The attractions in Los Angeles are very spread out, unlike New York, Chicago or Washington DC where most of the sights that visitors want to see are in the central area or easily reachable by public transportation. LA has a limited metro and buses but you will want to rent a car to get around LA.
My most recent rental in December, 2010 was $12 per day from Thrifty, booked via American Airlines after I booked my flight, for an intermediate size. We got a 4 door Ford Fusion, at Thrifty they let you pick your car from the remaining pool of cars in the class your reserved. I had to play a bit with the times on the rental, by returning it an hour earlier, the price dropped from $26 to $12 per day!
I have used both Priceline and Hotwire several times to get cars in LA, always check though to make sure it's enough of a savings as the rental is nonrefundable with both, you can check Bidding For Travel to see what the going rates are on Priceline and Expedia, Travelocity or Orbitz to see what the prevailing rates are.
Most of the big car rental agencies have a location at LAX, other places to look include Expedia and Travelocity . Unless you are booking through Priceline or Hotwire, car rentals are usually cancellable.
I have used Dollar, Hertz, Avis, Alamo, Budget and Thrifty and all of them have been fine. All of the car rental locations are offsite at LAX requiring a short ride in a shuttle bus which you can pick up outside the baggage claim area.
A lot of the vehicles at LAX are larger vehicles such as vans and SUVs, a couple of times they've upgraded me, the first time it was a welcome upgrade to a van since we had 4-5 people traveling but the 2nd time I really wanted an intermediate car and they upgraded me first to a small SUV and then when I asked for something smaller I got a PT Cruiser which I did eventually get used to although it didn't get very good gas mileage.
If you're coming to Los Angeles, you need to rent a car. I know it's expensive, but there's just no other way to see the city properly.
Los Angeles has no efficient public transportation... the subway only covers a very small portion of the city-- and probably none of the places you want to see. There are buses, but you'll need to make multiple connections to get places and it's going to take a long time. There are taxis, but you need to call for them in advance because you won't see them just driving down the street. This isn't New York... taxis don't do big business here.
Renting a car is really the only reasonable way to get around. It's the best way to see this sprawling, spread-out city and all that it has to offer. I highly suggest that you bite the bullet and just do it. You'll be glad you did!
All the major car rental agencies (including Hertz, Alamo, Budget, Avis, etc...) have locations at the airport.
How to drive from San Diego to LA.
=== Introduction ===============================
This is not a neat-things-to-see travel guide. Check other parts of VT for that. This is a How-To-Avoid-The-Horrible-Traffic guide.
This guide assumes that you are going from almost any part of San Diego to central LA ( downtown, Hollywood, Burbank, etc ) on I5.
For those heading toward western LA ( Santa Monica, LAX, etc ) on I5/I405 much of this guide will still be useful. There is an appendix for I405 in part 3.
=== IF THIS PAGE IS SHOWING AS ONE LONG PARAGRAPH, CLICK ON 'SEE MY LOS ANGELES PAGE' ===
I drive SD to LA and back once a week. I've been doing it almost every week - except when vacationing, of course - for the past 3 years. Over those years, I've tried almost every time of the day and night, every day of the week. I've had lots of easy runs, and a few bad ones. I hope others can benefit from my experiences.
For going from LA to SD there is a companion guide; check out the 'transportation' tips in my SD page.
If you have any comments or suggestions to improve this guide, please email me.
=== Overview =====================================
The most important concern is when to leave.
There are two separate section on when to leave: one for weekdays ( just below ), and one for weekends ( in part 2 ).
=== Weekends - when to leave =====================================
On weekends, there is no predictable pattern other than that the traffic is light in the early mornings, gets worse late in the morning, and is worst in the afternoon.
Saturday evenings can vary quite a bit.
Sunday evenings after 8:00 pm are almost always uncrowded. But, paradoxically, leaving after 9:00 pm on a Sunday can be worse because the Caltrans road repair crews seem to save their biggest projects for late Sunday nights, and you may find four lanes of traffic restricted to one lane as they set up the construction equipment.
( continued in part 2 )
SD to LA on weekdays
=== Weekdays - when to leave =====================================
On weekdays, the consideration of when to leave is dominated by rush-hour traffic.
