Bargaining is not customary in shops, restaurants or farmers markets in California and may be seen as rude. About the only place where you may encounter it is in open, wholesale markets in DTLA, such as the Fashion District.
Dangers & Annoyances
Don't believe everything you see in the movies. Despite its seemingly apocalyptic list of dangers – guns, violent crime, riots, earthquakes – California is a reasonably safe place to visit. The greatest danger is posed by car accidents. Buckle up (it’s the law), no handheld phones behind the wheel and please try not to look down at your phone while walking or crossing the street. The biggest annoyances, meanwhile, are city traffic and crowds. Wildlife poses some small threats, and, of course, there is the unlikely, albeit dramatic, possibility of a natural disaster.
Earthquakes happen all the time, but most are so tiny they are detectable only by sensitive seismological instruments. If you’re caught in a serious shaker, heed the following advice:
- If indoors, get under a desk or table.
- Protect your head and stay clear of windows, mirrors or anything that might fall.
- Don’t head for elevators or go running into the street.
- If you’re in a shopping mall or large public building, expect the alarm and/or sprinkler systems to come on.
- If outdoors, get away from buildings, trees and power lines.
- If you’re driving, pull over to the side of the road away from bridges, overpasses and power lines. Stay inside the car until the shaking stops.
- If you’re on a sidewalk near buildings, duck into a doorway to protect yourself from falling bricks, glass and debris.
- Prepare for aftershocks.
- Turn on the radio and listen for bulletins.
- Use the telephone only if absolutely necessary.
If you find yourself being carried offshore by a dangerous ocean current called a riptide, the important thing is to just keep afloat. Don’t panic or try to swim against the current, as this will quickly exhaust you and you may drown. Instead, try to swim parallel to the shoreline and once the current stops pulling you out, swim back toward shore.
- Go Los Angeles Card (www.smartdestinations.com; 1-day pass adult/child 3-12yr $85/69, up to 5 days $315/275) Includes admission to major theme parks all over SoCal (Disney excepted); for the best deals, buy online.
- Southern California CityPass (www.citypass.com/SouthernCalifornia; adult/child from $353/324) Covers three-day admission to Disneyland and Disney California Adventure and one-day admission each to Legoland and SeaWorld, with add-ons available for the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park ($42). Passes are valid for 14 days from the first day of use. It’s cheapest to buy them in advance online.
The US electric current is 110V to 115V, 60Hz AC. Outlets are made for flat two-prong plugs (which often have a third, rounded prong for grounding). If your appliance is made for another electrical system (eg 220V), you’ll need a step-down converter, which can be bought at hardware stores and drugstores. However, most electronic devices (laptops, camera-battery chargers, etc) are built for dual-voltage use, so you will only need a plug adapter.
Embassies & Consulates
Most foreign embassies are in Washington, DC, but some countries have consular offices in Los Angeles, including the following:
Australian Consulate Century City.
Canadian Consulate Downtown LA.
French Consulate Near Century City.
German Consulate Mid-City.
Japanese Consulate Downtown LA.
New Zealand Consulate Santa Monica.
UK Consulate Century City.
For countries not listed here, visit www.state.gov/s/cpr/rls/fco/.
Emergency & Important Numbers
All phone numbers have a three-digit area code followed by a seven-digit local number. For long-distance and toll-free calls, dial 1 plus all 10 digits.
|International dialing code||011|
|Emergency (ambulance, fire & police)||911|
|Directory assistance (local)||411|
Entry & Exit Formalities
California is an important agricultural state. To prevent the spread of pests and diseases, certain food items (including meats, fresh fruit and vegetables) may not be brought into the state. Bakery items, chocolates and hard-cured cheeses are admissible. If you drive into California across the border from Mexico or from the neighboring states of Oregon, Nevada or Arizona, you may have to stop for a quick questioning and inspection by California Department of Food and Agriculture agents.
Under the US Department of Homeland Security's Orwellian-sounding Office of Biometric Identity Management, almost all foreign visitors to the USA (excluding, for now, many Canadians, some Mexican citizens, children under age 14 and seniors over age 79) will be digitally photographed and have their electronic (inkless) fingerprints scanned upon arrival.
For more information about entering the USA, visit www.cbp.gov online.
