Five airports serve the Los Angeles area. Most visitors fly into Los Angeles International Airport (tel. 310/646-5252; www.lawa.org/lax), better known as LAX. This behemoth -- ranked sixth in the world for number of passengers handled -- is oceanside, between Marina del Rey and Manhattan Beach. LAX is a convenient place to land; it's within minutes of Santa Monica and the beaches, and not more than a half-hour from Downtown, Hollywood, and the Westside (depending on traffic, of course). Despite its huge size, the nine-terminal airport has a straightforward, easy-to-understand design. Free shuttle buses connect the terminals and stop in front of each ticket building. Special minibuses accessible to travelers with disabilities are also available. Call 310/646-6402 for more information. Travelers Aid of Los Angeles (tel. 310/646-2270; www.travelersaid.org) operates booths in every terminal.
There are eight short-stay (and expensive) parking lots within the main concourse building and a long-stay park on 96th Street and Sepulveda Boulevard. A free bus service runs between this car park and the terminals. A free 24-hour Cell Phone Waiting Lot is at 9011 Airport Blvd. for drivers picking up passengers. It can be very easy to miss, so keep an eye out for the big post office -- it's right next door. You can find extensive information about LAX -- including maps, parking, shuttle-van information, and links to weather forecasts -- online at www.lawa.org. All car-rental agencies are in the neighborhood surrounding LAX, within a few minutes' drive; each provides a complimentary shuttle to and from the airport.
For some travelers, one of the area's smaller airports might be more convenient than LAX. Bob Hope Airport (BUR; 2627 N. Hollywood Way, Burbank; tel. 818/840-8840; www.bobhopeairport.com) is the best place to land if you're headed for Hollywood or the valleys -- and it's even closer to Downtown L.A. than LAX. The small airport has especially good links to Las Vegas and other southwestern cities. Long Beach Municipal Airport (LGB; 4100 Donald Douglas Dr., Long Beach; tel. 562/570-2600; www.lgb.org ), south of LAX, is the best place to land if you're visiting Long Beach or northern Orange County and want to avoid L.A. John Wayne Airport (SNA; 18601 Airport Way, Santa Ana; tel. 949/252-5200; www.ocair.com) is closest to Disneyland, Knott's Berry Farm, and other Orange County attractions. Ontario International Airport (ONT; 1923 E. Avion St., Ontario; tel. 909/937-2700; www.lawa.org/ont) is not a popular airport for tourists; businesspeople use it to head to San Bernardino, Riverside, and other inland communities. However, it's convenient if you're heading to Palm Springs, and also a viable choice if you're staying in Pasadena.
Los Angeles is well connected to the rest of the United States by several major highways. Among them are I-5, which enters the state from the north; I-10, which originates in Jacksonville, Florida, and terminates in Los Angeles; and U.S. 101, a scenic route that follows the western seaboard from Los Angeles north to the Oregon state line.
If you're driving from the north, you have two choices: the quick route, along I-5 through the middle of the state; or the scenic route along the coast. Heading south along I-5, you'll pass a small town called Grapevine. This marks the start of the mountain pass with the same name. Once you've reached the southern end of it, you'll be in Canyon Country, just north of the San Fernando Valley, which is the start of Los Angeles County. To reach the beach communities and L.A.'s Westside, take I-405 south (hello, traffic!); to get to Hollywood, take California 170 south to U.S. 101 south (this route is called the Hollywood Freeway the entire way); I-5 will take you along the eastern edge of Downtown and into Orange County.
If you're taking the scenic coastal route from the north, take U.S. 101 to I-405 or I-5, or stay on U.S. 101, following the instructions above.
If you're approaching from the east, you'll be coming in on I-10. For Orange County, take California 57 south. I-10 continues through Downtown and terminates at the beach. If you're heading to the Westside, take I-405 north. To get to the beaches, take California 1 (Pacific Coast Hwy., or PCH) north or south, depending on your destination.
