Whether you dream of carving a wave for the first time, relaxing at a wine country estate, taking a spin on an iconic theme park ride or walking through soaring redwoods, you will find your perfect getaway in California. What you will find here are ways to make that dream holiday happen without a hitch.
The tips and information here help you know the ins and outs of travel in the Golden State, with tips on best times to travel, transportation, accommodation and camping, even good-sense guides for bicycle fans. Details here can help plan your trip and tell you where to turn for more useful information and insider tips once you get here. Happy planning.
Sun, surf, mountains, and roller coasters: The Golden State is big and beautiful, whether you want to play at the beach, ride your way across California theme parks, or camp at one of California’s national parks. The state’s size and variety of offerings mean that a California family vacation will call for some solid preparation. Here are 11 tips and family-friendly travel hacks to help you build your family’s trip, with an eye toward keeping the fun quotient high and missed opportunities to a minimum.
Planning a Golden State road trip? Check out our special road trip tips for that too.
1. Pack and dress in layers. In Southern California, a sunny 70-degree day can feel like 80 or hotter to people from other parts of the country, while a cloudy 60-degree day can feel much chillier, thanks to ocean breezes. In Northern California—especially San Francisco—summer can mean a lot of morning fog and temperatures in the 50s that turn into warmer temps in the afternoon. All over the state, it’s a safe bet to dress in layers and keep a sweater, sweatshirt, or light jacket in your day pack.
2. Don’t pack beach gear. Your hotel may have toys and gear on hand to borrow or rent. You can also buy boogie boards—an easy-to-learn way to play in the surf—for as little as $10 at any drug store or discount store near the beach. That’s also a budget-friendly way to pick up sandcastle-making toys, sunscreen, hats, and flip-flops.
3. Maximize your time at the theme parks. Staying at one of the on-site hotels can get you early entry—usually an hour earlier than the scheduled opening time—but sometimes just buying your tickets online (like at Universal Studios Hollywood) can get you an extra hour with shorter lines. Also, check the park’s website for express-lane services (like Disneyland Resort’s Fastpasses) so that you can make the most of your time all day.
4. Expect (some) admission discounts. Kids and teens often get in free, or at a discount, at most museums and other attractions around the Golden State. That said, don’t expect much of a break at theme parks, where the full-price admission may start as low as age 10.
5. Measure your kids. Before you commit to a theme park for the day, check out the rides page on its website to see the height minimums, to make sure there are enough rides that your children will be able to enjoy. Also, get the lay of the land from the theme park’s online map, to plot your day’s path efficiently and delay the onset of tired feet.
6. Book ahead for camping. National parks such as Yosemite have well-established schedules for opening up camp sites for reservations, and good spots can go fast—up to six months ahead of time. For last-minute spots, check a park’s campgrounds online to find availability.
7. Don’t miss the Junior Ranger programs at state and national parks. The free handouts and activities available at California national parks and state parks give kids a fun, hands-on way to explore the park. At Lassen Volcanic National Park, for instance, the activity booklet lists different hot springs and volcanic rocks for kids to look for and check off. At Antelope Valley California Poppy Preserve, meanwhile, a nature-oriented bingo card motivates kids to keep an eye out for lizards, meadowlarks, and beetles, as well as California’s state flower. Ask for any handouts at the park’s visitors center, or download them from its website.
8. Plan a ski trip that moves at everyone’s pace. California ski resorts offer a wide range of age-specific lessons and activities—some with kids’ clubs that last half or full days, so that everyone gets plenty of time to ski or board at their own skill level. At Squaw Valley, for instance, about 65 percent of the trails are suitable for beginner and intermediate skiers, and Sierra-at-Tahoe has an 11-acre learning terrain called Easy Street. Off-the-slope activities abound as well, like Mammoth’s beloved Woolly’s Tube Park, or the 30-foot climbing wall at Big Bear and Snow Summit’s Basecamp. Meanwhile, even if your kids’ spring break falls as late as April, you’ll still find plenty of California snow.
9. Bring lots of sunscreen. Beach days certainly call for solid SPF, but you’ll also need sunscreen while skiing. California’s ski resorts are known for their wealth of blue bird snow days, which results in plenty of reflection off the slopes.