Currently, non-US citizens and permanent residents may import up to the following limits:
- 1L of alcohol (if you’re over 21 years old)
- 200 cigarettes (one carton) or 100 (non-Cuban) cigars (if you’re over 18 years old)
- $100 worth of gifts
Amounts higher than $10,000 in cash, traveler’s checks, money orders and other cash equivalents must be declared. Don’t even think about bringing in illegal drugs.
For more complete, up-to-date information, check with US Customs and Border Protection (www.cbp.gov).
- Under the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative (WHTI), all travelers must have a valid machine-readable (MRP) passport when entering the US by air, land or sea.
- The only exceptions are for some US, Canadian and Mexican citizens traveling by land who can present another WHTI-compliant document (eg pre-approved ‘trusted traveler’ cards). For details, visit www.cbp.gov/travel online.
- All foreign passports must meet current US standards and be valid for six months longer than your intended stay in the USA.
- MRP passports issued or renewed after October 26, 2006 must be e-passports (ie have a digital photo and integrated chip with biometric data).
Generally not required for stays of 90 days or less for citizens of Visa Waiver Program (VWP) countries with ESTA approval (apply online at least 72 hours in advance).
- Depending on your country of origin, the rules for entering the USA keep changing. Double-check current visa and passport requirements before coming to the USA.
- Currently, under the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), visas are not required for citizens of 38 countries for stays up to 90 days (no extensions) as long as you have a machine-readable passport (MRP) that's valid for six months beyond your intended stay.
- Citizens of VWP countries must still register online with the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov/) at least 72 hours before travel. Once approved, ESTA registration ($14) is valid for up to two years or until your passport expires, whichever comes first.
- For most Canadian citizens traveling with Canadian passports that meet current US standards, a visa for short-term visits (usually up to six months) and ESTA registration aren't required.
- Citizens from all other countries or whose passports don't meet current US standards need to apply for a temporary visitor visa. Best done in your home country, the process costs a nonrefundable fee (minimum $160), involves a personal interview and can take several weeks, so apply as early as possible.
- For up-to-date information about entry requirements and eligibility, check the visa section of the US Department of State website (http://usvisas.state.gov) or contact the nearest US embassy or consulate in your home country (for a complete list, visit www.usembassy.gov).
Gay & Lesbian Travellers
SoCal is a magnet for LGBT travelers. Hot spots include West Hollywood (WeHo), Silver Lake and Long Beach around LA, San Diego's Hillcrest neighborhood and the desert resort of Palm Springs. Some scenes are predominantly male-oriented, although women usually won’t feel too left out.
Same-sex marriage is legal in California. Despite widespread tolerance, homophobic bigotry has not been completely rooted out in SoCal, especially in rural areas.
Advocate (www.advocate.com/travel) Online news, gay travel features and destination guides.
Damron (www.damron.com) Classic, advertiser-driven gay travel guides and ‘Gay Scout’ mobile app.
Gay & Lesbian National Hotline (888-843-4564, www.glnh.org) For counseling and referrals of any kind.
Los Angeles LGBT Center Offers information and health services for the LGBT community.
Mister B&B (www.misterbandb.com) Like Airbnb, but the hosts are gay.
Out Traveler (www.outtraveler.com) Free online magazine with travel tips, destination guides and hotel reviews.
Purple Roofs (www.purpleroofs.com) Online directory of LGBT accommodations.
Getting travel insurance to cover theft, loss and medical problems is highly recommended. Some policies do not cover ‘risky’ activities such as scuba diving, motorcycling and skiing, so read the fine print. Make sure the policy at least covers hospital stays and an emergency flight home.
Paying for your airline ticket or rental car with a credit card may provide limited travel accident insurance. If you already have private US health insurance or a homeowners or renters policy, find out what those policies cover and only get supplemental insurance. If you have prepaid a large portion of your vacation, trip cancellation insurance may be a worthwhile expense.
If you are traveling across the border from San Diego into Mexico by car, separate Mexican insurance is required. It can be purchased at agents near the San Diego side of the border.
Worldwide travel insurance is available at www.lonelyplanet.com/travel-insurance. You can buy, extend and claim online anytime, even if you’re already on the road.
Checking insurance quotes…
- Wi-fi hotspots are common all over California and are standard at airports, lodging, public libraries, coffee shops, tourist information centers, many museums, shops, bars and restaurants, and some state parks.
