Asking how to get to Los Angeles is like asking how to get to the United States: the answer depends on where you're going. To put it in perspective, Los Angeles is a big city all by itself, but the greater Los Angeles metropolitan area covers five counties and more than 15,000 square miles of cities and towns.
To find out exactly how to get to Los Angeles, first, decide where you're going within that sprawling metro area. After that, there are four main options for getting there: car, plane, bus, or train.
Once you know how to get to your chosen segment of the city, you still need to get around. So, we'll also give you tips for airport shuttles, rental cars, and public transit.
Many Los Angeles visitors arrive in personal or rented cars. The major highways into Los Angeles include I-5 from San Diego or Sacramento, US Hwy 101 from the north, I-15 from Las Vegas, and I-10 from Phoenix.
More people visit Los Angeles from the San Francisco area than anywhere else. Most visitors fly into LAX, so we'll use that trip as an example. Here are the facts:
- A flight from SFO, Oakland, or San Jose to LAX takes a little more than an hour.
- You need to arrive at the airport at least an hour early to check in.
- It could take up to an hour to get to the airport, park, and get to the terminal.
- On arrival in Los Angeles, it will take at least 30 minutes to get off the airplane and pick up your luggage.
- It will take at least another 30 minutes to pick up a rental car or catch a shuttle.
That adds up to four hours. Depending on where you live, it could take five to six hours to drive to Los Angeles from San Francisco via the shortest route, and less if your destination is on the road between your starting point and the airport.
When you first think about it, the advantages of flying should increase with longer distances. That's true if time is your primary concern. However, two or more people who have plenty of time may find costs about the same whether they drive or fly, even for trips that might take two days of driving.
- For one person who has the flexibility to plan ahead and choose lower-priced times of day to travel, the cost difference between flying and driving in a fuel-efficient automobile will probably be small.
- The cost advantages tip toward driving if two or more people are traveling.
VIA magazine (Northern California's AAA publication) compared flying and driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Staff members (each with a child) made the trip on the same day. They found driving less expensive but tedious and time-consuming. Flying was fast but stressful.
In response to that article, economics professor David Tufte from Southern Utah University offered a different analysis, taking into account less obvious factors:
- Greenhouse gas emissions (about the same in each case)
- Risk of a fatal accident
- How much someone would have to pay you to be on the road when you'd rather be doing something else
His conclusion was that driving is slightly more costly.
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is by far the most commonly used of the LA-area airports, but it's not the only one. In fact, there are five commercial airports in the Los Angeles area.
Consider one of these other LA-area airports, especially if you're flying into LA from within California or adjoining states or are going to an area nearer another airport. The map above shows where they are, along with a few of the most popular tourist spots.
Airports in the Area
- LAX: LAX is the largest (and therefore busiest) LA-area airport. It's on the coast, west of downtown. LAX is the only option for many international travelers. It's also served by the highest number of airlines. On the downside, it’s busy, chaotic, and noisy - and almost 20 miles from downtown Los Angeles. And despite its size and popularity, public transportation isn't readily available.
- Long Beach (LGB): South of LAX, LGB is convenient for visiting the city of Long Beach and the South Bay, or if you're catching a ferry to Catalina Island. Long Beach Airport is served by budget carrier Jet Blue, among others.
- Hollywood-Burbank (BUR): Burbank Airport is small and much easier to travel in to and out of than LAX. It's convenient to Hollywood and downtown, and it's the best of the LA-area airports for accessing public transportation, including express bus service and Metro trains.
- Orange County (SNA): The most convenient LA-area airport for visiting Disneyland (only 15 minutes away), Orange County Airport is a full-featured airport with modern terminals and jetways, but it's much less hectic than LAX. It's also called John Wayne Airport, and, in case you're wondering why SNA is the airport code for Orange County, it comes from the nearby town of Santa Ana.
- Ontario: On the east side of the metropolitan sprawl, this LA-area airport is a good choice if you're headed toward Palm Springs or the desert.
Finding Cheap Flights
Any of the big-name travel sites are worth a try to look for cheap flights to Los Angeles, but we have some better ideas:
- Southwest Airlines has some of the cheapest flight to Los Angeles, no baggage or change fees and lots of connections — and the airline doesn't charge extra if you fly into one city and out of another. However, it doesn't participate in other sites' searches; you'll have to go directly to its website instead.
- Jet Blue also offers very low fares and fees.
- Consider a “red eye” flight from Los Angeles to the East Coast. These are often the cheapest flights, leaving between 10:00 p.m. and midnight to arrive the following morning. Stay in Los Angeles for most of the day, and you may also save on a night in a hotel. Although some people hate flying all night, others find it a good way to conquer jet lag.
