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You wanna drive the famous Pacific Coast Highway? How exciting! It’s one of the best road trips in the world, taking you from sandy beaches to stunning vistas within miles of one another.

Before you hit the road, there is one important detail you need to arrange. You might even overlook it when planning your trip! What car you drive along the PCH can really affect your experience.

If like me, you choose to drive a rental car, there are many considerations. Here are tips I learned from driving the PCH myself, and how to choose the perfect Pacific Coast Highway rental car for your trip.

1. Don’t Rent in Los Angeles

Santa Barbara Coast

If you can possibly make it happen, don’t rent your car at LAX. The cost of your rental car can be up to $200 more expensive at Los Angeles Airport, especially when you’re only renting for a one-way trip.

Instead, try other airports in the area. In San Diego or Long Beach, rental companies are more likely to compete for customers with lower prices. In the end, that will help you get a better deal (which is good, since gas prices on the West Coast will definitely eat up the difference!).

Los Angeles is a good stop on the Pacific Coast Highway, but if you don’t rent or return your car here, you can make it a budget-friendly PCH road trip!

2. Bring a Navigator and/or Photographer

This isn’t so much related to the car, but having a companion will make the road a lot more enjoyable. The winding roads will keep you from falling asleep when you’re alone, but someone with a map and camera in hand can grab snaps of all the things you miss while driving, as well as pointing out important rest areas/sight-seeing opportunities along the way. Also, they’ll be able to pick the music, so make sure they’re really awesome.

3. Opt for a Car with a Lower Center of Gravity

Try navigating these rocky shores in an SUV.

When it comes time to select the type of car you want to rent, the lower center of gravity, the better your driving experience will be.

You do not want an SUV with any chance of rolling. Even in a low car, you’re going to have to slow down a lot to make the hairpin turns. In a bigger car, you’re going to miss out on half of the thrill of driving the PCH.

For my trip, a Ford Mustang was a great choice because while I would have bottomed out on a speed bump, there aren’t any speed bumps on the PCH – just glorious winding roads that my car hugged like a dream.

4. Skip the Soft-Top/Convertible

I thought I was being really cool renting a Mustang Convertible to drive up the coast. I thought of blue skies and blowing wind and sexy windswept hair.

Instead, I was always putting the top up and down. Sometimes the fog rolled in and the temperature dropped 20 degrees in 10 minutes. Other times I got sunburned and couldn’t bear it. As long as your car has windows you can roll down, that’s enough to enjoy the experience without the extra charge for a luxe rental car.

5. Go Automatic, Not Manual

Automatic cars make everything easier when driving the PCH.

Speaking of those mountains and turns, you don’t want to be constantly shifting up and down, up and down…

As an owner of manual transmission cars, I can tell you that your legs will get really tired if you choose a manual transmission for the Pacific Coast Highway. Instead, opt for the ease of an automatic. You’ll be more comfortable, and the car will get less wear and tear.

Plus, you’ll be able to accelerate more quickly when it’s safe to, or when you’re passing someone!

6. Ensure You’ll Have Music

Long stretches of the PCH have no radio or cell service. Ensure you’re all set by either confirming your car has a phone jack (and you’ve got playlists loaded) or buying an AM/FM transmitter for your phone. Make sure you’ve downloaded a few Spotify playlists or loaded an audiobook into iTunes, and you’re set.

Additionally, make sure you have a way to stay charged – cigarette lighter ports are now perfect for USB charging! On a 7 hour day, you won’t want to spend it listening to static interspersed with country music and NPR (can you tell I didn’t plan ahead on this one?).

Ready to book your Pacific Coast Highway rental car?

Now that you know exactly what kind of car to rent, it’s time to compare and pick the perfect one! I rented from Fox Rent A Car in San Diego. My rental was clean, safe, and they were welcoming and friendly throughout the rental process. They also had the lowest “one-way rental” fee for my trip from San Diego to Seattle. Check out the

Check out the Fox Rent A Car website to shop available cars, and take a shop their special deals on one-way rentals. Another great rental company is Budget Rent A Car, though they don’t have one-way rental deals for California right now.

Have a great trip!