- Public libraries have internet terminals; online time may be limited, advance sign-up required and a nominal fee charged for out-of-network visitors.
- Cybercafes typically charge $6 to $12 per hour for online access.
- With branches in most SoCal cities and towns, FedEx Office offers internet access at self-service computer workstations (30¢ to 40¢ per minute) and sometimes free wi-fi, plus digital-photo printing and CD-burning stations.
Drugs & Alcohol
- Although California voted in 2016 to decriminalize marijuana for personal use, until the law takes effect in 2018, possession of less than 1oz of marijuana is a misdemeanor in California, and the exact details of implementation are still being determined. Possession of any other drug or more than an ounce of weed is a felony punishable by lengthy jail time. For foreigners, conviction of any drug-related offense is grounds for deportation.
- Police can give roadside sobriety checks to assess if you’ve been drinking or using drugs. If you fail, they’ll require you to take a breath, urine or blood test to determine if your blood-alcohol level is over the legal limit (0.08%). Refusing to be tested is treated the same as if you had taken and failed the test.
- Penalties for driving under the influence (DUI) of drugs or alcohol range from license suspension and fines to jail.
- It’s illegal to carry open containers of alcohol inside a vehicle, even if they’re empty. Unless they're full and sealed, put them in the trunk.
- Consuming alcohol anywhere other than at a private residence or licensed premises is a no-no, which puts parks and beaches off-limits.
- Bars, clubs, restaurants and liquor stores often ask for photo ID to prove you are of legal drinking age (21 years old). Being 'carded' is standard practice, so don't take it personally.
Police & Security
- For police, fire and ambulance emergencies, dial 911. For nonemergency police assistance, contact the nearest local police station (dial 411 for directory assistance).
- If you are stopped by the police, be courteous. Don’t get out of the car unless asked. Keep your hands where the officer can see them (eg on the steering wheel) at all times.
- There is no system of paying fines on the spot. Attempting to pay the fine to the officer may lead to a charge of attempted bribery.
- For traffic violations, the officer will explain your options. There is usually a 30-day period to pay a fine; most matters can be handled by mail.
- If you are arrested, you have the right to remain silent and are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Everyone has the right to make one phone call. If you don’t have a lawyer, one will be appointed free of charge.
- Due to security concerns about terrorism, never leave your bags unattended, especially not at airports or bus and train stations.
- Newspapers Major dailies are the center-left Los Angeles Times (www.latimes.com), conservative San Diego Union-Tribune (www.utsandiego.com) and right-leaning Orange County Register (www.ocregister.com); alternative tabloids are LA Weekly (www.laweekly.com), San Diego Reader (www.sandiegoreader.com) and OC Weekly (www.ocweekly.com).
- Radio National Public Radio (NPR), lower end of FM dial, with a variety of news and cultural programming.
- TV PBS (public broadcasting), plus cable channels CNN (news), ESPN (sports), HBO (movies) and the Weather Channel.
ATMs are widely available. Credit cards are usually required for reservations at hotels and some restaurants. Travelers checks (US dollars) and non-local checks rarely accepted. Tipping is customary, not optional.
ATMs are available 24/7 at most banks, shopping malls, airports and grocery and convenience stores. Expect a minimum surcharge of $2.50 per transaction in addition to any fees charged by your home bank. Most ATMs are connected to international networks and offer decent foreign-exchange rates.
Most people do not carry large amounts of cash for everyday use, relying instead on credit and debit cards. Some businesses refuse to accept bills larger than $20.
Credit cards are almost universally accepted. In fact, it's almost impossible to rent a car, book a hotel room or buy tickets without one. Visa, MasterCard and American Express are widely accepted.
For current exchange rates see www.xe.com.
You can exchange money at major airports, some banks and all currency-exchange offices such as American Express or Travelex. Always inquire about rates and fees. Outside big cities, exchanging money may be a problem, so make sure you have a credit card and sufficient cash.
Tipping is not optional. Only withhold tips in cases of outrageously bad service (in which case, a word to the manager is also warranted).
- Airport skycaps and hotel bellhops $2 per bag, minimum per cart $5.
- Bartenders 15% per round, minimum $1 per drink.
- Concierges No tips required for simple information, up to $10 for securing last-minute restaurant reservations, sold-out show tickets etc.
- Housekeeping staff $2 to $4 daily, left under the card provided; more if you’re messy.
