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Local transport

Local Transportation

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.

Bicycle

  • Cycling is a feasible way of getting around smaller cities and towns, but it’s not much fun in traffic-dense areas like LA.
  • San Francisco, Calistoga, Arcata, Sacramento, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara, Santa Monica and Coronado are among California’s most bike-friendly communities, as rated by the League of American Bicyclists (www.bikeleague.org).
  • Bicycles may be transported on many local buses and trains, sometimes during off-peak, non-commuter hours only.

Bus, Cable Car, Streetcar & Trolley

  • Almost all cities and larger towns have reliable local bus systems (average $1 to $3 per ride). Outside of major metro areas, they may provide only limited evening and weekend service.
  • San Francisco’s extensive Municipal Railway (MUNI) network includes not only buses and trains, but also historic streetcars and those famous cable cars.
  • San Diego runs trolleys around some neighborhoods and to the Mexican border.

Train

  • LA's Metro is a combined, ever-expanding network of subway and light-rail. Metrolink commuter trains connect LA with surrounding counties.
  • San Diego's Coaster commuter trains run from downtown and Old Town to Carlsbad, Encinitas, Solana Beach and Oceanside in the North County.
  • To get around the San Francisco Bay Area, hop aboard Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) or Caltrain.

Taxi

  • Taxis are metered, with flag-fall fees of $2.50 to $3.50 to start, plus around $2 to $3 per mile. Credit cards may be accepted, but bring cash just in case.
  • Taxis may charge extra for baggage and airport pickups.
  • Drivers expect a 10% to 15% tip, rounded up to the next dollar.
  • Taxis cruise the streets of the busiest areas in large cities, but elsewhere you may need to call a cab company.

Car, Motorcycle & RV

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.

Automobile Associations

For 24-hour emergency roadside assistance, free maps and discounts on lodging, attractions, entertainment, car rentals and more, consider joining an auto club.

Driver’s Licenses

  • Visitors may legally drive a car in California for up to 12 months with their home driver’s license.
  • If you’re from overseas, an International Driving Permit (IDP) will have more credibility with traffic police and simplify the car-rental process, especially if your license doesn’t have a photo or isn’t written in English.
  • To drive a motorcycle, you’ll need a valid US state motorcycle license or a specially endorsed IDP.
  • International automobile associations can issue IDPs, valid for one year, for a fee. Always carry your home license together with the IDP.

Fuel

  • Gas stations in California, nearly all of which are self-service, are ubiquitous, except in national parks and some sparsely populated desert and mountain areas.
  • Gas is sold in gallons (one US gallon equals 3.78L). At press time, the average cost for mid-grade fuel was more than $4.

Insurance

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.

Parking

  • Parking is usually plentiful and free in small towns and rural areas, but often scarce and/or expensive in cities.
  • When parking on the street, read all posted regulations and restrictions (eg street-cleaning hours, permit-only residential areas) and pay attention to colored curbs, or you may be ticketed and towed.
  • You can pay municipal parking meters and sidewalk pay stations with coins (eg quarters) and sometimes credit or debit cards.
  • Expect to pay $30 to $50 for overnight parking in a city lot or garage.
  • Flat-fee valet parking at hotels, restaurants, nightclubs etc is common in major cities, especially LA and Las Vegas, NV.

Road Conditions & Hazards

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.

Road Rules

  • Drive on the right-hand side of the road.
  • Talking or texting on a cell phone without a hands-free device while driving is illegal.
  • The use of seat belts is required for drivers, front-seat passengers and children under age 16.
  • Infant and child safety seats are required for children under six years old or weighing less than 60lb.
  • All motorcyclists must wear a helmet. Scooters are not allowed on freeways.
  • High-occupancy (HOV) lanes marked with a diamond symbol are reserved for cars with multiple occupants, sometimes only during signposted hours.
  • Unless otherwise posted, the speed limit is 65mph on freeways, 55mph on two-lane undivided highways, 35mph on major city streets and 25mph in business and residential districts and near schools.
  • Except where indicated, turning right at a red stoplight after coming to a full stop is permitted, although intersecting traffic still has the right of way.
  • At four-way stop signs, cars proceed in the order in which they arrived. If two cars arrive simultaneously, the one on the right has the right of way. When in doubt, politely wave the other driver ahead.
  • When emergency vehicles (ie police, fire or ambulance) approach from either direction, carefully pull over to the side of the road.
  • California has strict anti-littering laws; throwing trash from a vehicle may incur a $1000 fine.
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is illegal. It’s also illegal to carry open containers of alcohol, even empty ones, inside a vehicle. Store them in the trunk.

Rental

Recreational Vehicles

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.

Cars

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).

Avis

Budget

Car Rental Express

Dollar

Enterprise

Hertz

Moturis

National

Payless

Road Bear

Sixt

Thrifty

Zipcar

Motorcycles

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).