Cheap visit to California?
May 5, 2019 10:30 PM   Subscribe

We would like to visit a family member who lives in L.A. We're flying from the U.K. but can only stay with the family member a couple of nights. After that we need something else to do but don't want to spend a lot. Any ideas? We'll be staying around a week in total and the budget is flexible but pretty low if possible.

I think in an ideal world we'd spend a couple of nights at a hotel near a nice beach and another couple somewhere else like the Joshua Tree national park? We don't really want to hire a car. I also thought about a cruise as they seem about the same price as hotels but include food. We went on a cruise once before but didn't enjoy the crowds and sense of being herded like cattle so it wouldn't be great but it's an option.

About us - we are both vegans, enjoy nature and going for walks, don't need luxury and don't care about celebrities, Disney, or shopping. We do have a couple of phobias (cockroaches and claustrophobia, the latter of which means no elevators). Thanks for any ideas you can give us!
posted by hazyjane to Travel & Transportation around Los Angeles, CA (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Hmmm, would you be interested in camping near the beach? Finding an Airbnb in Santa Monica or Malibu with a camper/rv or a guesthouse with a car rental sounds pretty nice: it's accessible to hiking in the Santa Monica mountains, the areas are amenable to vegan lifestyles, it avoids the consumer-centric part of the city, and could be done rather inexpensively? Pretty LA-specific experience that could meet your criteria, tho someone else might need to come in with specifics.

Also, "not hiring a car" is going to be tough in LA, and "not hiring a car and going to Joshua Tree" is impossible/overtly expensive. I think it would help if we knew what area of LA your family is in, so people could make recs to minimize the need for a car. I think in general, to avoid renting a car, your second half of the trip should be localized to one part of LA.
posted by galleta monster at 11:00 PM on May 5, 2019

Response by poster: Thank you both. An Airbnb in Santa Monica could work well I think. As for going to Joshua Tree, we could maybe go ahead and hire a car for a couple of days but it would be best if we didn't have to drive through LA - not ideal for people who aren't used to driving in either heavy traffic or the US. What about taking a bus or something to a smaller place that's a little closer to Joshua Tree and then hiring a car from there? Palm Springs maybe?
posted by hazyjane at 1:35 AM on May 6, 2019

Driving is the US is much easier than driving in the UK. Even with heavy traffic. Roads are much wider and so are parking spots. Rental cars are also pretty cheap compared to the UK. Just bite the bullet and rent a car, you do not want to be dependent on public transport. Just read up on some rules that are different - turn right on red, the all way stop sign process.
posted by Akke at 1:44 AM on May 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

Well you can save some money on your flight from the UK to LA which is going for 291£ round trip from here . I have found that has been very good at finding housing once you narrowed down location.
posted by jadepearl at 2:13 AM on May 6, 2019

Best answer: If you end up staying in Santa Monica and are dead set against driving across LA, I'll describe how you can travel to Palm Springs from Santa Monica by public transport. But first, I'll echo previous commenters in suggesting that driving in LA isn't that difficult (aside from being very time-consuming). I will also caution that if you are planning a summer visit it will be extremely hot in Joshua Tree, with temperatures over 40 °C likely. You'll be limited to (very) early morning or late evening hours for outdoor activities.

A possible alternative, if you're willing to make a 4-hour drive from the west side of LA, is Sequoia National Park. It's spectacular and there's much more to see than in Joshua Tree. It's home to the largest trees on Earth, lovely alpine meadows, and lots of mountain vistas. Here is some good information about lodging in the area. If you want to minimize driving, there are seasonal shuttle buses within the park and also to the park from the city of Visalia if you want to find lodging there.

And now, Santa Monica to Palm Springs on public transport:

On LA's metro system you can go from Downtown Santa Monica station to Union Station in about an hour. The Expo Line gets you most of the way there, with a change at 7th Street / Metro Center to either the Red or Purple Line for the last bit.

From Union Station there is an Amtrak train (the "Sunset Limited") making a stop in Palm Springs. It takes a bit over 2.5 hours. The catch is that it only departs on Sundays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 10pm and arrives in Palm Springs after midnight.

At all other times, an Amtrak ticket from Union Station to Palm Springs is a combination rail-bus journey, with rail service only as far as Fullerton Station in Orange County. There you change to a bus for the remainder of the trip. Total travel time from Union Station to Palm Springs ranges from 2h 45min to about 3h 15min depending on time of day and the final stop on the bus portion of the route.

