An Electric Road Trip in One of America’s Most EV-Friendly Cities

With a host of family-friendly things to do in a small radius—plus plentiful charging—San Diego is a dream EV destination.

A road by the beach in San Diego county.

San Diego is full of EV chargers and its compact size allows for exploration without range anxiety.

Photo by Dogora Sun/Shutterstock

If you’ve been keeping up with our electric vehicle (EV) coverage, you’ll know it’s easier than ever to take a gas-free trip. Renting EVs is easier; driving between cities (say Los Angeles to Las Vegas) is easier; even taking a multi-state EV road trip is possible with preparation. Charging stations are sprouting everywhere, and the United States is on course to have half a million within seven years.

So, is there a scenario where you might not use an electric vehicle, where lingering range anxiety could keep you chained to the pump? Kids. Charging might be simpler than ever but it’s still not as convenient as quickly filling up, and I’ll concede that a carful of screaming little people might put you off. So I recently took my three (aged seven, two, and two)—and their grandma—on a minibreak in an EV to see if it’s doable.

Experience has taught me to make anything involving travel and children as simple as possible, so I booked our vacation in one of the country’s most EV-friendly cities, San Diego, and borrowed an impressive vehicle for the journey: a Rivian R1S.

Borrowing the car

The company’s newest model is a seven-seater SUV that’s so new it came with manufacturer license plates and attracted no end of inquiries and photos from admiring petrolheads (or I suppose the EV equivalent—lithiumheads?). It also brought 316 miles of range, along with 104 cubic feet of storage for suitcases, a stroller, and several boxes of LEGO, plus three rows of seats for three generations of Chester.

Up front, the dashboard displayed my driver profile, with mirrors, seat settings, and my Spotify account all linked—plus a map that clearly showed charging points. I could unlock the car with my phone, a key card, or even an old-fashioned fob. Seats were vegan leather, a promising trend among high-end cars.

The Rivian R1S is the company's new electric SUV

The Rivian R1S is the company’s new electric SUV.

Courtesy of Elliot Ross / Rivian

Before we set off, I was shown the multiple drive modes, including all purpose, sport (lower and stiffer suspension, better cornering), conserve (optimized for longer trips, with front-wheel drive and the vehicle closer to the ground), towing, and some serious off-road options for sand, rock, and other terrains. (This video from Rivian’s CEO shows how the car handles steep inclines.)

For all that and a host of other bells and whistles (including 11 cameras and driving assist features), the dual-motor, all-wheel-drive R1S costs $78,000. The quad-motor version is $92,000.

Leaving home (battery power: 85%; in-car harmony: 100%)

We set off from Thousand Oaks, north of L.A., with 150 miles to cover before we reached our destination, the Hyatt Regency in La Jolla just north of San Diego. I was immediately set at ease by a small detail on the dashboard: a number indicating arrival range. It promised we’d have about 40 miles left on arrival.

I was heading to a large hotel in a big place, via the huge, charging station–filled city of Los Angeles, so I knew I’d be OK—and could focus on my Spotify selections (I mean, the road) more than my range. When I took a Polestar 2 to Las Vegas in 2021, I was shown a declining battery percentage, a much more nerve-wracking prospect.

Checking in and charging up (battery power: 15%; in-car harmony: 60%)

We got to the hotel three hours later, with somewhere close to the promised battery power. If anything, I felt more depleted than the car, after several hours of arguments over whether we should have the interior lights on and the Bluey soundtrack on repeat. (I never need to hear “Hear Come the Grannies” again.)

I quickly learned perhaps the most important thing about taking an EV vacation: Find a hotel with plentiful charging options. That way, if you’re in a car with at least 200 miles of range, and keep your travels fairly local, you can meet your recharging needs overnight without disrupting your trip.

The Hyatt Regency has two Clipper Creek spots and five Tesla chargers. (Tesla operates a proprietary system that excludes other car brands from using the chargers, which seems untenable in the long run as more and more automakers enter the space.) The Clipper Creek charger was, like many hotel chargers, slow but free. While the Rivian revived itself, the kids ran rampant around the hotel’s amenities, including an outdoor swimming pool, an oversized chess set, and a ping-pong table, before picking up s’mores kits from the café in the lobby.

