Bargaining is usually not appropriate, except with sidewalk vendors and at outdoor markets, such as arts-and-crafts shows. Elsewhere you're expected to pay the stated (or tagged) price.
Dangers & Annoyances
Despite its seemingly apocalyptic list of dangers – guns, violent crime, riots, earthquakes – California is a reasonably safe place to visit. The greatest danger is posed by car accidents (buckle up – it’s the law), while the biggest annoyances are metro-area traffic and crowds. Wildlife poses some small threats, and of course there is the dramatic, albeit unlikely, possibility of a natural disaster.
Earthquakes happen all the time, but most are so tiny they are detectable only by sensitive seismological instruments. If you’re caught in a serious shaker:
- If indoors, get under a desk or table or stand in a doorway.
- Protect your head and stay clear of windows, mirrors or anything that might fall.
- Don’t head for elevators or go running into the street.
- If you’re in a shopping mall or large public building, expect the alarm and/or sprinkler systems to come on.
- If outdoors, get away from buildings, trees and power lines.
- If you’re driving, pull over to the side of the road away from bridges, overpasses and power lines. Stay inside the car until the shaking stops.
- If you’re on a sidewalk near buildings, duck into a doorway to protect yourself from falling bricks, glass and debris.
- Prepare for aftershocks.
- Turn on the radio and listen for bulletins.
- Use the telephone only if absolutely necessary.
- Never feed or approach any wild animal, not even harmless-looking critters – it causes them to lose their innate fear of humans, which in turn makes them dangerously aggressive. Many birds and mammals, including deer and rodents such as squirrels, carry serious diseases that can be transmitted to humans through a bite.
- Disturbing or harassing specially protected species, including many marine mammals such as whales, dolphins and seals, is a crime, subject to enormous fines.
- Black bears are often attracted to campgrounds, where they may find food, trash and any other scented items left out on picnic tables or stashed in tents and cars. Always use bear-proof containers where they are provided. For more bear-country travel tips, visit the SierraWild website (http://sierrawild.gov/bears).
- If you encounter a black bear in the wild, don’t run. Stay together, keeping small children next to you and picking up little ones. Keep back at least 100yd. If the bear starts moving toward you, back away slowly off-trail and let it pass by, being careful not to block any of the bear’s escape routes or to get caught between a mother and her cubs. Sometimes a black bear will ‘bluff charge’ to test your dominance. Stand your ground by making yourself look as big as possible (eg waving your arms above your head) and shouting menacingly.
- Mountain lion attacks on humans are rare, but can be deadly. If you encounter a mountain lion stay calm, pick up small children, face the animal and retreat slowly. Make yourself appear larger by raising your arms or grabbing a stick. If the lion becomes menacing, shout or throw rocks at it. If attacked, fight back aggressively.
- Snakes and spiders are common throughout California, not just in wilderness areas. Always look inside your shoes before putting them back on outdoors, especially when camping. Snake bites are rare, but occur most often when a snake is stepped on or provoked (eg picked up or poked with a stick). Antivenom is available at most hospitals.
US–Mexico Border Zone
As of April 2016, the US State Department (http://travel.state.gov) has reissued a travel warning about drug-trafficking violence and crime along the US–Mexico border. Travelers should exercise extreme caution in Tijuana, avoid large-scale gatherings and demonstrations and refrain from venturing out after dark. Cars with US license plates can be targets for carjackings, especially at night and on isolated roads.
- ‘America the Beautiful’ Annual Pass (http://store.usgs.gov/pass; 12-month pass $80) Admits four adults and all children under 16 years for free to all national parks and federal recreational lands (eg USFS, BLM) for 12 months from the date of purchase. US citizens and permanent residents aged 62 years and older are eligible for a lifetime Senior Pass ($10), which grants free entry and 50% off some recreational-use fees such as camping.
- American Association of Retired Persons This advocacy group for Americans 50 years and older offers member discounts (usually 10%) on hotels, car rentals and more. Annual membership costs $16.
- American Automobile Association Members of AAA and its foreign affiliates (eg CAA, AA) enjoy small discounts (usually 10%) on Amtrak trains, car rentals, motels and hotels, chain restaurants and shops, tours and theme parks. Annual membership from $56.
- Go Los Angeles, San Diego & San Francisco and San Francisco Explorer Cards (www.smartdestinations.com; 1-day pass adult/child from $65/49) The Go LA Card and pricier Go San Diego Card include admission to major SoCal theme parks (but not Disneyland). The cheaper Go San Francisco Card covers museums, bicycle rental and a bay cruise. You’ve got to do a lot of sightseeing over multiple days to make passes come close to paying off. Alternatively, the San Francisco Explorer pass gives you 30 days to visit three to five attractions (excluding Alcatraz cruises and tours). For discounts, buy online.
