Most people are aware that Los Angeles is a city of cars. Even though its a city of four million people, driving is still the primary method of transportation for many residents. If your goal is to explore greater Los Angeles (or to get out and see more of California) than you will want to rent a car in Los Angeles so you can easily get around!
Here’s everything you need to know from how to hire a car in LA to important local laws and what kind of car to get.
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Things to Know Before You Rent a Car in Los Angeles
I’ve tried to demystify the car rental process by writing these in a somewhat logical order, but don’t skip any sections! Each of these points is something you need to plan for on your trip.
When Should you Rent a car in Los Angeles?
If you are cool sticking to public transit (and you have the extra time spend on your trip waiting to use it) then you don’t need a rental car. A rental car will get you around faster, but you will have to pay for the car, gas, and parking. Overall, public transit is cheaper, and rental cars are faster.
For me, if I have limited time, I like to pick up a rental car. In many cities, you can also use taxis and Uber, but in LA those will cost you about as much as a rental since the city is so large.
Before getting a rental car, make sure your accommodations have parking available or there are good parking lots nearby. You don’t want to get stuck without the ability to park near your hotel!
How to Hire a Car in Los Angeles
If you’ll be flying into LAX, I would suggest arranging to rent a car in the airport. This way you can skip the hassle of figuring out how to take public transit to your hotel or the expense of getting a taxi or Uber (which in LA just isn’t cheap).
If your goal is to fly into Los Angeles and then drive to another city in Southern California, then a rental car is a necessity. In this situation, it wouldn’t make any sense to pick your rental car up anywhere else other than at the airport.
Make sure you double-check the instructions for picking up your rental car at the airport, including what time you want to pick it up. You don’t want to accidentally end up waiting for hours at the airport for your rental to be read!
Whether you choose to book a car rental at the airport or somewhere else, make sure you know the full details of where you’ll be picking it up and dropping it off. You don’t want any surprises!
Picking Out the Right Car
Which type of car you pick out depends on what kind of itinerary you have planned. Going to the beach? Maybe you want a convertible to enjoy the sunshine or a car big enough for your surf equipment!
Heading out on a grand California or cross-country road trip, make sure your rental has USB ports so you can keep your phone charged while you navigate.
Spending most of your time in the city? Get a smaller car that you can park in any available space.
California Car Rental Regulations
In California, the legal minimum age to rent a car is twenty-one, but rental car companies will typically charge a fee for anyone renting who isn’t at least twenty-five years old.
You need a valid driver’s license and a credit card to rent a car in California. You also need to bring whatever card you used for your reservation, even if you plan to charge the car on a different card.
If you are an international tourist, you need to bring your driver’s license from home as well as your passports.
Your Car Insurance Options
I’ve rented enough cars in enough countries to know that you ALWAYS need to have car rental insurance. Things happen!
You can be covered in different ways, so triple-check exactly how your coverage works. Sometimes I’m covered by the credit card I use to rent the car, sometimes I use my travel insurance coverage, and sometimes I add the coverage from my rental car company. I compare the costs and coverage of the different options I have before picking which I want for that trip.
It’s also possible that you would be covered by your own insurance policy if you drive at home. Check with your car insurance company to see if this applies to you.
Adding Extra Drivers to Your Car Rental
Typically, you can expect to be able to add your spouse to your rental car in California at no additional charge. You do need to let your rental car company know about any additional drivers. Anyone not authorized to drive the car who drives anyway can potentially nullify the car rental insurance if there’s an accident.
When Should You Reserve Your Rental Car?
Reserve your rental car early. Do not wait until the last minute to rent a car anywhere, but especially not in California! I’ve had rental quotes go up three or four times what my original quote was when I’ve waited until the last minute.
Bring These Documents with You to Pick Up Your Rental
Make sure to bring your credit card and driver’s license to pick up your car. If you plan to use a different credit card to pay for your rental than the one you used to reserve it, bring both cards with you.
International drivers should also bring their passports with them. Rental car companies typically make a copy of the passports of foreign drivers and keep it on file during the duration of the car rental.
Tips for Driving in Los Angeles
Here are some tips to help drive in Los Angeles:
- As with the rest of the US, stick to driving on the right side of the road.
- Give yourself extra time in case of traffic.
- Watch out for pedestrians, especially when you’re taking smaller streets.
- Pay attention to posted speed limit signs.
- Always wear a seatbelt.
- If you’re using a freeway, make sure you know both the number and the name of the highway. These can be used interchangeably on street signs, causing major confusion.
- In California, you can turn right on red after coming to a complete stop unless there’s a sign forbidding it.
- Pedestrians have the right of way (though if you’re walking somewhere, you may find Miami drivers don’t follow this rule the way that they should).
- It is illegal to text and drive.
Los Angeles Parking Tips
Expect to pay to park. Most hotels charge for overnight parking, and you’ll need to pay at any public lots and meters. I try to avoid street parking when I am in a rental car (it’s too easy to get a ticket when you’ve never been to the city before). However, if you do need to street park, it helps to have a small car and be good at parallel parking.