Book now: Hyatt Regency La Jolla

Kayaking at La Jolla Caves in San Diego, California

La Jolla’s sea caves are full of seafaring stories and sea lions.

Photo by Danita Delimont/Shutterstock

Exploring a city tailor-made for families . . . and EVs (battery power: 50%–85%; harmony: variable)

San Diego is arguably one of the best U.S. cities for a family vacation. Of course, there are the beaches, from the wide expanses of Coronado Beach to the ecologically diverse La Jolla Shores, via Mission Beach and the adjacent Belmont Park amusement park. Thenyou’ve got the calm waters of the bay, the world-famous zoo, nearby Legoland, and an exceptional children’s museum. Another option if you have older kids is kayaking by the sea caves in La Jolla; Everyday California offers tours that include rentals, friendly fact-filled guides, and all the gear you need.

But it’s also one of the best cities for an electric road trip. There are more than 1,500 chargers across the city, according to EV trip-planning app Plugshare, and San Diego came third in charging network ChargePoint’s recent list of top U.S. cities for EVs (after the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle). ChargePoint says it has around 250 stations in San Diego County.

The City of San Diego itself has 57 spots at 14 locations—many at popular spots like Balboa Park, the Central Library, and the Mission Bay Aquatic Center. San Diego is “expanding the infrastructure at existing EV charging stations and exploring options for additional sites, as part of its 2035 goal for net-zero GHG emissions,” according to Heather Werner, deputy director of the city’s sustainability and mobility department.

However, as electric transportation news site Elektrek points out, while California leads the way in chargers, it’s also tops in the number of EVs. That can mean a wait to fill up the battery. That leads us onto the second rule of EV road tripping: Keep an eye out for plugs wherever you go. We found them everywhere.

Liberty Station in San Diego

Liberty Station’s food court offers cuisine from across the globe, plus a healthy serving of ice cream and cake shops.

Photo by Zack Benson

Take the San Diego Zoo, for example, an enormous place that warrants at least three hours and some good walking shoes. Its parking lot has five solar Level 2 (i.e., faster) chargers operated by Blink. Or Liberty Station, a former naval training ground that’s now a series of buildings filled with restaurants and galleries and connected by grassy courtyards; it has 22 universal charging stations and 12 for Teslas. The area, which is celebrating its centenary in 2023, offers everything from pottery painting and candle making to golf, paddleboarding, and cycling. It’s home to a public market featuring numerous food and wine vendors. We had Filipino silogs (garlic rice and egg bowls) at White Rice. The crispy pork belly bowl was arguably the best lunch of the trip. (Although the short rib quesabirria tacos at Puesto in La Jolla could also take that title. I’ll probably need to revisit both to check.)

Heading home (battery power: 85%; in-car harmony: don’t ask)

We left San Diego with 85% power—the general consensus is that car batteries last longer if you don’t charge to 100%—and got home in a straight shot. The only last-minute hitch was finding a charger at my local mall before giving the car back. All the spots were taken and it took a while to find a (slower) alternative nearby. The third and final EV rule (for now) is be prepared to occasionally pivot. Electric road trips are the future, but we’re still not quite there.

Make the trip happen

More and more car rental agencies offer electric vehicles—and they could save you a lot of money on gas (which is around $4.50 per gallon in Southern California at time of writing). Try Turo, a peer-to-peer rental service. EVs represent 8 percent of its listings. Choices include Lucid Air, Ford Mustang Mach-E, Polestar 2, Chevy Bolt, and Nissan Leaf. “Turo has seen a groundswell of interest in electric vehicles over the last few years ” says Albert Mangahas, Turo’s chief data officer. “Many of our hosts are building EV-only businesses on Turo, and guests interested in buying EVs are turning to Turo to try before they buy.”

Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.
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