Mar 09 2012

11 Things: Tips for Driving in Los Angeles

A year ago when my husband and I went to LA, we were terrified enough of the traffic, and the rain that was falling, that we actually canceled our car rental reservation before we left.  Even though we’d both driven in Chicago and Washington, D.C. and Philadelphia, we’d heard enough horror stories about LA traffic and LA drivers and rain slicks to be scared off.  Fortunately, we came to our senses and rented a car anyway, and found that LA driving wasn’t as bad as people had made it out to be.  Still, some common sense and planning will make your driving experience much more pleasant.

Hollywood 101 highway sign

Tips for Midwesterners driving in LA

  1. Don’t be scared. Sure, you’ve heard stories of crazy-fast drivers and no one using turn signals and bumper-to-bumper traffic all the time.  Know that while these frustrations may be seen, they’re not a sure thing.  Minnesotans will be able to relate to this:  We found the traffic most of the time to be similar to Minneapolis’ 494, but with 6-8 lanes instead of 3-4.
  2. Signage is good. We drove over 900 miles on our trip and found the signage on California’s roads to be good and easy to follow.
  3. Plan ahead. There are a lot of freeways in LA, and often more than one route will get you where you need to go.  While many of these roads have 4-8 lanes in each direction, some (like I-5 between Disneyland and Universal Studios) are only two lanes and can bottleneck even at quieter times of day.  Zoom in closely or do a street view on Google Maps to see if this is the case.  Sometimes a slightly longer route on a higher-capacity road will save time over the most direct route.  Study maps before you go so you have at least a general idea of the routes you’ll be using.
  4. Time it right.  If you can avoid driving at rush hour, do.  Go against heavy traffic if you can.  From Anaheim, we had no trouble leaving at 7:30 on a Friday morning to head west to Palm Springs.  Leaving at 8 a.m. to go to Universal Studios on a Tuesday, however, was slow going.  Weekends might be better than weekends, but it’s not guaranteed.  Be prepared to be patient, and leave plenty of time in case you get in a traffic snag.
  5. Stay near your destination.  Though LA and San Diego don’t look so far apart on a map, dealing with the traffic each day may make your trip less enjoyable.  Stay in Anaheim when you’re going to Disneyland, northern LA for Universal, and San Diego for the attractions there.  Though I usually don’t like switching hotel rooms throughout the trip, in California I think it’s a good idea.
  6. Have your best driver drive and your best navigator navigate. If you have two adults in the car, know their strengths and use them.  My husband is a good driver, and I’m good at reading signs and maps and finding alternate routes if necessary.  We’re a good team in the car as long as he lets me tell him where to go.  “Exit in 1/2 mile; get in the right lane.”  “You’re in an exit-only, move one or two to the left.”  “Left turn at the light, get in the right-left lane.”  (Are we the only people who say “right-left” and “left-left” for multiple turn lanes?)  If you’re both the driver and the navigator, you should spend even more time in the Plan Ahead stage.
  7. Use a GPS. And a map. And your smartphone, if you have one. While our GPS was very handy for some things — indicating which lane we should be in, showing our arrival time — it was less than stellar at others.  I usually had a map on my lap for a better overview of the area and to double-check the GPS, and the map feature on my phone was often better at locating destinations and giving better warning as to what our next road would be.  Use all the tools you have to keep your from getting tangled up in the wrong freeway.
  8. Check with the experts. If you know people who live in Southern California, tap them for advice, or use social media to your advantage.  Ask other family travelers for advice on Trekaroo, or ask your questions on Facebook or Twitter.  Just as you’d help someone visiting your area, you’ll find people who are willing to share their knowledge when you’re coming to their home turf.
  9. Use the carpool lane. If you have two or more people in your vehicle and are traveling any distance on a freeway, use the carpool lane if it’s available.  Besides the possibility of it moving faster, you’ll also have to worry less about lane-change and merging traffic.  Though the carpool lanes generally are on the left alongside the regular lanes, there’s a solid line in most areas that indicates no entry or exit from the lane.  Every so often, there will be an entrance/exit zone indicated by dashed lines, and that’s when you can move in or out of the lane.  We found signage to be very well done in indicating when to leave the lane for specific highway exits.
  10. Gas is expensive.  We paid $4.25 a gallon consistently in California, while the price back home was about $3.40.  Budget accordingly, as gas almost always costs more in California than in the Midwest.
  11. Enjoy the ride. Even though southern California seems to be all one big city, there are amazing changes in terrain and views as you navigate it.  Try to catch a glimpse of the mountains, the beaches, and the Hollywood sign even while keeping your eyes on the road, and enjoy your trip.

The “11 Things” series is designed to give tips for traveling families to destinations well-known or off the beaten path.  Learn how to share 11 Things about your favorite destination, or read other 11 Things posts.

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One comment so far

One Comment to “11 Things: Tips for Driving in Los Angeles”

  1. Melissa on 09 Mar 2012 at 4:56 pm

    I agree with having an actual paper map for trips to unfamiliar places. Having a broad view of cities can be essential. My sister-in-law and family drove to our farm from Phoenix and used a GPS exclusively. The GPS led them through downtown Pierre, S.D. which was fine except they were driving a gigantic RV. They sheared off the top of their camper when going under an old bridge. Our Rand McNally atlas clearly showed a truck bypass that would have been just what they needed- and could have saved them endless troubles and stress!

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