- Parking valets At least $2 when handed back your car keys.
- Restaurant servers and room service 18% to 20%, unless a gratuity is already charged (common for groups of six or more).
- Taxi drivers 15% of metered fare, rounded up to the next dollar.
Traveler’s checks have pretty much fallen out of use. Big-city restaurants, hotels and larger stores often will accept traveler’s checks (in US dollars only), but smaller businesses and fast-food chains may refuse them.
Standard opening hours are as follows. Individual opening hours vary widely.
Banks 9am–5pm Monday to Thursday, to 6pm Friday, some 9am–1:30pm Saturday
Business hours (general) 9am–5pm Monday to Friday
Post offices 9am–5pm Monday to Friday, some 9am–noon Saturday
Restaurants 7:30–10:30am, 11:30am–2:30pm and 5:30–10pm
Shops 10am–6pm Monday to Saturday, noon–5pm Sunday (malls open later)
The US Postal Service (www.usps.com) is inexpensive and reliable. For sending important documents or packages overseas, try FedEx (www.fedex.com) or UPS (www.ups.com).
On the following national holidays, banks, schools and government offices (including post offices) close, and transportation, museums and other services operate on a Sunday schedule. Holidays falling on a weekend are usually observed the following Monday.
New Year’s Day January 1
Martin Luther King Jr Day Third Monday in January
Presidents’ Day Third Monday in February
Good Friday Friday before Easter (March/April)
Memorial Day Last Monday in May
Independence Day July 4
Labor Day First Monday in September
Columbus Day Second Monday in October
Veterans Day November 11
Thanksgiving Day Fourth Thursday in November
Christmas Day December 25
Colleges take a one- or two-week ‘spring break’ around Easter, sometime in March or April. Some hotels and resorts, especially by beaches, near theme parks and in the deserts, may raise their rates during this time. School summer vacations make July and August the busiest travel months.
- Smoking is generally prohibited inside all public buildings, including airports, shopping malls and train and bus stations, and inside all restaurants and bars.
- Smoking is also prohibited on many beaches and, in some cities and towns, it is illegal to smoke outdoors if you are within a certain distance of a public business.
- At hotels, you must specifically request a smoking room; some properties are entirely nonsmoking by law. Fines for smoking in a nonsmoking room are typically $100 to $250.
Cell-phone coverage is spotty in deserts. The only foreign phones that will work in the USA are GSM multiband models. Buy prepaid SIM cards or disposable cell phones locally.
Payphones & Phonecards
Payphones are becoming few and far between in California. Where they still exist, they're usually coin-operated, although some accept credit cards. Local calls usually cost 50¢ minimum. For long-distance calls, you're usually better off buying a prepaid phonecard sold at supermarkets, pharmacies and electronics and convenience stores.
- US phone numbers consist of a three-digit area code followed by a seven-digit local number.
- From land lines, dial 1 plus the area code plus the local number. If calling from a US mobile phone, the 1 is not necessary.
- Toll-free numbers begin with 800, 844, 855, 866, 877 or 888 and must be preceded by 1.
- For direct international calls, dial 011 plus the country code plus the area code (usually without the initial '0') plus the local phone number.
- The country code for the US is 1 (the same as for Canada, but beware international rates apply between the two countries).
- Pacific Standard Time (UT minus 8 hours).
- During Daylight Saving Time (DST), the second Sunday in March to the first Sunday in November, clocks are set one hour ahead.
Modern 'restrooms' are easy to find throughout SoCal. The best public facilities tend to be in hotel lobbies and upper-end restaurants, shopping malls and amusement parks. Many other shops will let you use their facilities if you ask nicely. In a pinch, gasoline stations also have toilets, but cleanliness can be an issue.
A growing number of communities, businesses and institutions now offer gender-neutral bathrooms (usually single-stall), in solidarity with the trans community.
California Travel & Tourism Commission (www.visitcalifornia.com) is a great resource for pre-trip planning. This state-run agency also operates several California Welcome Centers (www.visitcwc.com), where staff dispense maps and brochures and may be able to help find accommodations. See regional sections for local tourism authorities.
Travel With Children
Southern California is unquestionably one of the most child-friendly vacation spots on the planet. The kids will be begging to go to theme parks and teens to celebrity hot spots. Get those over with (you might enjoy them too), then introduce them to many other worlds, big and small.