Please note that on some tickets the final stop will be Palm Springs Airport, where car hire locations are easily accessible. But on other tickets you'll arrive at a random bus stop near a casino in Palm Springs proper and will likely require an Uber or taxi to get to a car hire location. If you're looking at tickets on Amtrak's website, avoid choosing the Spa Resort Casino as your Palm Springs destination if you don't want that. A better option for purchasing bus & rail tickets is
posted by theory at 5:18 AM on May 6, 2019 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you. I should have mentioned we will be visiting in December. We have talked it through and thanks to the encouragement here that driving won't be terribly difficult we've decided to go ahead and hire a car. We've driven in Florida before and it wasn't that bad but had pictured LA driving to be a nightmare. Maybe it's just the traffic that's bad rather than driving conditions.
posted by hazyjane at 5:23 AM on May 6, 2019

If you have some free time in LA and like weird stuff, definitely go to the Museum of Jurassic Technology. It's one of my favorite places and I usually try to pay a visit when I'm in LA for work.
posted by theory at 5:42 AM on May 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

The key thing about traveling well in Los Angeles is planning your driving to ***avoid*** commute time. Freeways will be open between 9:30am to about 2:00pm and after 7:00pm on weekdays and basically okay on the weekends. If you have the misfortune to begin your journey, say, at 4:00pm on Friday, you might as well be in a parking lot. Seriously, the commute window can add a couple of hours to a simple trip, accidents mean all bets are off on how long it will take for you to get there. Google maps will give you an estimated time of arrival for destinations depending on departure time.
posted by effluvia at 8:20 AM on May 6, 2019

Yes, actual driving conditions in LA are generally totally fine—the nightmare aspect that you hear about is traffic. If you avoid commute times, it’s not too bad at all. Seconding the recommendation for the Museum of Jurassic Technology!
posted by Illuminated Clocks at 9:03 AM on May 6, 2019

Best answer: Re driving. I recently moved to LA after not owning a car for 15 years and had some anxiety about driving in LA traffic. In general, surface streets are easy peasy. Freeways can be confusing, just to the sheer number of them, and how they split off from each other and recombine and what not (getting from my home to LAX airport involved the 10, the 5, the 405 and the 105 I think). I assume you will have roaming cellular service and will be able to use Google Maps to preview routes.

One piece of advice I got that I share with you now: Avoid the 110 freeway in LA. The 110 the oldest (I think) freeway in LA and the on-ramps were designed for much slower speeds, so going from a dead stop into modern day highway traffic is horrifying.

Re Airbnb. A gentle plea to reconsider using Airbnb in LA, especially in cities or neighborhoods experiencing high rents, displacement and high rates of homelessness. Airbnb and other short term rentals reduce the units available to residents, exacerbating the housing crisis. Here's a thorough 2015 (pdf) report on its effects in LA. Here's a podcast episode on the same report.
posted by spamandkimchi at 11:59 AM on May 6, 2019

Re: Joshua Tree - I would look at Metrolink schedules. You can spend something like $20 and go from Union Station to San Bernardino or Riverside to rent a car. These are small cities outside of LA County where you can Uber to a car rental place.

Getting to Union Station from almost anywhere in LA is doable in about an hour's journey or less by transit, two hours or less from the outlying suburbs, though much of the Blue Line is currently shut down for construction.

If you *do* drive, I'd agree that you'll probably find it more forgiving than you'd initially thought.
posted by kensington314 at 12:14 PM on May 6, 2019

Best answer: I live in LA and went on a quick vacation to Joshua Tree in December a couple years ago. I agree with everyone else that the drive isn't difficult, so long as you avoid rush hour. IIRC, I left LA at about 10:30-11:00 AM, and arrived in Joshua Tree by 3ish, and that included a stop at one of the shopping outlets on the way. It's nothing but easy, wide-laned freeway driving until you get to Joshua Tree itself, and then it's just two-lane highways and surface streets.

Joshua Tree in December will be quite cold though (by Californian standards anyway), and temperatures at night will likely dip around or below freezing. Also depending on when in December you head out to Joshua Tree, you may be able to get in some great stargazing and see a meteor shower! The Geminid meteor shower is expected to be visible from December 7 - 16.
posted by yasaman at 12:59 PM on May 6, 2019

Avoid the 110 freeway in LA. The 110 the oldest (I think) freeway in LA and the on-ramps were designed for much slower speeds, so going from a dead stop into modern day highway traffic is horrifying.

To clarify, this applies to the 110 freeway north of the 10 freeway, i.e. the part of the 110 that goes between downtown LA and Pasadena. The part of the 110 south of the 10 freeway is built to normal interstate highway standards and doesn't have any of these features.

You can tell by looking at a map or on signs because the 110 south of the 10 is an interstate (i.e. the highway shield is blue with red on top) while the 110 north of the 10 is a state route (the highway shield is either white or green and is a different shape). The southern part was built later, starting in the 1950s, than the northern part, which opened in 1940.
posted by andrewesque at 5:53 PM on May 6, 2019 [1 favorite]

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