The Pacific Coast Highway is considered the most beautiful highway in the world. It stretches across California just off the Pacific coast, where breathtaking ocean views negate the need for speed limit signs. I’ve put together an itinerary for a road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway, and it’s going to be a ride to remember because the west coast is the best coast.
How Much Does a Road Trip on the Pacific Coast Highway Cost?
The cost depends on how extravagant your trip to the USA is.
I estimate the minimum cost for a 9-day road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway at $1,750 per person. This involves buying a discounted ticket under $400, sharing the cost of inexpensive motels and a smaller car among four people, eating affordable bagels from Subway, and admiring the pricier attractions from afar.
A budget of $3,000 per person is more comfortable. This budget allows splitting the cost between two people, swapping the small car for a convertible, visiting pricier attractions and theme parks, and ensuring a more comfortable night’s sleep. Also, you don’t have to wait for a discounted ticket and limit yourself to only bagels.
✈️ Airfare to Los Angeles/San Francisco
You can find a return ticket from Europe to California for €350$376–€450$483. The lower limit corresponds to special fares with several stopovers and/or low season dates.
The upper limit corresponds to high season, and the most likely price is around $650. I recommend purchasing tickets to the USA about 3 months in advance.
🚗 Car Rental
Renting an SUV for 9 days will cost as little as $620 including full insurance. The cheapest economy class car will cost from $450 upwards, and renting a convertible for 9 days will cost at least $850.
Various factors influence these prices, so I recommend you calculate the approximate price of renting a car for each car class. The calculation is free and doesn’t require an email address. Before you go, read advice on driving a car and renting a car in the USA.
The price of gasoline in California is approximately $1.17 per gallon. With an average consumption of 10 litres per 62 mi, you should expect a cost of $0.08 per 1 km. In the USA, gasoline is sold in gallons, with 1 gallon equalling 3.785 litres.
Depending on location and current occupancy, the cheapest motel room can be found for $50–$80. Basic amenities are included, and internet and parking are usually free. Breakfast is also often included at some motels. I recommend booking motels through a verified Booking.com.
The most affordable places to eat are fast-food establishments like Subway or McDonald’s, where you’ll pay at least $12.00 for a day’s worth of food, including water. If you prefer a wider selection and higher quality of food, budget $25–$35 per day.
☂️ Travel Insurance
You can get a one-time travel insurance to the USA for just a few hundred pennies. If you travel abroad regularly, consider getting year-round insurance or credit card insurance. Don’t underestimate the insurance limit for medical treatment; I recommend choosing at least €250000$268,236.
👮 Entering the USA via ESTA
Tourists traveling for up to 90 days need only complete the ESTA registration. There is a $4.00 fee for completing it, and once approved, your card is charged an additional $17.00. As long as you have not overstayed in the USA in the past and have not been penalized, you have a 99% chance of being approved to travel to the USA.
🎟️ Admission and Pocket Money
If you heed all the tips in this article and don’t spend excessively on souvenirs, you should budget around $900 for 10 days. On the other hand, it’s not worth traveling to the USA with less than $500 for 10 days unless you are willing to miss out on the most enticing attractions.
13 Tips for the Perfect Pacific Highway Road Trip
Plan Your Program in Advance
Constructing a plan on the spot typically results in wasted time. Create your itinerary before your departure and reserve your tickets. They tend to be less expensive when purchased online, and at Alcatraz, for instance, they’re often sold out weeks in advance.
What Do You Expect from a Road Trip?
Do you aim to maximize each day at the expense of limited sleep, relishing the chance to sleep in? Or do you prefer a leisurely pace without rushing? Define your expectations and prepare your itinerary accordingly.
What Can(n’t) You Afford to Miss?
The longer the road trip, the more likely your itinerary will suffer delays. Adverse weather conditions may arise, you might decide to stay somewhere an extra day, or fatigue might creep in. Agree on which part of the itinerary you can skip if delays occur.
Best Time to Go on a PCH Road Trip
The weather in California is delightful all year round, with peak season occurring in July and August. Expect higher prices for flights, accommodation, and car rentals during this time; also expect crowds. Anticipate heavy fog around San Francisco, as opposed to rain.