10. Don’t assume that wine-tasting is off the table. Not all wineries and craft breweries welcome kids, but many do—offering games, play areas, and kids’ dining menus so that the family can enjoy a visit together. Check the individual wineries’ or breweries’ websites before you go to make sure kids will be welcome and happily occupied.
11. Don’t be afraid to take the kids to a nice dinner. In California, cutting-edge restaurants are often not white-tablecloth-type places, and many even have good kids’ menus—like the tamales and quesadillas at L.A.’s acclaimed Border Grill, or the prix fixe kids’ menu at San Francisco’s Rintaro, which Bon Appétit named one of the best restaurants of 2015. When in doubt, call ahead and ask when making a reservation; most hotels keep lists of reputable babysitting services at the front desk, and can help you hire a great sitter to come to your hotel room.
Need to reset your watch? Call for help? Figure out the best time to visit? Find out details for disabled access? Here’s a roundup of basic information to help you plan your trip, and to know what to expect and where to turn for help when you get here.
California is in the Pacific Time Zone (Greenwich Mean Time minus 8 hours). The state observes daylight saving time from early March to early November
The state sales tax is 7.5%. Local taxes may be add up to 1.5% to your total bill.
For local numbers, dial 411; for long distance, dial 1 plus the area code plus 555-1212; for toll-free numbers, call (800) 555-1212.
You can call 911 toll-free from any public telephone to obtain emergency police, fire, or medical assistance.
Alcohol is sold throughout California to people age 21 and older. The legal drinking age is 21.
You must be age 18 or older to purchase tobacco products in the state. Smoking is prohibited in all public buildings (including restaurants, bars, and casinos) and enclosed spaces throughout California. It is illegal to smoke within 20 feet of doorways or windows of government buildings. Most large hotels have designated smoking rooms; if you smoke, request one—most hotels will fine guests who smoke inside a nonsmoking room. Many cities in California have passed ordinances prohibiting smoking in public areas, and smoking is prohibited in some national and state park buildings and areas.
State Size & Drive Times
California is big—really big. If you were to drive the length of the state on Interstate 5, it would take you an estimated 15 hours, with little or no traffic, to get from Oregon to Mexico. At the end of your road trip, you’d have driven nearly 900 miles/1,450 kilometers).
Downtown San Diego is less than 20 miles/32 kilometers north of the Mexican border and about 130 miles (210 kilometers) south of Los Angeles. From Los Angeles, it’s 385 miles/620 kilometers) north to San Francisco and from there, another 90 miles/145 kilometers) northeast to Sacramento. You’d put about 190 miles/305 kilometers) on your car driving from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park, and about 600 miles/965 kilometers) driving from Los Angeles to Mount Shasta in Northern California. Needless to say, California is ideal for road trips.
Traveling with Disabilities
Visitors who have physical or other challenges can still have a fantastic time in California. Special services are widely available, and access to trails, buildings, and attractions is continually being improved. Here are some helpful resources.
The Americans with Disabilities Act states that all public buildings must be wheelchair accessible and have accessible restrooms. Most hotels and attractions are now outfitted with wide doorways and wheelchair ramps. City streets now feature a growing number of sidewalk corners with dropped curbs, and some public transit vehicles are equipped with lifts. Many state and national parks now have fully accessible ADA trails. If you need details, call destinations and services in advance.
Help for Hearing & Memory impaired
If you have limitations seeing, hearing, speaking, remembering, or moving which affects your ability to make or receive phone calls, dial 711 to have a specially trained communications assistant relay telephone conversations for all of your calls while you are in California.
Many movie theaters and performance spaces have special headsets to help you hear; ask when you purchase or pick up your tickets.
Transportation & Rental Cars
Major airport can provide on-site assistance to and from flights, including wheelchairs; call your airline in advance for details. Some rental car companies offer specially outfitted vehicles with hand controls, wheelchair accessibility, and other assistive devices. Amtrak train service provides added services for passengers with disabilities, as well as a 15% discount on regular travel fares.
California is a year-round destination, with weather that has something for everyone—from sun worshippers to snow bunnies. The best time to visit really comes down to what you want to see and do. Here’s some general information to help you know what to expect statewide.
