world and it’s very easy to visit. Of course, you still need some time to work out all parts of your plan, for example, what to visit, what to see, what to do. After countless trip to California and to the United States, I put together a few useful tips for those who want to go discover the Golden States and, maybe, fall in love with it, just like what happened to me and Giuseppe.

Where is California?

California is located on the so-called West Coast of the USA which, thanks to its weather, was renamed as the Golden Coast. It’s a narrow and long piece of land, the South is more populated than the northern part and shares a southern border with Mexico (Tijuana is only a few km away from San Diego) and a northern one with super American Oregon. Arizona and Nevada are very close to California and it’s very common to visit Las Vegas too during a trip to California.

When to go to California?

Always, I would say without thinking twice. California’s weather makes every period of the year perfect for a trip here. For me, the best period is the one between November and April because it’s just perfect: the sun isn’t too strong, it doesn’t burn too much, the number of tourists is limited, especially after Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Besides, flights and accommodation will be cheaper from January to April and so, apart from being less crowded, it will be less expensive. Well, at least there’s a good chance.

mappa california

What documents do I need to go to California

  • A valid passport for 6 months starting from the day of the arrival;
  • The ESTA to get into the United States which can be requested from here (it can be renewed every 2 years);
  • A travel insurance that covers both the trip and illness: it’s not a must, but it’s cheap and you never know if it could be useful;
  • An international driving license if yours already isn’t;
  • A credit card. If you want to rent a card you will need one and it’s the same for some hotels (A debit card may be not accepted);
  • A list of drugs that you cannot take, food that you cannot eat, anything you are allergic to, really [of course the list has to be in English, no matter if you’re French!]
  • An electrical adapter, flat and 110 volts;
  • The City Pass, but ONLY if you intend to do everything that can be found in the full itinerary, otherwise it’s better if you pick what you want to visit. I recommend visiting museums and aquariums only if you have already visited San Francisco more than once!

What else do I need to go to California?

Again, not a lot of stuff, but these are all things that are necessary in my opinion:

  • A travel guide that can integrate what info you found online;
  • A bottle for camping or something similar: California really cares about recycling and water is rationed because of the constant droughts. A bottle of water at the supermarket will cost you a lot because they try to discourage citizens from using plastic. Follow that example and bring with you a bottle that you can refill;
  • Sunscreen because, trust me, the sun there really burns;
  • Sunglasses because, again, the sun is super strong;
  • A raincoat and a scarf because some Californian areas are not as warm as you would expect them to be: San Francisco and the northern California have a completely different weather than what you would expect;
  • A camera!!

What do I have to avoid taking with me to California?

  • There’s not a lot to avoid, but not taking this stuff will save you space in the luggage (and mind too!):
  • Drugs that you can find everywhere (unless you need to assume something particular);
  • Food supplies (were you really thinking of doing that?);
  • Heavy luggage (more below!).


veru california

California: what kind of trip should I plan?

California, because of the incredible landscapes, it’s perfect for an on-the-road trip, something that will help you make this trip absolutely personal. On the road means renting a car, but also a camper, if you would like, but you should check out the official rules. You cannot park everywhere and in the big cities, it could be hard to move around! Still, this way you can plan your trip based on your personal needs. Remember that the distances are measured in miles and that, if the police want to stop you, you have to pull over right away. Make sure to respect the speed limits and the street signals.

If you are not the kind of person that is into on the road trips, then I recommend internal flights and organized tours that will help you move around from one place to another. The distances are huge and that avoiding an on the road trip could make you lose a lot of time. Try to rethink an on the road trip even if it’s not for you because it’s the best option possible. Trust me, I travel only on the road! Plus, do you really want to miss out the Highway 1, the Highway 101 and the Route 66?

route 66


How to rent a car in California?

I usually rent a car, in every part of the world, with Hertz because I think the best prices and the best service. Plus, in the United States Hertz offers a lot of different cars, extra services that will make the renting experience very good. Other good companies are Alamo, 100% American, follow by Sixty and Avis too. I never rented a car from a local shop but I don’t think you should exclude it, especially if the price is good. Make sure to read very well the contract’s clauses or you will risk ruining your trip.

If you want to go around the Californian coast you will just need an SUV or a family one, maybe convertible so you can enjoy the sun. On the other hand, if you want to go visit the national parks (Yosemite, Death Valley, Sequoia, Joshua Tree, Lake Tahoe), I strongly recommend an off-road car to avoid any kind problems, especially when it’s really hot or if there is still snow.