- International Student Identity, Youth Travel & Teacher Identity Cards (www.isic.org; 12-month card $25) Offers savings on airline fares, travel insurance and local attractions for full-time students (ISIC), for nonstudents 30 years of age or younger (IYTC) and for employed teachers (ITIC). Cards are issued online and by student unions, hosteling organizations and youth-oriented budget travel agencies.
- Senior Discounts People over the age of 65 (sometimes 50, 55, 60 or 62) often qualify for the same discounts as students; any ID showing your birth date should suffice as proof.
- Southern California CityPass (www.citypass.com/southern-california; adult/child from $346/314) If you’re visiting SoCal theme parks, CityPass covers three-day admission to Disneyland and Disney California Adventure and one-day admission each to Legoland California and SeaWorld San Diego, with add-ons available for the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park. Passes are valid for 14 days from the first day of use. It’s cheapest to buy them online in advance.
- Student Advantage Card For international and US students, this card offers 15% savings on Amtrak trains and 10% on Greyhound buses, plus discounts of 10% to 25% on some motels and hotels, rental cars, ride-sharing services and shopping. A 12-month card costs $22.50.
- Electricity 110/120V AC, 50/60Hz
Emergency & Important Numbers
All phone numbers have a three-digit area code followed by a seven-digit local number. For long-distance and toll-free calls, dial 1 plus all 10 digits.
|International dialing code||011|
|Emergency (ambulance, fire & police)||911|
|Directory assistance (local)||411|
Entry & Exit Formalities
Under the US Department of Homeland Security's Orwellian-sounding Office of Biometric Identity Management, almost all visitors to the USA (excluding, for now, many Canadians, some Mexican citizens, children under the age of 14 and seniors over the age of 79) will be digitally photographed and have their electronic (inkless) fingerprints scanned upon arrival.
Regardless of your visa status, immigration officers have absolute authority to refuse entry to the USA. They may ask about your plans and whether you have sufficient funds; it’s a good idea to list an itinerary, produce an onward or round-trip ticket and have at least one major credit card. Don’t make too much of having friends, relatives or business contacts in the US, because officers may think this makes you more likely to overstay. For more information, visit the US Customs and Border Protection website (www.cbp.gov).
California is an important agricultural state. To prevent the spread of pests and diseases, certain food items (including meats, fresh fruit and vegetables) may not be brought into the state. Bakery items, chocolates and hard-cured cheeses are admissible. If you drive into California from Mexico, or from the neighboring states of Oregon, Nevada or Arizona, you may have to stop for a quick questioning and inspection by California Department of Food and Agriculture (www.cdfa.ca.gov) agents.
Currently, non-US citizens and permanent residents may import:
- 1L of alcohol (if you’re over 21 years of age)
- 200 cigarettes (one carton) or 100 cigars (if you’re over 18 years)
- $100 worth of gifts
Amounts higher than $10,000 in cash, traveler’s checks, money orders and other cash equivalents must be declared. Don’t even think about bringing in illegal drugs.
For more complete, up-to-date information, check the US Customs and Border Protection website (www.cbp.gov).
- Under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), all travelers must have a valid machine-readable passport (MRP) when entering the USA by air, land or sea.
- The only exceptions are for some US, Canadian and Mexican citizens traveling by land who can present other WHTI-compliant documents (eg pre-approved ‘trusted traveler’ cards). A regular driver's license is not sufficient.
- All foreign passports must meet current US standards and be valid for at least six months beyond your intended stay.
- MRPs issued or renewed after October 26, 2006, must be e-passports (ie have a digital photo and integrated chip with biometric data).
- For more information, consult www.cbp.gov/travel.
Generally not required for stays of 90 days or less for citizens of Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries with Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) approval (https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov) – apply online at least 72 hours in advance.
- Visa information is highly subject to change. Depending on your country of origin, the rules for entering the USA keep changing. Double-check current visa requirements before coming to the USA.
- Currently, under the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), visas are not required for citizens of 38 countries for stays up to 90 days (no extensions) as long as you have a machine-readable passport that meets current US standards and is valid for six months beyond your intended stay.
- Citizens of VWP countries must still register with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA; https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov) at least 72 hours before travel. Once approved, ESTA registration ($14) is valid for up to two years or until your passport expires, whichever comes first.
