Los Angeles Trip Planner

 

Ilja Mask / EyeEm/Getty Images 

Planning a trip to a destination with as many choices as Los Angeles can be intimidating. There are so many websites and guidebooks you could wade through, that the amount of information is overwhelming. So I've tried to take some of the stress out of the process by organizing the best planning resources for you all in one place. This Los Angeles Vacation Planner will help guide you through the decisions you will need to make to maximize your Los Angeles vacation, whether you are traveling on a tight budget, or looking for a luxury getaway.

Planning What to See and Do on Your LA Vacation

You might expect How to Get to Los Angeles to be the first thing that you have to decide when planning a Los Angeles vacation, but you really have to start your decision-making with What to See and Do. Every other decision, from which airport to fly into to how to get around will be based on, or influenced by, the location of the attractions you want to see.

Planning Your Los Angeles Itinerary

Use the guide of things to do in Los Angeles to browse categories of different kinds of attractions. You will find information and guides on the most popular Los Angeles attractions and the top free things to do in LA, as well as a variety of alternative things to do in LA that you might not have considered. 

You probably won't be able to fit in everything you would like to do, so you'll have to prioritize the things you really don't want to miss, and then add activities as you can fit them according to time and location.

Planning Around Events

There is an Events section in the MEGA Guide, and also a separate index for Los Angeles events with more detail. It includes events related to holidays as well as annual ethnic festivals, street fairs, county fairs, music festivals and concert series organized by month.

Once you have decided the main attractions you would like to visit on your trip, like Disneyland, Hollywood, and Santa Monica Pier, for example, it helps to look at them on a map to determine which order to visit them so you don't waste any more time than necessary in traffic.

 

Saving Money on Your Los Angeles Vacation

After you have an idea what kinds of things you'd like to do in Los Angeles, use the guide to discounts on Los Angeles attractions and entertainment to learn about many ways you can plan your LA vacation for less. I outline ways to save on attractions, theatre and event tickets and eating out in Los Angeles.

One of the best discount programs is the Go Los Angeles Card

Deciding How to Get to Los Angeles

The majority of visitors to Los Angeles come from the southwest US, so many of you will probably be driving to Los Angeles. In that case, you definitely want to take a look at tips for driving in Los Angeles.

Flying to Los Angeles

For those of you flying to Los Angeles, the three factors influencing your decision on which airport to fly into will be:

  1. Proximity to your planned attractions
  2. Availability of flights
  3. Price

After you've decided which activities you want to do in LA (Planning Step 1) and looked at them on the map, you need to decide which airport you want to fly into in order to be close to where you want to start or end your itinerary. Depending on your departure city, you may be tied into Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) as your only option, since the majority of flights to the city arrive there.

But you may be able to fly into one of the smaller airports that is closer to where you are going and easier to navigate.

Orange County/John Wayne Airport in Santa Ana (SNA) is the closest to Disneyland. Long Beach Airport (LGB) is also about halfway between Disneyland and LAX and is obviously the closest airport if you're visiting Long Beach. The Bob Hope/Burbank Airport (BUR) is the closest airport to Hollywood, Universal Studios and Downtown LA, and is the only airport with an Amtrak station. The Ontario Airport (ONT), about 38 miles east of Downtown LA and 36 miles from Disneyland (same as LAX) is another option.

Most Los Angeles area attractions will fall into a few geographical areas. The nearest airport is in parenthesis:

View the Los Angeles Airports Guide for more information about LA area airports and to find flights.

When comparing the cost of flights from different LA airports, you'll also want to keep in mind the cost of getting from the airport to your hotel. Car rental costs vary at different airport locations and if you're not renting a car, any money you save in flying into a more distant airport you'll end up spending on a more expensive ride to the hotel. 

Where to Stay in Los Angeles

Some people recommend staying in one hotel for your entire visit, so you can get unpacked and settle in. I would only recommend this if all or the majority of your chosen attractions are close to each other. Otherwise, you'll waste hours of your precious vacation time sitting in traffic during rush hour trying to get across the city and it will be more stressful than relaxing.

Instead, I recommend clustering your activities and moving from hotel to hotel as necessary, so that you wake up near the first attraction you want to visit on any given day, or if you are planning late-night excursions, you'll want to get a hotel near where the party will end.