If you want to hire or rent a car at any Los Angeles airport, you'll find plenty of companies ready to work with you, and car rental rates from LAX can be so cheap you may wonder how the companies make any money at all.
An easy way to check rates with all the major Los Angeles car rental agencies at once is to compare prices at your favorite price comparison website. After that, you may want to check the websites of the lowest-priced companies' from that list for special rates and sales.
All car rental companies at Los Angeles International Airport are reached by shuttle buses, which stop at the transportation islands just outside baggage claim at each terminal building. At the Long Beach and Burbank airports, car rental offices are very near the terminal building, and, at John Wayne Airport in Orange County, the rental counters are inside the terminal.
No matter which Los Angeles airport you fly into, we can't recommend Fox Rent-a-Car, even though their car rental rates are often the cheapest. You don't have to take our word for it. Check the reviews on Yelp for yourself.
If you need an accessible minivan with ramps or a lift, you can do that through Wheelchair Getaways. The service includes picking you up at the airport when you arrive and dropping you off when you're done.
Car Rentals Outside of the Airport
Los-Angeles area airports aren't the only places you can rent cars in Los Angeles. All of the major car rental companies have city offices scattered around the LA metro area. Those locations may have shorter hours than the airport car rental desks and might be closed on Sundays, but they're often closer to where you're staying and a good option if you only need to hire a car for a day or two.
To make things easy for you, Enterprise Rent-A-Car offers "We'll Pick You Up" service (with some restrictions). Call the office you plan to rent your car from for more details. Phone numbers will be on that office's page on the Enterprise website.
If Los Angeles is a place you don't want to drive in, or if you'd rather have someone else do the driving for you, you can hire an airport shuttle van to take you from the airport to your hotel and back again at the end of the trip.
At the smaller airports, finding your shuttle is easy, but, at busy LAX, it can be a little harder. To locate the shuttle van stop, go out of the arrival level (where baggage claim is) and look for the transportation islands. You'll find a sign marked "Van," which is where you wait.
For the Burbank, Long Beach, and Orange County airports, you'll find lists of shuttles that serve them on their web pages.
Airport shuttles are convenient and the driver takes care of all the traffic and navigation issues -- a big bonus if you're tired after a long flight.
If you don't need a rental car to get around (even for just a few days), you might save money with a shuttle, but car rental rates are so low in LA that you should check this to be sure you're not making a wrong (and costly) assumption.
You may have to share your shuttle with up to three other groups, circle the airport two or three times while the driver tries to find more passengers, and make multiple stops before reaching your hotel. All of that could add an hour — or more — to your travel time.
To ensure you get to the airport on time for your departure, LA airport shuttle companies will insist on picking you up early enough to allow for most potential delays. On a good day with no slow-downs, that means you'll stop playing earlier than you might have to otherwise, and you'll be at the gate long before your flight departs.
Los Angeles airport shuttles charge per person, making them less attractive, budget-wise, for several people.
If you're traveling in a larger group, you may find that it's cheaper to rent a car.
The trip from LAX to your final Los Angeles destination in a taxi is likely to be the most expensive way to go, but it's convenient and costs the same for several people as for one.
You can also check into getting a ride with Uber or Lyft. However, uberPool may not be an option at the airport and policies about pickups and drop-offs are changing too fast to keep up with. Before you count on using one of them, take a moment to look up the latest news for service to the airport you're going to.
The bus company with the running dog logo is an option for taking a bus to Los Angeles, but it's not the only one.
- Greyhound has stations in many smaller cities and towns.
- Crucero USA offers cheap fares between some California cities and Los Angeles, where its buses also stop in Anaheim, Glendale, and Long Beach.
- Megabus runs to Los Angeles Union Station from several locations including San Jose, San Francisco, Oakland, and Las Vegas, with seats sometimes as cheap as $1 if you reserve well in advance (but more often in the $40 to $50 range).
- Bolt Bus also runs buses between Los Angeles and San Jose/San Francisco, with prices similar to Megabus. It has stops in downtown LA and Hollywood.
Several Amtrak routes go to Los Angeles: Coast Starlight (from Seattle and Portland), Sunset Limited (from New Orleans and San Antonio), Pacific Surfliner (San Luis Obispo to San Diego), and Southwest Chief (from Chicago and Albuquerque).
Amtrak fares and schedules are available at its website. Amtrak offers travel discounts to students, veterans, AAA, and AARP members who present their ID or membership card when purchasing a ticket.
Taking Local Trains
If you want to go to Los Angeles by train from San Diego, Orange County, Santa Barbara, San Bernardino, Lancaster or Riverside, a Metrolink train might be a good option.