Where to Rent a Car
I’ve had positive experiences with RentalCars.com. They provide quotes from various rental companies and include their own comprehensive insurance in the rental price. Upon receiving your vehicle, you can decline any offers from a pushy sales representative and still be well-insured. Rental prices vary by date, so do the math to get an estimate.
Fee for Returning the Car in a Different Location
Some rental companies impose a fee of up to $300 for returns at a different location, to compensate for the cost of transporting the car back to its origin. This fee is typically higher when travelling from north to south. Nonetheless, it’s worth considering renting a car in San Diego and returning it in San Francisco, for example. I’ve found rental deals on RentalCars.com where the one-way fee is waived.
What Car to Rent
Is your road trip meant to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, or are you looking to save every penny? Comfortable SUVs cost about 15-30% more than the least expensive cars, and a convertible will cost you 70-75% more. Keep in mind that you’ll be spending considerable time in the car and likely carrying a few suitcases. I suggest choosing either a cabriolet or one of the mid-range cars.
From San Diego to San Francisco, or Vice Versa?
You have the option to reverse the itinerary and travel from north to south. I compared car rental prices and found that journeying from San Diego to San Francisco can save you approximately 10% on your rental.
Take Turns Driving the Car
Arrange for a second and possibly a third driver. Having one driver for the entire road trip can be risky due to potential fatigue, which could affect the overall enjoyment of the journey. Ensure to declare all drivers to the rental company so that they are included in the insurance policy.
Keep an Eye on Road Conditions and Traffic Jams
In Los Angeles, you can count on two things: the rain showers portrayed on TV as torrential downpours and daily traffic congestion. Before setting off in your car, check Google Maps for current road conditions and traffic. Road closures occur rather frequently on California State Route 1, officially known as the Pacific Coast Highway.
What to Pack for Your Trip
Upon arriving in the USA, purchase a data SIM card to facilitate your stay. Open the Google Maps app on your phone and download a map of California for offline use. This gives you access to free GPS navigation in English.
What to Expect from Pacific Coast Highway
The Pacific Coast Highway is well maintained. There are numerous gas stations and small towns along the route where you can stop and rejuvenate.
Do You Have More Than 9 Days?
The Pacific Coast Highway road trip itinerary assumes that you will spend a few days in both Los Angeles and San Francisco. These cities are so intriguing that a single day is not sufficient. If you have up to three weeks available, consider a grand road trip through the western U.S..
Pacific Coast Highway 9-Day Road Trip Itinerary
A map for the Pacific Coast Highway road trip is available on Google Maps. Download it to your phone for use in navigation.
Day 1: Arrival in San Diego
San Diego is 9 hours behind Western Europe. The first few days, you’ll experience jet lag. As you will likely feel tired and sleep-deprived, refrain from planning an extensive itinerary for the firstday.
Upon arrival, pick up your rental car and head to your hotel or motel. Unpack your things and take some time to relax.
If you’re still feeling energetic, consider taking a stroll around town. You’ll find places like TGI Fridays, Chipotle, and Wendy’s near the motel.
- Accommodations: hostel in San Diego
Day 2: USS Midway Aircraft Carrier, San Diego Zoo
The USS Midway aircraft carrier served the United States Navy from 1945 until 1992. It participated in both the Vietnam War and the Persian Gulf War. After being decommissioned, it was towed to San Diego and converted into a museum.
According to Tripadvisor, the USS Midway Museum is the top attraction in San Diego, appealing to more than just military technology enthusiasts. Upon entering, you’ll receive a headset with English commentary, and former Midway Marines will guide you through about 60 sections of the ship. You can see the engine room, the command bridge, the dormitory, and the fighter landing strip.
The adult ticket price is $31, and students 17 and under with proper ID pay $21.00. The USS Midway Museum is open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., with last admission at 4:00 p.m. It’s recommended to arrive as early as possible and allocate 3-4 hours for the tour.
The San Diego Zoo is regularly featured in lists of the world’s most beautiful zoos. It is slightly smaller than the Prague Zoo, with approximately 3,700 animals of over 650 species inhabiting its 40 hectares. The San Diego Zoo is one of only four in the USA to house giant pandas.