- For most Canadian citizens traveling with Canadian passports that meet current US standards, a visa for short-term visits (usually up to six months) and ESTA registration aren't required.
- Citizens from all other countries, or whose passports don’t meet US standards, need to apply for a visa in their home country. The process has a nonrefundable fee (minimum $160), involves a personal interview and can take several weeks, so apply as early as possible.
- For up-to-date information about entry requirements and eligibility, check the visa section of the US Department of State website (http://travel.state.gov), or contact the nearest USA embassy or consulate in your home country (for a complete list, visit www.usembassy.gov).
Californians are pretty casual by nature, but a few (unspoken) rules still apply.
- Smoking Don't light up indoors (it's illegal) or anywhere else you don't see others doing it, unless you don't mind lots of dirty looks.
- Bargaining Haggling over the prices of goods usually isn't appropriate, except at outdoor markets and with sidewalk vendors.
- Greetings Shaking hands with men and women when meeting for the first time may be a tad formal, but it's expected for business dealings and by some older adults.
Gay & Lesbian Travelers
California is a magnet for LGBTQ travelers. Hot spots include the Castro in San Francisco, West Hollywood (WeHo), Silver Lake and Long Beach in LA, San Diego's Hillcrest neighborhood, the desert resort of Palm Springs, Guerneville in the Russian River Valley and Calistoga in Napa Valley.
Same-sex marriage is legal in California. Despite widespread tolerance, homophobic bigotry still exists. In small towns, especially away from the coast, tolerance often comes down to a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.
Advocate (www.advocate.com/travel) Online news, gay travel features and destination guides.
Damron (www.damron.com) Classic, advertiser-driven gay travel guides and ‘Gay Scout’ mobile app.
LGBT National Hotline (888-843-4564; www.glbthotline.org) For counseling and referrals of any kind.
Out Traveler (www.outtraveler.com) Free online magazine articles with travel tips, destination guides and hotel reviews.
Purple Roofs (www.purpleroofs.com) Online directory of LGBTQ-friendly accommodations.
Getting travel insurance to cover theft, loss and medical problems is highly recommended. Some policies do not cover ‘risky’ activities such as scuba diving, motorcycling and skiing, so read the fine print. Make sure the policy at least covers hospital stays and an emergency flight home.
Paying for your airline ticket or rental car with a credit card may provide limited travel accident insurance. If you already have private health insurance or a homeowners or renters policy, find out what those policies cover and only get supplemental insurance. If you have prepaid a large portion of your vacation, trip-cancellation insurance may be a worthwhile expense.
Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime – even if you’re already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
- Cybercafes typically charge $6 to $18 per hour for online access.
- With branches in major cities and towns, FedEx offers internet access at self-service computer workstations (30¢ to 40¢ per minute) and sometimes free wi-fi, plus digital-photo printing and CD-burning stations.
- Free or fee-based wi-fi hot spots can be found at major airports, many hotels, motels and coffee shops (eg Starbucks) and some tourist information centers, campgrounds (eg KOA), stores (eg Apple), bars and restaurants (including fast-food chains such as McDonald's).
- Free public wi-fi is proliferating and even some of California's state parks are now wi-fi–enabled (get details at www.parks.ca.gov).
- Public libraries have internet terminals (online time may be limited, advance sign-up required and a nominal fee charged for out-of-network visitors) and, increasingly, free wi-fi.
Drugs & Alcohol
- Possession of up to 1oz of marijuana (if you are 21 years or older) for recreational use is no longer a crime in California, but it is still illegal to use marijuana in public (subject to fines of up to $250, as well as mandatory community-service hours and drug-education classes).
- Possession of any other drug or more than 1oz of marijuana is a felony punishable by lengthy jail time. For foreigners, conviction of any drug offense is grounds for deportation.
- Police can give roadside sobriety checks to assess if you’ve been drinking or using drugs. If you fail they’ll require you to take a breath, urine or blood test to determine if your blood alcohol is over the legal limit (0.08%). Refusing to be tested is treated the same as if you had taken and failed the test.
- Penalties for driving under the influence (DUI) of drugs or alcohol range from license suspension and fines to jail time. It’s illegal to carry open containers of alcohol inside a vehicle, even if they’re empty. Unless they’re full and still sealed, store them in the trunk.
- Consuming alcohol anywhere other than at a private residence or licensed premises is a no-no, which puts most parks and beaches off limits (although many campgrounds legally allow it).
