Anyone visiting California can't miss out on its two biggest metropolitan areas, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Each has its own claim to fame and a very different atmosphere, even though they're only separated by less than 400 miles. Los Angeles is a sprawling metropolis that stretches on without bounds while San Francisco is confined on three sides by water, but both offer endless opportunities for visitors.
Some of California's most remarkable sites are between Los Angeles and San Francisco, so if you have a vehicle and the time, driving the scenic route is the best way to travel between them. You can also drive a faster and less visually spectacular route, but if you're in a hurry then a flight will be faster and likely less expensive. Buses are the most affordable method for travelers on a budget, but they take an entire day or night. The train is—surprisingly—the slowest method and only a good option for those who are passionate about train travel.
|Train||12 hours||from $60||Ocean views|
|Bus||8 hours||from $20||Traveling on a budget|
|Plane||1 hour, 25 minutes||from $45||Arriving on a time crunch|
|Car||5 hours, 50 minutes||382 miles (615 kilometers)||Taking the scenic route|
What Is the Cheapest Way to Get From Los Angeles to San Francisco?
Various bus companies make the route from Los Angeles to San Francisco, such as Greyhound, Flixbus, and Megabus. The fastest routes complete the journey in roughly eight hours, but some trips make more stops and can take up to 12 hours. Regardless of what company you choose or when you buy your tickets, expect to pay between $20 and $35 for a one-way trip. While this is definitely the cheapest method, it's often possible to find flights for only an additional $15–$20, saving you several hours of travel time.
Each company has its own pick-up location, but all of them collect passengers around Downtown Los Angeles (Flixbus has an additional pick-up point at UCLA in Westwood). In San Francisco, Megabus and Flixbus bring passengers to the San Francisco Caltrain Station in the China Basin neighborhood while Greyhound passengers are dropped off just a few blocks north at the Salesforce Transit Center. Both locations are well-connected to the rest of the city via BART, Muni, or buses.
Tip: To save money, choose a late-night departure and sleep on the bus. You'll save a night of pricey accommodations and not miss out on a day of your trip sitting on the bus.
What Is the Fastest Way to Get From Los Angeles to San Francisco?
For travelers who don't have the time to visit all of the parts of California between Los Angeles and San Francisco, you can skip over it and travel from one city to the other in under an hour and a half. Of course, once you factor in all of the time it takes to get to and from the airport, check-in for your flight, pass through security, and wait at your gate, you're actually in transit quite a bit longer. Even with the extra hassles that come with flying, taking a plane is still the fastest way to get to San Francisco.
Thankfully, it can also be one of the most affordable ways. Several airlines fly this popular route, and there are several daily options from Alaska, American, Southwest, United, and Delta. One-way flights start at $45, although they can rise drastically if you're making your purchase at the last minute.
There are three major airports around San Francisco. The majority of flights from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) fly into San Francisco International Airport (SFO), although some airlines may fly to Oakland (OAK) or San Jose (SJC). From Oakland, you can get to San Francisco via public transit in as little as 30 minutes. San Jose is farther and would take at least an hour and a half by public transit or about an hour by car.
How Long Does It Take to Drive?
The fastest route from Los Angeles to San Francisco is driving north on I-5, which cuts through the agricultural Central Valley. The journey takes about six hours and is relatively free of traffic—apart from the very beginning and the very end of the trip around the big cities. You won't see much along the way and the drive is unbelievably boring, but it's the second-fastest way to get to San Francisco after flying.
How Long Is the Train Ride?
While there has been talk for years about building a high-speed train connecting Los Angeles and San Francisco, that prospect is still a distant reality. The fastest trains from Amtrak make the journey in about 10 hours, but require a number of transfers along the way and usually end with a bus. The most direct journey only requires one transfer, but it will take you about 12 hours from the time you board the train in Los Angeles to stepping off in San Francisco.
Use the Amtrak website to purchase a ticket from Los Angeles to either San Jose or Oakland. There is one train that leaves Union Station in Los Angeles every morning to travel north along this route, and it will take you 10 hours to get to San Jose or 11 hours to Oakland. San Jose is farther from San Francisco, but you can change from the Amtrak train to a local Caltrain within the same station, which will get you to San Francisco in roughly 90 minutes. Oakland is much closer to San Francisco, but the Oakland Amtrak Station is a 10-minute walk from the local BART train, which can be tricky if you're carrying luggage.
