About Practical information
By air from outside the U.S.
Virtually all major scheduled airlines in Europe have non-stop services to Los Angeles (LAX), California’s busiest international terminal. The best-priced fares from the European mainland will, however, involve a stop, and often a change of plane, in London.
From London, American, British Airways, United and Virgin airlines fly nonstop to Los Angeles (United and Virgin also fly non-stop to San Francisco), and three other U.S. airlines – Continental, Delta and Northwest – have services from London to California which land at one or more U.S. cities on the way. Stopping obviously means a longer overall journey time (typically adding four or five hours to the ten hours of a non-stop trip) but can save money and bring greater flexibility as to where you land in California – many of the state’s smaller towns being well-served by U.S. domestic flights.
Particularly in summer, charter companies have frequent flights from London and U.K. airports traveling non-stop to Los Angeles and, less regularly, non-stop to San Diego and Oakland (for San Francisco).
Wherever you are, www.skyscanner.com compares prices and offers flight deals, likewise www.travelsupermarket.com. Prices are seasonal (summer is most expensive, winter is least, fall and spring fall between), although not all airlines raise or lower their fares on the same dates: one may have implemented its top-rate summer fares while another is still offering cheaper spring fares, for example. Traveling on Fridays and weekends will always cost more than doing so during the week.
Of fare types, the least costly are economy returns. These are usually unrestricted and enable outbound and inbound travel on any date, subject to seat availability. Periodically, particular airlines have special offers on scheduled services that may involve minimum and maximum lengths of stay and travel on particular days of the week.
From within the U.S., by air
Most major U.S. airlines have non-stop flights from the East Coast to Los Angeles and to San Francisco, some also fly non-stop to San Diego. Fares vary greatly according to season, day and time of travel. Avoiding national holidays and weekends in high summer will reduce cost.
The closer you are to California, the more choices there will be. A number of small airlines have strong route networks in the West Coast and Southwest states. These are also likely to bring extra choice of landing points within California, though fares are as variable as those from the East Coast.
More time-consuming and more expensive than air travel, but potentially much more memorable, the main rail route in California is AMTRAK (www.amtrak.com)
Long distance bus travel in U.S.A is not for the faint-hearted. Greyhound (www.greyhound.com) buses have regular services to Los Angeles and San Francisco from all over the U.S. and from most of the rest of California. However, journey times are three long days and nights of continuous motoring from the East Coast – with the view restricted to dreary main highways and meals limited to run-of-the-mill Greyhound station cafeterias.
Periodic special deals, such as half-price midweek travel, can reduce costs but do nothing to improve comfort. AMTRAK also offer bus services where there is no railway AMTRAK (www.amtrak.com).
With car rental and gasoline costs far lower than in Europe, and the state’s public transportation network woefully inadequate, traveling by car is undoubtedly the best way to see California.
Almost always, it is cheapest and least problematic to arrange to rent a car before arrival (many airlines offer cut-rate car rental as an inducement to buying a transatlantic ticket from them) although all the major international car rental firms, and smaller local ones, have desks at the airports and offices throughout the state. It is at the airport that you will pick up your pre-booked car.
Driving in California (and the rest of the U.S.) is legal with a valid licence of most European countries, or with a valid International Driver’s Licence. Be warned that would-be renters aged under 25, and anyone without a credit card to prove their credit-worthiness, may encounter problems when renting in the U.S.
When renting, always read the small print of the agreement, especially if you intend to leave California from a different city to that which you arrived (some companies don’t allow for this and you might incur extra charges). Be aware, too, of the Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), a compulsory from of insurance that can add considerably to costs.
Roads and driving regulations
Generally, California’s roads are of a high standard. Multi-laned Interstate Highways, free of traffic lights and gas stations (you’ll need to leave the Interstate to refuel), are the speediest routes – though there is a speed limit of 65mph or 55mph throughout their length – between major cities. The forerunners of the Interstates, the State Highways, are still the main link between the minor communities. They are slower to drive on but are much more likely to pass through fine scenery. In very isolated areas, county roads – sometimes little more than bumpy dirt roads – carry a modest amount of traffic through forests, around mountains, and across stretches of desert.
Gasoline is affordable despite it being costlier here than in some parts of the U.S., and service stations are common in all but the most sparsely populated regions. Distances are posted in miles, although distances may also be expressed in time – i.e. how long it takes to drive to a particular place. On-the-spot fines can be imposed for speeding and an extremely unfavourable view is taken of drinking and driving: do this and you could well find yourself in jail.