14 comments

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We’re looking into visiting LA in the next year and would most likely have to rent a car–I’ve already noticed that the car rental prices at LAX are sky high! Hope I’ll figure out a good option between now and then! Your roadtrip sounds like a very cool experience!

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Great options include San Diego and Palm Beach 🙂 They’re both significantly cheaper, and depending on where you’re traveling in LA, may even be closer than LAX!

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These are all great tips! I totally agree on getting an automatic car. Even if I’m used to drive manual, I would never rent a manual car to drive the PCH. It so much less stress to get an automatic!

Also, yes, skip renting in LA and especially the LAX! When I was there I made that mistake and ended up paying a bit more because of a lot of useless added taxes. Also, we had to wait in line for almost an hour before getting to the counter, because of all the people that were renting from there.

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Glad you find these tips helpful too – LAX is definitely the least friendly place to rent a car, no matter what the reason!

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Great tips, Valerie! I have to say the PCH is still my favorite drive in the world, even after all these years it never gets old! Driving a Ford Mustang sounds like such a fun experience, even if the convertible option wasn’t as great as you thought it would be. I can only imagine how well it would hug those curves. I remember driving up the PCH last year from San Diego in a beat up Dodge cargo van from circa 1993, that had definitely seen better days. Driving those winding roads around Big Sur area was so scary haha. I thought for sure she was going to fizzle out at the top of one of the hills, luckily that didn’t happen.

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Hah, yeah that Dodge sounds terrifying!! Big Sur was stunning, I just wish I’d had someone else driving so I could take more pictures 🙂

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I am born and raised in LA and I have been DYING to drive the entirety of PCH! Your photos are gorgeous!

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Thanks very much! 🙂

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My boyfriend and I are driving from SF to LA at the end of feb/early march and just don’t know what car to rent! We’re seeing so many conflicting reviews! We like the idea of renting an SUV for comfort and space and better height for the views and just all round driving in the states but are also keen on a convertible for the pch ride and the flexibility to have the top up/down. You say don’t get an SUV or convertible but so many people say a convertible is non negotiable! Some say they are too low down to see anything Ahh don’t know whats best! Can you elaborate/help? x

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Linsey, thanks for your comment. Maybe I didn’t explain well, but here’s what I think of each type of car:

SUV – Too tall and big – you’re going to have to slow way down for the many hairpin turns, and unless you drive that specific make/model of SUV regularly, you’ll probably not enjoy the actual driving process.

Convertible – the convertible feature is actually not super useful. Being squished between the mountains and the coast, the PCH actually doesn’t have “classic” California weather. It’s more like the Bay Area weather most days – fog, possible rain, and chilly air (even in June, when I drove the PCH!). You’ll end up spending more time putting the top up and down than actually enjoying the “extra” view – speaking from my experience.

I’d recommend a hatchback or crossover, like a Subaru Forester or Toyota Juke, for more spaciousness and safety without being too low OR too high from the ground. There are plenty of places to stop and enjoy the view, the convertible doesn’t help *that* much, and a bigger SUV will feel too big.

Does this help?

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Sadly, it’s safe to say that renting a car at any airport is more costly these days. The San Diego airport is no longer immune from the same outrageous fees that may have been once only associated with larger airports like LAX. I live in North San Diego County which is too far from the airport for a rental there to make sense for me anyway, but I’ve researched it for friends coming to visit. I make it a habit to explore car rental costs at non-airport locations and it always results in a savings, whether in large metro areas like Minneapolis, where I saved $1,000, or a smaller city like Montgomery, AL. The taxi or Uber fare to the off-airport rental office has always been worth it for me in the long-run.

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Great advice, Pat. Off airport and downtown rentals are increasingly the better budget option!

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Valerie – love your tips. Had been thinking of taking a train from Seattle to Los Angeles but now thinking driving would be better. You didn’t touch on the matter of lodging. Would you say you need to make definite plans and reserve lodging along the way before the trip or will it be possible to either stop when you want or maybe call a couple hours ahead? Also – what time of year do you suggest for this drive? Thanks – D

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Dorothy, thanks for reading! I actually have a huge post about the Pacific Coast Highway with nots of tips for EVERYTHING you need to book ahead: https://www.valisemag.com/pacific-coast-highway-guide/

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