Airlines in California
Several major US carriers fly within California. Flights are often operated by their regional subsidiaries, such as American Eagle, Delta Connection and United Express. Alaska Airlines/Virgin America, Frontier Airlines, Horizon Air and JetBlue serve many regional airports, as do low-cost airlines Southwest and Spirit.
Although cycling around California is a nonpolluting ‘green’ way to travel, the distances involved demand a high level of fitness and make it hard to cover much ground. Forget about the deserts in summer and the mountains in winter.
Adventure Cycling Association Online resource for purchasing bicycle-friendly maps and long-distance route guides; also organizes van-supported cycling tours for members (annual membership from $45).
Better World Club Annual membership in the bicycle club (from $40) gets you two 24-hour emergency roadside-assistance calls and transport within a 30-mile radius.
California Bicycle Coalition (http://calbike.org) Links to cycling route maps, events, safety tips, laws, bike-sharing programs and community nonprofit bicycle shops.
Rental & Purchase
- You can rent bikes by the hour, day or week in most cities and tourist towns.
- Rentals start around $10 per day for beach cruisers, and up to $45 or more for mountain bikes; ask about multiday and weekly discounts.
- Most rental companies require a large security deposit using a credit card.
- Buy new models from specialty bike shops and sporting-goods stores, or used bicycles from noticeboards at hostels, cafes etc.
- To buy or sell used bikes online, check Craigslist (www.craigslist.org).
- Cycling is allowed on all roads and highways – even along freeways if there’s no suitable alternative, such as a smaller parallel frontage road; all mandatory exits are marked.
- Some cities have designated bicycle lanes, but make sure you have your wits about you in traffic.
- Cyclists must follow the same rules of the road as vehicles. Don’t expect drivers to always respect your right of way.
- Wearing a bicycle helmet is mandatory for riders under 18 years of age.
- Ensure you have proper lights and reflective gear, especially if you’re pedaling at night or in fog.
- Greyhound transports bicycles as luggage (surcharge $35 to $45), provided the bicycle is disassembled and placed in a rigid container ($10 box may be available for purchase at some terminals).
- Amtrak’s Cascades, Capitol Corridor, Pacific Surfliner and San Joaquins trains have onboard racks where you can secure your bike unboxed; try to reserve a spot when making your ticket reservation ($5 to $10 surcharge may apply).
- On Amtrak trains without racks, bikes must be put in a box ($15 at most staffed terminals) and checked as luggage (fee $10 to $20). Not all stations or trains offer checked-baggage service, however.
- Before flying, you’ll need to disassemble your bike and box it as checked baggage. Contact airlines directly for details, including surcharges ($75 to $150 or more).
Boats won’t get you around California, although there are a few offshore routes, notably to Catalina Island off the coast of Los Angeles and Orange County, and to Channel Islands National Park from Ventura or Oxnard, northwest of LA heading toward Santa Barbara. On San Francisco Bay, regular ferries operate between San Francisco and Sausalito, Larkspur, Tiburon, Angel Island, Oakland, Alameda and Vallejo.
Greyhound buses are an economical way to travel between major cities and to points along the coast, but won’t get you off the beaten path or to national parks or small towns. Frequency of service varies from rarely to constantly, but the main routes have service several times daily.
Greyhound buses are usually clean, comfortable and reliable. The best seats are typically near the front, away from the bathroom. Limited on-board amenities include freezing air-con (bring a sweater) and slightly reclining seats, and select buses have electrical outlets and wi-fi. Smoking on board is prohibited. Long-distance buses stop for meal breaks and driver changes.
Bus stations are typically dreary, and often in dodgy areas – if you arrive at night, take a taxi into town or to your lodgings. In small towns where there is no bus station, know exactly where and when the bus arrives, be obvious as you flag it down and pay the driver with exact change.
You may save money by purchasing tickets in advance and by traveling between Monday and Thursday.
Discounts (on unrestricted fares only) are offered to seniors over 62 (5% off), students with a Student Advantage card (10%) and children under 16 years (20%). Tots under two years of age ride for free only if they don't require a seat.
Special promotional discounts, such as 50% off companion fares, are often available, though they may come with restrictions or blackout periods. Check Greyhound's website for current fare specials or ask when buying tickets.
