It may or may not come as a surprise but I have a bit of an obsession with buying airplane tickets, sometimes they're well thought out, but other times on the spur of a moment decision. To some (and their credit cards) this may come as a problem, but thankfully it's only proved successful for me. Not long after being home from my adventures in SE Asia I was tempted by an email from Southwest airlines advertising their low-fare specials. Of course, I clicked on it and soon found myself planning not only a trip out east to DC and New York, but also a California adventure. I decided to purchase one ticket into San Francisco and another home from San Diego, leaving the in between TBD.
I bought the tickets way back in August and left the confirmation e-mails in my inbox without giving the trip much more thought. Before long October was upon me and it was time to figure out what the hell I was going to do in California. My first thought was to simply visit the friends I knew in San Francisco, LA and San Diego, but I soon realized there was much, much more to see. I almost fell into the 'you need a car to travel in the States' trap but was determined to figure it out on more of a solo backpackers budget.
I channeled my inner cheapskate and made a trip to the local library to check out a copy of their (surprisingly current) California guidebook. As I paged through its contents I realized I wanted to visit every city along the California coast, how was I going to fit it all in? With Amtrak and Greyhound buses abound I soon realized transportation would not be a problem, but then my mind shifted gears to accommodation, where would I sleep for two weeks? I started seeing dollar signs until I remembered the awesomeness that is Couchsurfing. It had been a while since I utilized the sight (Philippines 2013) but I was sure I could find some friendly hosts along my route.
Before long my trip was taking shape, it started as two airline tickets and brief emails to friends in San Fran and LA but soon grew into a two-week long journey with stop in San Fran, Santa Cruz, Monterey, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, LA, San Diego and hopefully a day at Big Sur. Typing that all out I realize now I decided upon a jam-packed schedule, but I guess I had been missing my on and off buses, sleeping in weird places and living out of a backpack lifestyle I had left in Asia.
Having now returned from the adventure I can safely say that you do not, in fact, need a car to complete the 'iconic road trip' of coastal California. In two and half weeks I saw eight beautiful cities along the coast, spent comfortable hours on buses and trains and the best part is I didn't break my budget. For transportation alone, including my airplane tickets to/from Milwaukee I spent a grand total of $370, the highlight of this being the $7 I spent for a day at Big Sur (gotta love cheap public transportation), definitely beats the $2000 the danish girls I met spent on a 2 week car rental.
I didn't pre-book any of my buses or trains before leaving for California as I wasn't sure how many days I would want to stay in each particular destination but I did do some comparison shopping. Some legs of the journey showed little difference between the price of a train ticket versus bus while others were huge. Although I didn't want to book too far in advance the price of Greyhound tickets does rise as you get closer to your departure date, so it does pay to book a day or two ahead of time.
I met a few travelers (and locals) along the way that scoffed at my bus and train transportation saying they would prefer to 'be on my own schedule and do what I want' but honestly I never felt limited or rushed due to having to rely on public transportation. There are multiple travel times available throughout the day and you can get to just about anywhere (as you can see given my list of destinations). If you're a solo traveler I would highly recommend doing this trip via public transportation, not only does it save you a few dollars but does sitting in a car by yourself for long hours of driving really sound like fun? No, no it does not.
I grew up hearing "California, you don't want to live there" but after finally visiting, it's the one place in the US I could actually envision myself 'settling down'