Best Regions for Kids
- Orange County
Disneyland is a natural with kids, and Knott's Berry Farm is a more old-time, Americana attraction with a summer water park. Speaking of water, there are any number of gorgeous beaches to choose from.
- Los Angeles
See stars in Hollywood and get behind the movie magic at Universal Studios, then hit the beaches and Griffith Park for SoCal fun in the sun. What, it’s raining? Dive into the city’s many kid-friendly museums instead.
- San Diego
From pandas to koalas, flamingos to elephants, San Diego Zoo is paws-down the best zoo in Southern California. Also make time for the zoo's safari park in Escondido, as well as the other family-oriented attractions in Balboa Park, maritime sites along downtown's Embarcadero and colorful Legoland in Carlsbad.
Southern California for Kids
SoCal’s sunny skies and warm temperatures lend themselves to outdoor activities of all kinds. Here's a small sampling: swimming, surfing, snorkeling, cycling, kayaking, hiking and horseback riding. Many outdoor outfitters and tour operators have dedicated kids’ activities. On those rare cold, rainy days – or if you need a break from all that sun – you'll find top-notch museums and indoor entertainment galore.
Sometimes no organized activity is even needed. We’ve seen young kids thrill at catching their first glimpse of a palm tree, and teens with sophisticated palates bliss out over their first taste of heirloom tomatoes at a farmers market or shrimp dumplings at a dim-sum palace. The bottom line: if the kids are having a good time, you will be too.
Most restaurants in Southern California – not just fast-food places – are easygoing places to bring kids. A good measure is the noise level: the louder, the more kid-friendly. Casual eateries in well-trafficked neighborhoods typically have high chairs and children's menus available, and some break out the paper place mats and crayons for drawing. Even restaurants without special kids’ menus can usually whip up something your children will eat. Generally, dining earlier (say, before 6pm) is better for families with young ones.
Theme parks have dozens of ways to get the kids hopped-up on sugar and salt at expensive prices, and many don’t permit picnics or food to be brought in. One way to get around this is to carry a cooler in the car and have a picnic in the parking lot (although be sure to get everyone's hand stamped for park re-entry before you do).
One place kids are generally unwelcome is at high-end restaurants. Unless your children are exceptionally well behaved, properly dressed and old enough to appreciate the meal, neither the staff nor the other diners are likely be charmed.
If all else fails, supermarket chains such as Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Gelson’s have healthy takeout food. Baby food, infant formula, disposable diapers (nappies) and other necessities are also widely sold at supermarkets and pharmacies.
Universal Studios Hollywood If the kids are old enough to appreciate movies that grownups also like, they’ll love this theme park, though there’s not too much for the preschool set.
Six Flags Magic Mountain Older, coaster-friendly kids will thrill while whirring, whizzing and whooping on some of the best in the west.
Pacific Park Small, bargain-priced park on the Santa Monica Pier brings fun for the whole family.
Hollywood Walk of Fame Get the kids’ pictures taken beside the star of their favorite star on Hollywood Blvd. Actors dressed as famous characters from Superman to Marilyn Monroe, Sponge Bob to Michael Jackson roam the Walk of Fame too; tip them a couple bucks if you take their picture with your kids.
Grauman’s Chinese Theatre R2-D2’s wheel prints and the hand-, foot- and wand-prints of the young stars of the Harry Potter movies are must-snap sites.
Exposition Park Museums The California Science Center is both great and free, and the Natural History Museum is, among other things, where Peter Parker (aka Spiderman) was first bitten.
La Brea Tar Pits See the cast of Ice Age (albeit as their former real-life selves) at this archaeological museum.
Petersen Automotive Museum Thrill your (inner) eight-year-old boy at this newly renovated museum.
Skirball Cultural Center Climb all over the Noah’s Ark exhibit made of found objects.
Kidspace Children’s Museum This play park near the Rose Bowl in Pasadena boasts a kaleidoscope-like building, climbing tower and places for small fry to run around.
Aquarium of the Pacific – Sharks! ‘Nuff said. In downtown Long Beach.
Chinatown Pick up touristy knickknacks, make a wish on a fountain, chow on dumplings or sip boba tea (with chewy black pearls of tapioca).
Olvera St LA’s oldest street mixes Mexi-kitsch with quality eats.
