Except in cities, public transit is rarely the most convenient option, and coverage to outlying towns and suburbs can be sparse. However, it's usually cheap, safe and reliable.
California’s love affair with cars runs deep for at least one practical reason: the state is so big, public transportation can’t cover it. For flexibility and convenience, you’ll probably want a car, but rental rates and gas prices can eat up a good chunk of your trip budget.
For 24-hour emergency roadside assistance, free maps and discounts on lodging, attractions, entertainment, car rentals and more, consider joining an auto club.
California law requires liability insurance for all vehicles. When renting a car, check your auto-insurance policy from home or your travel insurance policy to see if you’re already covered. If not, expect to pay about $20 per day.
Insurance against damage to the car itself, called Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) or Loss Damage Waiver (LDW), costs another $10 to $20 or more per day. The deductible may require you to pay the first $100 to $500 for any repairs.
Some credit cards will cover CDW/LDW, provided you charge the entire cost of the car rental to the card. If there’s an accident you may have to pay the rental-car company first, then seek reimbursement from the credit-card company.
For up-to-date highway conditions in California, including road closures and construction updates, dial 800-427-7623 or visit www.dot.ca.gov. For Nevada highways, call 877-687-6237 or check www.nvroads.com.
In places where winter driving is an issue, snow tires and tire chains may be required in mountain areas. Ideally, carry your own chains and learn how to use them before you hit the road. Otherwise, chains can usually be bought (but not cheaply) on the highway, at gas stations or in the nearest town. Most car-rental companies don’t permit the use of chains and also prohibit driving off-road or on dirt roads.
In rural areas, livestock sometimes graze next to unfenced roads. These areas are typically signed as ‘Open Range,’ with the silhouette of a steer. Where deer and other wild animals frequently appear roadside, you’ll see signs with the silhouette of a leaping deer. Take these signs seriously, particularly at night.
In coastal areas thick fog may impede driving – slow down and if it’s too soupy, get off the road. Along coastal cliffs and in the mountains, watch out for falling rocks, mudslides and avalanches that could damage or disable your car if struck.
It’s easy to find campgrounds throughout California with electricity and water hookups for RVs, but in big cities RVs are a nuisance, since there are few places to park or plug them in. RVs are cumbersome to drive and they burn fuel at an alarming rate. That said, they do solve transportation, accommodation and cooking needs in one fell swoop. Even so, there are many places in national and state parks and in the mountains that RVs can’t go.
Book RV rentals as far in advance as possible. Rental costs vary by size and model, but you can expect to pay over $100 per day. Rates often don’t include mileage, taxes, vehicle prep fees and bedding or kitchen kits. If pets are even allowed, a surcharge may apply.
To rent your own wheels, you’ll typically need to be at least 25 years old, hold a valid driver’s license and have a major credit card, not a check or debit card. A few companies may rent to drivers under 25 but over 21 for a hefty surcharge. If you don’t have a credit card, occasionally you may be able to make a large cash deposit instead.
With advance reservations, you can often get an economy-size vehicle from around $30 per day, plus insurance, taxes and fees. Weekend and weekly rates are usually the most economical. Airport rental locations may offer lower rates, but have higher fees; if you buy a fly-drive package, local taxes may be extra. City-center branches sometimes offer free pickups and drop-offs.
Rates generally include unlimited mileage, but expect surcharges for additional drivers and one-way rentals. Some rental companies let you pre-pay for your last tank of gas; this is rarely a good deal, as prices are higher than at gas stations and you’d need to bring the car back almost on empty. Child or infant safety seats are legally required; reserve them when booking for about $10 per day.
If you’d like to minimize your contribution to California's polluted air, some major car-rental companies now offer ‘green’ fleets of hybrid or bio-fueled rental cars, but they’re in short supply. Expect to pay significantly more for these models and reserve them well in advance.
To find and compare independent car-rental companies, as well as to search for cheaper long-term rentals, try Car Rental Express (www.carrentalexpress.com).
Motorcycle rentals and insurance are not cheap, especially if you've got your eye on a Harley. Depending on the model, renting a motorcycle costs $100 to $250 per day plus taxes and fees, including helmets, unlimited miles and liability insurance; one-way rentals and collision insurance (CDW) cost extra. Discounts may be available for multi-day and weekly rentals. Security deposits range up to $2000 (credit card required).