Travel SOS: driving the US’s Pacific Coast Highway

Lee Mylne shares tips with Tom for his drive along the West Coast of the United States.

Travel SOS: driving the US’s Pacific Coast Highway

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway in the USA has long been a dream of Tom’s, so in this week’s Travel SOS, Lee Mylne has some tips to keep him on the road.

Q. Tom
We’re planning to self-drive along the West Coast of the US and I understand that the roads are pretty easy to drive, but is there anything we should consider before we go? Do we need to have an international driving permit? Should we plan our route or simply go where the notion takes us?

A. First things first, Tom. It is always a good idea to have an international driving permit (IDP) if you are planning to drive overseas. In California, it is ‘recommended’ that you have an IDP (in some countries it is a requirement) for renting a car, but the law changes from state to state, so it really is a good idea to have one to ensure you are covered. Some car rental companies will also require it. Be prepared, and get one.

The IDP must be issued in Australia, and you must also carry your Australian license with you. You can get a permit from your local state or territory motoring club (RACQ, RACV, NRMA or similar). You don’t have to be a member, and the cost is $39.

Don’t be tempted by online offers of international driving permits, as these are likely to be scams using forged permits, and that could cause you legal problems if you were found to be using one while on your holiday. The only authorised IDP issuing bodies in Australia are the state and territory motoring organisations.

If you are not already, it is also well worthwhile becoming a member of a local Automobile Association of Australia (AAA) club because this will give you reciprocal rights in the US which might come in handy. Ask your local club for details.

route 101 coast road

As for the trip itself, I think it’s always a good idea to have at least a rough itinerary worked out. It sounds as if you’re planning to drive the Pacific Coast Highway, along the coastlines of California, Oregon and Washington – and I confess to being a bit envious.

You will probably fly into Los Angeles and then head north on the highway, working your way up the California coastline and into the Pacific Northwest. The touring route ends in Olympia, Washington.

route 101 freeway sign

The Pacific Coast Highway is 2735km (1700 miles) and the first part in LA will take you along Route 101, through Hollywood. It then winds through Malibu and along the dramatic coastline of the Big Sur from San Simeon. One thing you might like to stop for a look is William Randolph Hearst’s grand Hearst Castle situated high above the California coast. 

You’ll drive the stunning Monterey Peninsula, home to the old fishing town of Monterey – forever immortalised by the town’s favourite son, Nobel Prize-winning novelist, John Steinbeck. It’s also home to the Monterey Jazz Festival. Stop off in quirky Carmel-by-the-Sea, where Clint Eastwood was once the mayor. 

Plan to spend a few days in San Francisco before heading across the Golden Gate Bridge to continue your journey. The California redwood forests will also be a highlight. If you’re keen to get out of the car and do some walking, the Redwood National Park and the massive Humboldt Redwoods State Park offer plenty of options.

taking picture of the pacific coast

As you drive further north, the Pacific Coast Highway will shadow the Oregon coastline. Stop at Cannon Beach, known for its tidal pools and rock formations. The Oregon Dune National Recreational Area has the largest expanse of sand dunes and stands 500 feet above sea level.

When you hit Washington State, you’ll discover Olympic National Park, with its rugged coastline and glacier-capped mountains. If you’re a fan of the Twilight series, the town of Forks is where author Stephenie Meyer set her books.

At Olympia, the road turns inland for Seattle, which has its own attractions including the Pike Place Market and The Space Needle.

You will have your own ideas of what to do and see along the West Coast, but I really recommend building in some time for spontaneous side-trips. Half the fun of a road-trip is flexibility.

Drive safely and enjoy your big trip!

Here are some websites you might find useful in your planning:

Do you have a travel question for Lee? If so, email your Travel SOS to



    To make a comment, please register or login
    16th Jul 2016
    You have made no mention of driving on the right hand side of the road. This is in itself an adventure sitting on the 'wrong' side of the car and turning left was very difficult. My husband and I drove for 3 month in the USA in 2004 it is not for the faint hearted. Luckily we had a good friend who took my husband and I for little test drives before we set off on our own up the Route 101 by the time we returned via New York and New Orleans we were pros.
    16th Jul 2016
    If you drive south instead of north, you'll be on the right side of the road, thereby getting the best views of the amazing Big Sur.
    17th Jul 2016
    I took the question as a request for tips as to road rules etc. Are there any special rules for giving way or even etiquette that Aussie travellers should observe?
    18th Jul 2016
    Still give way to the right if you come across an intersection with no signs.
    As Barak said below when on a single carriageway road and the school bus stops traffic in BOTH directions must stop, if on dual carriageway you only have to stop when on the side the bus is on.
    Watch the school zones - they're 25 mph.
    Most intersections without lights have 4 way stop signs - a great system I think. Keeps the rat runners down as they don't want to keep stopping and no vehicles fly through intersections, everyone stops - comically though you can have 3 or 4 cars at the intersection at once, everyone looking at each other trying to decide who'd go first...mostly I did. They seem to be a very courteous bunch over there.
    Not many roundabouts - yeah.
    In most cases "Right Turn on Red" is the go unless a sign states otherwise.
    Also "Left Turn on Red" into a ONE WAY street is usually the go - something that doesn't happen here at all.
    U-Turns at lights are usually OK unless signed not to.

    Problem with all this is it's MOSTLY the same throughout the USA but some states have variations just like here - except 50 states can make things a little tricky to keep on top of. All the states have Drivers Handbooks and it's probably worthwhile looking through them on the net.

    I found the hardest thing was the very first hour in the drivers seat - it felt VERY strange driving out of the rental yard onto a busy multi-lane road.

    17th Jul 2016
    Traffic lights in the US can be a challenge to an Aussie, especially in busy traffic. Often they are ONLY on overhead beams above the road, and not on posts at the corners at all. Makes them harder to notice, especially in busy traffic.

    Also, give way to and stop for school buses, always, everywhere, no matter what. The Americans take this very seriously.
    17th Jul 2016
    Be aware that the lights are often suspended on wires and will swing around in a high wind.make every effort to remember if you leave a highway whether you are going north or south and if you make an error go left, left, and left again you will be back to the starting point.
    17th Jul 2016
    How does one get some practice in driving on the RH side of the road before getting to Europe or USA?
    18th Jul 2016
    Do it here - could get a little messy though. :)
    18th Jul 2016
    Driving on RHS is definitely not a problem on main roads, highways freeways etc. it becomes natural almost immediately. Rembering which side of the road to head for when turning at an intersection takes a while as it's easy to revert to Au ways. I recommend getting an automatic especially if you are used to driving a manual at home as, in an emergency there is a tendency to use the door knob as a gear shift!
    At 4 way stop signs the first in first served rule applies, you proceed across the intersection in the order in which you arrived.
    Take care coming out of supermarkets or diners car parks onto a street as you will tend to look right instead of left to see if it's OK to get onto the road - piercing screaming from my wife saved me a few times!
    I am right now just competing 3 driving weeks in Canada, having done 8 weeks and 9000ks in USA a couple of years ago, drivers here are good. Having also driven RHS in Spain, Italy, Denmark and France, I prefer USA to them and to most Au states
    18th Jul 2016
    Oh re the west coast drive. We came down from Anacortes ( near Seatle) and hugged the coast on the 1 rather than the 101 which is just a multilane highway.
    Fantastic scenery - on the correct side for the views. Take your time but don't expect the beaches to be anywhere near as good as ours.
    18th Jul 2016
    I was allowed to scream NOOO at intersections till we got the hang of it, we practised on the road to Las Vegas it was miles of nothing driving in the truck lane at 55 MPH.

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