During your visit, don’t miss out on the Skyfari cable car ride, which provides a close-up view of the zoo. The zoo is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (6 p.m. in the summer). A brief tour will occupy you for the entire afternoon, whereas a detailed one will take up the entire day.
Purchase San Diego Zoo tickets online. The price for an adult day ticket is $69, children under 11 pay $59. If you pay an additional $7.00, you can attend a 4D cinema show of your choice.
In the evening, expect to feel tired. It typically takes your body about two days to adjust to the change in time zone.
Day 3: SeaWorld San Diego
SeaWorld San Diego is a blend of amusement park attractions and performances. Here, you can ride roller coasters, take part in wild rapids rides, and enjoy dolphin and killer whale shows all in one place.
Reserve a full day to explore SeaWorld in San Diego. The park opens at 10 a.m. and closes at 10 p.m. in the summer.
It’s recommended to arrive as early as possible and start with the Skytower attraction, which lifts you up to 322 ft. You’ll have all of San Diego at your fingertips.
Don’t delay the killer whale and dolphin shows, as seats tend to fill up quickly. It would be a shame to leave the park without this experience.
The price for a day pass to SeaWorld San Diego starts at $70, and all attractions and shows are included. If you pay an extra $50, you can enjoy free dining all day at restaurants throughout the park. Purchase tickets online, as they are more expensive at the box office.
If you’re planning to visit the USS Midway, the zoo, and SeaWorld in two days, consider purchasing a two-day San Diego Card for $119. You can save up to $51.
In the evening, return to the same motel as the previous two nights. Pack your bags and, if needed, take one last stroll around San Diego.
Day 4: Huntington Beach and Los Angeles
In the morning, continue north on I-5 as the Pacific Coast Highway winds into the town of Dana Point.
After driving for about two hours covering 89 mi, make a stop in the surf town of Huntington Beach. Surf conditions here are almost always ideal, and you can rent a board for $15.00–$25 per hour.
If you prefer a less active form of recreation, consider a stroll along the 9.51 mi long sandy beach. For lunch, make a stop at a restaurant such as Subway, which is situated right in front of the pier—a landmark of Huntington Beach. The pier, registered on the California Register of Historic Places, is one of the longest on the West Coast at 1,837 ft.
While having your picnic under the palm trees, keep an eye on the Google Maps app for any traffic jams around Los Angeles. The longest queues usually form between 7:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. and from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.
In Los Angeles, consider the Travelodge Hollywood motel. Offering free parking and Wi-Fi, it’s a short walk from the famed walk of fame and bears a resemblance to the motel from the show My Name Is Earl.
It’s recommended to stay in Los Angeles for at least 2-3 days beyond this itinerary. Visits to Universal Studios or the Griffith Observatory and the nearby Hollywood sign are almost obligatory. For more touring tips, check the Guide to Los Angeles.
Day 5: Venice Beach and Santa Monica Pier
Venice Beach and nearby Santa Monica are my favorite places in the Los Angeles area. Contrary to Hermosa Beach, these are more crowded with tourists and, unfortunately, have seen an increase in homelessness, but they maintain a unique atmosphere.
Sandy Venice Beach draws a variety of fascinating individuals. Street performers compete with aspiring rappers who, for a few dollars, will treat you to a private concert. A streetball court teems with players who have had a taste of the NBA.
Located directly on the beach is Muscle Beach, the famed outdoor gym where Arnold Schwarzenegger honed his physique in the 1970s. Today, cyclists, skaters, and runners race alongside the beach.
Continue your journey to the Santa Monica Pier. Before you jump on a Ferris wheel or roller coaster, pause at the pier’s entrance. Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, a restaurant inspired by the famous Forrest Gump movie, has a branch here. Surprisingly, it’s not a small-time business; the parent company of the movie’s distributor backs the chain.
There’s a plethora of excellent (read expensive) restaurants around the beach, in addition to more affordable fast-food joints like McDonalds and Johnny Rockets. Enjoy the sunset before heading north after dark. Reasonable motel accommodations can be found in Ventura, roughly 62 mi away.
Day 6: Santa Barbara and Pismo Beach
Start your morning with breakfast at the motel and then head west to the city of Santa Barbara, home to 90,000 residents. The Spanish established it in 1782 when they governed all of Mexico. Santa Barbara impresses visitors with its almost uniform architectural style.