Little Tokyo Browse for anime and manga, snack on sushi or ramen, and learn about the Japanese American experience at the Japanese American National Museum.
Go Out & Play
Griffith Park Amusements include the landmark Griffith Observatory, a merry-go-round, hiking to view the Hollywood Sign, Travel Town for younger tykes, and the zoo, though it can’t compare to San Diego’s.
Bike at the beach Rental shops line the 22-mile South Coast Bicycle Trail.
Round Round Get Around…
Take the train For kids who don’t regularly ride trains, this will be the cheapest thrill ride of your trip, and maybe your fastest connections between Downtown and Hollywood, Universal Studios, Pasadena or Santa Monica.
Theme Parks & Museums
Do Disney There’s a reason Disneyland’s the most popular attraction in Southern California. Generations of kids and kids at heart love it, older kids will enjoy the thrill rides at Disney’s California Adventure, and there’s shopping and dining for everyone at Downtown Disney.
Knott’s Berry Farm More homegrown and more low-key than Disney. Charlie Brown and Lucy sub for Mickey and Minnie, and Camp Snoopy is just the right speed for little kids. Bigger thrill-seekers will definitely want to check out some of SoCal's hairiest roller coasters. It’s a definite to-do for their older siblings during October’s nighttime Halloween Haunt.
Discovery Cube Journey from beneath the earth (Quake Zone) to outer space (Boeing Rocket Lab) and frozen water (the Science of Hockey) at this super-duper museum in Santa Ana.
Ocean Institute Over 110,000 K through 12 students come to Dana Point each year to learn about oceanography, science and California history.
All Those Animals
San Diego Zoo From pandas to koalas, flamingos to Elephant Odyssey, this is paws-down the best zoo in America.
San Diego Zoo Safari Park Journey to Africa without leaving North San Diego County.
Birch Aquarium La Jolla aquarium that’s as entertaining as it is educational, thanks to the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
A Day In the Park
Balboa Park Spend a day at one of the nation’s best collections of museums. The Reuben H Fleet Science Center (with IMAX theater), Model Railroad Museum and Natural History Museum are all tailor-made for kids, the Marie Hitchcock Puppet Theater and Automotive Museum will appeal to particular audiences, and the plazas, fountains and gardens offer plenty of open space for children of all ages to let off some steam.
Let go with Lego
Legoland Those little colored plastic blocks from Denmark provide a day or more of entertainment, with rides for the littlest kids and an entire world's worth of Lego monuments to awe their parents.
A Little History
Old Town State Historic Park Elementary-schoolers and older will appreciate the historical exhibits here, plus old-time shops, south-of-the-border souvenirs and the Mexican restaurants nearby.
Cabrillo National Monument The views here inspire awe, and its old-school museum tells the story of the Spanish explorers who ‘discovered’ California.
By the Sea
Mission and Pacific Beaches Teenagers will be in their element among the array of surfers, bikers, ‘bladers and buff bods. Alternatively, go kayaking or ride a paddle wheeler on Mission Bay.
USS Midway Museum Board this decommissioned aircraft carrier and gain an appreciation for our men and women in uniform.
La Jolla Cove Snorkel to shipwrecks, sea caves and schools of fish.
Coronado Quieter kids will appreciate this calming getaway, featuring the Hotel del Coronado and kid-friendly public library.
Stearns Wharf Pride of place belongs to the pier in central Santa Barbara, and nearby Arroyo Beach and Leadbetter Beach attract many families.
Carpinteria State Beach Said to be the world’s safest.
Get outta town Escape to El Capitan and Refugio State Beaches, or Ventura County, a less expensive and more family-oriented beach getaway.
Channel Islands National Park – A natural for families who like their vacations, well, natural: hiking, kayaking, camping, whale-watching and more.
Central Santa Barbara The lovely mission-style town center boasts a low-key Museum of Natural History and Planetarium and a zoo, and opportunities for cycling, roller-skating, boating, whale-watching and various other activities abound.
Maritime Museum Family-friendly spot where you can ‘reel in’ a fake 45lb marlin.
Palm Springs & the Deserts
Water In the Desert
Resorts Who needs to run around, when swimming pools, tennis courts and, for older kids, golf are great family fun? There’s a large assortment Down Valley.
Knott’s Soak City Splish, splash and slide at this water park.
