If you're used to urban driving, you shouldn't have too much trouble navigating the streets of Los Angeles. If not, L.A. can be unnerving. However, the city has evolved with drivers in mind. Streets are wide and parking garages abound, so it's more car-friendly than many older big cities.
If you get discombobulated while on the freeway, remember this rule of thumb: even-numbered freeways run east and west, odd-numbered freeways run north and south.
As of this writing, gasoline costs around $3 a gallon. Most stations are self-service; the few remaining full-service stations are mostly in and around the Westside. There are plenty of stations everywhere. Most stay open late, and many are open 24 hours.
There are plenty of identical or similarly named streets in L.A. (Beverly Boulevard and Beverly Drive, for example), so be as specific as you can when asking directions or inputting into a map app. Expect sudden changes in addresses as streets pass through neighborhoods, then incorporated cities, then back into neighborhoods. This can be most bewildering on Robertson Boulevard, an otherwise useful north–south artery that, by crossing through L.A., West Hollywood, and Beverly Hills, dips in and out of several such numbering shifts in a matter of miles.
Parking rules are strictly enforced in Los Angeles, so make sure you check for signs and read them carefully. Illegally parked cars are ticketed or towed quickly. Parking prices vary from 25¢ (in public lots and at meters) to $2 per half hour (in private lots). Downtown and Century City rates may be as high as $25 an hour.
Parking in Downtown L.A. can be tough, especially on weekdays. Try the garage at the FIG at 7th retail complex (725 S. Figueroa St.), which is spacious, reasonably priced, and visitor-friendly.
In Hollywood, the underground facility at the Hollywood & Highland shopping complex (6801 Hollywood Blvd.) charges $3 for the first four hours with validation. In Beverly Hills, the first two hours are free at several lots on or around Rodeo Drive. The Westside Pavilion (10800 Pico Blvd.) offers three hours of free parking at its garage.
At some shops, most restaurants, and hotels in Los Angeles, valet parking is virtually assumed. The cost is usually $6 to $16 for restaurants, but can be as high as $60 for hotels. Keep small bills on hand to tip the valets.
Beware of weekday rush-hour traffic, which is heaviest from 8 to 10 am and 3 to 7 pm. Go511.com and the Waze app offer real-time traffic information, and the California Highway Patrol has a road-conditions hotline. To encourage carpooling, some crowded freeways reserve an express lane for cars carrying more than one passenger.
Parallel streets can often provide viable alternatives to jam-packed freeways, notably Sepulveda Boulevard for I–405; Venice and Washington boulevards for I–10 from Mid-Wilshire west to the beach; and Ventura Boulevard, Moorpark Street, or Riverside Drive for U.S. 101 through the San Fernando Valley.
For minor problems faced by motorists (running out of gas, blowing a tire, needing a tow to the nearest phone), California's Department of Transportation has a Metro Freeway Service Patrol. More than 145 tow trucks patrol the freeways offering free aid to stranded drivers. Reach them on your cell phone by calling 511.
If your car breaks down on an interstate, pull over onto the shoulder and call the state police from your cell phone or walk to the nearest emergency roadside phone. When calling for help, note your location according to the small green mileage markers posted along the highway.
Rules of the Road
Seat belts are required for all passengers in California, as is the use of federally approved car seats for children under nine or less than 4 feet, 9 inches tall. California law requires that drivers use hands-free devices when talking on cell phones. Texting and driving is illegal and results in a hefty fine.
The speed limit is 25 to 35 mph on city streets and 65 mph on freeways unless otherwise posted. Some towns, including Beverly Hills and Culver City, use cameras at traffic lights to reduce speeding. Speeding can earn you fines starting at $266. It is illegal to drive in California with a blood alcohol content of 0.08% or above (0.01% if you're under 21). There are strict penalties for first offenders. Checkpoints are set up on weekends and holidays across the county.
Parking infractions can result in penalties starting at $63. Having your vehicle towed and impounded will cost nearly $300 even if you pay up immediately, and more if you don't. LAX is notorious for handing out tickets to drivers circling its busy terminals; avoid the no-parking zones and keep loading or unloading to a minimum.
Turning right on red after a complete stop is legal unless otherwise posted. Many streets in Downtown L.A. are one-way, and a left turn from one one-way street onto another is allowed. On some major arteries, left turns are illegal during rush hour. Certain carpool lanes, designated by signage and a white diamond, are reserved for cars with more than one passenger. Freeway on-ramps often have stop-and-go signals to regulate the flow of traffic, but cars in high-occupancy-vehicle (HOV) lanes can pass the signal without stopping.
Keep in mind that pedestrians always have the right of way in California; not yielding to them, even if they're jaywalkers, may result in a $200 ticket.
In Los Angeles, a car is a necessity. Keep in mind that you'll likely be spending a lot of time in it, and options like a plug for your cell phone could make a significant difference in your day-to-day comfort.
Major-chain rates in L.A. begin at $38 a day and $300 a week, plus sales tax and concession fees. Luxury vehicles start at $75 a day. Open-top convertibles are a popular choice for visitors wanting to make the most of the sun. Note that the major agencies offer services for travelers with disabilities, such as hand controls, for little or no extra cost.
In California you must be 21 and have a valid credit card to rent a car. Some agencies won't rent to those under 25, and those that do may charge extra.