When I first published this post, I just summed up some reasons why you shouldn't be scared of driving in Los Angeles. Then, someone on TripAdvisor asked me to elaborate a bit on this subject because a lot of people seemed to be asking questions about it. So I elaborated on my experience driving in Los Angeles for the first time and I've also added in some of the driving rules in Los Angeles.
We'd rented a car for 12 days while we were in LA. We were a little anxious to drive in such a big city (and county), with all those lanes and different rules. But guess what? Driving in LA for the first time turned out to be really doable and the driving rules in Los Angeles weren't that different from the ones in Belgium!
Driving in Los Angeles
It's true that there is a lot of traffic almost everywhere and that there are many lanes on the freeways, but
- we thought that the people driving around LA drove more relaxed than in those in Belgium;
- even when everything was jammed, people drove more ‘orderly' than in Belgium (and Europe in general);
- everyone seems to keep to their lane (in Belgium, everyone switches all the time);
- speed limits are lower than in Belgium and because of the high fines, most people respect them.
I think that one of the reasons why driving in Los Angeles is more ‘relaxed' than in Belgium, is because people there are used to doing long distances and being stuck now and then.
We Belgians also get our daily share of traffic jams, but most of us aren't used to doing long distances every day. We can usually find everything we need in a 30 km radius, so if we have to drive somewhere and it takes us more than half an hour, we already begin to sigh; and when it takes us half an hour to get somewhere we could've gotten to in 15 minutes if it hadn't been for traffic, we get all worked up.
Finding your way when driving in LA
First of all, use GPS!!! You won't have to wrestle with any maps or look for an alternative route when there are road constructions somewhere and you'll immediately get an idea of how long it will take you to get somewhere (not counting in traffic jams, of course).
When I planned our trip to LA, I made sure I had an address for each place we wanted to visit. Sometimes that would be a specific address, like 701 Stone Canyon Rd., Los Angeles, CA 90077 for the Bel Air hotel, sometimes I knew what street I wanted to visit, like 3rd Street Promenade in Santa Monica, and I would look on google maps which crossing would be best for us to drive to.
Be aware that streets in Los Angeles can be really long, so entering ‘Santa Monica Blvd' into your GPS can still lead you somewhere kilometers (or miles) away from Santa Monica beach.
Traffic jams in LA
Somehow, we didn't get stuck in a lot of traffic jams, but driving through LA, we noticed that at some places and moments it was definitely busier on the roads. We never drove during morning rush hour, so I can't say what that was like, but we did drive during evening rush hour (starting at about 5 pm) pretty often and we actually didn't get stuck in traffic that often.
Downtown LA is definitely a place to be avoided during rush hour, as is driving from West Hollywood (where our hostel was ) to North Hollywood (where we went dancing). Fairfax Ave. was also busy pretty often.
About the freeways
Yes, freeways in LA can be enormous. Think six lanes next to each other. You would think that would lead to total chaos once some people decide to switch lanes, but actually, it doesn't. You just look at what direction you need to follow (sometimes there are just two lanes for the direction you need, even if the freeway is six lanes wide) and then you stay there.
In Belgium, people switch lanes all the time. Usually, because they think the person in front of them is driving to slow.
Also, when you want to pass someone in Belgium, you have to pass them on the left, you cannot pass them on the right. This means that if you are driving on the lane on the total right and someone is driving in the middle, you have to go completely to the left to pass them (if you want to pass them legally, that is), which can lead to dangerous situations. Not so in LA. You can pass people on both sides.
But as I stated before, people seem to drive less anxiously, more patiently.
Oh, one other thing. Most freeways have carpool lanes that can be used by cars with two or more people in them.
Los Angeles driving rules
Although LA driving rules (and I'm guessing it's the same in the whole of the US) were pretty much the same as in Belgium, there were some things we had to get used to:
1. Unless a sign is telling you not to, you can turn right when you're at a red light and it is safe to turn right.
2. When you reach a crossroads, you always have to stop. If there is no other car at the crossroads or if you are the first to arrive, you can go. If you reach the crossroads and you see someone else was there first, that other person can drive on first. But you always have to stop before you continue driving, even if there's no one else around.
3. The lines on the roads looked different than in Belgium and I had to look up what they mean: red is no parking, green is limited time parking, white and yellow mean you can only stop to pick up and drop off passengers.
4. As I said, speed limits are respected so much better in LA than in Belgium. Apparently, the fines are really high and I was told – I'm not sure if this really is the case, please correct me if I'm wrong – that if you get caught speeding three times, you can even go to jail. Also, road police if very present and we saw they'd pulled someone to the side more than once.