Weather & Seasons
Much of California has a Mediterranean-like climate with warm, dry summers and mild, wet winters. On the coast, the average daily high temperature hovers around 70°F/21°C and up), but can occasionally spike to 80°F 27° C or more on hottest summer days; freezing temperatures are rare, even in winter. The state’s legendary fog often hugs the coast from roughly Monterey north, usually during summer months; it often burns off by midday before rolling in again at dusk. Farther inland, summers are hot and dry, winters cool and wet, with occasional brilliant blue days and temperatures cold enough to freeze puddles on the ground, but not much more than that. At higher altitudes, the weather reflects more of a four-season cycle, with beautiful summers, striking fall color, and cold, snowy winters followed by snowmelt springs (waterfall season!).
As you cruise this site, check out the average temperature by season for the regions and destinations you are considering.
Timing Your Visit
Most vacationers head to California during the peak summer months (June through August); that’s when you can expect the biggest crowds at top attractions, and high-season rates at lodgings and resorts. But even in the midst of summer it’s possible to hop off the beaten path and have forests, fields, and even beaches almost to yourself.
If you love the high country, you might need to wait until summer to access the highest roads and trails through the Sierra Nevada, as well routes into wilderness areas around Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak, the state’s tallest volcanoes.
Springtime (typically March through early May) is one of California’s most beautiful times of year. Although it can still be cold at higher elevations, temperatures are comfortable and fresh throughout much of the state. Hillsides are blanketed with lush green grass and wildflowers. California’s deserts, awash with poppies, paintbrush, and other desert blooms, are much more pleasant during the spring than during the scorching heat of summer. During these months, you’ll also encounter shorter lines and better deals: Many of the state’s top tourist attractions are still operating at a slower pace, and hotels often charge low-season rates until June.
Autumn (September through November) brings mild weather and, in some parts of the state, spectacular foliage (especially the High Sierra). This is a great time to visit California’s beautiful wine regions during during grape harvest time, known as “the crush” (generally August to October). The San Francisco and North Coast regions, often shrouded in fog during summer, typically see some of their sunniest days during “Indian summer,” (September through October).
If you plan to ski, snow usually coats the mountains November to March, with some resorts staying open into April or beyond. (If Mother Nature is fickle, snow-making equipment often supplements with amazingly good manmade snow.) Look for downhill runs for skiers and boarders, terrain parks, cross-country and snowshoe trails, and ice-skating rinks.
Each of the California Welcome Centers scattered throughout the state are staffed with personal travel concierges. These knowledgeable experts are ready to provide information that will enhance and enrich your visit including suggestions on where to eat, what to see, and where to stay. Welcome Centers also offer free maps and brochures on local attractions and things to see and do.
Anderson (Shasta Cascade)
Auburn (Gold Country)
El Dorado Hills (Gold Country)
San Francisco (San Francisco Bay Area)
Santa Rosa (San Francisco Bay Area)
Truckee (High Sierra)
Yreka (Shasta Cascade)
Mammoth Lakes (High Sierra)
Merced (Central Valley)
Oxnard (Central Coast)
Pismo Beach (Central Coast)
Salinas (Central Coast)
Buena Park (Orange County)
Oceanside (San Diego County)
Ontario (Inland Empire)
Yucca Valley (Deserts)
California is big—nearly 800 miles/1287 kilometers from the Oregon border to the north all the way to the Mexican border just south of San Diego, and an average of roughly 200 miles/321 kilometers wide. Fortunately, California also has a lot of airports, so flying is relatively easy, and a great way to get around the state, especially if your time is limited. Easy airport access also makes fly/drive vacations an attractive option.
We've highlighted the state’s 10 international airports, some that rank as destinations in themselves, with museum-quality artwork installations, outstanding shopping, fine dining, and even spoil-yourself spas (because getting a massage really is better than sitting in a plastic chair and simply waiting while you wait for your flight).
Whether you dream of a posh suite overlooking the ocean, a boutique hotel in the heart of a city, a full-service resort, or a serene campsite under the stars, California has the perfect place to spend the night. Book a stay at a major chain almost anywhere in the state, or consider accommodations as distinctive as California itself—handsome stone-and-timber mountain lodges, restored Gold Rush hotels, snug inns, and ultra-exclusive retreats in one-of-a-kind settings. There are also millions of acres of unforgettable parkland where all you need is a tent, a sleeping bag, marshmallows, and a few good campfire stories. (And, maybe, a reservation.)