- Bars, clubs and liquor stores often ask for photo ID to prove you are of legal drinking age (21 years). Being ‘carded’ is standard practice, so don’t take it personally.
Police & Security
- For police, fire and ambulance emergencies, dial 911. For nonemergency police assistance, contact the nearest local police station (dial 411 for directory assistance).
- If you are stopped by the police, be courteous. Don’t get out of the car unless asked. Keep your hands where the officer can see them (eg on the steering wheel) at all times.
- There is no system of paying fines on the spot. Attempting to pay the fine to the officer may lead to a charge of attempted bribery.
- For traffic violations the ticketing officer will explain your options. There is usually a 30-day period to pay a fine; most matters can be handled by mail or online.
- If you are arrested you have the right to remain silent and are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Everyone has the right to make one phone call. If you don’t have a lawyer, one will be appointed to you free of charge. Foreign travelers who don’t have a lawyer, friends or family to help should call their embassy or consulate; the police can provide the number upon request.
- Due to security concerns about terrorism, never leave your bags unattended, especially at airports or bus and train stations.
- GPS navigation is handy, but cannot be relied upon 100% of the time, especially in remote wilderness and rural areas.
- Visitor centers distribute free (but often very basic) maps. If you’re doing a lot of driving around California, you'll need a more detailed road map or map atlas.
- Members of the American Automobile Association or its international affiliates (bring your membership card from home) can get free driving maps from local AAA offices.
- DeLorme's comprehensive California Atlas & Gazetteer ($25) shows campgrounds, hiking trails, recreational areas and topographical land features; it’s less useful for navigating urban areas.
- DVDs Coded for region 1 (USA and Canada only)
- Newspapers Los Angeles Times (www.latimes.com), San Francisco Chronicle (www.sfchronicle.com), Mercury News (www.mercurynews.com), Sacramento Bee (www.sacbee.com)
- Radio National Public Radio (NPR), lower end of FM dial
- TV PBS (public broadcasting); cable: CNN (news), ESPN (sports), HBO (movies), Weather Channel
ATMs are widely available. Credit cards are usually required for reservations. Traveler's checks (US dollars) are rarely accepted. Tipping is customary, not optional.
- ATMs are available 24/7 at most banks, shopping malls, airports and grocery and convenience stores.
- Expect a minimum surcharge of around $3 per transaction, in addition to any fees charged by your home bank.
- Most ATMs are connected to international networks and offer decent foreign-exchange rates.
- Withdrawing cash from an ATM using a credit card usually incurs a hefty fee and high interest rates; contact your credit-card company for details and a PIN number.
Most people don't carry large amounts of cash for everyday use, relying instead on credit and debit cards. Some businesses refuse to accept bills over $20.
- Major credit cards are almost universally accepted. In fact, it’s almost impossible to rent a car, book a hotel room or buy tickets over the phone without one. A credit card may also be vital in emergencies.
- Visa, MasterCard and American Express are the most widely accepted credit cards.
For current exchange rates see www.xe.com.
- You can exchange money at major airports, bigger banks and currency-exchange offices such as American Express (www.americanexpress.com) or Travelex (www.travelex.com). Always enquire about rates and fees.
- Outside big cities, exchanging money may be a problem, so make sure you have a credit card and sufficient cash on hand.
Tipping is not optional. Only withhold tips in cases of outrageously bad service.
- Airport skycaps & hotel bellhops $2 or $3 per bag, minimum $5 per cart
- Bartenders 15% to 20% per round, minimum $1 per drink
- Concierges Nothing for simple information, up to $20 for securing last-minute restaurant reservations, sold-out show tickets, etc
- Housekeeping staff $2 to $4 daily, left under the card provided; more if you’re messy
- Parking valets At least $2 when your car keys are handed back
- Restaurant servers & room service 18% to 20%, unless a gratuity is already charged (common for groups of six or more)
- Taxi drivers 10% to 15% of metered fare, rounded up to the next dollar
- Traveler’s checks have pretty much fallen out of use.
- Big-city restaurants, hotels and department stores will often accept traveler’s checks (in US dollars only), but small businesses, markets and fast-food chains may refuse them.
- Visa and American Express are the most widely accepted issuers of traveler’s checks.