Staying in Hollywood or Santa Monica at night and then trying to be at Disneyland early the next day leads to unnecessary hours sitting in traffic, which you can avoid with a little pre-planning. If Hollywood clubbing is on the agenda, stay in Hollywood/West Hollywood that night. If Disneyland is on the schedule, plan to sleep near Disneyland the night before (and probably the night after).

If you're spending a week in LA with kids, for example, a couple nights near Disneyland, a couple nights in Hollywood/Universal Studios and a couple nights in Santa Monica/Venice can be a nice combo. A romantic getaway might include a couple nights near the beach, a night or two of Hollywood nightlife and a performing arts night in Downtown LA.

The following sections describe each area with links to more information on attractions and hotels.

Staying in Hollywood
If you're coming to Los Angeles to see Hollywood, go to nightclubs and fine restaurants, see TV shows being taped and see movie stars' homes, then staying in the heart of Hollywood is your best bet. This is the area around Hollywood and Highland where you'll find the famous Chinese Theatre.

There are a variety of accommodations from youth hostels to three-star hotels (trying hard to be 4 stars) within a few blocks of this intersection. From here you can pick up most tour buses, go to nightclubs and theatres up and down the strip, or take the Metro to Universal Studios Hollywood or Downtown LA for more options. In general, staying west of Vine Street is preferable. Hotels listed in East Hollywood are in a somewhat less desirable neighborhood for tourists, although it is improving.

If you're in town specifically to attend a TV show taping at CBS Television City, like The Price is Right, there are a couple nice hotels in the Fairfax district (near Fairfax and 3rd) right around the corner from the studio, which is also near the Grove, the LA Farmers Market, the Beverly Center and Beverly Hills. Saying Near Universal City or Burbank

If you're visiting Universal Studios Hollywood and Universal CityWalk or taking a tour of Warner Bros Studios, or attending a TV show taping at either one, you might want to stay in this area. Hotels near NBC/Universal Studios provide easy access by Metro to the heart of Hollywood and Downtown LA. The northern attractions at Griffith Park are also easily accessible from here.

West Hollywood/Beverly Hills
Although there are fewer specific attractions in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills, these two cities, completely surrounded by the City of Los Angeles, have the highest concentration of trendy boutique and luxury hotels. The primary appeal of staying in West Hollywood and Beverly Hills are nightlife (particularly gay nightlife and the live rock music scene in West Hollywood), fine dining, and high-end shopping and spas. West Hollywood hotels are reasonably convenient for visiting Hollywood attractions.​

Downtown Los Angeles
Downtown LA is where you want to be if you're coming to town for a convention or a sporting event at the Coliseum, Dodger Stadium, or Staples Center. L.A. Live, near Staples Center and the LA Convention Center, has brought additional entertainment venues, restaurants and nightclubs to the area. Downtown is also a great place for a performing arts weekend getaway at the Music Center or a visit to the historic and cultural center of LA. You can walk from El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Site, home of the oldest house in the city and a Mexican marketplace, to Chinatown and Little Tokyo. For shoppers, there's also the Fashion District, Diamond District, Flower District, Toy District and the bustling Mexican shops along Broadway among the elaborate old movie palaces. Hollywood is just a 15-minute Metro ride away.​

Disneyland
Disneyland is one of the top tourist draws to Southern California, and if you're planning to visit Disneyland, it makes sense to stay nearby. You can get a shuttle from Hollywood or Santa Monica to Anaheim , but to get the most out of a Disneyland visit, you'll want to arrive early and stay late, possibly with a break in the middle of the day.

The Disneyland Resort Hotels are naturally the most convenient, being inside and adjacent to the park itself, but there are plenty of less expensive options surrounding the park, some even within walking distance. There is an Anaheim Resort Shuttle that picks up at area hotels and drops you at the theme park for a small fee so you can avoid dealing with Disneyland parking.

Los Angeles Beaches
The LA area has over 80 miles of beaches. Santa Monica Beach is the most popular tourist beach. It has the widest selection of hotels and nightlife within walking distance and plenty of shopping. It's also convenient for accessing the quirky ​Venice Beach Boardwalk to the south, or the more scenic Malibu beaches to the north. If you're looking for something more low key, Manhattan BeachHermosa Beach and Redondo Beach, known collectively as the South Bay Beach Cities, have more of a beach town vibe and are popular with surfers and people looking to get away from the feel of being in a big city.​

Long Beach
Long Beach has a nice waterfront, marina and plenty of nightlife, dining options and other attractions besides the Queen Mary ocean liner hotel and attraction. There is plenty of sandy beach to lie on if you're not planning on going in the water. However, a breakwater eliminates any wave action. Although the water usually passes bacteria screenings, it sometimes has a petroleum residue, so it's not always the most pleasant option for swimming, although the lack of waves makes it less scary for kids.

