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The Pacific Coast Highway might be America’s greatest drive and California’s greatest road trip. It’s hundreds of miles of open road, hugging a stunning coastline of rocky bluffs tumbling into a glowing blue sea.
It’s a whirlwind tour of 12 Californian counties, and an opportunity to see the Golden State’s most famous coastal resorts. It’s days and days of mind-blowing scenic bliss. It’s amazing.
Pack for sunshine and baking heat with breathable, quick-dry fabrics, t-shirts and shorts.
Pack a long-sleeve shirt for those days in between, where the wind is too cold for comfort (or you’re driving a little too fast).
Make sure you’re covered, figuratively and literally—but don’t sacrifice style for comfort. It’s California, after all.
California in a nutshell.
Surfers watch the sunset on Ocean Beach in San Diego along the Pacific Coast Highway
2. Take A Little Longer
It’s possible to race through the PCH in one exhausting day—but aside from auditioning for the next Need For Speed movie, I can’t think of a single good reason to do that. Forget efficiency. Aim for memories.
This is not a landscape you should hurry. It’s filled with hidden coves that only the locals know about, cliff-top paths and beaches that beg to be explored, side-roads you’ll turn down on a whim, cafes and diners that promise a pleasantly lazy afternoon in the sunshine, and so much more.
Make your plan. Add half the time again. Make sure you can enjoy yourself.
3. Schedule Your Stops
When the road opens up and you feel like you could drive forever, it’s easy to keep going and miss all the fun stuff.
Don’t rely on your instincts. Decide where to stop in advance, and stick to it.
Don’t plan to drive for more than three hours a day (in fact, that’s a lot, so aim for even less)—and if you find you’ve been driving for more than an hour without stopping, take the next turn-off and go exploring.
Exploring Pismo Beach
Coastline in Encinitas, California along the Pacific Coast Highway
4. Make The Roof Optional
This is the automobile equivalent of packing for all kinds of weather. If the sun comes out and you’ve chosen to be sealed away under a fixed roof, you will curse yourself for the rest of the trip.
Not to mention, a convertible is the classic way to do an American road trip—especially this one.
I picked up a Ford Mustang Convertible from Sixt, which was every bit as awesome as it sounds.
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A popular alternative along this route is taking an RV, and there’s a healthy online community of motor-home enthusiasts who will be able to help you there—but here’s a practical word of warning from a forum at Fodor’s:
Renting the thing, gas, one-way drop off, and campsites will cost more than just renting a car and staying in nice motels.
If you want to take a little longer and you like the romance of it, rent an RV (RV rental prices are available at RVshare). But if you want looks and the best view you can get from behind the wheel, choose a convertible. Nothing else gets close.
5. Stay Where The People Aren’t
Big cities mean big prices. If you’re looking for accommodation in a heavily urban area, you’ll probably blow your budget and end up with a mediocre experience. Or you’ll settle for something affordable, but absolutely horrible. (“Oh well, it’s just for one night.”)
The solution is to skip the big towns and cities, because, honestly, there are just as many hotels—and actually better ones—in the smaller towns. Plus, that romance of a Pacific Coast Highway road trip? It takes place in those sleepy, laid back surf towns that dot the entire coast.
I used the Hotels.com app to find hotels along the way, and in true “me” fashion, it was usually at the very last minute. It’s cheaper than just showing up, and Hotels.com always has great deals. Plus, after booking 10 nights, you get one free!
6. Take Luggage That Lasts (And Moves)
If you’re driving all day and staying in a different place every night, you need luggage that can take a bit of abuse and still keep your possessions safe and sound. Something with a hard protective outer shell, or at least a lot of padding, is ideal.
It also needs to be easy to move. This is a trip where you change rooms every single night, so, unless you love hauling a fully-laden suitcase around by the handle at the end of a long day of driving, wheels are a must.
I brought American Tourister’s new line of very colorful luggage along for the ride. It fit perfectly in the backseat of a drop-top Mustang, and it’s just so California.
7. WiFi Will Often Be Terrible, So Plan Accordingly
I was shocked to find how bad the internet was in hotels along the Pacific Coast Highway – and how unpredictable. This is the problem with relying on local connectivity while road tripping, and if for some reason you need to be online in the evenings (say, you’re a professional travel blogger), one badly-connected hotel can throw your plans into chaos.
The way around this is to expect bad WiFi and take a backup method of getting online, whether a specially purchased mobile data plan or something more powerful.
If you wanted to get from one Californian city to another in the most efficient way possible, you would have flown.
Road trips are never about the destination. The reason you’re doing this will be around you all day, under the spinning wheels of your vehicle, in the scenery flowing past on either side, in the endless blue sky. A road trip is a series of moments enjoyed to their full potential. If you find your mind leaping forward to where you’re going, you’re doing it wrong.
Take a moment every hour to force yourself out of your own thoughts, and look around you. Drink it in. Make an amazing memory from everything you can see, hear and feel.