Businesses, restaurants and shops may close earlier and on additional days during the winter off-season (November to March). Otherwise, standard opening hours are as follows:
Banks 9am–6pm Monday to Friday, some 9am–1pm or later Saturday
Bars 5pm–2am daily
Business hours (general) 9am–5pm Monday to Friday
Nightclubs 10pm–4am Thursday to Saturday
Post offices 8:30am–5pm Monday to Friday, some 8:30am–noon or later Saturday
Restaurants 7:30am–10am, 11:30am–2pm and 5pm–9pm daily, some open later Friday and Saturday
Shops 10am–6pm Monday to Saturday, noon–5pm Sunday (malls open later)
Supermarkets 8am–9pm or 10pm daily, some 24 hours
On the following national holidays, banks, schools and government offices (including post offices) are closed, and transportation, museums and other services operate on a Sunday schedule. Holidays falling on a weekend are usually observed the following Monday.
New Year’s Day January 1
Martin Luther King Jr Day Third Monday in January
Presidents' Day Third Monday in February
Good Friday Friday before Easter in March/April
Memorial Day Last Monday in May
Independence Day July 4
Labor Day First Monday in September
Columbus Day Second Monday in October
Veterans Day November 11
Thanksgiving Day Fourth Thursday in November
Christmas Day December 25
- Schools take a one- or two-week ‘spring break’ around Easter, sometime in March or April. Some hotels and resorts, especially at beaches and near SoCal’s theme parks, raise their rates during this time.
- School summer vacations run from mid-June until mid-August, making July and August the busiest travel months.
- Smoking is generally prohibited inside all public buildings, including airports, shopping malls and train and bus stations.
- There is no smoking allowed inside restaurants, although lighting up may be tolerated at outdoor patio or sidewalk tables (ask first).
- At hotels you must specifically request a smoking room, but note some properties are entirely nonsmoking by law.
- In some cities and towns, smoking outdoors within a certain distance of any public business is illegal.
Taxes & Refunds
- California state sales tax (7.5%) is added to the retail price of most goods and services (gasoline and groceries are exceptions). Local and city sales taxes may tack on up to 2.5%.
- Tourist lodging taxes vary statewide, but average 10.5% to 15.5% in major cities.
- No refunds of sales or lodging taxes are available for visitors.
The only foreign phones that will work in the USA are GSM multiband models. Buy prepaid SIM cards locally. Coverage can be spotty in remote areas.
- You’ll need a multiband GSM phone to make calls in the USA. Popping in a US prepaid rechargeable SIM card is usually cheaper than using your network.
- SIM cards are sold at telecommunications and electronics stores. These stores also sell inexpensive prepaid phones, including some airtime.
- You can rent a cell phone at San Francisco (SFO) International Airport from TripTel (www.triptel.com); pricing plans vary, but typically are expensive.
- US phone numbers consist of a three-digit area code followed by a seven-digit local number.
- When dialing a number within the same area code, use the seven-digit number (if that doesn't work, try all 10 digits).
- For long-distance calls, dial 1 plus the area code plus the local number.
- Toll-free numbers (eg beginning with 800, 855, 866, 877 or 888) must be preceded by 1.
- For direct international calls, dial 011 plus the country code plus the area code (usually without the initial ‘0’) plus the local phone number.
- If you’re calling from abroad, the country code for the US is 1 (the same as Canada, but international rates apply between the two countries).
Payphones & Phonecards
- Where payphones still exist, they’re usually coin-operated, though some may only accept credit cards (eg in state or national parks). Local calls cost 50¢ minimum.
- For long-distance and international calls, prepaid phonecards are sold at convenience stores, supermarkets, newsstands and electronics and convenience stores.
Pacific Standard Time (UTC minus eight hours). Clocks are set one hour ahead during Daylight Saving Time (DST), from the second Sunday in March until the first Sunday in November.
Free public restrooms are easy to find inside shopping malls, public buildings and some transportation hubs, as well as outdoors at parks and beaches. It's more challenging to find them in urban areas – try the nearest public library, grocery store, pharmacy, gas station, bar or coffee shop (where you might have to buy something to eat or drink before borrowing the bathroom key).
- For pretrip planning, peruse the information-packed website of the California Travel & Tourism Commission.
- The same government agency operates more than a dozen statewide California Welcome Centers (www.visitcwc.com), where staff dispense maps and brochures and may be able to help find accommodations.
- Almost every city and town has a local visitor center or a chamber of commerce where you can pick up maps, brochures and information.
Travel with Children
California is a tailor-made destination for family travel. The kids will be begging to go to theme parks, and teens to celebrity hot spots. Then take 'em into the great outdoors – from sunny beaches shaded by palm trees to misty redwood forests to four-seasons mountain playgrounds.