If you want to try to avoid morning rush hour by leaving early, you must leave SD by 4:30am. Any later than that and you will find yourself in 20+ miles of stop-and-go traffic in northern Orange County around 6:30am. ( This is known as the 'orange crush'. )
The next option is to leave mid-morning, after the rush hour traffic has dissipated. This means about 9:00am to noon. You will hit some traffic, particularly around Norwalk, but it won't be too bad. You have a 95% chance of making it within 2-1/2 hours.
Leaving in the early afternoon is chancy. If there are no problems of any kind, you can make it in 2-1/2 hours. But if there is a minor delay, you can get caught in afternoon rush hour.
Leaving between 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm is a virtual guarantee that you will hit traffic.
However, there is one way to slip through the cracks in the afternoon: leave about 3:00 or 3:15 pm, and stop for dinner along the way.
You will be out of San Diego before the rush hour. There will be some traffic around Carlsbad, but it is not too bad. Then it will get lighter as you go through Oceanside, and will be 75+ mph through Camp Pendleton. Traffic will then slow down around San Juan Capistrano and gradually turn into grinding stop-and-go around Irvine at about 5:00pm. Eat dinner in Irvine. There are a whole bunch of restaurants on Culver to the west of the freeway. Relax, enjoy your dinner, then get back on the freeway about 6:00 or 6:30.
If you leave SD after 7:00 you are not likely to encounter traffic. The longer you wait, the lighter the traffic.
( continued in part 3 )
SD to LA: the appendices
=== I405 - the western branch ==================================
Use the 73 toll road. It costs four dollars - as of Feb '07 - to drive the full length. It is always lighter traffic than the sections of I5 and I405 that it bypasses, and it is shorter, and the road surface is smoother. ( If you drive it on a clear night, at the northern end there is a great view of Orange County as you come over the crest of the last hill )
Watch your speed after you leave the toll booth at the northern end of 73. There are blind curves where cops like to catch speeders until you get onto I405.
=== The twist ==================================================
As you approach the I5/I405 split, appearances are deceptive. The freeway splits, then the two branches cross. Use the right lanes to get to I405, the left lanes to stay on I5. Watch the signs.
=== Camp Pendleton Marine Base =================================
Between Oceanside and San Clemente is about 15 miles of undeveloped land where the Marines practice. Where I5 goes through, it is a high-speed traffic zone. It may be faster than you are used to. The speed limit signs say 65mph, but the cops ignore almost anything under 90mph.
Please do not dawdle along in the left lane at 80 mph. You will be holding up traffic.
If you're worried about driving in LA, hopefully this will answer some of your questions and concerns.
Because there is a lot of traffic here, people who are coming to visit for the first time are naturally apprehensive about getting behind the wheel and joining the chaos. That's actually a good thing - being worried about it most likely means you'll take it seriously, which is exactly what you SHOULD do. But don't be so scared that you dismiss driving in LA as impossible.
The first thing to bear in mind is that if you've driven in NYC, Boston, DC, London, Paris, etc. then you will be pleasantly surprised upon arriving in LA. Most of the streets here are VERY wide with more than one lane in each direction. This makes driving much easier, in my opinion, because you have a little more elbow room to maneuver.
Secondly, you need to know where you're going BEFORE you even leave. Please, people, as a driver of these roads, I beg of you, don't trust GPS, don't toss a map on the seat beside you and look at as you drive. Figure it out before-hand - write it on stickie note or, if you do have GPS, at least get an idea of where you're going so you can make some smart decisions if something like detours arise. This will prevent you from doing things such as realizing you need to exit RIGHT NOW when you're clear over in the fast lane.
Thirdly, speaking of the fast lane, when you're on a freeway, the slower lanes are on the right, the faster lanes on the left. If this is your very first time on an LA freeway, don't get all the way over to the left. Stay in the right or 2nd from the right lane for a while to get comfortable with the speed of the traffic. The carpool lane is for 2 or more drivers and that is the very far left lane of most freeways. Not all have these lanes. They are marked with a diamond. Also, signal! Drivers here are, for the most part, polite. If you signal, they'll usually let you in.