On June 29, 1925, Santa Barbara experienced a devastating earthquake that demolished the historic downtown area. As part of the restoration, it was decided that all buildings would strictly follow Spanish Colonial architecture. The city’s character changed, but Santa Barbara gained its charm – with its churches, farmers’ markets, and a branch of the University of California housing 24,000 students.
On a hot summer day, the best way to cool down is with McConnel’s, a California-based ice cream chain that’s been serving since 1949. It has several outlets in Santa Barbara; the main one is located at 728 State Street. The unique flavors are worth trying: mint with chocolate chips, cardamom with ginger, salted caramel, chocolate-covered strawberries, etc.
In the afternoon, head over to Pismo Beach. Literally, as you can park right on the beach. Pismo Beach, with a population of 7,650, was dubbed the clam capital of the world in the 1950s. Its long, wide beaches were once harvested abundantly.
Although its glory days are gone, the clam festival still takes place in Pismo Beach every October. Rent a kayak at one of the rental shops along the beach and venture out to view the rocks from the sea perspective. You can opt for a guided tour on a single or double kayak.
You can stay at Motel 6 near the ocean, offering free parking and wifi. The beach is just a few minutes’ walk away.
Day 7: Hearst Castle, McWay Falls, Bixby Creek Bridge
Get ready for an eventful day. Your first stop on the Pacific Coast Highway road trip is less than an hour’s drive between Cambria and San Simeon, at a place called Piedras Blancas, a haven for endangered elephant seals. If the northern elephant seal doesn’t ring a bell, picture a large seal. Dozens of them reside here year-round; there’s no fee to see them. Plan for about 20-30 minutes.
The highlight of the day is Hearst Castle, a national historic landmark built in 1919 by magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst, a two-time member of the House of Representatives for the Democrats and an unsuccessful candidate for New York City mayor, amassed his wealth through publishing ventures such as the San Francisco Examiner, the New York Morning Journal, and the New York Daily Mirror tabloid.
The imposing Hearst Castle sprawls over 51 acres and consists of 165 rooms. There are 56 bedrooms and 61 bathrooms alone. It boasts tennis courts, its own cinema, the world’s largest private zoo, a private airport, and the highlight is the 155-square-meter outdoor Neptune Pool.
Hearst Castle is open to the public every day, offering seven different tours. The basic Grand Rooms Tour lasts one hour, and the adult ticket price is $30. There’s ample parking at the Hearst Castle Visitor Center. It’s advisable to arrive early in the morning. The castle gates open at 9:00 a.m., and a thorough tour can take up to four hours.
After the tour, continue driving for 53 mi until the next stop at McWay Falls, before reaching the town of Big Sur. Follow the signs and park either for free along the road or in the parking lot at Julia Pfeiffer State Park for $10.00. The 79 ft-tall waterfall, along with Alamere Falls, is one of the only waterfalls in California that pours directly into the ocean. From the parking lot, it’s a 5-10 minute walk to the waterfall overlook.
Chase your hunger 8.08 mi further north at Nepenthe Restaurant, overlooking the ocean. The restaurant, just off Cabrillo Highway, has been in operation since 1949, and reader Veronica recommends trying the burger. You’ll pay around $30–$40 for your meal, including a drink.
A little further down the road, you’ll get some fantastic Instagram photos at Pfeiffer Beach. Nature makes it easy to use filters here. Thanks to manganese garnet from the nearby rocks, the sand on the beach is colored purple. You can park your car by the highway and walk about 2.17 mi, or drive up the narrow driveway to the beach and pay $10.00 for parking. Instead of swimwear, bring sturdy shoes.
The 279 ft-tall Bixby Creek Bridge is one of the most photogenic spots on the Pacific Coast Highway, seen in the opening photo for this article. The bridge, which opened in 1932, can be accessed from the nearby Castle Rock Viewpoint. A short stop here will take you no more than 15-20 minutes.
One of the most famous beatnik writers, Jack Kerouac, lived in the mountains around Big Sur. His 1962 autobiographical novel Big Sur is set in the region.
A motel in Monterey with free parking is less than half an hour’s drive away.
