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How to Get Around California (With and Without a Car)

How to Get Around California (With and Without a Car)

California – the Golden State, home to movie stars, tech giants, and natural wonders that stretch from the ocean views and sunny beaches in the south to the towering redwoods and mountains in the north. If you plan a trip to this diverse and beautiful state, you might feel unsure of the best way to get around California.

After all, California spans over 163,000 square miles, boasts a coastline that stretches nearly 850 miles from end to end, and has the largest population of any US state. California is a big, busy place! Hence, getting around and familiarizing yourself with the place can be a little tricky.

You might think navigating California is all about cars and congested freeways, but there’s so much more to it. I’ve journeyed through the state using all kinds of transportation options – planes, trains, buses, and even bikes – and discovered that you certainly don’t need to rely solely on four wheels to see the best of California.

In my wanderings, I’ve found efficient means of getting from place to place and some unexpected gems that truly showcase the spirit of the state. In this post, I’ll share some insider tips and my hard-won knowledge on making the most of your time in California without spending all your time behind the wheel.

Read on and learn about the different transportation options available in California. So, buckle up (or not), and let’s explore California like a local!

Best California Public Transport Options

Region Public Transport
Los Angeles LA County Metro buses, subways, light rails, Metrolink trains
San Francisco BART, Muni buses and trains, trollies, cable cars, the ferry
San Diego San Diego Trolley/light rail, SDMTS buses, Coaster train, jitneys
Statewide Amtrak, Greyhound, Megabus, Flixbus

How to Get to California

Los Angeles International Airport exterior and planes
vesperstock – stock.adobe.com

California has always enchanted me with its landscapes, sprawling cities, and sandy beaches. Figuring out how to get around is vital to exploring this stunning state and carving out unforgettable memories.

First, though, you’ve got to get there. When you’re planning travel to California, you’ll be pleased to know that there are various options available. Flying might be the most convenient choice for those coming from distant states or countries. Airports like Los Angeles International (LAX) and San Francisco International (SFO) facilitate travel to cool cities, millennia-old redwood forests, majestic mountains, and wind-swept coastlines.

Traveling to California by train presents a viable and scenic alternative for those who prefer a more leisurely pace. Amtrak’s regional trains can bring you to the Golden State with comfort and style.

Moreover, Amtrak’s Coast Starlight route runs from Seattle to Los Angeles and offers breathtaking views of the Cascade Mountains, Pacific coastline, and fertile valleys. Other regional train networks include Caltrain in the Bay Area and Metro Rail in Southern California.

See Related: My Epic Minnesota to California Road Trip for You to Copy

Exploring California Without a Car

As a seasoned traveler with a big love for California, I’ve found that exploring the state without driving a car is entirely achievable. It might seem daunting, but let me tell you, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the Golden State without being shackled to the road.

Public Transport and Rideshares

Downtown San Francisco Trolley
jose / Adobe Stock

California’s various public transportation systems are the first go-to option if you don’t have a car. Major cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego have extensive networks of buses, taxis, trams, trollies, and trains that can get you almost anywhere within the city limits.

Plus, they’re often much more affordable than renting a car or using ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft. Grab a transit card or download the local transit agency’s mobile app for convenient ticketing and real-time schedule updates.

Amtrak

Amtrak Pacific Surfliner passing in Del Mar, San Diego coast
Unwind / Shutterstock.com

If you prefer a more scenic and leisurely way to travel between cities rather than a road trip, consider taking the train! While a bit pricey, Amtrak offers several routes, with the scenic Coast Starlight and Pacific Surfliner being two of my favorites.

These trains offer a relaxing ride along the picturesque coastline and provide an excellent vantage point for soaking in California’s beauty. Plus, you can enjoy amenities like Wi-Fi, dining cars, and spacious seats. Check out Omio for rates, dates, and price comparisons.

Catch a Flight

Outside of San Francisco international airport
show999 / Adobe Stock

For those in a hurry, plenty of short flights connect California’s cities. Cheap and frequent flights can be found between major hubs, such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego. While not as eco-friendly as trains, they’re a fast way to cover those longer distances when tight schedules are involved.