When you rent a car, take it back with a filled tank to avoid surcharges on the final price; if you would prefer to take it back with not fuel, bargain with the employees before renting one so that you don’t to spend a lot of money. Always ask for a full insurance since the more you go south, the more it’s possible to find cars that are not completely covered. It’s better to be covered to avoid any potential issue.

How to fly to California?

This is a question that is difficult to answer to: I think you need to pick the cheapest airline and, possibly, the one that offers the fastest trip. The duration of the flight, for me, is what always influence the final choice. I prefer avoiding stopovers, so I take a direct flight to reach my destination as soon as possible and end up paying more. However, if stopovers are not a problem for you, you can rest a little bit between flights and you can save some money. I guess it’s useless to point out that the earlier you book your flight, the better it is, but also that if you are flexible with your dates, then you should be able to score a really good price. Flexibility also means in terms of location’s arrival. If you had initially planned to land in San Francisco, but San Diego would be a cheaper option, pick San Diego and change your plans!

How do I choose my itinerary in California?

There are several options for a trip to California that we can divide in the following ones:

  • Pacific Coast Tour
  • Northern Tour
  • National Parks Tour

These can be divided again in micro-tours after visiting the first stages of the trip. The most popular one is the Coast Tour and it can be divided again in two parts as well: from San Francisco to Los Angeles and from Los Angeles to San Diego. But we’ll cover this topic later, I’ll tell you all about my epic San Francisco-San Diego trip and the one I did visiting the national parks.

5 days in San Francisco: the itinerary


How expensive is California?

It depends on what kind of trip you want to experience, on what kind of traveler you are and what kind of experiences you want to enjoy there. I, for example, prefer to pay more for good food and not for extremely expensive accommodations. But food wise, there’s plenty of choice. In California, you can spend a lot and you can spend not that much. Of course, Los Angeles and San Francisco will be extremely expensive compared to other places. In fact, finding somewhere cheap to sleep at can be difficult in the big cities, while it’s not the same for the food: you can find really cheap restaurants that do not compromise with quality.

How good is food in California?

It’s really, really good and very diverse: in San Francisco, you can easily find food that comes from all over the world, especially from Italy, Mexico and China, while in Los Angeles, home of the great, global food trends, you will find more of a fusion and fancy cuisine. It’s very influenced by the local glamorous atmosphere. San Diego, on the other hand, is definitely Mexico and you will eat amazing Mexican food, even better that in certain areas of South America. You can eat a lot basically everywhere but, if you want, you can adapt to the very relaxed Californian habits of eating a lot of salads, smoothies and pressed juices. Always remember that California is where the healthy lifestyle was born and where yoga went from an uncommon practice to something that everyone does, either for spiritual reasons or for fitness ones.

cucina california

How should I dress in California?

You follow your needs, but what I always recommend, to everyone, is always the same mantra: do not bring with you too many luggage or too many clothes because you can buy something in California at a cheaper price than in Italy! I, for one, always come back with a lot of stuff, I make a lot of shopping from Adidas, Billabong, Quicksilver. I even buy kitchen products (does Kitchen Aid ring a bell?). Of course, the choice of clothes you need to take with you depends on what experiences you want to do: if you are planning a couple of elegant dinners or to go have fun in some cool or trendy pub, then you will need something formal. Usually, you should wear several layers of clothes, but always with shorts and slippers. You don’t want to end up having a two-colors tan! Also, never forget that San Francisco can be very cold, much more than in other parts of California and that the wind can be very annoying.

What should I buy in California and take with me back home?

This is the full list of what I always buy in California and take home with me when I go back:

  • At least 1 bottle of white wine (Sonoma Valley’s Chardonnay);
  • At least 1 bottle of red wine(Zinfandel or Cabernet Sauvignon, especially a local, Napa Valley’s one);
  • California’s plums;
  • California’s pistachios;
  • Every single kind of ChapStick

If you want to know more about California and follow our advices, you can continue browsing the section dedicated to The USA by clicking HERE or directly into the section of the blog about California by clicking HERE get in touch with us by visiting Veru’s Instagram and Giuseppe’s one, follow Giuseppe on Flickr and 500PX and Veru on YouTube and do not forget Twitter. You can get in contact also by sending us an email if you need more advices or information.

[All photos are copyrighted by Giuseppe Milo]

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