Tickets & Reservations
It’s easy to buy tickets online with a credit card then pick them up (bring photo ID) at the terminal. You can also buy tickets over the phone, or in person from a ticket agent. Greyhound terminal ticket agents also accept debit cards, traveler’s checks (in US dollars) and cash.
General boarding is first-come, first-served. Buying tickets in advance doesn’t guarantee a seat on any particular bus unless you also purchase priority boarding, available only on some routes. Otherwise, arrive at least one hour prior to the scheduled departure to get a seat; allow extra time on weekends and holidays.
Travelers with disabilities who need special assistance should call 800-752-4841 (TDD/TTY 800-345-3109) at least 48 hours before traveling. Wheelchairs and mobility scooters are accepted as checked baggage (or carry-on, if space allows) and service animals are allowed on board.
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.
For 24-hour emergency roadside assistance, free maps and discounts on lodging, attractions, entertainment, car rentals and more, consider joining an auto club.
American Automobile Association Walk-in offices throughout California, add-on coverage for RVs and motorcycles, and reciprocal agreements with some international auto clubs (eg CAA in Canada, AA in the UK) – bring your membership card from home.
Better World Club Ecofriendly auto club supports environmental causes and offers add-on or stand-alone emergency roadside assistance for cyclists as well.
- 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 ride 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.
- Gas stations in California, nearly all of which are self-service, are ubiquitous, except in national and state parks and some sparsely populated desert and mountain areas.
- Gas is sold in gallons (one US gallon equals 3.78L). At time of writing, the average cost for mid-grade fuel was around $3 a gallon.
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 cover CDW/LDW, provided you charge the entire cost of the car rental to the card. Check with your credit-card issuer first to determine the extent of coverage and policy exclusions. If there’s an accident you may have to pay the rental-car company first, then seek reimbursement from the credit-card company.
- 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 Los Angeles and Las Vegas, NV.
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, large cash deposits are infrequently accepted.
With advance reservations, you can often get an economy-size vehicle with unlimited mileage from around $30 per day, plus insurance, taxes and fees. Weekend and weekly rates are usually the most economical. Airport locations may have cheaper rates but higher add-on fees; if you get a fly-drive package, local taxes may be extra when you pick up the car. 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. Child or infant safety seats are legally required; reserve them when booking for $10 to $15 per day.
If you’d like to minimize your carbon footprint, some major car-rental companies offer ‘green’ fleets of hybrid or biofueled rental cars, but these fuel-efficient models are in short supply. Reserve them well in advance and expect to pay significantly higher rates.
To find and compare independent car-rental companies, try Car Rental Express.
Rent-a-Wreck Minimum rental age and under-25 driver surcharges vary at six locations, including in LA and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Simply Rent-a-Car Rents hybrid, electric and flex-fuel vehicles in LA; ask about free delivery and pickup.
Super Cheap! Car Rental No surcharge for drivers ages 21 to 24; nominal daily fee applies for drivers ages 18 to 21 (full-coverage insurance required). Locations in the San Francisco Bay Area, LA and Orange County.
Zipcar Currently available in the San Francisco Bay Area, LA, San Diego and Sacramento, this car-sharing club charges usage fees (per hour or day), including free gas, insurance (a damage fee of up to $1000 may apply) and limited mileage. Apply online (foreign drivers accepted); application fee $25, annual membership from $70.
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 multiday and weekly rentals. Security deposits can be up to $2000 (credit card required).
California Motorcycle Adventures Harley-Davidson and BMW rentals in Silicon Valley.
Dubbelju Rents Harley-Davidson, Japanese and European imported motorcycles, as well as scooters.
Eagle Rider Nationwide company with 11 locations in California, as well as Las Vegas, NV.
Gas-guzzling recreational vehicles (RVs) remain popular despite fuel prices and being cumbersome to drive. That said, they do solve transportation, accommodation and cooking needs in one fell swoop. It’s easy to find RV campgrounds with electricity and water hookups, yet there are many places in national and state parks and in the mountains they can’t go. In cities RVs are a nuisance, because there are few places to park or plug them in.
Book RVs as far in advance as possible. Rental costs vary by size and model, but you can expect to pay more than $100 per day. Rates often don’t include mileage, bedding or kitchen kits, vehicle-prep fees or taxes. If pets are allowed, a surcharge may apply.
