Los Angeles is known to many people as one of America’s great car cities, although this is not always the same thing as being completely car dependent, a label that would be far more easily applied to any of the Sunbelt cities like Phoenix or Houston.
- City of cities — when you visit Los Angeles, you really aren’t just visiting one city. The greater Los Angeles area is actually made up of no less than 83 separate incorporated cities, although a city in the American sense can be a great deal smaller than the British definition. Naturally, with so many different constituent parts, Los Angeles often viewed as somewhere that has no distinct centre. Whilst that notion can easily be challenged, the fact that there are so many different places to visit, with no one place dominating, has made it much harder to plan and build a workable public transport system….
- Los Angeles Metro — normally, we would list a metro system as a reason not to get a hire car, but in Los Angeles, it is the other way around. Plagued by years of legal challenges over rights of way, the Los Angeles Metro still only has four route lines, despite serving a city region with a population well over 10,000,000. Whilst this sort of system might be adequate for a city around one 10th of the size of Los Angeles, it only has limited use in a city like LA. Although the metro is supplemented by buses, journeys that might take a few minutes in cities like New York or London can take the best part of an hour in LA.
- Hollywood, Beverly Hills and Mulholland drive — there aren’t many suburban roads that become the subject of films, but Mulholland drive is one of many fascinating places to visit which are connected to the Hollywood film industry. Whilst you get to Hollywood itself without needing a car, to appreciate this area properly, you will either have to take a prepackaged guided tour or travel around in your own car. If you are independent minded, the choice here is obvious.
- Pacific Coast Highway — the Pacific coast highway, and especially the stretch between Los Angeles and San Francisco, is rated as one of the most scenic drives in the USA, if not the world. Allow several days to do this properly.
- Desert drives — head beyond the San Gabriel Mountains which overlook Los Angeles, and you will hit the Mojave Desert. From here you can continue onwards towards death Valley and Las Vegas. Make sure you are well stocked up with water and other reserve supplies!
- Grand Canyon — head east out of Los Angeles and into Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon via Flagstaff. Please see our Phoenix and Las Vegas car hire advice pages for more suggestions about visiting the Grand Canyon and other scenic areas in Utah and Arizona.
- One way Los Angeles car rental — depending on who you hire your car from, you should be able to arrange a one-way deal, with San Francisco and Las Vegas being the most obvious options. As there are usually plenty of drivers who want to make the same trip but in the opposite direction, you should usually be able to arrange a one-way rental to either of these cities without paying any extra charges. The same should also apply to San Diego or Phoenix, but you can expect one-way drop-off fees to be applied to anywhere beyond this, as there is much less two-way traffic outside this area. You should also be able to arrange open jaw flights from Europe, providing you stick within the same airline Alliance group. For example, an outbound flight to Los Angeles with Air New Zealand (Star Alliance) could easily be combined with a return trip home from San Francisco with United (also Star Alliance). However, the only airline offering flights to Phoenix from Europe is British Airways (OneWorld; from Heathrow), so you would either need to return back with British Airways or their OneWorld partners American Airlines, or you would need to take a connecting flight. Of course, if you are visiting Los Angeles from elsewhere within the USA, taking two separate one-way flights with a low-cost airline like Jet blue, virgin America or Southwest Airlines should not be a problem.
- Triangle drive — if the open jaw option doesn’t suit, you could easily pick up a hire car in Los Angeles and travel in a triangle, for example out towards Las Vegas and then back via San Francisco.
- City attractions — despite being such a sprawling mess, Los Angeles is still home to a vast array of cultural attractions, where we hope you would spend as much time inside as you would getting there! The most famous single attraction is the huge Getty Museum complex, where many people spend a whole day inside.
- Hollywood and tours — although, as we say above, a hire car is going to give you the flexibility of touring around the various Hollywood related attractions at your own pace, if you want to hear all the gossip, then a guided tour is a much better option. There are three main types of places of interest, which often overlap with each other — the studios themselves, locations which have been used in Hollywood blockbusters, and the mansions of the stars.
- Traffic — public transport in Los Angeles may leave a lot to be desired, but it is still vastly superior to what you will find in cities like Dallas or Atlanta. If you try to drive around Los Angeles, you can expect to spend a lot of time sitting in stationary or very slow moving traffic. It is estimated that the average Los Angeles resident spends upwards of four hours each day in traffic. If you hire a car in Los Angeles, you are only contributing to this problem, yet alternatives are still available. For the uninitiated, travelling around Los Angeles by public transport will take a bit of planning, but this can be made a lot easier by downloading or acquiring a printed copy of the relevant public transport maps.
- Pacific Coast by rail — whilst the Pacific coast highway makes for a great drive, this route can also be taken by train, both as an amazing trip in its own right, and also as a way of reaching San Francisco. A slightly faster route exists via Bakersfield and Emeryville, but this is nothing like as scenic.
- Multiple city by air, rail or coach. Whilst the car is good for accessing scenic areas outside Los Angeles, you could just as easily spend a few days in the city of Angels and then head off to some of the other major cities in California or nearby states. Travelling by train, you can also head down to San Diego, or across into Arizona. The closest the train will take you to Phoenix is Maricopa, from where onward buses are available. You can also alight at Flagstaff for coach transfers towards the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.
- Disneyland California — why not visit the original Disneyland, which is in this city of Anaheim? Plenty of public transport options are available for getting here, and this is one of many places where there really isn’t much point in having a hire car, as it is only going to spend all day in the parking lot. Other Californian theme parks include the six flags in Santa Clarita, or Legoland in Carlsbad, which is between Los Angeles and San Diego.
- Channel islands National Park — when Americans refer to Jersey, we know that they don’t mean the island of Jersey, and any mention of the Channel Islands in California is going to about the beautiful islands of San Miguel, Santa Rosa, Santa Cruz and Anacapa. As there are no major roads on these islands, there is no point in having a car to visit them. The fairies are available to each of these islands from Port Hueneme.
Should I hire a car in Los Angeles, and contribute to the local traffic and smog problems? That’s a bit of a philosophical question, but one which is worth considering in a city that is so wedded to the car. If you can go through the list above, and see what you want to see, then why hire a car? But if you want to see more places beyond the city, then you might be placing severe limitations on your trip. Do you need to hire a car in Los Angeles? Not in the absolute sense – there’s more than enough to see without a car in LA, but you just aren’t going to get the same range of places that you might get to see with one.
If you are planning your visit to Los Angeles for the first time, it is easy to automatically assume that a hire car is essential. We certainly don’t think that is the case — there are numerous options for getting around Los Angeles without a car, but having one will undoubtedly give you a great many more options.