Car-Free Los Angeles Visit with Kids

We did it! We visited relatives in LA for six days without a rental car!

I didn’t realize it was possible to exist–even for just a weekend–in LA without a car until I read this New York Times piece seven years ago: Los Angeles, by Bike and on a Budget by then Frugal Traveler Seth Kugel. Ever since then I’ve pondered (previously without much luck) how to do LA car-free as a family. In the meantime, I’ve found ways to cut down on driving a teensy bit:

  • Three visits ago I went solo for a weekend with a rented Brompton folding bike and no rental car, but mostly ended up accepting rides from family members.
  • Two visits ago the kids and I stayed walking distance from the La Brea Tar Pits and The Grove so we did some walking, but still drove our rental car a lot.
  • Last visit we stayed in Venice Beach and enjoyed a very walkable neighborhood, but still drove our rental car every day for various outside-of-Venice activities and family visits.

I should point out that while my father (who was born in Hollywood) and brother both live in Los Angeles and I visit regularly, I’ve never lived there myself. Usually I say this as a point of pride (sorry, LA!), but this time it’s to demonstrate that I don’t have a local’s knowledge of neighborhoods or public transportation. My method for deciding where to stay and which places to visit was what I’d do for any foreign city and involved looking at unfamiliar maps and reading a couple articles from local publications.

FlyAway® Bus
While it’s possible to get to and from LAX via Metro Rail, it requires a shuttle bus ride and all the rail lines. Of course the combination of rail lines needed depends on where one is staying, but we would have transferred from the Green Line to the Blue Line to the Red Line to the Gold Line. Even the article I just linked to suggests FlyAway as a reasonable option (and cabs as a “TRAFFIC JAM-PRONE EXPENSIVE” option). So I decided early into planning that we’d take the LAX FlyAway® bus to Union Station and connect to Metro Rail there.

FlyAway away from LAX was very simple. It picks up outside each terminal at the green “FLYAWAY, BUSES & LONG DISTANCE VANS” sign. Tickets aren’t needed before boarding, but since I had purchased our tickets ahead of time online I didn’t need to stand in line at the kiosk at Union Station to pay before retrieving our suitcase and getting on our way.

FlyAway back to LAX took a lot longer (but also, we hit it at 8:00 a.m. on a weekday). The “arrive 10 minutes in advance of the scheduled departure time” suggested on the website really isn’t sufficient. There was already an organized line of people ready for the next bus so we found room on the bus after the one I had hoped to take. And having purchased our tickets ahead of time didn’t make much of a difference in the LAX direction since I didn’t know where to wait without checking in at the kiosk (now I think I could have just joined the end of the line of people waiting for the second bus).

I don’t know if all the FlyAway lines use big tour buses, but riding to and from LAX is in a tall bus with luggage bays at the bottom so I didn’t have to maneuver our suitcase up any stairs and onto a baggage rack like small shuttles (like the ones that take you to the rental car lots) require. I appreciate this even with bigger kids, though this would have been particularly nice back in the days of traveling with a toddler in a stroller and a baby strapped to my back. The tall bus also provides an excellent view of LA, something one can’t appreciate from a squat rental car when busy concentrating on the road.

Metro Rail
Riding Metro (mostly rail, but also bus) was great! In retrospect, I should have bought three $25 7-day passes (fares here) and TAPped with abandon. It would have cost more about $10 in the long run, but even as we got our teamwork dialed in for reloading our TAP cards with 1-way trips over and over and over, it took a lot of time and we could have caught earlier trains twice had we been ready with 7-day passes. One day I splurged on three $7 1-day passes and it was quite the relaxing day. The 1-way trips are $1.75 for adults and kids alike and last for two hours with transfers on rail and buses. Paying cash for the bus is $1.75 for adults and $1 for kids.

The TAP vending machine takes credit cards, but I found it easier to use cash since we were doing three cards in a row. The machine gives change in dollar coins, both the gold Sacagawea coins and the silver Susan B. Anthony ones.

I started out using Google Maps for transit directions and missed one bus when the stop was shown on the wrong side of the street. I could tell it was on the wrong side of the street, but I assumed the true stop was on the same block so we rushed a little too far, not even checking for the stop early enough, and had to wait 40 minutes (this bus alternated coming every 20 minutes and every 40 minutes) and missed connecting with some old friends and new kid so that was a bummer. The following day I saw a poster for the Go Metro app on the train which I bet would have better guided me.

Old Pasadena
In choosing where to stay I decided I wanted to be on the same rail or bus line as my brother in Highland Park. His house is a 15-minute walk from the Gold Line so I looked at hotels (with pools, essential for vacationing kids) close to other Gold Line stations. I ended up choosing the Courtyard by Marriott in Old Pasadena and it turned out to be a terrifically walkable neighborhood. I also found this LA Weekly article: 26 Cool Things Along the Metro Gold Line to be very helpful (they have articles for the other lines, too).