You can still travel without a car if you plan to visit more rural or remote destinations, like Yosemite National Park or California’s wine country. A variety of regional bus services and shuttle companies cater to these areas, and they usually offer daily departures from nearby cities.

For example, Yosemite’s YARTS buses connect the park with a couple of cities located in the region, making it a breeze to explore this majestic national park without a car. You can also book guided tours, which often offer transportation from the biggest nearby cities.

Hiking and Biking

Hikers overlook Malibu and the Pacific Ocean in Malibu Creek State Park, California
squeemu / Adobe Stock

Walking and biking are also great ways to experience California up close and personal, and I’m not just talking about California’s fabulous state and national parks.

With an ever-increasing network of bike lanes and pedestrian-friendly streets, cities such as San Francisco and Santa Monica are perfect for exploring on foot or by bike. So don’t forget to pack your walking shoes or rent a bike from one of the many bike-sharing programs available.

See Related: Best Hikes In & Around Los Angeles For Any Time Of Year

Public Transportation Options in California

My first recommendation for navigating California would be to explore the regional transit organizations. These groups offer various options, such as buses, subways, and light rail systems.

Bus

Muni bus in San Francisco
Bruno Coelho / Adobe Stock

The majority of California’s counties have their local bus service, all of which are very popular. The San Francisco Muni is a well-known example. I’ve relied on this public transport agency to travel around San Francisco cheaply and relatively quickly.

There are also bus transit agencies that travel across county borders, like the San Diego Metropolitan Transit. Another way to travel across areas is by using the services of national bus service providers like Greyhound and Amtrak Thruway Motorcoach.

Also, Megabus and Flixbus are popular buses offering statewide connectivity. Don’t be surprised when you see the locals also opting for these eco-conscious methods of statewide travel.

Train

BART Train in San Francisco Bay Area
Olga / Adobe Stock

California is home to a plethora of various subway and light rail systems. The Metro Rail system is the most extensive. It comprises six lines and serves 78 stops throughout Los Angeles County.

Other popular rail systems in the state are the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), the Sacramento Regional Transit District, the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority, the San Diego Trolley, and the Sprinter Line.

The Altamont Commuter Express, the Coaster, Caltrain, and Metrolink are among the options available for commuter rail lines. You can ride Amtrak’s California, San Joaquin, and Pacific Surfliner lines or the Capitol Corridor for intercity rail travel.

Amtrak also operates a nationwide rail service that connects California to other states and cities around the West Coast and throughout the country, including Chicago, Seattle, and New Orleans.

See Related: Things to Do in Sacramento, California

Ferry

San Francisco Bay Ferry Boat
sheilaf2002 – stock.adobe.com

If the waterways are more your style, hop on one of California’s ferry systems. Perhaps one of the lesser-expected public transportation methods for those out of the know, ferries provide much-needed connectivity in Californian coastal regions.

The most famous of these are the ferries that cross San Francisco Bay. As well as providing public transportation, they’re ideal for cheap picturesque trips around the bay and to see Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate Bridge. Trust me, it’s a surprisingly serene experience you won’t want to miss – and pennies compared to a guided boat tour!

See Related: Boats’ n Boutiques: The Best Things To Do On Balboa Island, California

Navigating California’s Major Cities Without a Car

Driving around San Francisco can be tricky with its hills, crisscrossed cable cars, and wacky Lombard Street. The tangled mess of streets and highways combined with the huge traffic can make driving around LA either a boring slog or a waking nightmare.

LA traffic is an absolute nightmare – turning 45 minutes trips into 4 hour excursions regularly. And San Diego? People drive like they don’t want to live in San Diego. So why not explore these cities using alternative transportation methods?

Los Angeles

Aerial View Los Anges City, California
Newport Coast Media / Adobe Stock

Known for its sprawling nature and heavy traffic, LA might seem impossible to navigate without a car, but don’t be deterred. The Metro system is your best friend, connecting Hollywood, Downtown, and even Santa Monica with the Expo Line. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are also popular options for short distances.