Palm Springs Aerial Tramway Round gondola-style cars rotate ever so slowly as they ascend 6000 vertical feet up the San Jacinto Mountains. Temperatures at the top are up to 40°F lower than on the desert floor; in cooler months, bring warm clothing and snow gear (the latter can be rented).
Windmills Take an up-close-and-personal tour of these green power generators west of Palm Springs.
Living Desert Zoo Fascinating and well-presented exhibitions of desert flora and fauna.
Hike, hike, hike Active kids will enjoy hiking Indian and Tahquitz Canyon just outside central Palm Springs, while in the center of the region is Joshua Tree National Park; clear blue skies typically make for glorious hiking, light climbing, nature-watching and star-gazing.
Hollywood & History
Pioneertown The main street, Mane St, takes you back to the Old West – it was the set for some classic Western TV shows and movies. Go for the comedic shoot-̓em-up show.
World’s Biggest Dinosaurs Little kids go nuts for this pair of life-size concrete dinos off I-10, though grownups may be driven nuts by the Creationist message inside.
Julian Pan for gold and watch the weekend Old West show.
Aquariums & Zoos
- Reuben H Fleet Science Center & San Diego Natural History Museum, Balboa Park (San Diego)
- California Science Center & Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, Exposition Park (LA)
- La Brea Tar Pits, Los Angeles
- USS Midway Museum, San Diego
- New Children's Museum, San Diego
- Discovery Cube, Santa Ana (Orange County)
Beaches & Outdoor Activities
SoCal's Top Five Piers for Families
- Santa Monica Pier – LA's coastal gem, built in 1908, has its own amusement park on top, an aquarium underneath and summer twilight concerts.
- Balboa Island, Newport Beach – It’s not one but two piers, plus a peanut-sized amusement park made famous on TV’s The OC.
- Stearns Wharf, Santa Barbara – The West Coast’s oldest continuously operating pier hosts the engaging Ty Warner Sea Center.
- Crystal Pier, Pacific Beach – If you're lucky enough to book the Crystal Pier Hotel, the surf lapping beneath your cottage on the pier is a natural lullaby.
- Paradise Pier, Disney California Adventure – Granted, it’s not technically a pier (it’s nowhere near the ocean), but who cares when the rides are so good?
A word of advice: Don’t pack your schedule too tightly. Traveling with kids always takes longer than expected, especially when navigating metro areas such as LA, where you’ll want to allow extra time for traffic jams and getting lost.
Children’s discounts are available for everything from museum admission and movie tickets to bus fares. The definition of a ‘child’ varies from ‘under 18’ to age six. A limited number of venues offer student discounts for older children and university students.
At amusement parks, some rides may have minimum-height requirements, so let younger kids know about this in advance, to avoid disappointment – and tears.
Many public toilets have a baby-changing table. Bigger, private ‘family’ bathrooms may be available at airports, museums etc.
For all-round information and advice, check out Lonely Planet’s Travel with Children.
What to Pack
Sunscreen. Lots of sunscreen.
And bringing sunscreen should remind you to bring hats, swimsuits, goggles and flip-flops. If you like beach umbrellas and sand chairs, pails and shovels, you’ll probably want to bring your own or buy them at local supermarkets and pharmacies. At many beaches, you can rent bicycles and water-sports gear (eg snorkel sets) for kids.
For mountain outings, bring broken-in hiking shoes, plenty of food and water, and your own camping equipment. Outdoor gear can be purchased or sometimes rented from local outdoor outfitters and sporting-goods shops. But remember that the best time to test out gear is before you take your trip. Murphy’s Law dictates that wearing brand-new hiking shoes results in big blisters, and setting up a new tent in the dark ain't easy.
Rule one: if you’re traveling with kids, always mention it when making reservations. At a few places, notably B&Bs, you may have a hard time if you show up with little ones unannounced. When booking, be sure to request the specific room type you want, although this is not often guaranteed.
Motels and hotels often have rooms with two beds or an extra sofa bed. They may also have rollaway beds or cots available (request these when making reservations), typically for a surcharge. Some offer ‘kids stay free’ promotions, although this may apply only if no extra bedding is required; ask when booking. Some hotels provide free breakfast for the whole family too.
Bigger hotels and resorts may offer daytime activity programs for kids, especially during summer. Fees can be cheaper than babysitting and everyone may enjoy the change of pace. At some hotels, the front-desk staff or concierge can help you make babysitting arrangements. Ask whether babysitters are licensed and bonded, what they charge per hour per child, whether there’s a minimum fee and if they charge extra for transportation and meals.
