Unless you live in a big city like NYC, Chicago or San Francisco, you need a car to travel pretty much anywhere in the US. Americans are used to driving every day and therefore visitors have to adapt. Is it possible to visit California without a car?
The answer is YES, you can visit California without a car!
When I first came to live in the US years ago, I didn’t even have a driver’s license. While it wasn’t a huge issue on university campuses and areas where I initially lived, the moment I got to California things changed.
In California, everyone had a car and my friends couldn’t imagine how could I live without a vehicle. But, the need is a mother of creativity: I had to find a way to travel in and outside cities by bus and train, and to my surprise, it was manageable thanks to buses and trains.
How to Visit California Without a Car
Is Renting a Car in the US Cheaper Than Taking a Bus or Train?
It depends. If you’re a couple or family, then renting a car is a no-brainer. It’s cheaper, easier, and less stressful. I wouldn’t recommend navigating California without a car if you’re traveling with kids.
As a person who lived between San Diego and Los Angeles for a while, and therefore had to commute a lot, buses and trains were my only hope. One would ask: isn’t it cheaper to rent a car? It turns out that for a solo traveler, it’s not always the best option, especially if you’re traveling solo like me.
For example, the cost of a bus ticket from San Diego to Los Angeles is approx. $15-20 while the train is slightly more expensive and comes to around $45. If you’re taking a public bus from home to the bus station, or even Uber, the cost is still cheaper than renting a car with all the extras, toll fees, gas, and even more for dropping the car in another location.
While around California it’s still easy to arrange a drop-off in a different city, what if you need to travel from less popular destinations? These days you can reach any place by bus or train without having to worry about directions or long hours of driving – just hop on board and relax. You sleep or work as many buses and trains offer free wifi.
One would ask about flights. I’m sorry to disappoint you, but very often flying between California can be very expensive, especially if you’re traveling with some luggage.
I once flew from San Diego to Los Angeles because I had a connection and it took me longer than it normally does by train. The train takes only 2.5 hours, and I had to be at the airport early, plus getting in and out of LAX International Airport takes forever. It simply wasn’t worth it to me.
National Parks without a Car
Can you visit Yosemite or other parks without a car? Not exactly, but again – don’t give your hopes up just yet. There are plenty of tours leaving from San Francisco every day that will take you to all the spots that are reachable only by car.
The same goes for the famous Pacific Coast Highway. While you naturally can’t do a road trip, there are day tours from Carmel or other spots accessible by buses.
Advantages of Traveling by Bus and Train Over a Car
Are you still leaning toward renting a car? You need to remember one important thing: parking. Every single person who’s ever been to California knows, that finding a parking spot can take hours.
I was forced to drive around many times searching for an empty spot to park my car and I wasn’t always successful. And if you somehow find a spot you need to spend an ungodly amount of money for parking.
Many trains and buses don’t require a reservation, so you can just show up at the station the day of your trip and grab a ticket without paying an exorbitant last-minute fare. You don’t need to plan anything unless it’s a long weekend.
Initially, knowing where to get the bus from or which bus company to take was a challenge. Unlike in other countries, there’s no one-stop for bus and train timetables and tickets, but instead, every company has its own site. While the most popular bus line is still Greyhound, I recently discovered that their routes don’t reach less touristy states. What then?
Instead of having to search through Google which buses go there and having to go through many searches, you can now find everything on GoTicket where you can find every possible route on buses and trains in every state, along with schedules. I wish it existed a few years ago as it would make my life easier.
How to Visit Los Angeles Without a Car?
When my Californian native friends found out that I was planning on using buses in the city, they looked at me like I was insane. Public buses are some sort of ‘taboo’ to locals, but let me tell you that they work just fine and there’s nothing to be afraid of!
Locals in LA tend to say that buses are only for the homeless and weirdos and while it’s true that many less privileged people use buses in LA, this doesn’t mean they’re unsafe. They are for anyone to use.
There are a few very common misconceptions about public transportation in LA. First, that the Los Angeles public transportation network is pretty much non-existent, second that taking the bus is dangerous that you are probably going to be killed, and third only weirdos and the homeless use them. As you can already suspect none of these statements are true.
I actually find it funny that everyone raves about public transportation in London, but if you’ve ever been on a night bus in London you know that the bus is full of drunks and weirdly talkative individuals, so honestly, LA buses felt a bit like a luxury to me.