Most freeways have the entrance and exit ramps on the right. As you enter, there will sometimes be a traffic light right before you get onto the freeway. These are usually active during rush hour to stagger the entrance traffic a little making it easier to merge and easier for the cars already on the freeway to let you merge. Bear in mind though, carpool traffic often have their own lane on the entrance ramp and they don't need to stop at the light. Exit ramps will have signs to let you know where you're coming out at. The hardest part about exit ramps is that you usually have to merge with an entrance ramp, so as you're slowing down and moving to your right to get off, people are also coming on, speeding up and trying to get over to the left and you're both using the same lane or two to do this so be aware of what is going on next to and behind you - don't concentrate too much on the signs ahead of you.
The speed limit on the freeways is 65mph maximum (usually 40 minimum, and, yes, you can get a ticket for going too slow) but some parts of some freeways are still 55mph. It is illegal to not wear a seatbelt and it is illegal to talk on your cell phone while driving. If you don't have a hands-free device maybe check into getting one.
Remember you don't have to take the freeways. The surface streets will also get you where you need to go (sometimes faster than the freeways depending on the situation). Some streets also have a number (for example, Pacific Coast Highway or PCH is Hwy 1, and Santa Monica Blvd is Highway 2). These highway roads are usually bigger, wider, and move a little better than other surface streets. One important thing to remember on surface streets is that you can get a ticket for blocking an intersection. That seems obvious but may not be when you're in traffic and it's moving slowly. You're following the car ahead of you and, as you get out into an intersection, the light changes to red. The car ahead of you still hasn't moved forward and so now you're stuck out in the intersection blocking the opposite direction of traffic. Not only will doing this make the other drivers seriously mad but the police can ticket you. Don't move forward into an intersection unless you can make it all the way to the other side.
We also have a lot more red light cameras here nowadays. If you're unfamiliar with these, they are set up to be timed with the red lights. If you begin through the intersection after the light has turned red, the camera will take a picture of your license plate and send you ticket in the mail. If you have a rental car, know that the time and date of the offense will be on that ticket so the car rental agency can figure out who was using that car at that time and track you down to pay the ticket. So, basically, if the light turns yellow, try to stop so you don't get your picture taken.
The most important piece of advice I can give, though, is that if you feel uncomfortable driving in LA then don't do it. While it isn't as bad as a lot of people think, it still can be challenging and if you're not up to the challenge there is certainly nothing wrong with that. It would be better and safer for you to use public transportation. Taxis here aren't as plentiful as they are in other large cities so you usually have to call for one (or have your hotel call for you). You could also look into hiring one for the day. You can also use shuttles for trips to and from the airports (and Disneyland has its own shuttle). There's also the metro system for LA, Pasadena, and Long Beach as well as "metrolink" trains to take you down into Orange and San Diego County.
While I was there I saw ads for metro/bus passes for $3 a day, but they won’t take you everywhere you want to go. What everyone says is true—you do need a car to get around. I waited a good 30 minutes for the #20 bus outside LACMA, then had a very long ride back to my hotel downtown.
Hire a Car it is a must. We hired some wicked car's and a super van to take us to LV. Very cheap to hire the van cost $120 from Friday to Monday. Also sharing cab's is very cheap. You can get a hired minibus from most good cab company's
Always wear your seat belt otherwise you will receive a ticket. If your passengers are under 18 years of age or do not have a valid California driver's license and they are not wearing their seat belt, you will receive a ticket for each one of them as well.
Beginning July 1, 2008, it is against the law for the driver of the vehicle to hold and use a cell phone while driving. Any "hands free" device is okay. Anyone 18 years or under cannot be on a cell phone while driving - even the hands free device is illegal.
Smoking in a vehicle when a minor (child 18 years or younger) is present is against the law.
When a school bus is stopped with red flashing lights on, you must stop as well. Children may be exiting or getting on around the bus at that time.
In California, you can make a right hand turn on a red light as long as you have come to a complete stop first and make sure it is clear and safe to make the right turn. UNLESS, it is posted otherwise - NO TURN ON RED.