Day 8: Monterey Aquarium, 17-Mile Drive, Santa Cruz
Don’t oversleep, the Monterey Bay Aquarium opens its doors at 10 a.m. Established in 1984 in a former sardine cannery, it’s one of California’s most popular aquariums. Thanks to access to fresh ocean water, it hosts 35,000 animals from 620 different species.
A visit to the aquarium can take up to three hours. Exhibits include sharks, jellyfish, otters, and seaweed. The Monterey Aquarium is one of the few worldwide to exhibit the endangered yellowfin and bluefin tuna. Tickets can be purchased online, priced at $60 for adults, $50 for students 17 and under, and $45 for children ages 3 to 12.
Interestingly, Monterey was once the home of Pulitzer Prize and Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck. His novel, Cannery Row, is set in the current location of the aquarium and shares stories of Monterey residents during the Great Depression.
After lunch, embark on a drive down the 17-Mile Drive. This private scenic road traces the coastline to the famous Pebble Beach, offering several stops along the way.
A beautiful view of the Pacific can be had from the 801 ft-high Huckleberry Hill, while Spanish Bay Beach offers a walk alongside the ocean via a wooden boardwalk. Golf enthusiasts might recognize the 18th hole with its spectacular views – humorously, the adjacent pub, The Tap Room, is referred to as the 19th hole.
The most notable attraction on 17-Mile Drive is The Lone Cypress, one of the most famous trees in America. The Lone Cypress has been growing on the cliff for over 250 years. The drive costs $11.25 and takes about 2-3 hours.
Past the end of 17 Mile Drive, you’ll find the Del Monte Shopping Center, equipped with a supermarket, Starbucks, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and other restaurants. Here, you can recharge before the hour-long drive to the coastal town of Santa Cruz.
Dominated by a wooden boardwalk featuring an amusement park, Santa Cruz charges $5.00–$10.00 per attraction, with attractions priced at $1.00 on selected summer evenings. The on-site amusement park has been in continuous operation since 1907, and the 1924 Giant Dipper wooden roller coaster is one of the oldest in the USA. The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk closes at 11 p.m. in the summer, and you can attend a free concert or movie multiple times a week.
The Americas Best Value Inn offers free parking, and the boardwalk is less than a 10-minute walk away. You’ll find dozens of cafes, restaurants, and fast-food spots equally close to the motel.
Day 9: San Francisco, Muir Beach Overlook, Glass Beach
You can linger in Santa Cruz in the morning, as San Francisco is only 78 mi away on the Pacific Coast Highway, a journey of less than two hours.
While in Santa Cruz, consider visiting the Surfing Museum located in the Lighthouse Point Lighthouse. It documents the history of surfing in the state since 1885, when Hawaiians first introduced it to Californians.
A few kilometers north of Santa Cruz lies the renowned tourist attraction, the Mystery Spot. It presents itself as a place where the laws of physics seem to be suspended and people appear to levitate. The magic stems from a few slanted huts and benches. Admission per person is $10.00, with parking costing an additional $5.00.
One day is hardly enough for San Francisco. Visit Alcatraz, the world-famous Golden Gate Bridge, take a cable car ride or wander along Vermont Street. You’ve undoubtedly seen photos of the world’s most winding street. Hotels in San Francisco can be quite expensive, and I would recommend considering Airbnb as a viable option.
Program for the Next Days
If you’re planning to continue further north from San Francisco, do check out our tips for USA trips. Here are three unconventional suggestions for you:
Muir Beach Overlook
The ocean overlook is just a half-hour drive from San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway. (Map)
The beach in Fort Bragg, near the Pacific Coast Highway, is unique. It is composed of hundreds of thousands of glass pebbles. In the early 20th century, this place was a landfill where, among other things, glass bottles were thoughtlessly discarded. Over a hundred years, nature has transformed this into a unique work of art. Glass Beach is located within MacKerricher State Park, and it’s important to note that removing pebbles is prohibited. (Map)
Drive-Thru Tree Park
The attraction is located 62 mi north of Glass Beach. It’s worth a visit if you plan to make the round trip. For $15.00, you can visit the park and experience its biggest attraction – driving through a 315 ft-tall tree. There’s also a similar tree in Sequoia National Park. (Website, Map)