There are many other local bus routes run by municipalities or private companies that ply in Los Angeles. Some of them include the Santa Monica Big Blue Bus, Burbank Bus, Culver City Bus, LA Dept of Transport’s DASH buses, and more.
Tickets or cards for public transport routes can easily be purchased online at the Metros TAPToGo site. These TAP cards can be easily reloaded online or at over 100 locations throughout the city.
Just hop on the bus and you’ll have the last laugh, as when they’re going to be looking for parking (mission almost impossible), you’ll walk out of the bus like a boss.
However, be aware that it will take you a few times longer to get anywhere, and in certain areas, you’ll have trouble finding a bus stop.
Fear not though – Uber Pool in LA is actually pretty cheap when you consider the distance, so simply pull your phone out and call one.
I do recommend staying in either Santa Monica or Venice Beach if you’re traveling to LA without a car, because lots of places are walkable and other parts of the metro area are connected.
How to Use Buses and Metro in LA?
In order to find a route use Metro Trip Planner. If you prefer, Google Route Planner on Google Maps does the trick as well. Remember to bring change when you hop on the bus as no change will be given.
Bus tickets cost $1.75, $2.50 if you board a Metro Express bus. For a frequent user, it might be convenient to buy either a Metro Day Pass ($7) or a 7-Day Pass ($25).
If you can’t or simply don’t want to drive in California I’d definitely recommend traveling by bus and train. I know what I’m saying as I’ve been doing it myself for a very long time and it’s often easier than driving and flying.
Travelers shouldn’t overlook alternatives to car forms of traveling as it can often save you money, time and nerves, as well as show you some amazing landscapes.
Friday 7th of February 2020
Thanks Anna really want to book my trip to cali but confused if it's the right thing to do with not wanting to drive. After reading your post I'm all good to go. Thank you. If i have any queries can I contact you? Jodi
Friday 7th of February 2020
It really depends on where do you want to go in California. For cities you'll be fine, but if you want to go for example to Joshua Tree NP then a car is a must.
Tuesday 10th of December 2019
Hello - I am searching for a community in LA that I can live without a car and be able to walk to things like Starbucks, an Italian dinner, etc. I was reviewing suggestions on this site: https://www.onlyinyourstate.com/southern-california/no-car-towns-so-cal/, but would love to hear your suggestions/recommendations. Thanks, in advance!
Wednesday 11th of December 2019
I agree that you can do West Hollywood or Santa Monica without a car. Personally, I wouldn't live in West Hollywood anymore (but it was a cool area if you're in your 20s and go out all the time to trendy spots). Long Beach could be manageable, but it's hard to say it's part of LA. I mean... I've never seen my friends from Long Beach (like ever!) because it was a min 1,5 - 3h one way to get there from NoHo, haha! I've lived in San Diego without a car too, and it was all right, but it does limit you to downtown and the beaches aren't there.
Saturday 16th of February 2019
Lol....this is so funny..! I agree with the post..and im happy too!...Nice blog by the way..very great information has been shared!
Tuesday 30th of October 2018
Hi, Anna. Great article. It reminds me the time I went to Cali. So nice to read and remember the good times. My honest opinion is that it depends on how long you plan to stay. If it's a couple of months or more than it makes a lot of sense to buy a cheap car. Temperatures can get really hot in California, so moving around the city by bus can suck sometimes. A bike is not an option because cities like LA are just too big for bike rides. Overall, traveling in US without a car is easy-peasy, but traveling within a city probably does require you to have one (not to mention that gas is cheap af). I've went to school in San Francisco from Sacramento every week using Amtrack and I have to say the trains are great and not even that expensive. There is always a lot of space, you can even grab your bike with you if you want to.
Sunday 4th of March 2018
Hi Anna, thanks for this post.
I am a new international student in LA and I wanted to explore some of the forests (the quieter ones) in California (Redwood, Yosemite, Muir, etc.) I can't and don't want to use a car. I am trying to see if I can visit these, and more, forests without having to have a car? I am not sure if buses will take me there :-/
Any help is appreciated. Thank you once again!
Wednesday 7th of March 2018
I know that you can take mini-bus tours to Yosemite and Muir from SF.