You can make a U-turn in any intersection UNLESS a NO U-TURN sign is posted.
Do not cross double yellow lines even if you need to turn left from a driveway.
There is no such thing as a "California Stop". That's a stop that you slow down but not really stop the car and look to see if it is safe to go. You will get a ticket.
Pay attention to your parking meters. Most cities stay on top of these meters running out. If the meter is broken, you can park there and you won't get a ticket. I always make sure to put a note on my windshield that the meter is broken or money won't go into the meter.
In parts of LA, when parking on a slope or hill, there may be a sign posted that your wheels must be turned into the curb. If you do not do this, you will get a ticket.
When driving through small towns outside of LA, pay attention to your speed! It's easy to drive 35-45 miles per hour though these small towns because there is no traffic. If the speed limit is posted 25 miles per hour - you better be driving 25 miles per hour! The police are waiting on the side streets to give you a ticket.
For tourists who want to drive anywhere in the United States, see this website for more info:
A car might give you much freedom to explore LA, but, depending on the places you go during your visit, it might not be necessary. Consider that between Griffith Observatory (north) and Long Beach (south) there are about 50 km.
However, if you drive by car around Los Angeles beware of stress, especially if you are not used to drive in large and busy cities. Freeways can be very fast at certain times and almost parking lots at rush hours. As a tourist I would suggest not to use freeways but inner city roads. City roads are often large and plenty of traffic lights but you'll see more of LA and you might find some interesting graffiti to look at on some walls. I strongly suggest to get a GPS: set it to the least use of freeways, insert addresses of spots to visit and enjoy your trip.
If you want to save money on car rental I suggest " Rent a Wreck" company
With LA traffic, if you're smart about it, you can dodge it pretty well.
First, you should try to limit your driving to between 9am and 3pm and after 7pm.
Still though, LA freeways will randomly go crazy throughout the day, so you have to check traffic reports. If you have a "smart" mobile phone (mine is only relatively smart, but it still works), you can go onto Google Maps and check traffic conditions using their "Traffic" tab. Failing that, you can call 866-MY-TRAFC and get the reports. Or, of course, you can listen to all news stations (mostly AM band, I usually use KABC, 790) and wait for the traffic reports to come up.
In LA I rented a car for 11 days. Couldn't have made a better choice. Driving in and around the city wasn't hard at all and neither was finding parking space. On top of that, parking was in general much cheaper than in Belgium.
Want to know more about driving and parking in LA?
- on the road
- using GPS
- traffic jams
- about the freeways
- the rules
- what about public transit?
Check out my detailed post on http://wonderfulwanderings.com/driving-and-parking-in-los-angeles/
Many road in LA are jammed even late at night or the weekend. The following is a list of problem areas and alternate routes:
The 101 Downtown to Ventura county
Try the 118 instead through the Valley.
The 405 from the 101 to the 105
You're screwed. You can take surface streets for short distances, but if you go to or from the Valley just try avoid rush hour. Possibly go through Malibu Canyon if it is on your way.
The 10 from Santa Monica to Downtown.
Try Olympic Blvd or Pico Blvd or if it is not out of your way too much, the 105 isn't half bad.
The 5 from Downtown to the 91 (near Disneyland)
Maybe try the 110 south to the 91 east.
In addition to the 118 and the 110 mentioned as quick freeways, also try to use:
The 210 north of Pasadena
PCH through Malibu (but not in the summer)
The 170 (usually moves at about 80mph)
If the metro goes where you are going, use it. It will be faster.
Rent a car. Preferably one with unlimited miles e.g. from priceline.com . You Must Avoid all forms of public transportation. You must listen to traffic reports (AM 980, 1070) to find out which freeway to take.
The best way to move around the area is by a Car... nearly everyone is driving here. LA is huuuuuge and very spread around. Thus, public transportation will only get you to a few limited areas. Rent a car and dont be afraid driving here. You will find driving much easier then in NY City or large European cities. Yes, there can be traffic, but FW and HW systems is well organized and peple generally follow the rules and being pretty good and respectful toward other drivers on the road... No, I am not kidding... especially if you want to go to the beaches and to Orange County, a car is must.