Best Regions for Kids
- Los Angeles
See stars in Hollywood and get behind the movie magic at Universal Studios then hit the beaches and Griffith Park for fun in the sun. What, it’s raining? Dive into the city’s many kid-friendly museums instead.
- San Diego, Disneyland & Orange County
SoCal theme parks galore: Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, the San Diego Zoo & Safari Park, Legoland and more. Oh, and those sandy beaches just couldn’t be more beautiful.
- San Francisco Bay Area
Explore hands-on, whimsical and ‘Wow!’ museums, hear the barking sea lions at Pier 39 or Point Reyes National Seashore, traipse through Golden Gate Park and ride San Francisco's famous cable cars.
- Yosemite & the Sierra Nevada
Watch your kids gawk at Yosemite’s waterfalls and granite domes, then go hiking among groves of giant sequoias, the world’s biggest trees. In the Eastern Sierra, Mammoth Lakes is a year-round outdoor-adventure base camp.
California for Kids
There’s not too much to worry about when traveling in California with your kids, as long as you keep them covered in sunblock.
Children’s discounts are available for everything from museum admission and movie tickets to bus fares and motel stays. The definition of a ‘child’ varies – from ‘under 18’ to age six. At theme parks, some rides may have minimum-height requirements, so let younger kids know about this in advance to avoid disappointment and tears.
It’s fine to bring kids along to most restaurants, except top-end places. Casual restaurants usually have high chairs and children's menus and break out paper place mats and crayons for drawing. At theme parks, pack a cooler in the car and have a picnic in the parking lot to save money. On the road many supermarkets have wholesome, ready-to-eat takeout dishes.
Baby food, infant formula, disposable diapers (nappies) and other necessities are widely sold at supermarkets and pharmacies. Many public toilets have a baby-changing table, while private gender-neutral ‘family’ bathrooms may be available at airports, museums, etc.
It’s easy to keep kids entertained no matter where you travel in California. At national and state parks, ask at visitor centers about family-friendly, ranger-led activities and self-guided ‘Junior Ranger’ programs, in which kids earn themselves a badge after completing an activity booklet.
- Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Kids of all ages, even teens, and the young-at-heart adore the ‘Magic Kingdom’.
- Knott’s Berry Farm Near Disneyland, SoCal’s original theme park offers thrills-a-minute, especially on spooky, haunted Halloween nights.
- Universal Studios Hollywood Movie-themed action rides, special-effects shows, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter and a working studio backlot tram tour entertain tweens and teens.
- Legoland California Resort This fantasyland of building blocks in San Diego's North County is made for tots and youngsters.
Aquariums & Zoos
- Monterey Bay Aquarium Meet aquatic denizens of the deep at a national marine sanctuary.
- San Diego Zoo and Safari Park Journey around the world with exotic wildlife at California’s best and biggest zoo then go on safari.
- Aquarium of the Pacific Long Beach’s aquarium houses critters from balmy Baja California to the chilly north Pacific, including a shark lagoon.
- Los Angeles Zoo & Botanical Gardens What was once the home of retired circus animals is today a center for endangered-species conservation.
- Living Desert Zoo & Gardens Outside Palm Springs, this educational zoo features a walk-through animal hospital and family campouts under the stars.
- Seymour Marine Discovery Center Santa Cruz’s university-run aquarium makes interactive science fun, with tide pools for exploring by the beach.
- Los Angeles Carnival fun and an aquarium await on Santa Monica Pier, or hit perfect beaches just up Hwy 1 in Malibu.
- Orange County Pick from beautiful pier-side strands in Newport Beach and miles of million-dollar sands in Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach (aka ‘Surf City, USA’) or old-fashioned Seal Beach.
- San Diego Head over to Coronado’s idyllic Silver Strand, play in Mission Bay by SeaWorld, lap up La Jolla or unwind in a half-dozen surf-style beach towns in North County.
- Santa Barbara County and Central Coast Laze on unmatched beaches in Santa Barbara then roll all the way north to the famous beach boardwalk in Santa Cruz.
- Lake Tahoe In summer it’s California’s favorite high-altitude escape: a sparkling diamond tucked in the craggy Sierra Nevada Mountains.
- Yosemite National Park Get an epic slice of Sierra Nevada scenery, with gushing waterfalls, alpine lakes, glacier-carved valleys and peaks.
- Redwood National & State Parks A string of nature preserves on the North Coast protect magnificent wildlife and the planet’s tallest trees.
- Lassen Volcanic National Park A peaceful destination in Northern California for otherworldly volcanic scenery and lakeside camping and cabins.