Orange County Beaches
In Orange County, you'll find most of the surfers at Huntington Beach, bikini babes and resorts at Newport Beach and a thriving arts community and nicest landscape in Laguna Beach.

Pasadena
Pasadena is a city just northeast of Los Angeles which is closer to Downtown LA than many LA City neighborhoods. Although it is best known for the Tournament of Roses on New Year's Day, there are plenty of year-round attractions including excellent museums and gardens that make Pasadena worth a visit any time of year. If you're a frequent LA visitor, it should definitely find a place on your itinerary.​

Six Flags Magic Mountain
Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia, CA is not really near any other attractions. It's about 30 miles north of Universal Studios Hollywood, which takes about 35 minutes without traffic. Rush hour traffic is usually going the other direction, but it's unpredictable. If you're planning to visit Magic Mountain, you'll probably be there the whole day, so you might want to stay at one of the hotels surrounding the park in Valencia or Santa Clarita.​

Getting the Best Hotel Rates
Once you've decided which part of town you want to stay in, go to my Guide to Getting the Best Hotel Deals to find the best hotel deals in Los Angeles from budget motels to 5-star luxury hotels. These strategies will work for finding great hotel deals in other locations as well.

If you are a jetsetter who puts a priority on staying in really cool hotels or are looking for the best of the best, check out  Top Luxury Hotels in Los Angeles

Loyalty Programs
If you happen to be a frequent traveler wanting to add more points to your hotel loyalty program, you'll find that most chains have multiple options in the LA area. Be careful to look at the specific hotel on the map, because hotels often identify themselves by the names of attractions that are 20 miles away. 

Where to Eat in Los Angeles

There are so many places to eat in Los Angeles that you can pretty much turn your head in any direction and see one or more from just about anywhere. If you're a die-hard foodie, then your whole Los Angeles trip may be based around some specific restaurants you have in mind, and for those, you probably want to make reservations before you leave home.

Yelp.com is a good resource for researching restaurants based on reviews from locals. Tripadvisor also has reviews of popular restaurants from a traveler perspective.  You can make reservations for most LA restaurants that take reservations at Opentable.com. For the rest of you, where you eat will be more a function of what attractions you're visiting and where you are staying.

To plan your dining strategy while in Los Angeles, take a look at my Los Angeles Restaurants page for resources on finding just the right restaurant for you. If you're on a budget, check out my resources on Restaurant Discounts and Coupons - even some top restaurants sometimes have discount reservations- and Cheap Eats in LA.

If you're planning a special romantic occasion, you can go straight to my list of Most Romantic Los Angeles Restaurants with a View.

You might have heard about LA's mobile food scene, which has become a way of life for LA locals. You can track down the Top Gourmet Food Trucks in LA to see what all the buzz is about.

How to Get Around Los Angeles

For most people, the decision to drive your own car or rent a car in Los Angeles will be a no-brainer. Attractions can be far apart, and the public transportation system is slow and complicated if you're traveling any distance or crossing city lines, which is inevitable.

Driving rules and behavior are a little different in Los Angeles than other parts of the country, so before you arrive, check out my Tips for Driving in LA. They will save you some confusion, frustration and potential traffic tickets. Really. It's different here.

Maps are your friend. A dedicated GPS or smartphone with GPS is even better. Orient yourself before you go even if you're using a smartphone or dedicated GPS device. If you're driving in the local mountains and canyons, be sure to bring a paper map or directions, since cell service is spotty.

If you're flying in and need to rent a car in Los Angeles, use this Renting a Car in Los Angeles resource page to help you find the best deals. If you're into something a little more adventurous, you'll also find links for luxury car and motorcycle rentals.

Parking in Los Angeles
Keep in mind when calculating rental car rates that most hotels in Los Angeles charge a nightly parking fee, which can range from $10 to $40 per night. The more expensive the hotel, the higher the parking fee. You'll also have to pay for parking at most attractions and most high-end restaurants. Streets in all commercial areas are metered and time-limited, and many neighborhood streets near commercial areas require resident permits. So your parking expenses per day may be more than the total car rental rate for the day. "Motels" usually still have free parking, even in Hollywood.

