Destinations | NORTH America

How to plan the perfect road trip Western USA edition

30 Jan 2020 | California, Destinations, North America

Dreaming of a USA West Coast road trip? You are at the right place. In this detailed guide to how to plan the perfect road trip western USA edition – we will share all of our travel secrets on road trip planning from choosing the destinations or stops, car rental, and travel documents – for those traveling to the United States from Europe (like us!)

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Road Trip Western USA

How to plan the perfect road trip Western USA edition


Western United States is every traveler’s dream and my man and I are certainly no exception. Cruising in an American SUV on the most iconic roads through the world’s most beautiful national parks…… Let’s just say my husband didn’t really have to convince me to book those plane tickets. 

Although I have to admit that the preparations for this trip have caused me some stress, I would like to share some tips with you so that you can hopefully enjoy a carefree and unforgettable road trip.

Passport & Visa Requirements for international travelers

Belgian and EU citizens will need an ESTA to visit the US. This is for a maximum stay of 90 days. You can apply for the ESTA online

Also, remember that your passport needs to be valid for the duration of your entire stay. 

If you are in the US, you are lucky, you don’t need any travel documents to embark on this USA western road trip. Citizens from Canada don’t require any visas.

International travelers from the rest of the world will need to apply for a tourist visa from their country of residence to enter the USA for a specified duration. Tourist visas do take time, so ensure you are checking the visa/VFS offices to prepare accordingly.

Road Trip Western USA

Plan a rough road trip itinerary with your preferred route and stops


The western coast of the USA comprises 13 states of Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming. 

Many travelers focus on California predominantly and then add Nevada, Utah, Wyoming, and then Oregon (PNW), Washington (PNW) to their route – as long as time permits. 

California is a great state to kick start your USA west road trip. This state has stunning cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego to name a few. You can plan to arrive/fly to San Francisco if traveling from overseas. 

Pick up a car rental and then embark on your road trip. These are the top places to include on your itinerary in the state of California

  • Parks: Include stunning views of Half Dome, falls, and more at Yosemite National Park, admire the Cholla Cactus Garden, Barker Dam, and camp under the starry skies at Joshua Tree National Park. Do check out giant trees at the Sequoia National Park, followed by Death Valley National Park for its epic sand dunes 
  • Coast towns and lakes: Along your Pacific Coast Highway road trip you can also visit small beach towns, wine valleys, and lakes such as Lake Tahoe (south) for a more immersive experience of the west coast’ variety!
  • Cities: And don’t miss out on the urban jungles and cultural hubs like San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego, Palm Springs, Malibu on your road trip!


Find how to spend 3 days in San Francisco

Road Trip Western USA

From California make your way to Nevada and Arizona, and explore

  • Las Vegas and spend a few days there
  • Drive to Red Rock State Park, and then cross over to the state of Arizona and check out the stunning Grand Canyon National Park. It is easy to explore the south or the west rim from Las Vegas 

If time permits, stop at the Monument Valley at the Utah-Arizona border to soak in some stunning landscapes in the world!

In Utah you can check the famed national parks

  • Bryce Canyon National Park 
  • Arches National Park
  • Capitol Reef National Park
  • Zion National Park
  • Canyonlands National Park

In Wyoming, spend a couple of days at the Yellowstone National Park and explore the prime highlights of the oldest national park in the world – Old Faithful, Steamboat Geyser, Mammoth Hot Springs, and various waterfalls. 

Here is our 3-week road trip itinerary

  • Day 1-3: San Francisco
  • Day 4-5: Yosemite National Park
  • Day 6: Sequoia National Park 
  • Day 7-8: Death Valley National Park
  • Day 9-12: Las Vegas
  • Day 13-14: Zion National Park
  • Day 15-17: Palm Springs
  • Day 18: Day trip to Joshua Tree National Park
  • Day 19-20: Los Angeles
  • Day 21: Flyout
Road Trip Western USA

Book your hotels or campsites in advance 


Once you narrow down on the destinations and have drafted a rough itinerary you need to decide where you will spend the most of your time, and how your accommodation will look at each stop.

If you are not into cities and prefer to camp then consider renting a camper or tent essentials. Many of the national and state parks will have small towns near the entrance of the park boundaries where you can stay in a lodge or an Airbnb. This way you will be closer to the parks. 

In California and Nevada many of the parks, lakes and attractions can be explored on a day trip as well – so consider booking hotels/lodges for an extended stay to save on accommodation 

So, when I looked at hotels for the first time in March for our trip in September, my heart rate went up immediately: more than 70% of hotels all over California were already sold out and those still available were priceless.

