Sprawling, diverse, divisive – Los Angeles is one of those cities visitors either love or loathe. It’s where the beautiful people shop at exclusive boutiques on Rodeo Drive and, conversely, where the downtown area of Skid Row contains one of the largest stable populations of homeless people in the United States. The world’s best tacos, the world’s worst coffee; yoga spiritualism and rampant consumerism; confounding gridlock and even more bemusing Kardashians – LA is a study in contrasts. To get the best out of this vast metropolis, follow our Read Before You Leave guide.
Entering the US
Australia is a participant in America’s Visa Waiver Program, meaning Australians don’t need a visa for visits of 90 days or less. We must, however, obtain an Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) through the Department of Homeland Security site. Authorisation is usually granted on the spot but it’s advisable to apply at least 72 hours before you travel in case there’s an issue. ESTA-approved travellers also need a (machine-readable) ePassport.
If you overstay, the American Government could arrest, deport or even bar you from returning to the States. Your kids will never forgive you if they can’t go to Disneyland.
UPDATE: As of 27 January, 2017, the US State Department has temporarily suspended visa issuance to nationals of Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Australians who hold dual passports of any of these countries are no longer eligible to apply for an ESTA to enter the United States under the Visa Waiver Program. Australians affected by these changes are advised to apply for a non-immigrant visa at a US Embassy or Consulate. Go to Smart Traveller for more information.
Flying in to LAX
Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is infamous for its vast, inconvenient terminals and chaotic queues. Security lines can be long, as can check-in and taxi queues. Early flights generally have fewer people but it’s still wise to arrive well ahead of your flight.
If you’re transiting through LAX, make sure you know where your connecting gate is located – it could be at the other end of the airport. There are free shuttles between terminals but note that if you leave a terminal, you’ll need to go through security again at the next one.
If you can’t face the taxi queue, the LAX FlyAway is a shuttle-bus service between the airport and various Los Angeles areas, including Downtown and Hollywood. Prefer to catch the train? The G shuttle bus takes passengers from LAX to Aviation/LAX Station, the nearest metro station to the airport.
Alternatively, LAX allows Uber pick-ups but cars can pick up passengers only from the upper departures level and you will incur a $US4 fee.
While there aren’t any specific vaccines recommended for travel to the US, it’s worth checking the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for updates on infectious-disease outbreaks. At the time of writing, 217 mosquito-borne cases of the Zika virus were reported in the country. It’s also wise to ensure all your vaccinations are up to date.
Public transport was once so sporadic and unreliable that it wasn’t really a viable option for getting around, making LA a city of drivers. It is slowly but surely improving, with a light rail and subway system connecting some of the city’s star attractions. Still, public transport is in its infancy and the bus network can be confusing (and confronting) so plan ahead. If you want to get around on public transport, Metro can help you plan your trip. Download a rideshare app such as Uber or Lyft so there’s always a plan B.
At the time of writing, the Australian dollar was buying around 76 US cents – check a reliable currency conversion service for up-to-date foreign-exchange rates.
Check with your bank that you won’t be hit with extra fees when using your credit card in Los Angeles. Your Australian bank and American ATMs will each charge you for withdrawing money from your debit card, too, so it might be worth organising a travel card (most banks have one) with low or no fees to use while you’re away.
In any case, inform your bank of your travel plans, lest overseas purchases are misconstrued as fraud and your card is cancelled.
Finally, tipping in the US is such a complex ritual that we have addressed the etiquette here.
The movies have it right: it’s almost always sunny in Los Angeles (well, about 300 days of the year) but it’s not always hot. It’s a city of microclimates and the temperature can vary depending on where you are. July is the hottest month; January is the coldest and wettest. Air pollution sometimes causes serious smog in LA.
When to go
Late spring and early summer can be stifling and Angelenos know the beaches aren’t at their best: the marine layer, an air mass that develops over the water, lingers until the sun is hot enough to evaporate it. They call it the June Gloom and it often shrouds much of Los Angeles long into the afternoon from May to July. Late summer and early autumn are best for LA jaunts.
Pack swimmers and sunscreen for sunny days at Santa Monica Beach. It can get cooler by the water in the evenings, which means you’ll need some layers. In winter, Los Angeles can get chilly so pack a warm jacket. There’s a definite uniform in LA; it’s a studied casual look that says, “I just finished my hot yoga class and barely broke a sweat.” Think inventive athleisure wear that goes from the SoulCycle studio to Starbucks to the lunch spot du jour via a change of shoes. Actually exercising is completely optional.
The tap water is drinkable in LA and meets all US standards, despite the ubiquitous bottles of Evian.
According to the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller website, thieves target rental cars in the US. If you’re planning to hit the road in a rental, don’t leave any valuables behind when you park. According to research cited by Smart Traveller, drivers are almost twice as likely to be killed in a road accident in the US than at home. Remember, you’ll be driving on the right-hand side of the road.
Without comprehensive travel insurance, travellers will pay through the nose for medical treatment in the US. Smart Traveller advises that a visit to the GP for a sore throat, say, will run up a bill in the hundreds of dollars – and this is before any extras such as blood tests or medication.
LA says no to plastic (but not plastic surgery)
In 2014, Los Angeles passed a law banning plastic bags at supermarkets. Bring your own reusable bag for lugging around supplies or spend 10 cents on a paper bag instore.
Los Angeles is so large and spread out that it’s difficult to traverse its attractions from the beach to Downtown. Position yourself somewhere central, such as the West Hollywood neighbourhood, to ensure you get the best of both worlds.
See also: First-timer's Guide to West Hollywood
Phone calls and mobile data
Before you land, disable data roaming and don’t answer incoming calls on your mobile phone if you want to keep your monthly bill in check. Invest in a prepaid travel SIM card if keeping in touch with home is important.
If you need to make calls in LA, buy a US SIM card for local calls and mobile data. Remember, this will only work if your phone is not locked to your Australian carrier. Also note that Australian mobile phones operate on a GSM network. In America, both GSM and CDMA networks are in operation. This means that your Australian handset won’t work on a CDMA network such as Verizon. See WhistleOut for more in-depth information on using your mobile phone overseas.
Consider buying a cheap handset from one of the US’s many big-box stores, such as Walmart. It will come with credit preloaded but keep in mind that in America you’re charged not just for making calls and sending texts but also receiving them.
To call Australia, dial +61 followed by the phone number – including the area code minus the zero. So, to call a Sydney landline telephone, you would dial +61 2 then the phone number. To call a mobile phone, use the same country code and dial the mobile number minus the first zero.
Power sockets in the US (120V) have a lower voltage than those in Australia (230V) and a higher frequency (60Hz compared with Australia’s 50Hz). Most gadgets are designed to work on a range of frequencies and voltages but double-check if you’re in doubt. Power plugs and sockets also have a different configuration so an adaptor will come in handy.
Handy apps and websites
Metro for planning your route on public transport.
Smart Traveller for safety information.
XE for currency conversion.
Los Angeles World Airports for information on flights, weather, traffic, parking, terminal locations and airport shuttles.
Gate Guru for flight status, airport information and rental cars.
QuickMap for accurate information about routes and traffic conditions if you’re driving in LA.