- To get through airport security checkpoints (30- to 45-minute wait times are standard), you’ll need a boarding pass and photo ID.
- Some travelers may be required to undergo a secondary screening, involving hand pat downs and carry-on-bag searches.
- Airport security measures restrict many common items (eg pocket knives, scissors) from being carried on planes. Check current restrictions with the Transportation Security Administration (TSA; www.tsa.gov).
- Currently TSA requires that all carry-on liquids and gels be stored in 3oz or smaller bottles placed inside a quart-sized clear plastic zip-top bag. Exceptions, which must be declared to checkpoint security officers, include medications.
- All checked luggage is screened for explosives. TSA may open your suitcase for visual confirmation, breaking the lock if necessary. Leave your bags unlocked or use a TSA-approved lock.
Airports & Airlines
California’s major international airports are Los Angeles International Airport in Southern California and San Francisco International Airport in Northern California. Smaller regional airports throughout the state are mainly served by domestic US airlines. Many domestic and international air carriers offer direct flights to and from California.
There is no separate departure tax for domestic or international flights leaving California.
It’s relatively easy crossing from the USA into Mexico; it’s crossing back into the USA that can pose problems if you haven’t brought all of the required documents. Check the ever-changing passport and visa requirements with the US Department of State (http://travel.state.gov) beforehand.
The US Customs & Border Protection (http://bwt.cbp.gov) tracks current wait times at every US border crossing. On the US–Mexico border between San Diego and Tijuana, San Ysidro is the world’s busiest border crossing, with average wait times of an hour or more.
US citizens do not require a visa for stays of 72 hours or less within the Mexican border zone (ie as far south as Ensenada). But to reenter the USA, US citizens need to present a US passport or other WHTI-compliant travel document (see www.cbp.gov/travel); a regular US driver's license is no longer enough.
- US-based Greyhound and Greyhound México have cooperative service; that is, buses run direct between main towns in Mexico and California.
- Northbound buses from Mexico can take some time to cross the US border, as US immigration may insist on checking every person on board.
- Greyhound Canada routes between Canada and the US usually require transferring buses at the border.
Car & Motorcycle
- If you’re driving into the USA from Canada or Mexico, bring your vehicle’s registration papers, liability insurance and driver’s license; an International Driving Permit (IDP) is a good supplement but is not required.
- If you’re renting a car or a motorcycle, ask if the agency allows its vehicles to be taken across the Mexican or Canadian border – chances are it doesn’t.
To & from Canada
- Canadian auto insurance is typically valid in the USA and vice versa.
- If your papers are in order, taking your own car across the US–Canada border is usually quick and easy.
- On weekends and holidays, especially in summer, border-crossing traffic can be heavy and waits long.
- Occasionally the authorities of either country decide to search a car thoroughly. Remain calm and be polite.
To & from Mexico
- Unless you’re planning an extended stay in Mexico, taking a car across the Mexican border is more trouble than it’s worth. Instead take the trolley from San Diego or park your car on the US side and walk across instead.
- If you do decide to drive across, you must buy Mexican car insurance either beforehand or at the border crossing.
- Expect long border-crossing waits, especially on weekends and holidays and during weekday commuter rush hours.
- Amtrak operates twice-daily Cascades trains (with on-board wi-fi) and several daily Thruway buses from Vancouver, British Columbia in Canada to Seattle, Washington.
- Canadian and US customs and immigration inspections happen at the Pacific Central Station in Vancouver, either immediately after arrival or before boarding, not at the border itself.
- From Seattle, Amtrak’s daily Coast Starlight rail service connects south to several destinations in California, including Sacramento and the San Francisco Bay Area, en route to Los Angeles.
- Currently, no trains connect California and Mexico.
Greyhound is the major long-distance bus company, with routes throughout the USA, including to/from California. Routes trace major highways and may stop only at larger population centers, with services to many small towns having been cut.
Amtrak operates a fairly extensive rail system throughout the USA. Trains are comfortable, if a bit slow, and are equipped with dining and lounge cars and sometimes wi-fi on long-distance routes. Fares vary according to the type of train and seating (eg coach or business class, sleeping compartments).
Amtrak's major long-distance services to/from California:
California Zephyr Daily service between Chicago and Emeryville (from $136, 52 hours), near San Francisco, via Denver, Salt Lake City, Reno, Truckee and Sacramento.
Coast Starlight Travels the West Coast daily from Seattle to LA (from $97, 35½ hours) via Portland, Sacramento, Oakland, San Jose, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara.
Southwest Chief Daily departures from Chicago and LA (from $141, 43 hours) via Kansas City, Albuquerque, Flagstaff and Barstow.
Sunset Limited Thrice-weekly service between New Orleans and LA (from $136, 46½ hours) via Houston, San Antonio, El Paso, Tucson and Palm Springs.
Amtrak’s USA Rail Pass is valid for coach-class train travel only (and not Thruway buses) for 15 ($459), 30 ($689) or 45 ($899) days; children aged two to 12 pay half price. Travel is limited to eight, 12 or 18 one-way ‘segments,’ respectively. A segment is not the same as a one-way trip; if reaching your destination requires riding more than one train, you’ll use multiple pass segments. Purchase passes online, then make advance reservations for each trip segment.
Several international cruise lines dock along California's coast at piers and cruise-ship terminals in San Diego, Long Beach and San Francisco.