- Griffith Park Bigger than NYC’s Central Park, this LA greenspace has tons of fun for younger kids, from miniature train rides and a merry-go-round to planetarium shows.
- Channel Islands National Park Sail across to California’s version of the Galapagos for wildlife-watching, sea kayaking, hiking and camping adventures – best for teens.
- San Francisco The city is a mind-bending classroom for kids, especially at the interactive Exploratorium, multimedia Children’s Creativity Museum and eco friendly California Academy of Sciences in Golden Gate Park.
- Los Angeles See stars (the real ones) at the Griffith Observatory, dinosaur bones at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the La Brea Tar Pits & Museum then have hands-on fun at the California Science Center, home of the retired space shuttle Endeavour.
- San Diego Balboa Park is jam-packed with museums and a world-famous zoo, or take younger kids to the engaging New Children’s Museum downtown and let teens and tweens clamber aboard the USS Midway Museum.
- Orange County Bring budding lab geeks to the Discovery Cube and get a pint-sized dose of arts and culture in the Kidseum at the Bowers Museum, all near Disneyland Resort.
- Northern Mountains Redding's Turtle Bay Exploration Park combines an eco-museum, an arboretum and botanical and butterfly gardens beside the Sacramento River.
Don’t pack your schedule too tightly. When navigating metro areas such as LA, San Diego and San Francisco, allow extra time for traffic jams, parking and getting lost.
Accommodations & Child Care
Rule one: if you’re traveling with kids, always mention it when making reservations. At a few places, notably B&Bs, you may have a hard time if you show up with little ones. When booking, be sure to request the specific room type you want, although requests often aren't guaranteed.
Motels and hotels typically have rooms with two beds or an extra sofa bed. They also may have rollaway beds or cots, usually available for a surcharge (request these when making reservations). Some offer ‘kids stay free’ promotions, which may apply only if no extra bedding is required.
Resorts may offer daytime activity programs for kids and child-care services. At other hotels, front-desk staff or a concierge might be able to help you make babysitting arrangements. Ask whether babysitters are licensed and bonded, what they charge per hour per child, whether there’s a minimum fee and if they charge extra for transportation and meals.
Airlines usually allow infants (up to age two) to fly for free – bring proof of age – while older children require a seat of their own and don't usually qualify for reduced fares. Children receive substantial discounts on most trains and buses.
While driving in California, any child under age eight who is shorter than 4ft, 9in must be buckled up in the back seat of the car in a child or infant safety seat. Most car-rental agencies offer these for about $10 to $15 per day, but you must specifically book them in advance.
On the road, rest stops are few and far between, and gas stations and fast-food bathrooms tend to be icky. However, you’re usually never far from a shopping mall, which generally have well-kept restrooms.
What to Pack
Sunscreen. And bringing sunscreen should remind you to bring hats, swimsuits, flip-flops and goggles. If you like beach umbrellas and sand chairs, pails and shovels, you’ll probably want to bring your own, or buy them at local supermarkets and pharmacies. At many beaches you can rent bicycles and water-sports gear.
For outdoor vacations, bring broken-in hiking shoes and your own camping equipment. Outdoor gear can be purchased or sometimes rented from local outdoor outfitters and sporting-goods shops. But the best time to test out gear is before you take your trip. Murphy’s Law dictates that wearing brand-new hiking shoes always results in blisters, and setting up a new tent in the dark ain’t easy.
- Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children is loaded with valuable tips and amusing anecdotes, especially for families who haven’t traveled before.
- Lonelyplanet.com (www.lonelyplanet.com) Ask questions and get advice from other travelers in the Thorn Tree’s ‘Kids to Go’ and ‘USA’ forums.
- Visit California (www.visitcalifornia.com) The state’s official tourism website lists family-friendly attractions, activities and more – just search for ‘Family Experiences’ and ‘Kids’.
- Travel for Kids (www.travelforkids.com) Listings of kid-friendly sights, activities, hotels and recommended children's books for every region of California.
Travelers with Disabilities
More-populated areas of coastal California are reasonably well equipped for travelers with disabilities, but facilities in smaller towns and rural areas may be limited.
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
- Most traffic intersections have dropped curbs and some have audible crossing signals.
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires public buildings built after 1993 to be wheelchair-accessible, including restrooms.
- Motels and hotels built after 1993 must have at least one ADA–compliant accessible room; state your specific needs when making reservations.
- For nonpublic buildings built prior to 1993, including hotels, restaurants, museums and theaters, there are no accessibility guarantees; call ahead to find out what to expect.