California Welcome Centers and local tourism agencies can offer good suggestions for all types of lodging, including resorts, hotels, and motels.
Hotels & Motels: Hotels and motels are the tried-and-true standard for most vacations—providing a safe, clean, and comfortable place to go to sleep at night. They’re important here. Remember, California invented the motel back in the 1920s. Top chains are well represented statewide, and are often located in larger metropolitan areas and near tourist attractions and travel routes. Boutique hotels tend to offer a more intimate and luxuriously stylish environment for travelers. In more rural areas, consider independently owned lodgings, some in historic buildings.
Bed & Breakfasts: California has hundreds of B&Bs, many in historic homes or hotels and a growing number at family-run (and family-friendly) farms, ranches, and vineyards. B&Bs can give a sense of the region's local character, with helpful innkeepers happy to share insider travel tips. Your stay also includes breakfast—imagine, just-baked scones, fresh eggs, or strawberries from the garden. To reserve a stay at one of nearly 300 B&Bs statewide, visit the California Association of Boutique & Breakfast Inns (CABBI).
Resorts: Certain parts of the state—the Deserts region, coastal communities, mountain resort towns—are renowned for five-star retreats, with many championship golf courses and tennis complexes, spectacular swimming pools, destination restaurants, and elegant spas (often open to the public). California’s celebrated wine regions also have ultra-luxe retreats, with romantic settings, unparalleled farm-to-table cuisine, and, of course, incredible wine lists. Many resorts also offer special activities for kids, like movie-and-popcorn nights, so parents can enjoy time alone while their children have experienced childcare. Weddings and reunions can book private event spaces and exclusive catering services. For top resorts statewide, check California Welcome Centers and local tourism agencies.
Camping: In California, camping is everything it should be—pitch your tent under the stars at campgrounds scented with pine trees, next to alpine lakes and desert oases, or on a spectacular stretch of coastline. If “roughing it” isn't your style, try “glamping,” or glamorous camping, in outdoor settings with fully equipped tents or rustic cabins or even Mongolian-style yurts.
Or, consider renting a ready-to-roll RV; check individual campsites in advance for any RV restrictions.
You can also backpack deep into California's expansive wilderness areas—just be sure you have a permit before you head out (check individual locations for permit requirements).
Many state and national parks permit camping, although some popular locations such as Yosemite and Sequoia/Kings Canyon tend to fill up months in advance, so reserve as early as possible. Federal lands operated by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and U.S. Fish & Wildlife, also have thousands of campsites, which are often uncrowded, even during the summer months. There are also many outstanding private campgrounds statewide.
California is made for road trips. An easy-to-navigate network of more than 50,000 miles of good-quality highways and freeways link just about every corner of the state, with secondary routes leading to even more under-the-radar finds. Some of these roads are famous—Highway 1 along the Pacific Coast, legendary Route 66, and Avenue of the Giants (Highway 101 winding through towering redwoods). Some are workhorses—most notably Interstates 5 and 80—getting drivers (and truckers) up and across the state as quickly as possible. But even these heavy-lifters can lead you to surprising destinations.
No matter where you drive, remember the basic rules of the road. California law states that everyone in a vehicle must wear a seatbelt, and motorcyclists must wear a helmet. Speed limits are posted in miles per hour (mph). Generally, the speed limit on multilane freeways is 65mph/105 kilometers per hour (kph); on two-lane highways, the limit is generally 55 mph/90 kph. The speed limit on city streets is usually 35 mph/55 kph, though in residential areas and near schools, the limit is generally 25 mph/40 kph. It is against the law in California to write, send, or read text-based messages while driving, and drivers must use a hands-free device when speaking on a mobile phone.
Along freeways with heavy traffic, carpool lanes (also called “diamond lanes” for the diamond-shape pattern painted on the lane’s surfaces) are identified by black-and-white signs that include details on times and days of enforcement (usually during peak rush hour periods on weekdays). To drive in most carpool lanes, you must at least two people (including the driver) in the car (some lanes in the San Francisco Bay Area have a three-person minimum. Tempted to use the lane when you don’t have the required number of riders? Don’t—fines are staggeringly high, close to $400 in some areas. In the Los Angeles area, carpool lanes may have specific entry and exit zones; adhere to them or you could get a hefty fine.
