For flexibility and convenience, you’ll probably want a car, but rental rates and gas prices can eat up a good chunk of your trip budget.
For muscle beaches, celebrity sightings and camera-ready wackiness, head south from San Francisco on coastal Hwy 1 to Los Angeles. It’ll take 12 hours depending on traffic and how often you stop. A quicker jaunt is less-scenic Hwy 101 (nine hours); the fastest route is boring inland I-5, which takes about six hours.
Las Vegas, NV, is a nine-hour nonstop drive from San Francisco. Cross the Bay Bridge to I-580 east, then take I-5 south; veer off towards Hwy 99 south (at exit 278), to Hwy 58 east, then take I-15 the last 160 miles. A slower, gloriously scenic option is to go east through Yosemite National Park on Hwy 120 (summer only; verify by calling 800-427-7623), then south on Hwy 395, east on Hwy 190 through Death Valley National Park, then south on Hwy 95 straight into Sin City.
For 24-hour emergency roadside assistance, free maps and discounts on lodgings, attractions, entertainment, car rentals and more, consider joining an auto club.
California law requires a minimum of $15,000 liability insurance for all vehicles. When renting a car, check your auto-insurance policy from home or your travel-insurance policy to see if you’re already covered. If not, expect to pay about $10 to $20 per day, depending on coverage maximums. Sometimes the minimum liability insurance is included in the rate, but to protect your assets, make sure you have appropriate coverage.
Insurance against damage to the car itself, called Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) or Loss Damage Waiver (LDW), costs another $10 to $15 per day; you may be required to pay the first $100 to $500 – or more – for repairs (this is called the ‘deductible’; ask if your specific policy has one). Some credit cards cover this, provided you charge the entire cost of the rental to the card. If there’s an accident you may have to pay the rental-car company first, then seek reimbursement from the credit-card company. Carefully check your card’s policy before renting.
It’s easy to find campgrounds throughout Northern California with electricity and water hookups for RVs, but in big cities RVs are a nuisance, since there are few places to park or plug them in. RVs are cumbersome to drive and they burn fuel at an alarming rate (you only get a measly seven to 13 miles per gallon). But they do solve transportation, accommodation and cooking needs in one fell swoop. Even so, there are many places in national and state parks and in the mountains that RVs can’t go. Book RV rentals as far ahead as possible. Rental costs vary by size and model, but expect to pay over $100 per day. Rates often don’t include mileage, taxes, vehicle-prep fees and bedding or kitchen kits. If pets are even allowed, expect a surcharge.
For up-to-date highway conditions in Northern California, including road closures and construction updates, dial 800-427-7623 or visit www.dot.ca.gov. For Nevada highways, call 877-687-6237 or check www.nvroads.com.
In mountain areas where winter driving is an issue, tire chains and snow tires may be required on two-wheel-drive vehicles. Four-wheel-drive vehicles with snow tires are usually excluded. The speed limit with chains is 25mph. Ideally, carry your own chains and learn how to use them before you hit the road. Otherwise, you can buy chains (but not cheaply) on the highway, at gas stations or in nearby towns; the best prices are at automotive stores. State-regulated chain installers operate on major highways, such as I-80 or US-50; expect to pay $30 for installation, $20 for removal (note that it’s far easier to remove than install them; consider paying only for installation). In rural areas, you’re on your own. Most car-rental companies don’t permit the use of chains, and also prohibit driving off-road.
In rural areas, livestock sometimes graze next to unfenced roads. These areas are typically signed as ‘Open Range,’ with the silhouette of a steer. Where deer and other wild animals frequently appear roadside, you’ll see signs with the silhouette of a leaping deer. Take these signs seriously, particularly at night.
In coastal areas thick fog may impede driving – slow down and if it’s too soupy, get off the road. Along coastal cliffs and in the mountains, watch for falling rocks, mudslides and avalanches that could damage or disable your car.
With advance reservations, you can often get an economy-size vehicle with unlimited mileage from around $30 per day, plus insurance, taxes and fees, which typically double the rate. Weekend and weekly rates are usually more economical. Airport locations may have cheaper rates but higher fees. City-center branches may offer free pickups and drop-offs.
Rental rates generally include unlimited mileage, but expect surcharges for additional drivers and one-way rentals. Some companies let you pre-pay your last tank of gas; this is rarely a good deal, as prices are higher than at gas stations and you’d need to bring the car back almost empty. Child or infant safety seats are compulsory (reserve when booking); they’re sometimes free, or $10 per day (with a capped maximum of about $65).
If you’d like to minimize your carbon footprint, some car-rental companies offer ‘green’ fleets of hybrid or biofueled rental cars, but they’re in short supply. Reserve well ahead and expect to pay more for these models – but you’ll save on gasoline.
Motorcycle rentals and insurance are not cheap, especially if you’ve got your eye on a Harley. Depending on models, renting a motorcycle costs $100 to $200 per day, plus taxes and fees. Discounts may be available for multiday and weekly rentals. Security deposits range from $1000 to $3000 (credit card required).