California is a gorgeous and lively state with so many fun spots to explore on a mommy-and-me road trip. The state covers such a large area that a family could surf some white-topped waves and ski powdered mountain slopes in the same day. It also has a rich history and diverse population that make for plenty of fun learning experiences. No matter where you go, here are some simple tips you can follow to keep the trip stress-free and affordable.
3-Day Trip Itinerary: From Redwood National Park to San Diego
Start your trip with a visit to Redwood National Park in northern California. This park has the tallest trees and some of the oldest trees on earth. Try and plan the trip around a fee-free day. This is when the National Park Service waves entrance fees on certain days of the year, such as Veterans Day and National Public Lands Day in September. Visit the park for a short hike, or rent a campsite and explore the area for a weekend.
Continue your tour of northern California with a visit to Monterey Bay. Located near San Francisco, this bay is part of a National Marine Sanctuary and it is teeming with sea life. The best way to experience this is at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Here kids can touch starfish and stingrays and check out penguins and the Giant Pacific octopus. Save on a ticket by booking a night at a hotel that partners with the museum.
Start your tour of southern California at Santa Monica. This beach town is near Los Angeles, and is home to the iconic Santa Monica Pier. Take a dip in the ocean or let the kids run wild on one of the many jungle gyms on the beach. There are also bike rentals available for use on an easily accessible beachside path. Older kids will like Pacific Park, which has a carousel and a small roller coaster.
Then, carve out some “me time” and stop by the Third Street Promenade. This area has plenty of outdoor shopping and dining options, and it’s in a pretty area with lush fountains and greenery. Santa Monica also has a twice weekly farmer’s market where residents and top chefs flock for the freshest vegetables and fruits. Bring cash, as most vendors prefer it over credit cards.
After an overnight stay (we recommend camping or AirBnB to get the most stretch out of your dollar), continue along the southern California neck of the tour with a visit to warm and sunny San Diego. Learn how to hang 10 with a surf lesson at La Jolla Beach. Afterwards, stop by the world famous San Diego Zoo. Get to know Bai Yun and Gao Gao, the two giant pandas in residence, or laugh along with the elephants and Galapagos tortoises.
Finish the trip with a stroll through the historic downtown area known as the Gaslamp Quarter. This 16-block neighborhood has great dining options, as well as comedy and live music at the Balboa and Horton Grand Theatre.
1. Pick Your Vehicle Wisely
Instead of driving the northern neck of California in your everyday car that doesn’t have ample space for the whole family, consider taking a rental instead. You’ll save precious miles on your own vehicle, which will help keep your car out of the shop when you need it most for your commute. You’ll also give your kids the space to spread out a little in the backseat, avoiding interpersonal headaches when they get the wiggles. When you’re looking for rental cars, keep in mind how you’ll be using the vehicle. If you’re camping, consider renting an SUV that can carry you from the highway to the top of the mountain and offer you plenty of space to keep your camping gear in the back. If you’re going to the beach, maybe choose a car with leather seats in case the sand finds its way from the seashore into the backseat.
2. Prepare for boredom
Unless your child goes straight to sleep, car rides can be tough for everyone. Break up long hours on the road by playing some classic road trip games such as 20 questions and the license plate game. Research rest areas along the way and find interesting stops along the drive. This can help you plan stops in advance, so you don’t have to worry about finding a bathroom last minute. Finally, keep wet wipes handy for cleaning up any messes.
3. Use tech to keep it easy!
There are several phone apps out there that can keep your trip simple and stress-free:
- GasBuddy uses crowd sourced data to show you the lowest gas prices nearby. It finds on average a 41-cent difference in prices between local gas stations.
- Groupon gives great deals at local restaurants, hotels and various things to do in the area.
- Meal Pal is just food focused, but it works by showing coupons at local restaurants and gives reviews of nearby places.
- Roadtrippers helps you find fascinating stops along your route, to break up the monotony of rest area stops and give your little ones the chance to run out some of their energy.
- If you find yourself in an unexpected accommodation pickle, Hotel Tonight can help you find last minute availability in your area.
What do you think? Have you taken any family trips through California that you’ve enjoyed? What are some tricks you’ve discovered on your journeys?
About the Author: Sam Casteris is an avid traveler and aspiring travel writer. She writes creative pieces about travel, informational articles for other travelers, and guides to make travel as stress-free as possible. Her home base is in Phoenix, AZ.