See Related: Where To Stay In Los Angeles: Best Areas & Neighborhoods

San Francisco

Aerial View of the San Francisco Skyline
Kyle Kroeger / ViaTravelers

With its iconic cable cars, efficient BART system, the ferry, and comprehensive Muni buses, getting around San Francisco sans cars is possible and fun! In addition to public transit, the city is quite walkable and offers plenty of bike rentals for those who prefer to pedal around.

Remember to pack comfortable shoes; you’ll need them to tackle the city’s famous hills. Consider getting a San Francisco CityPASS, which also includes hop-on, hop-off bus tours and a cruise around San Francisco Bay.

See Related: Day Trips from San Francisco, California

San Diego

Downtown City of San Diego, California Cityscape
Dancestrokes / Shutterstock

This seaside gem is more than just sun and surf (and turf); it boasts a fairly extensive public transportation system. The famous San Diego Trolley covers key areas such as downtown, Old Town, and even the Mexican border. Buses and the Coaster train also connect to the beach and other popular destinations like Balboa Park and of course, the renowned San Diego Zoo.

You can also find a lot of top attractions bundled up in tours available from the San Diego CityPASS. I’ve also made use of tours available from Go City’s San Diego pass.

See Related: Day Trips from San Diego, California

Palm Springs

Palm Springs sign entering Palm Springs, CA
Jason Busa / Adobe Stock

Ah, the desert oasis that is Palm Springs. Admittedly, exploring without a car may be the most challenging out of these four cities.

However, there’s no need for despair! The SunLine Transit Agency offers multiple bus lines and even a complimentary downtown Buzz Trolley that operates on weekends. Plus, you can always rent a bike, rely on ride-sharing vehicle services, or even try a Palm Springs city tour to fill in the gaps on your road trip.

See Related: Best Day Trips From Palm Springs

Get Around California With A Car

Scenic view of famous Route 66 in classic american mountain scenery at sunset
Shambhala / Adobe Stock

I’m not gonna sugar coat it; driving is the easiest and best all-around way to get around California. With a car, you can more or less go from door to door in a way you can’t get as easily with the aforementioned methods.

Car rentals can help you traverse California on your trip, especially if you’d like to tour California’s glorious natural spaces. Traveling around California by car is a sinch with the state’s extensive roadway systems. It is home to Route 66, Pacific Coast Highway, and multiple multilane interstate highways.

You won’t have to pay to use most of California’s highways and roads either. But if you rent a car and drive across the state, having a little cash on hand is good since you will find some toll highways and bridges along the major routes.

FAQs

What are the best public transportation options in California?

California has a variety of public transportation options to choose from, depending on your destination or preference. In major cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, you’ll find a comprehensive network of buses and trains, light rails, and underground metro systems. For instance, BART serves the San Francisco Bay Area with frequent and convenient links between major cities and neighborhoods.

For longer distances, the Amtrak train service connects many cities and towns across the state, providing many scenic routes, comfortable travel heavier on time than air travel, but more leisurely. On the other hand, if you’re looking to travel regionally, California is serviced by several bus companies like Greyhound and Megabus, offering affordable rates and comprehensive schedules throughout the state.

What is the most affordable way to travel within California?

Your best bet might be traveling by bus. Greyhound, Megabus, and Flixbus are popular options that provide extensive routes across the state at budget-friendly prices. Booking in advance often grants you the advantage of even better deals.

Carpooling a vehicle is another cost-effective method of transportation in California. You can connect with fellow travelers through apps like Waze Carpool or BlaBlaCar, splitting the gas and car rental costs. Do keep in mind that you should take necessary precautions and use common sense when choosing a location to carpool with strangers.

Can you navigate California easily without a car?

Absolutely! While having a car might grant you more overall flexibility, being car-free can also have its perks, especially in the cities. Public transportation, as mentioned, is easily accessible in most cities, including buses, metro systems, and city and regional trains like Caltrain, Metrolink, and Coaster.

If you’re in smaller towns or cities, chances are that you can easily navigate these more compact areas by foot, bicycle, or ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft. Additionally, bike-sharing programs like Lime and Jump Bikes are also available in various cities across California, offering visitors a healthy and environmentally friendly option for short trips or scenic rides.

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