Old Pasadena has lots of restaurants, shops, playgrounds, and bus stops. What more does one need? We didn’t try all the sushi spots, but Kabuki is kid-friendly and was great for our group of eight (though my kids wanted Yelp accounts to warn other kids that they put cucumber in the salmon rolls–even when you specify *only salmon*) and Sushi Stop had too long a wait, but A’Float Sushi across the street had sushi boats in a real river (the kids love our local conveyor belt places, but boats are even more exciting). Plus, there’s an all-way pedestrian scramble between Sushi Stop and A’Float Sushi so we crossed diagonally! My kids are really into crepes these days and equally liked CREPEstudio and Crepes de Paris. Crepes de Paris has a terrific outdoor seating garden, but it was a little cold during the week of our visit so we dined inside. One morning we ate regular breakfast at Barney’s Beanery, which I didn’t realize is a sports bar (in response to being asked which game I wanted to sit by, I said “Pacman”). It’s got exciting decor and crayons and kid menus.

We were one block from Memorial Park and the kids preferred that playground. It’s small, but was plenty fun for them. The park itself is on a slope for kids who like rolling down grassy hills. Central Park was just a few blocks farther away and has a bigger playground and lots of room for running around. It’s a bit loud, being right on a busy street and the rest rooms are somewhat far from the playground so we just visited it once.

There are also several wide alleys fronted by little shops and cafes making for pleasant walking. Here’s one we used to walk between the two playgrounds, named for a TV show and with a bike share station:

I saw a few people biking through Old Pasadena, but no one on a bike share bike.

One day we took Pasadena Transit (only 75 cents for adults, 50 for kids, but doesn’t take the Metro TAP card) to the Kidspace Children’s Museum. The buses are small and infrequent, but they have a two-bike bike rack like the full-sized Metro buses. We took the 51 there and back and I was intrigued to see it runs more often on Saturdays than on weekdays (but doesn’t run at all on Sundays). Kidspace was walking distance from our hotel, but with all the walking we were doing the rest of the day the bus seemed a wise choice–the 15 minutes uphill to my brother’s house for dinner and then downhill late at night is more than we usually walk.

The kids want to stay in Old Pasadena for our next visit, too. I’m tempted to use the opportunity to explore another neighborhood, but this certainly was a terrific place.

Union Station
Who doesn’t love a good train station? (Well, other than Elon Musk, probably, as I ironically discovered while in Union Station.) Personally, I think it’s cool that it can be any train station in the world in movies. When my kids were littler they loved watching the trains (all the trains come here: small light rail trains, medium-sized regional trains, and big Amtrak trains) and the fish tank the most. This time they enjoyed the pianist (that might have been special for the holidays) and the Crepe Cafe, natch.

We all three liked the current art exhibit, Journeys: LA Communities Through the Eyes of Artists that filled the long hall between crepes and Red Line.

Union Station is big so it was nice to come through a couple times during the course of the week and become pros at navigating our way around before the rush from light rail to Crepe Cafe to FlyAway bus on our departure day. Our two mid-week trips through Union Station were to connect from the Gold Line to the Red Line and that was nice because the first trip was just one stop of the Red- or Purple Line to meet a friend at Grand Park, serving as practice for a bigger Red Line trip out to Universal City the following day. One thing about the Gold Line versus the Red Line: the Gold Line is mostly above ground with nice views while the Red Line is a subway and my noise-sensitive 10-year old found it unpleasantly fast and loud.

Universal Studios by Metro Rail
Last Spring Break we drove to Universal Studios from Venice Beach so it was a treat to compare that to taking transit this visit. I didn’t realize the kids would want to visit Universal again (silly me to think it was a one-time deal) so I didn’t consider its location when deciding where we’d stay. I’m not sure if it would have influenced things. I was pleased that the park has transit directions under Plan Your Visit > Directions and Parking (you have to click the “Public Transportation” tab to get there from the main menu link). So I read about the shuttle ahead of time. We took the Gold Line to the Red Line and then followed signs to walk to the free shuttle pick up. I told the kids that when they were tiny their favorite ride at Disneyland was the shuttle from the garage (and their second favorite thing was a water fountain). They liked this shuttle a lot, too. It was all really easy and requires much less walking and agony than inching along in car traffic and after parking, navigating one’s way out of the parking garage.

The free shuttle has a bike rack on the front, but I bet it’s intended for use by park employees only. We saw an employee use it on our ride in and later saw him working at Animal Actors–what a life!

In conclusion
I love visiting LA, and traveling all over without sitting in traffic and dealing with parking was magical! The trafficky ride to the airport in the FlyAway bus on our way out of town gave me a small dose of The Usual, but even that was much less stressful when not the one behind the wheel.

We “cheated” and accepted one ride in a car when friends I’ve known since preschool came out for dinner and we decided our group of 10 should eat two Gold Line stops away. One cool thing about my younger kid reaching age eight is that it’s not necessary to tote car seats around now. Rules vary state to state, but eight seems to be a common age per AAA’s Child Passenger Safety. [* Of course putting kids in car seats or boosters if they fit in them is always safest. My kids are both small so I kept them rear facing in convertible car seats until they were four…and I stopped driving regularly when I turned the first one’s car seat forward facing and then stopped driving all but once in a blue moon when I turned the other one’s car seat forward facing.] I don’t see the milestone of this trip so much the fact that the kids are both old enough to forgo car seats, but more than they’re both big enough to do the amount of walking required to use transit. By the way, one of my preschool friends walked from Old Pasadena to the pizza place and arrived nearly as quickly as the rest of us.

Do you use transit to get around LA? I’d love to hear your tips and tricks!

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