Domestic air travel
If you are a foreign visitor and California is only one of several stops on a trip around the U.S.A., it’s worthwhile investigating the latest internal air pass deals offered by transatlantic airlines. These passes permit either a set number of domestic flights in the U.S. or an unlimited number of domestic flights within a certain time period.
From motels to drive-in churches, everything in California is designed with the car – and drivers – in mind. Having learned to drive shortly after they learned to walk, many Californians have never been on a bus or a train and typically regard public transportation as being strictly for the very poor – or the very eccentric. It is possible to see much of California by public transportation, but it is not easy and is seldom cheap.
A common form of long-distance travel is the Greyhound bus. While more widespread and frequent than trains, Greyhound services are skeletal in rural areas and often you will arrive (or have to depart) at inconvenient times. Also, many of the state’s more spectacular regions are well off the Greyhound routes.
With the exception of San Francisco, which has an excellent public transportation network, getting around cities without a car is also difficult. This is especially true in Los Angeles – though not impossible, provided you study local route maps carefully.
Taxis can be hailed in the street though it is more common to phone for one. Staff in hotels, restaurants and some bars will usually call a taxi for you. Fares are reasonable, but are prohibitive over long journeys such as those from airports. Don’t forget to tip the driver around 15 per cent of the fare.
Citizens of the U.K., and those of most Western European countries, need a full, valid passport to enter the U.S. Provided the trip is less than 90 days and you are in possession of a return ticket, it is not necessary to have a U.S. visa provided the visa-waiver form (issued on the plane) is completed. Customs and immigration forms are also given to passengers prior to landing.
These forms require simple information, such as the duration of your trip and the address where you are spending the first night. Provided it is clear that you are visiting the U.S. on vacation and are not planning to live or work in the country, there should be no problems when these forms are handed in at the immigration and customs control points on arrival.
Should you be arriving for an unusually long stay, it is likely that immigration officials will ask to see your return ticket and evidence of how you will be supporting yourself during your trip: a wad of credit cards and/or travellers checks is what they like to see. If you are intending to live or work in the U.S., you will need proof that you can do this legally.
Most major airlines on transatlantic routes run a computer immigration check of passengers’ names as they check-in for the flight. Provided you’re not a convicted criminal or have previously been refused entry to the U.S., a sticker will be attached to your passport which will speed your passage through immigration control when you land.
Medical and travel insurance
Being covered by medical insurance is not compulsory when visiting the U.S., but it is an essential precaution. With no public health service to speak of, U.S. medical bills can quickly become astronomical for even minor medical attention. Most insurance policies combine health coverage with general travel insurance (which covers eventualities such as cancellations, delays and theft of luggage and valuables).
Before arriving in the U.S., convert most of your spending money to U.S. dollars. Travellers’ checks are rarely used anymore since the advent of online banking and credit cards. Sometimes a handy way to travel is to get a prepaid credit card, you can load as much cash onto it as you want to take and use it to withdraw money abroad – some of these will charge but shopping around you can find some that don’t. Once in the U.S., trying to convert foreign currency to dollars is almost impossible outside the major international airports and a few banks in Los Angeles and San Francisco.
Currency Notes are of identical size: $20, $10, $5 and $1; coins are variously-sized: 25¢ (a “quarter”), 10¢ (a “dime”), 5¢ (a “nickel”) and 1¢ (a “penny”).
Duty-free allowances for non-U.S. citizens arriving in the U.S. include a quart (just under a litre) of alcoholic spirits or wine, 200 cigarettes or 50 cigars, and duty-free gifts to the value of $100. Anyone carrying duty-free alcohol into the country must be aged 21 or over (17 or over in the case of tobacco). Among a long list of items not permitted into the U.S. are meat, fruit and plants.
Banks and currency exchange
California’s banking hours are typically Monday to Thursday 10 am to 5 pm, Friday 10 am to 5.30 pm. Some major branches also open on Saturday 10 am to 1 pm.
Bear in mind that very few banks will exchange foreign currency. Those that do, and other offices that will exchange currency are in San Francisco and in Los Angeles.
If your rented car breaks down, call the emergency number fixed to the dashboard. In most cases, someone will soon appear with a replacement car. To minimize the risk of breakdown in remote areas (this is essential in desert regions), you should ensure that the vehicle is running properly before starting out. Be certain, also, to carry adequate provisions to cover unscheduled delays – free checklists of essential supplies for touring remote areas are provided by local Visitors Bureaus.