Extreme weather can result in cars and trucks being required to use chains and/or snow tires. At times, it may even close mountain routes. Check restrictions and closures before you go.
Report an accident, crime, or unsafe driver by calling 911 from any phone.
Get ready to roll. With its mild climate, outstanding highway system, and nonstop-gorgeous scenery, California stands out as the perfect place for a road trip. And renting a car is about as easy as it gets. Whether your trip itinerary is a statewide tour of California’s greatest hits, a all-in-the-family visit to iconic theme parks, or an off-the-beaten-track adventure, there’s a vehicle to match your mood and style—snazzy convertibles, family-friendly vans, rugged models that can handle all types of conditions (even snow), even campers and RVs, all in excellent shape and with good road assistance and optional insurance policies.
Car rentals are available throughout the state; most major companies have locations at major airports and in convenient city locations. To rent a car in California, you must be at least 25 years old (in most cases) and have a valid driver's license and credit card (used as a security deposit). Non-U.S. citizens must have passports. Rates may vary, with factors including location, car size and style, accessories (a child safety seat or GPS, for example, may be extra), and the day of the week that you rent. Picking up and dropping off a vehicle at different locations can also increase rates. For best rates, try booking a car at the same time you reserve your flights.
We've compiled a list of reputable companies with rental outlets statewide. Check charges in advance; there are lots of options including insurance coverage and extras, so be sure you get what you need and know what you’re paying for before you drive away. Companies may also offer a pre-pay fuel plan with discounted prices, worth considering if you know you’ll likely use up at least 1 tank of gas.
Another fun way to explore California is to travel by train—a great way to enjoy the scenery instead of focusing on the road ahead. Amtrak’s legendary Coast Starlight and Pacific Surfliner trains follow ultra-scenic routes up and down the coast. The Capitol Corridor provides an easy east-west route across Northern California, while the San Joaquin slices through the broad and sunny Central Valley with connections to Yosemite National Park and other destinations. Along the way, there are options to link to Amtrak Thruway buses, which serve more than 90 destinations statewide. (Plus, you can disembark and rent a car at major stops to do additional exploring.) Depending on the route, you may be able to book a space in a special sleeping car, with access to an exclusive parlor car.
Local & Scenic Railways
Though Amtrak is the largest train service in the state, it’s not the only way to roll. In Northern California, Caltrain has regular service between San Francisco and San Jose. In Southern California, Metrolink offers service on seven regional lines that connect L.A., Ventura County, Antelope Valley, San Bernardino, Riverside, Orange County, and the Inland Empire. Trains dedicated to certain themes and in specific locales, such as the Napa Valley Wine Train, also provide a unique way to see some of California’s premier destinations.
For an easy and often fun way to get around California’s larger cities and communities, do what an increasing number of locals do and hitch a ride on a bus, subway, ferry, or light rail system. Using public transportation can be an efficient, affordable, safe, and eco-friendly option, particularly in areas where roads, parking, and urban traffic can be confusing and frustrating. Some transit systems let you buy multi-day passes; check ticket options online before you arrive to get the best deals. Two companies, CityPass and Go, also offer deals on local transportation options in San Francisco and Southern California.
You can also uses buses to take longer trips around the state. Greyhound is the nation’s primary long-distance bus company, offering routes linking big cities and rural destinations statewide (and heading out of state too).
Here are links to California’s major regional transit organizations; most offer a variety of travel options, such as buses, subways, and light rail, and in some cases, ferry boats. For more local information on transit options in Northern California, visit 511.org.
Many communities have miles and miles of excellent, dedicated bike paths and lanes. The California Bicycle Coalition can give you information on bike routes and rentals as well as group rides, which can be an easy way to meet locals and to see places without having to navigate unfamiliar terrain on your own.
California law requires anyone under 18 to wear a helmet when bicycling or riding as a passenger on a bike. At night, a white headlight must be attached to the bicycle or bicyclist and the bike must be equipped with a number of reflectors. For details, visit the California Bicycle Coalition’s website and read its coverage of California bicycle laws.