- Most national and many state parks and some other outdoor recreation areas offer paved or boardwalk nature trails that are graded and accessible by wheelchair.
- Many theme parks go out of their way to be accessible to wheelchairs and guests with mobility limitations and other disabilities.
- US citizens and permanent residents with a permanent disability quality for a free lifetime 'America the Beautiful' Access Pass (http://store.usgs.gov/pass/access.html), which waives entry fees to all national parks and federal recreational lands and offers 50% discounts on some recreation fees (eg camping).
- California State Parks' disabled discount pass ($3.50) entitles people with permanent disabilities to 50% off day-use parking and camping fees; for an application, click to www.parks.ca.gov.
- Telephone companies provide relay operators (dial 711) for the hearing impaired.
- Many banks provide ATM instructions in braille.
- All major airlines, Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains can accommodate people with disabilities, usually with 48 hours of advance notice required.
- Major car-rental agencies offer hand-controlled vehicles and vans with wheelchair lifts at no extra charge, but you must reserve these well in advance.
- For wheelchair-accessible van rentals, also try Wheelchair Getaways in LA and San Francisco, or Mobility Works in LA, San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose.
- Local buses, trains and subway lines usually have wheelchair lifts.
- Seeing-eye dogs are permitted to accompany passengers on public transportation.
- Taxi companies have at least one wheelchair-accessible van, but you’ll usually need to call and then wait for one.
A Wheelchair Rider’s Guide to the California Coast (www.wheelingcalscoast.org) Free accessibility information covering beaches, parks and trails, plus downloadable PDF guides to the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles and Orange County coasts.
Access Northern California (www.accessnca.org) Extensive links to accessible-travel resources, including outdoor recreation opportunities, lodgings, tours and transportation.
Access San Francisco Guide (www.sftravel.com) Search the city's official tourism site for this free, downloadable PDF guide – dated, but useful.
Access Santa Cruz County (www.scaccessguide.com) Free online accessible-travel guide for visiting Santa Cruz and around, including restaurants, lodging, beaches, parks and outdoor recreation.
Achieve Tahoe (http://achievetahoe.org) Organizes summer and winter sports, 4WD adventures and adaptive-ski rental around Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada (annual membership $50).
California State Parks (http://access.parks.ca.gov) Searchable online map and database of accessible features at state parks.
Disabled Sports Eastern Sierra (http://disabledsportseasternsierra.org) Offers summer and winter outdoor-activity programs around Mammoth Lakes.
Flying Wheels Travel Full-service travel agency for travelers with disabilities, mobility issues and chronic illnesses.
Los Angeles for Disabled Visitors (www.discoverlosangeles.com/search/site/disabled) Tips for accessible sightseeing, entertainment, museums and transportation.
Wheelchair Traveling (www.wheelchairtraveling.com) Travel articles, lodging and helpful California destination info.
Yosemite National Park Accessibility (www.nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/accessibility.htm) Detailed, downloadable accessibility information for Yosemite National Park, including services for deaf visitors.
Casual drop-in volunteer opportunities, where you can socialize with locals while helping out nonprofit organizations, are most common in cities. Browse upcoming projects and activities and sign up online with local organizations such as One Brick (www.onebrick.org) in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, HandsOn Bay Area (www.handsonbayarea.org), LA Works (www.laworks.com) and Orange County's OneOC (www.oneoc.org). For more opportunities, check local alternative weekly tabloids and Craigslist (www.craigslist.org) online.
California Volunteers (www.californiavolunteers.org) State-run volunteer directory and matching service, with links to national service days and long-term programs.
Habitat for Humanity (www.habitat.org) Nonprofit organization that helps build homes for impoverished families across California; has day, weekend and week-long projects.
Idealist (www.idealist.org) Free searchable database that includes both short- and long-term volunteer opportunities.
Sierra Club (www.sierraclub.org) Day or weekend projects and longer volunteer vacations (including for families) that focus on environmental conservation (annual membership from $15).
TreePeople (www.treepeople.org) Organizes half-day group tree planting, invasive-weed pulling and habitat-restoration projects around LA, from urban parks to mountain forests.
Wilderness Volunteers (www.wildernessvolunteers.org) Week-long trips that help maintain national parks, preserves, forests, seashores and other wilderness conservation and outdoor recreation areas.
Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (www.wwoofusa.org) Long-term volunteering opportunities on local organic farms (annual membership from $40).
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures Imperial (except 1 US gallon equals 0.83 imperial gallons)