Camper USA Campervan rentals in the San Francisco Bay Area, LA and Las Vegas, NV.
Cruise America Nationwide RV-rental company with 20 locations statewide.
El Monte Over a dozen locations in California. This national RV-rental agency offers AAA discounts.
Escape Campervans Awesomely painted campervans at economical rates in the San Francisco Bay Area, LA and Las Vegas, NV.
Jucy Rentals Campervan rentals in the San Francisco Bay Area, LA and Las Vegas, NV.
Road Bear RV rentals in the San Francisco Bay Area and LA.
Vintage Surfari Wagons VW campervan rentals in Orange County.
Road Conditions & Hazards
For up-to-date highway conditions, including road closures and construction updates, check with the California Department of Transportation. 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 or rented (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.
- Drive on the right-hand side of the road.
- Talking, texting or otherwise using a cell (mobile) phone or other mobile electronic device without hands-free technology while driving is illegal.
- The driver and all passengers must use seat belts in a private vehicle. In a taxi or limo, back-seat passengers are not required to buckle up.
- Infant and child safety seats are required for children under eight years of age, or who are less than 4ft 9in tall.
- 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.
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.
- Cycling is a feasible way of getting around smaller cities and towns, but it’s not much fun in traffic-dense areas such as LA.
- San Francisco, Napa, Arcata, South Lake Tahoe, West Sacramento, Chico and Santa Monica 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.
- LA Metro is a combined, ever-expanding network of subway and light-rail trains around Los Angeles. 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.
- 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 for one.
Amtrak runs comfortable, if occasionally tardy, trains to major California cities and some towns. Amtrak’s Thruway buses provide onward connections from many train stations. Smoking is prohibited aboard trains and buses.
Amtrak routes within California:
California Zephyr Daily service from Emeryville (near San Francisco) via Davis and Sacramento to Truckee (near Lake Tahoe) and Reno, NV.
Capitol Corridor Links San Francisco’s East Bay (including Oakland, Emeryville and Berkeley) and San Jose with Davis and Sacramento several times daily; on-board wi-fi available. Thruway buses connect to San Francisco, Auburn (in Gold Country), Truckee (near Lake Tahoe) and Reno, NV.
Coast Starlight Chugs roughly north–south almost the entire length of the state. Daily stops include LA, Burbank, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Paso Robles, Salinas, San Jose, Oakland, Emeryville, Davis, Sacramento, Chico, Redding and Dunsmuir.
Pacific Surfliner Eight daily trains ply the San Diego–LA route, stopping at San Diego's North County beach towns and Orange County's San Juan Capistrano and Anaheim, home of Disneyland. Three trains continue north to Santa Barbara via Burbank, Ventura and Carpinteria, with one going all the way to San Luis Obispo. Trains hug the scenic coastline for much of the route. On-board wi-fi may be available.
San Joaquins Several daily trains with on-board wi-fi run between Bakersfield and Oakland or Sacramento. Thruway bus connections include San Francisco, LA, Palm Springs and Yosemite National Park.
Purchase tickets at train stations, by phone or online (in advance for the cheapest prices). Fares depend on the day of travel, the route, the type of seating etc. Fares may be slightly higher during peak travel times (eg summer). Round-trip tickets typically cost the same as two one-way tickets.
Usually seniors over 62 and students aged 13 to 25 with a valid student ID card receive a 15% discount, while up to two children aged two to 12 who are accompanied by an adult get 50% off. AAA members save 10%. Special promotions can become available anytime, so check Amtrak's website or ask when making reservations.
Amtrak reservations can be made up to 11 months prior to departure. In summer and around holidays, trains sell out quickly, so book tickets as early as possible. The cheapest coach fares are usually for unreserved seats; business-class fares come with guaranteed seats.
Travelers with disabilities who need special assistance, wheelchair space, transfer seats or accessible accommodations should call 800-872-7245 (TDD/TTY 800-523-6590). Also inquire about discounted fares when booking.
Amtrak’s California Rail Pass costs $159 ($80 for children ages two to 12) and is valid on all trains (except certain long-distance routes) and most connecting Thruway buses for seven days of travel within a 21-day period. Pass holders must reserve each leg of travel in advance and obtain hard-copy tickets prior to boarding.