Driving rules in Los Angeles that we also have in Belgium:
- officiallythe traffic keeps to the right, like in Belgium, but we found that everyone kept to their lane
- wearing a seatbelt is required in private vehicles
- talking on the phone is only permitted through a hands-free device
- it's illegal to send text messages (or emails, or whatever) while driving
Los Angeles parking rules
Ok. You've gotten into your car, you've driven in LA and now you've reached your destination and your next challenge: parking. This was another worry of ours:
- would we be able to find parking space everywhere we went?
- and how much would we have to spend on parking spaces?
1. Parking space is a lot cheaper in LA than in Belgium (around $10 for a day vs more than €20).
2. There are a lot of good public parking lots that aren't that expensive or that even offer the first to the first three hours of parking for free. Look for them online when you're planning your trip.
3. Although there are so many people driving around Los Angeles, we almost never had any trouble finding a space, not even when parking on the street (which we often did). The only time we really had to search was in the area of the Disney Concert Hall.
4. When you park on the street in an area where you have to pay to do so, be sure to park somewhere next to a parking meter. It's a really handy system, actually: you can see where there's an open spot if there's a parking meter without a car next to it.
In short: every parking spot on the street in a paying area has its own parking meter. It always says how much you have to pay per hour and how long you can stay there. When you put in money, the meter starts to count down. For example, if you've put in enough money to stay somewhere for an hour, it will start counting 1:00:00, then 0:59:59 etc., until it reaches 0 and it's time for you to go. You can sometimes find a meter with still some time running on it. This happens when someone paid for a certain amount of time but left before that time was up.
5. When parking on the street, always look at the signs that tell you which days you can park there and from what time until what time.
Where we parked:
- our hostel, Banana Bungalow West Hollywood, had it's own parking lot which we could use for free
- supermarkets, like Whole Foods, usually also have their own parking lot, but be aware that sometimes they have ‘time limits'. For example, you could only leave your car at the parking lot near the Whole Foods we used to go to for a maximum of two hours. I have no idea how they check how long you've been there, though…
- although not in LA: in Laguna Beach you could park near the beach for free in the nearby streets
- The Grove and Farmers Market: we would park somewhere on N. Fairfax Ave.
- Santa Monica: we parked at the public parking right next to the pier for $12 for an entire day.
- Beverly Hills: a public parking where the first two hours were for free. I found this place somewhere on Internet.
- Millennium Dance Complex and Debbie Reynolds Dance Studios both had their own parking lot. If that was full, we parked on the street.
- Runyon Canyon has its own parking lots
- in Bel Air we parked on the street
- The Getty Center has it's own giant parking lot. It costs $15, or $10 if you arrive after 5 pm
- in Santa Barbara we parked along Cabrillo Blvd
- when visiting all the stuff in downtown LA? we just parked on the street
- when visiting all the touristy stuff in Hollywood, like Graumann's Chinese Theater, we parked in the Hollywood & Highland Center. This was a bit more expensive
- we parked at the Beverly Center when we went shopping there
What about public transportation?
Well, while planning our trip I also looked up public transit options. I used Google Maps and metro.net (metro is the biggest public transit company in LA) to find out how long it would take us to get from A to B by car and by public transit. Turned out that taking public transportation would take us two or three times longer driving through Los Angeles in every case. Of course, Google Maps doesn't take into account any traffic jams, but then again, buses also get stuck in traffic…
Keeping in mind that we would only be in LA for twelve days and that we wanted to be able to go somewhere and leave again when we wanted, without having to take into account public transit timetables, we chose to rent a car for the entire duration of our stay, and I'm glad we did.
And that was about it!:) Of course, the experience of driving and parking in LA will be different for everyone, depending on what driving in your hometown or country is like, but…
Conclusion: what it was like to drive around Los Angeles
… just go get that rental car. You'll be soooo much more flexible with it! Plus, it'll safe you a bunch of time in comparison with when you use public transport. Just avoid the freeways and downtown LA during rush hour.
Don't forget travel insurance
No matter how well you plan your trip to Los Angeles, there's always something that can happen that's beyond your control. A prepaid booking can get canceled, you can get sick or someone might steal your wallet. In all of these cases, good travel insurance has you covered.
I've had ongoing travel insurance ever since I started traveling to make sure I'm covered for every trip I go on but if you travel just a few times a year, you can get insured for each trip separately too.
Don't have travel insurance yet? Check out SafetyWing. They offer super flexible plans that you can even sign up for while you're already on your trip. On top of that, they were the first travel insurance to cover COVID, and when I got COVID, they reimbursed all of my expenses without making a fuss. Their customer support team is great and I can personally recommend them.
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