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.
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. San Diego has a "Kids Free October “program that is valid at many museums and other attractions, including SeaWorld and LEGOLAND. That said, don’t expect much of a break at other theme parks, or at other times. 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 campsites 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 centre.
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 sun-screen: 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 bluebird 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? 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.
Time Zone - California is in the Pacific Time Zone (Greenwich Mean Time minus 8 hours). The state observes daylight savings time from early March to early November.
State and Local Taxes- The statewide sales tax is 7.25%. Local taxes may add up to 1.5% to your total bill.
Tipping - A general rule of thumb is to tip servers in restaurants between 15% and 20%, depending on the level of service, and bartenders a dollar for each drink (beer, a glass of wine, simple cocktail, etc.), unless it’s a more complicated speciality cocktail. Include 15% to 20% for a taxi or limo driver, and a few dollars for an Uber or Lyft driver.
Directory Assistance - 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.
Emergency Assistance- You can call 911 toll-free from any public telephone to obtain emergency police, fire, or medical assistance.
Liquor/Tobacco Laws - 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 and e-cigarette use 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 non-smoking room. Many cities in California have passed ordinances prohibiting smoking in public areas such as on sidewalks and at beaches, 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.
Downtown San Diego is less than 20 miles north of the Mexican border and about 130 miles south of Los Angeles. From Los Angeles, it’s 385 miles north to San Francisco and from there, another 90 miles northeast to Sacramento. You’d put about 190 miles on your car driving from San Francisco to Yosemite National Park, and about 600 miles driving from Los Angeles to Mount Shasta in Northern California. Needless to say, California is ideal for road trips.
Go explore and enjoy your vacay!