Tips for Using Valet Parking in Los Angeles
Many restaurants and bars in Los Angeles have valet parking instead of a dedicated public lot. The tipping etiquette for valet parking is $2-$5 to the person you drop your car with and $2-$5 to the person who brings your car back.
Why two separate tips? Two different people will likely be performing this service for you throughout the evening.
Expect to tip only in cash, so bring small bills with you!
What to Do if there’s a Major Fire or Earthquake during Your Trip
Contact your rental car with what to do if there’s a weather emergency in Los Angeles during your trip. Do not attempt to drive into an area that is under threat of fire. If your car is damaged in an earthquake, call your rental car company to see what the next steps are for repair and replacing your rental.
How to Navigate on the Road
I prefer to use Google Maps for navigating on the road. If you’re worried about losing cell signal (or won’t have cell phone data during your trip) download the map for the areas you will be traveling so that they are available offline during your trip.
California Alcohol Regulations
California drunk driving laws take into account both alcohol and marijuana use:
California’s DUI laws prohibit all motorists from driving while under the influence of drugs or alcohol or with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of .08% or more. A person is considered “under the influence” if substantially affected by drugs, alcohol, or a combination of the two. California also has similar laws that prohibit riding bikes and scooters while intoxicated and boating under the influence (BUI).
For more information on California’s DUI laws, check out this website which goes over several different variables.
Drinking and driving are bad no matter what, but it’s especially dumb in a rental car when it can potentially void your rental insurance.
California Child Safety Regulations
If you won’t be traveling with your own car seat, you can pre-arrange to get one through your rental car company. California’s car seat laws are some of the strictest in the country. According to the Orange County Sherrif’s Department:
According to California State Law, children must be seated in the rear seat of a vehicle in an appropriate car seat or booster seat until they are 8 years old or 4’9″ tall. Children must remain in a rear-facing car seat until they weigh 40 pounds or more or are at least 40 inches tall.
A child is ready for a booster seat when they have outgrown the weight or height limit of their forward-facing harnesses. This usually occurs around 65 pounds.
Once children reach 8 years of age OR have reached 4’9” in height, they may graduate from the booster seat to a safety belt, however, children are safest in a booster seat until they are 4’9″.
All passengers of all ages are subject to California’s Mandatory Seat Belt law.
Keep in mind that your car seat at home may not meet California standards, so double check before you bring it with you.
California has fewer toll roads than many states. Discuss your options for getting a toll pass with your rental car company, since California does tolls electronically and there aren’t many toll booths.
Miles add up quickly when you’re driving in California, so make sure that your rental either doesn’t have a mileage limit or it’s one you know you can live with!
Taking Your Rental Car Out of State
While it’s usually perfectly fine to take your rental car to a neighboring state, you will still want to double-check your plans with your rental car company. There is sometimes a fee charged for driving out of state.
Dropping Your Rental Off at a Different Location
When you make your reservation, you’ll specify where you are going to pick your rental car and where you will drop it off at the end of your trip. You can specify a city that’s different than your pickup point, but it usually costs more in these situations.
What to Bring with You on Your Trip
You’ll want to keep your driver’s license and proof of insurance handy while you’re out driving. It’s also a good idea to have a charger that works in the car (or rent a car with a USB port). You don’t want to end up with a dead cell phone battery while trying to navigate a new city!
Dealing with Traffic and Parking Tickets
Even when you try your best to avoid them, the occasional traffic or parking ticket can still crop up. Driving in a new city can be tough on anyone!
If you get a parking or traffic ticket in your rental car, the car company will typically charge it to your credit card. This may be after you return your car since they can’t charge you until after they receive the ticket. If you prefer to pay it yourself, keep documentation until you are certain the car company doesn’t also try to pay it and charge you.
Avoiding Extra Charges
Other than tickets, the most common extra charges on car rentals are for damage done to the car, dropping it off late, or not filling the gas tank up to the agreed-upon point (either full or to where it was when you received the car).
Make sure you return the car on-time and in perfect condition with a full tank of gas, and you will likely avoid getting any extra charges.
Returning Your Rental Car
Before you return your car, double-check the gas level and fill it if necessary. At this time, you’ll also want to throw out any trash from the car and try to get crumbs or sand out from the carpets.
Find out from your car company what their procedure is for returning the car, especially if you will be returning it after hours.
It’s always best to have someone from the company check the car in with you there, so you can sign off on the (hopefully pristine) returned condition of the car. However, if you need to return your car after hours, take a few pictures of the car when you drop it off.
More California Travel Resources
Headed to California? Check out my post on the overview of the best living history museums in the US (including one in San Diego)!
Don’t Forget About Travel Insurance
Before you leave for California make sure you have a valid Travel Insurance Policy because accidents happen on the road. I pay for World Nomads, and I happily recommend them. It’s especially important to get travel insurance if you’ll be hanging out in LA where tourists can be the victims of pickpockets.
I have been a paying customer of World Nomads for travel insurance for two years, and I happily recommend them. If you get sick, injured, or have your stuff stolen, you’ll be happy to have the ability to pay for your medical bills or replace what’s stolen or broken.
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