Check out my Tips and Tricks for Parking in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Without a Car
Most people will choose to drive in Los Angeles, but there are some of you for whom that is not your preference or not an option. So I have created a special guide for Visiting LA Without a Car. It includes the strategies mentioned below and more, with specific details about getting from one attraction to another. 

Hire a Driver
If money is not an issue and you want to make sure you get where you need to be on time, you can hire a car and driver, or a driver to drive your car.

There are a variety of options for hiring chauffeur-driven cars or personal drivers in Los Angeles. I've summarized them in this page on Limousine and Driver Services in Los Angeles.

Taxis
Taxi service has improved in Los Angeles in recent years since prohibitions on cruising taxis have been lifted. If your business in Los Angeles is primarily in Downtown Los Angeles or within the Beverly Hills to Hollywood area and you don't have a lot of different stops to make, you might consider skipping the rental car and expensive parking in favor of an airport shuttle (or FlyAway Bus to Downtown or Hollywood) to your hotel and taxis around the neighborhood. If you need to cross town a lot, it can actually be more economical to hire a car and driver than to pay multiple cross-town cab fares.

Uber and Lyft are ride-share services where ordinary people - who have been screened and background checked - offer you a ride in their car for a fee. 

Public Transportation
If all your in-town travel will be between Hollywood and Downtown LA, then Metro service is actually reasonably efficient (except for after clubbing, since trains don't run that late). If you want to get back and forth from greater distances, it's totally possible, but takes a long time and can be quite complicated.

For a general overview of public transportation options, take a look at my LA Public Transportation Guide.

Biking Around LA
More and more people are taking advantage of LA's growing network of bike lanes and ever-expanding bike rental and bike share programs to make their shorter trips in LA by bike. Learn more about LA Bike Share Programs and LA Beach Bike Rental. 

What to Pack for Your Los Angeles Vacation

Take a look at my Overview of Los Angeles Weather to get an idea how weather works in Los Angeles. It's probably a little different from what you expect. It depends somewhat on what time of year you are visiting, but only slightly. Any time of year you will want to dress in layers. Even in mid-summer, you'll want a jacket for our cool evenings. One of the Top Myths and Misconceptions About LA is that it's hot all day long at the beach.

Then check the 15-day forecast on Accuweather.com before you start packing to see just what kind of weather we have in store for your visit.

Everyday Clothes
Like most places, there are fashion cliques in Los Angeles. There are hipsters, fashionista clubbers and grunge skateboarders, surfer dudes and goth vampires. But for the most part, shorts, jeans, capris and casual skirts with cute tops, tanks or T-shirts for women and jeans, khakis or board shorts with T-shirts or casual button shirts for guys go just about anywhere. Tennis shoes and flip flops go most places, but they might be designer flip-flops. Casual attire is acceptable, even if not always preferred, at most fine dining restaurants and theatre performances with a few exceptions, but you might want to dress up anyway for a special night out, so that's up to you. Unless you only own wool suits, you will fit in just fine wearing whatever you would wear during summer to fall at home.

Clothes to Go Clubbing
Most high-end nightclubs do have some kind of dress code. Some of them are going for a very "hot" look for both male and female clubbers, but it's totally up to the doorman/woman, and you'll see plenty of guys in "dress jeans" with girls in 6-inch stilettos and as little other covering as they can get away with. Other clubs just ban tennis shoes and baseball caps and require collar shirts on guys to keep people from showing up in "gang" attire. I've definitely seen guys get turned away for wearing tennis shoes, even when otherwise well-dressed.

What Else to Bring
Good walking shoes
Swimsuits and cover-ups
Sunscreen
Sunglasses
Hat
Jacket, sweater or sweatshirt, even in summer
Large zip-lock bags for wet swimsuits

Technology Check List
Cell phone, preferably a smartphone with GPS mapping
GPS unit if you don't have a smartphone with maps
Camera with plenty of memory cards
iPod
Chargers for all your technology
Extra batteries

Things to Know Before You Go

Everything in this trip planner is good to know before you go, but here are some more tips to help you fit in and avoid unpleasant surprises.

When is the Best Time to Visit Los Angeles

Each season has advantages and disadvantages for visiting LA. See which season would suit you best.

Safety Tips for Travelers

These pages will help prepare you for a safe visit to LA, and give you the resources you need for any emergency that might come up while you are in Los Angeles.

Additional LA Travel Resources

Here are some additional resources to help you plan your trip to Los Angeles.