The cheapest Amtrak tickets start at $50 but sell out quickly. You'll also need to purchase a separate ticket for the second leg of the trip on the local commuter train, which will be an additional $5–$10. It's a long ride and will use up an entire day of your vacation, but it's a scenic ride and well worth it for those who are passionate about train travel.
When Is the Best Time to Travel to San Francisco?
You'll want to avoid leaving Los Angeles on a weekday afternoon as rush hour commuters pour out of the city and overflow the highways. In winter, the section of I-5 known as "the Grapevine"—which is a major artery out of Los Angeles County—is occasionally shut down due to icy roads, forcing all drivers to head north on Highway 101 and creating catastrophic traffic jams. Check road conditions before heading out and use GPS to find the least congested routes.
San Francisco weather is relatively mild all year long, but if you're seeking the best weather you should visit in September or October while the city is experiencing its signature "Indian Summer." The beginning of fall is when San Francisco gets the most sunshine, since the summer months are often plagued with heavy fog. Not only does the summer bring less-than-ideal weather but it's also the high season when the city is mostly filled with tourists. Winter is the low season and a great time to visit if you want hotel deals. The weather may be wet and chilly, but it's nowhere near as cold as the Northeastern United States.
What's the Most Scenic Route to San Francisco?
The I-5 highway may be the fastest route from Los Angeles, but if you have access to a vehicle then taking the scenic route is one of the most worthwhile delays you'll ever experience in your life. Depending on how much time you have, you have two options—but if you aren't in a rush, choose the longer one.
The "quick" option is to take Highway 101 up the coast, with amazing views of the Pacific Ocean as you pass through charming towns like Malibu, Santa Barbara, and San Luis Obispo. From there, the highway cuts inland and the last three hours are less impressive. This route is only 40 additional miles from the I-5 route and adds less than an hour to the total trip time, a small price to pay for the exponentially more interesting scenery.
The "long" option is only 20 miles longer than the "quick" option but adds almost an hour and a half to the drive because of curvy roads and one-lane highways, for a total travel time of about eight hours without stopping. In exchange, you'll be riding one of the most breathtaking drives you'll surely ever see in your life. From Los Angeles, you'll drive up Highway 101 along the coast just as with the previous option. However, once you get to San Luis Obispo you'll change to Highway 1, also known as the Pacific Coast Highway. The rest of the drive is a spectacular route passing through Big Sur State Park where the forested cliffs dramatically drop into the Pacific Ocean. There are plenty of pull-offs along the highway to park, take pictures, and absorb the beauty around you.
Can I Use Public Transportation to Travel From the Airport?
Most flights from Los Angeles arrive at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), which is a few miles south of the city but conveniently connected by the local BART train. BART has several stops throughout the city and it takes about 30 minutes to get from the airport to downtown San Francisco. Oakland Airport (OAK) is also connected to the city via BART and about 30 minutes from downtown San Francisco as well. If you arrive at San Jose Airport, you'll need to take a bus or cab to the San Jose Diridon train station. From there, you can take Caltrain to downtown San Francisco and the journey takes about 90 minutes.
Ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft are also available from SFO with fares starting at $30 from the airport to downtown.
What Is There to Do in San Francisco?
San Francisco is one of the most iconic cities not just in California but in the entire United States, famous for its melting pot of cultures, bohemian vibe, colorful houses, and auburn bridge. The Golden Gate Bridge is famous around the world and when it's a clear day, one of the best viewpoints is from Chrissy Field. If you have a vehicle, you can park at the San Francisco side of the bridge and walk across it for free. Union Square off of Market Street is the commercial center of the city and is one of the best places for shopping. Haight-Ashbury was the epicenter of the hippy movement in the 1970s and although it's become a popular area for tourists, it still retains its free-spirit vibe. Nearby is Golden Gate Park, an urban escape that's even larger than Central Park in New York City and contains botanical gardens, museums, and green space to lay out and enjoy the California sun.