California with kids? Absolutely.
I visited California with my husband Paul about 8 years ago, and we fell in love with the climate, the people and the laid back lifestyle. It was amazing as a couple but we knew that when we became a family, this would be the ultimate destination for a family holiday. They don’t call it ‘Kidifornia’ for nothing - California is heaven for kids!
Travelling with kids is an incredible experience. It teaches them so much but there is no doubt that it can also have its challenges. I went to work to put together the ultimate itinerary, showcasing amazing family destinations with kid-friendly hotels, to ensure a beautiful family holiday that was action-packed, yet stress-free.
Flying with kids can be a daunting experience but our absolute best experience with an airline yet was our flight with Air New Zealand, using their Skycouch Economy option. It was a game changer, with the comfort of a Business Class bed without the price tag. If there are two of you travelling you can purchase the third seat for half price and the whole row then converts to a bed. So, if there are four of you travelling, you can have two large beds for the cost of an extra seat. Because we all slept, there was very little jet lag and we enjoyed the first day when we arrived in Los Angeles.
Hiring a car was the best - California is made for road tripping! It took about half an hour to get used to sitting on the other side of the car and driving on the other side of the road, but then it was like riding a bike and became natural. The beauty of California is that everything is so close, so our drives between destinations ranged from only 45 minutes to 1.5 hours. We would check out of the hotel and drive to the next location while the kids slept in the car, and then they woke up to an all-new adventure. It also gave us some time to chat and chill and take in the drive. You can book car seats and GPS in advance or you can quickly turn on your phone data, download the destination on Google Maps, and turn it off again if you don’t have a GPS. We booked withAvisand I would recommend emailing your local pick up location in advance to make sure car seats are installed and ready to go.
When booking accommodation, I am always on the hunt for the ultimate resorts and hotels for families that are action-packed with children’s activities and facilities. Because if the kids are happy, we are happy, right? We emailed the hotels before we arrived to organise a porta-cot (crib) in the room, and requested early check-ins where possible.
California is an all-year–round destination, but June to August is classified as peak summer season. This will also be the most expensive and busiest time. Here’s a tip: head over toward the end of August, after Labour Day. The weather is still superb but everything is cheaper and quieter when children are heading back to school.
Our Ultimate California Family Road Trip Itinerary
We had pre-arranged a transfer with children’s car seats to collect us from the airport and take us straight to our hotel, The Hollywood Roosevelt, on Hollywood Boulevard. With Sunset Boulevard just around the corner, hop-on-and-off buses, an abundance of tours to places like Universal Studios, and a view of the Hollywood Sign, everything was easily accessible from our location. After two days here we had acclimatised, picked up our car, and our road trip began.
Driving from Hollywood to Palm Springs was mind-blowing. You are literally going from city to desert. It is the most unique and amazing destination. The Omni Rancho Las Palmaswas the ultimate kids resort with its waterpark and lazy river. We really enjoyed the breathtaking Palm Springs Aerial Tramas a highlight of the many activities to do in the region.
Otherwise known as "The Happiest Place On Earth", Disneyland Resortin Anaheim has two parks: Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park, which are right next to each other.. To really make the most of your time, I recommend staying on site at The Grand Californian Hotel– the first Disney resort hotel in the world to be located inside a theme park, with its very own entrance to the California Adventure Park. With the help of the Disneyland app and the ‘golden hour’ - which allows you to access the park an hour before it opens to the general public - we really made the most of our days. We hit the rides in the morning, came back for a swim in the hotel pools (there are three!) and let the kids have a lunch time nap, before going back in the late afternoon for the parades, dinner and more rides, fireworks and light shows, like World of Colour and Main Street Electrical Parade. The Park Hopper Ticket is a must and a money saver to be able to go between both parks all day.
Just over an hour’s drive away is LEGOLAND California Resort, so we decided to detour and make a trip down to San Diego for lunch. This is the beauty of driving - the adventure and the unplanned! After a beautiful day we checked into LEGOLAND California Hotel, again staying at a hotel which was on the doorstep of the park. The themed rooms made it a great experience for the kids, and when you check in, the kids do a treasure hunt to find LEGO treasure in a magic safe in the room. With the addition of the Aquarium and Waterpark, you can easily spend a few days at the LEGOLAND – it’s huge!
Top tip: with Disneyland and LEGOLAND, look at visiting mid-week outside of school holidays if you can – it’s quieter and cheaper.
After the excitement of the theme parks, it was time to wind down at this amazing beach town with its huge pier and lively Main Street. With loads of other beaches like Long Beach and Seal Beach in the area, you can literally beach hop or take a boat trip to Catalina Island. We also loved checking out the outlet stores nearby for bargains. The Waterfront Beach Hotel was in my opinion the best hotel for kids, with its waterslides, a man-made beach and ocean views.
With its laid-back lifestyle, Santa Monica was a great way to end our trip. We hired bikes and rode to Venice Beach, took leisurely walks to the famous pier that has lots of rides, an aquarium and family-friendly restaurants like Bubba Gump. With the reasonably priced Hotel Shangri-La being one of Santa Monica’s only ocean front hotels - boasting suites for families, a pool and a short walk to the pier, not to mention the beautiful roof top bar and restaurant - we finished the holiday feeling like movie stars. I fell in love with its décor inspired by Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Our trip was 17 days in total and felt like just the right amount of time away to make the most of California without rushing. It was the perfect mix of relaxation, adventure, pool time and fun. We did California with kids, but without the meltdowns - even with a 2-year-old and 4-year-old in tow.
Lots of people have asked for a budget to replicate this trip so I have put together the costings below. The first budget is exactly how we did it, staying in suites and travelling on Air New Zealand's Sky Couch. The second budget is the same trip but travelling in regular economy and staying in standard twin bed hotel rooms. Both costs are based on 2 adults and 2 children (aged 2 - 12) and booking at least 9 months in advance.