Therefore book your hotels well in advance because the earlier you book the cheaper. If you want to camp in the national parks during the summer months, I advise you to book your camping spots a year in advance so you can be sure that you can sleep under the most beautiful starry skies and enjoy carefree sunrise from your tent.

Pro tip: Ensure there’s a high enough limit on your credit card(s) as most hotels will ask for a deposit.

Road Trip Western USA

Plan to book your return flights from different airports

Plan to book one-way tickets for your west coast USA road trip – this will save you so much time and energy and allow you to enjoy the vacation better. 

When you book a car rental you can drop it off at any US airport – so choose one of the popular rental companies that have service locations in various states. That way you can drop off the car and fly without having to worry about driving back to the point of entry – for drop off or boarding your return flight. 

For example, try flying up to San Francisco and flying back home from Los Angeles is the itinerary suggested above, this saves you many unnecessary kilometers.

Buy a US National Parks Pass – America The Beautiful Pass

Because you will visit so many national parks in the states, you can save money by purchasing an Annual Pass in advance or at the entrance of the first park you visit. 

America the Beautiful Pass is valid for 12 months from the month of purchase, and this pass covers admission to all U.S. National Parks and costs $80 USD. 

Buy a backcountry permit if it applies to you

If you are planning to camp overnight in any of the national parks a backcountry permit is required. Do check individual parks and apply for a permit before you arrive. 

Try to get a permit for the Wave in the Coyote Buttes North area

The wave, located in the Coyote Buttes North area of the Utah Arizona border. Areas with this designation are considered ecologically sensitive and vulnerable to irreparable damage if access to them is not strictly controlled.

Managed by the Bureau of Land Management, only 20 lucky people per day are allowed to visit Coyote Buttes North and The Wave in Arizona. In order to be included on that list, you must obtain a permit.

This is how it can be done:

  • Apply in advance for the online Paria Canyon permit lottery through the BLM’s official website. 
  • Ten spots per day are given out in this manner. You can – and should – apply up to four months in advance for your desired date.
  • There is a $5.00 non-refundable fee to apply for the online lottery. 
  • You may choose three different dates to hike
Road Trip Western USA

Take required vaccinations prior to your trip

Vaccinations are not required for California. Although I strongly recommend that you always foresee all basic vaccinations if you travel far regularly:

  • Hepatitis A
  • Hepatitis B
  • Yellow fever
  • Typhoid


Check for medical and weather advisory before traveling

As always, check for any weather warnings (including wildfires, park access, route closures that may happen) prior to your trip. Equally important to check for medical or public safety-related restrictions that may be in place in any of the west coast states you may be visiting. 

Getting around in the city – car, tour, or public transportation

In cities such as San Francisco and LA, traffic is a disaster. Therefore, avoid driving in these cities yourself. This way you will also avoid excessive parking costs. 

We only picked up our rental car after 3 days in San Francisco and immediately brought our rental car back when we arrived in LA. In the cities themselves, we traveled with Uber & Lyft.

If you are planning day trips use public transportation or day tours such as the Napa Valley Wine tour from San Francisco or Muir Redwoods.

Road Trip Western USA

Places like the Antelope Canyon are protected by the Navajo Parks and Recreation, located in Arizona. And once you get there you have to use a tour to enter the canyons. 

Car rental is essential for your road trip as you drive through scenic landscapes, parks, and highways. Try to select a good size car for you and your traveling members. You will find cars within your budget, but on average expect to spend at least $50 USD per day. 

You will love the road trips as you drive on the road for hours on end without coming across another living soul, let alone a train or bus station. Also note that you must fill up the fuel tank wherever you can, as sometimes you may not come across a gas station for miles!


Here are some important car rental tips

  • The minimum age to drive in the US is different in different states. But many rental agencies may require the driver to be 25 years of age and to have possessed their license for at least one year
  • An International Driver’s Permit (IDP) is not required for drivers from most countries, but many foreign visitors might be required. We had to show our universal driver’s license in the US, so definitely check!
  • US distances are measured in miles and roads are well maintained 
  • Do take car insurance 

Here are some other packing tips for your road trip

  • Don’t forget your universal adapter if traveling from overseas like Europe or Asia
  • There are water fountains in the National Parks, so be sure to bring your reusable water bottle
  • Carry your hiking boots, and clothing for your trip
  • Instead of bringing camp gear just rent them or just stay in a glamping tent where everything is taken care of

So that’s a wrap! I hope you found this guide on planning your road trip to the west coast useful. Do you have any further questions about this article? Feel free to leave a comment below.

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Road Trip Western USA

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