Credit cards are a standard form of payment all over the U.S., and all the major ones – American Express (AE), Diners Club (DC) Mastercard (MC) and Visa (V) – are widely accepted. In many instances, such as paying for accommodation or for a meal in an expensive restaurant (ordinary roadside diners often don’t accept credit cards), it is more common to pay a bill with plastic than with cash. In fact, a person with no credit card/s is likely to be viewed with some suspicion.
Drinking and smoking regulations
To buy and consume alcohol in California, you need to be aged 21 or over, and may well be asked for proof of age. Once it is established, you can imbibe legally. Most restaurants have full licenses, and, under California law, both restaurants and bars can serve alcohol daily from 6am to 2am; most, though, keep much shorter hours.
In health-conscious California, cigarette smokers tend to be regarded as extremely un-evolved specimens. Smoking is strictly forbidden on all public transportation, all restaurants and movie theatres, and even bars. The good news for nicotine addicts, however, is that cigarettes are much cheaper in the U.S. than in Europe.
The U.S. electrical supply is 110 volts (60 cycles) and appliances use two-prong plugs. European appliances are designed for 220 volts (50 cycles) and can only be used with an adapter. These can be bought before leaving (though first make sure the adapter is suitable for the U.S.) or in the U.S.
For fire, police or ambulance, dial 911 and ask for the service you require.
Maps and tourist information
Virtually every California community has a Visitors’ Bureau or Chamber of Commerce able to provide free maps, brochures and information. These offices are usually easy to find and keep regular business hours; those in major cities also open at weekends.
Doctors are listed under ‘Physicians’; most hospitals in major cities have emergency rooms, but if you’re dealing with a serious injury call an ambulance by dialling the emergency number, 911. Dentists can be found by looking under “Dentist Referral Services” in the phone book, and calling the relevant number. You will have to pay for all of these services. Keep the receipts to make insurance claims when you return home. Information about late-night and (in the bigger cities) 24-hour pharmacies can also be found in the phone book.
Postal and telephone service
All California towns have post offices, most of them open Mon to Fri 8.30 am-5 pm, Sat 8 am-noon. As well as from post offices, stamps can be bought (slightly more expensively) from vending machines in some hotel lobbies and in some shops. To mail a letter, drop it into one of the blue mail boxes – which to foreigners can look suspiciously like rubbish bins – standing on most street corners.
Some of the budget motels and hotels offer free local calls from their in-room phones. More commonly, though, in room phone charges are much higher than those of public phones.
Emergency calls (dial 911) and calls to the operator (dial 0) are free.
Banks and all public offices will be closed the following holidays; however some shops may be open on some of these days: New Year’s Day (January 1), Martin Luther King’s Birthday (third Monday in January), Lincoln’s Birthday (February 12), Washington’s Birthday (third Monday in February), Memorial Day (last Monday in May), Independence Day (July 4), Labour Day (first Monday in September), Columbus Day (second Monday in October), Veteran’s Day (November 11), Thanksgiving Day (fourth Tuesday in November), Christmas Day (December 25).
Even the six-lane freeways of Los Angeles cannot allow traffic to move faster than a snail’s pace when the California rush hour hits: 7.30 am to 9.30 am and 3.30 pm to 6 pm are the hours to avoid the main routes into and out of business areas. If you are using local buses at these times, be ready for a crush and a slow journey.
A state sales tax of 7.25% is added to the marked price of everything sold in California’s shops.
Shopping and business hours
Going shopping in California can mean anything from cruising gigantic air-conditioned malls to stocking up with groceries from a corner store. Consequently, opening hours vary greatly but most shops in towns open Mon to Fri 9 or 10 am to 5 or 6 pm, with some also open during the evening and on Sat mornings. Office hours are typically Mon to Fri 8 or 9 am to 4 or 5 pm..
All of California uses Pacific Standard Time, three hours behind the East Coast, eight hours behind the U.K. and nine hours behind the rest of western Europe. Daylight Saving Time begins on the last Sunday in April (clocks go forward an hour) and ends on the last Sunday in October (clocks go back an hour).
Public washrooms are rarely seen in the streets but are plentiful (and free) in public buildings and in the developed sections of state and national parks. Look for a sign that says ‘rest room’ or ‘bathroom,’ rather than ‘toilet.’