Airlines usually allow infants (up to age two) to fly for free as a 'lap child' – bring proof of age – while older children require a seat of their own and don't usually qualify for reduced fares. Children do receive substantial discounts on Amtrak trains and Greyhound buses.
California law requires all passengers in private cars to wear seat belts. Any child under age six or weighing less than 60lb must be buckled up in the car's back seat in a child or infant safety seat. Most car-rental agencies rent these for about $10 per day, but you must specifically book them in advance.
For better or for worse, being on the road is an essential part of the SoCal experience. So is traffic, especially in LA. From LA to all but the most remote destinations in the Southland, travel time is theoretically two hours or less, but can easily multiply in traffic, especially on weekends and holidays.
Plan some in-car distractions in case the kids get fidgety. On the road, rest stops on freeways are few and far between, and gas stations and fast-food bathrooms are frequently not very clean. However, you’re usually never far from a shopping mall, which generally have well-kept restrooms.
Baby’s Away (https://babysaway.com) and Traveling Baby Company (www.travelingbaby.com) Rent cribs, Pack 'n Plays (portacots), strollers, car seats, high chairs, beach gear and more. Rates vary according to equipment, rental duration and delivery charges.
Lonelyplanet.com (www.lonelyplanet.com) Ask questions and get advice from other travelers in the Thorn Tree’s ‘Kids to Go’ and ‘USA’ forums.
Travel for Kids (www.travelforkids.com) Has no-nonsense listings of kid-friendly sights, activities, hotels and recommended children's books for LA, San Diego and Orange Counties.
Visit California (www.visitcalifornia.com) The state’s official tourism website lists family-friendly attractions, activities and more – just search for ‘Family Fun’ and ‘Events’.
Travellers With Disabilities
Southern California is reasonably well equipped for travelers with disabilities. Disneyland is a shining example when it comes to catering to visitors with special needs.
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide from http://lptravel.to/AccessibleTravel.
- Telephone companies provide relay operators (dial 711) for the hearing impaired.
- Many banks provide ATM instructions in Braille.
A Wheelchair Rider’s Guide to the California Coast (www.wheelingcalscoast.org) Free online directory and downloadable PDF guide for LA and Orange County coasts covers wheelchair access at beaches, parks and more.
California State Parks (http://access.parks.ca.gov) Searchable online map and database of accessible features at state parks.
Disneyland (https://disneyland.disney.go.com/guest-services/mobility-disabilities) Lists which attractions are accessible.
Mobility & Accessibility
- Most intersections have dropped curbs; some have audible crossing signals.
- The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) requires public buildings built after 1993 to be wheelchair-accessible, including restrooms.
- Motels and hotels built after 1993 must have at least one ADA-compliant accessible room; state your specific needs when making reservations.
- For nonpublic buildings and those built prior to 1993, including hotels, restaurants, museums and theaters, there are no accessibility guarantees; call ahead to find out what to expect.
- Most national and many state parks and some other outdoor recreation areas offer paved or boardwalk-style nature trails accessible by wheelchairs.
- All major airlines, Greyhound buses and Amtrak trains can accommodate people with disabilities, usually with 48 hours of advance notice required.
- Major car-rental agencies offer hand-controlled vehicles and vans with wheelchair lifts at no extra charge, but you must reserve these well in advance.
- For wheelchair-accessible van rentals, also try Wheelchair Getaways in LA or Mobility Works with locations around LA.
- Local buses, trains and subway lines usually have wheelchair lifts.
- Seeing-eye dogs are permitted to accompany passengers traveling on public transportation.
- Taxi companies have at least one wheelchair-accessible van, but you’ll usually need to call first.
Casual drop-in volunteer opportunities are most common in SoCal cities, where you can socialize with locals while helping out nonprofit organizations. Browse upcoming projects and sign up online with LA Works (www.laworks.com), LA-based TreePeople (www.treepeople.org) and OneOC (www.oneoc.org). For more opportunities, check local alternative weekly newspapers and the California Volunteers (www.californiavolunteers.org) and Craigslist (www.craigslist.org) websites.
Weights & Measures
- Weights & Measures Imperial (except 1 US gallon = 0.83 imperial gallons)