From the south, head north on I-5 at the southern end of Orange County. I-405 splits off to the west; take this road to the Westside and beach communities. Stay on I-5 to reach Downtown and Hollywood.
Here are some driving times if you're on one of those see-the-USA car trips: From Phoenix, it's about 350 miles, or 6 hours (okay, 7 if you drive the speed limit) to Los Angeles via I-10. Las Vegas is 265 miles northeast of Los Angeles (about a 4- or 5-hr. drive). San Francisco is 390 miles north of Los Angeles primarily on I-5 for the fastest route (6-7 hr.), and San Diego is 115 miles south (about 2 hr.).
If you're visiting from abroad and plan to rent a car in the United States, you probably won't need the services of an additional automobile organization. If you plan to buy or borrow a car, automobile-association membership is recommended. AAA, the American Automobile Association (tel. 800/222-4357; www.aaa.com), is the country's largest motor club and supplies its members with maps, insurance, and, most importantly, emergency road service. Note: Foreign driver's licenses are usually recognized in the U.S., but you should get an international one if your home license is not in English.
International visitors should note that insurance and taxes are almost never included in quoted rental car rates in the U.S. Be sure to ask your rental agency about additional fees for these. They can add a significant cost to your car rental.
Amtrak (tel. 800/USA-RAIL [872-7245]; www.amtrak.com) connects Los Angeles with about 500 American cities. As with plane travel along popular routes, fares fluctuate depending on the season and special promotions. As a general rule, heavily restricted advance tickets are competitive with similar airfares. Remember, however, that those low fares are for coach travel in reclining seats; private sleeping accommodations cost substantially more.
The Sunset Limited was Amtrak's regularly scheduled transcontinental service, originating in Florida and making 52 stops along the way as it passed through Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona before arriving in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina wiped out the Jacksonville to New Orleans section. Though it is being rebuilt, a reopening date has not been scheduled. Cross-country travel typically means a change of trains in either Chicago or New Orleans. Amtrak's Coast Starlight travels along the Pacific Coast between Seattle and Los Angeles. This stylish train (with its wonderfully scenic route) has been steadily growing in popularity.
Amtrak also runs trains along the California coast, connecting San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco (with bus connections in the case of the latter), and all points in between. Multiple trains run every day. One-way fares for popular segments can range from $25 (Los Angeles-Santa Barbara) to $31 (Los Angeles-San Diego) to $67 (San Francisco-Los Angeles); but, again, fares fluctuate.
Ask about special family plans, tours, and other money-saving promotions. You can call for a brochure outlining routes and prices for the entire system; up-to-date schedules and fares are also available on Amtrak's comprehensive -- but often unwieldy -- website (www.amtrak.com). Better yet, log on to Amtrak's California website: www.amtrakcalifornia.com. It's far more user-friendly and lists only California schedules and special fares.
The L.A. train terminus is Union Station, 800 N. Alameda St., on Downtown's northern edge. Completed in 1939, this was the last of America's great train depots -- a unique blend of Spanish Revival and Streamline Moderne architecture. From the station, you can take one of the taxis that line up outside; board the Metro Red Line to Hollywood or Universal City; or take the Metro Gold Line to Pasadena. If you're headed to the San Fernando Valley or Anaheim, Metrolink commuter trains leave from Union Station; call tel. 800/371-LINK (371-5465), or visit www.metrolinktrains.com.
International visitors can buy a USA Rail Pass, good for 15, 30, or 45 days of segmented travel on Amtrak (tel. 800/USA-RAIL [872-7245]; www.amtrak.com). The pass is available through many overseas travel agents. See Amtrak's website for the cost of travel within the western, eastern, or northwestern United States. With a foreign passport, you can also buy passes directly from some Amtrak locations, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, Miami, Boston, and Washington, D.C., though prices are usually higher in person. Reservations are generally required and should be made as early as possible. California rail passes are also available.