How we travelled in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas for two weeks without a car!
Before I left for my first trip to the US, everyone said it would be a lot more fun if we got around in a car. Responses in forums were the same, with everyone recommending to drive if possible. We did the two weeks without a rental car anyway, travelling from San Francisco to Vegas to Anaheim then LA, and I thought we did fairly well! Our trip probably came out cheaper without a rental car too, since parking was exorbitant.
Here’s a quick rundown of our 2-week trip around the West Coast of United States & Las Vegas via public transport:
Day 1: San Francisco
We landed in San Francisco International Airport (SFO) in the morning and wanted nothing more than chucking our heavy luggage at the hotel and exploring the city immediately. The hotel provided a free hotel shuttle and we could call for the shuttle by using the complimentary courtesy phone at the airport.
The shuttle came in 20 minutes and it took us another 30 minutes to the hotel. The shuttles plying other routes came a lot more frequently so I guess the usual frequency should be about 15 minutes.
After leaving our luggage at the hotel, we took the BART from Millbrae station to Powell station and had our meals there. We also did some shopping at the Union Square area, while gawking at the ridiculously elaborate ceilings and sky windows of the malls there.
Day 2 to 4: Las Vegas
We stayed near SFO as we had a domestic flight to Vegas the next morning. The flight took 1 hour 40 minutes while the boarding procedures and baggage collections probably added another 2 hours. In comparison, it would have taken 8 hours to drive.
On the flight, we caught sight of the loveliest snowy mountain ranges.
Day 2 on the Vegas Strip
Immediately after landing, we booked a car via Lyft to get us to our hotel. We checked in and set out for the strip. Starting at Luxor, we took our time taking in the sights (most notably, the various casinos at all the hotels) until we reached the Linq and took a glimpse of the iconic Ferris Wheel, the High Roller.
Day 3 at the South Rim of Grand Canyon
One of the most important agenda of my trip was to visit a national park. We specifically squeezed Vegas into our tight two-week itinerary so that we could do a day tour to Grand Canyon. Our tour package was purchased from Expedia.
The tour started at 6 am in the morning from our hotel and the bus only returned at about 10 pm. The journey to-and-fro took up most of the tour so be sure to manage your expectations about the actual amount of time you will spend at the Grand Canyon. After all, we were traveling to another state.
We stopped at Hoover Dam, Lilo’s where the driver picked up our lunches and we bought a huge slice of awesome carrot cake, a souvenir shop (which I felt was unnecessary) before heading to the South Rim. We had 3 hours there to complete the rim trail which gave us absolutely surreal views of the canyon and ample time to take photos.
Dinner was a quick stop at In-N-Out; this was an actual highlight of the itinerary provided by the tour company! Also my first and best experience with In-N-Out burgers. While everyone is raving about the patty, I could only focus on the buns which outshone everything else. They were buttered and lightly toasted to achieve a crispy exterior while the bread was still soft and moist inside.
Unfortunately, the rest of our In-N-Out burger experiences were nowhere near as heavenly as our first try.
Day 4: Shopping at the Las Vegas North Premium Outlets
We had a late breakfast at Shake Shack (our third burger each and counting) before taking a Lyft to the premium outlets. We were not really huge on brand names but still found ourselves strapped for time as we needed to get back to the strip for a 7PM show. The area was huge so be sure to allocate sufficient time.
Of all the cities we visited/were going to visit, Vegas’s outlet stores were the most accessible (in comparison, San Francisco’s was about 40 minutes by car from downtown). There are two premium outlets in Vegas, one in the North and one in the South. In general, the North has better reviews but you can look through the directory to see which mix of shops suit you better.
If you didn’t have shows to get to, you could do dinner around Fremont street which is another neighbourhood to visit when you’re in Vegas. Pity we couldn’t fit it in.
We rushed back to the strip (again by Lyft) to catch Cirque du Soleil’s KA. Then after a quick snack in place of dinner, we rushed to Luxor for the Blue Man Group show.
Feeling absolutely famished after the shows, we hopped over to supper at Ri Ra, an Irish bar with an excellent live band.
Comparing the shows
If I had to recommend one of the two shows, I’ll definitely pick Blue Man Group! It was the trippiest show ever and it is almost impossible to describe what I watched. It was experimental, humourous yet still had that commercial appeal. Very fun show overall. The Cirque du Soleil’s show was, on the other hand, lacklustre. I remembered my first Cirque du Soleil show in Singapore, Totem, which had amazing circus acts and acrobatic stunts. KA lacked memorable stunts and the pacing was slow in some acts.
Side note, the posters for Cirque du Soleil’s O were absolutely gorgeous and we really wanted to watch it but it wasn’t showing on our third night there. Till next time.
Day 5 to 8: Disneyland & California Adventure at Anaheim
We caught another early flight to Anaheim from Vegas which took us 65 minutes. The airport formalities probably added another 2 hours. A drive from Vegas to Anaheim was just slightly longer at 4 hours. So not much time saved there.
Once we were in Anaheim, it was Disneyland and California Adventure all the way. We had a one-day complimentary park-hopper pass from a friend which we used for the first day.
For the remaining 3 days, we purchased a 3-day pass (one park per day) from aRes travel which saved us about $20 per pax as compared to buying from the official site. The 3-day pass was actually cheaper than a 2-day pass and came with a magic morning which you could use to enter Disneyland one hour earlier than the official opening hours on Tuesday, Thursday or Saturday. We didn’t use it since we had a generous amount of time at the parks. More on the parks and the rides in another post.
We either walked from our motel to the parks (about 20 minutes) or took Uber/Lyft.
Day 8 to 10: Los Angeles
We did a couple of hours at California Adventure on day 8 before taking a Uber down to our lodgings at Los Angeles. The trip cost about USD50 (including tips) and less than an hour. Traffic in LA is horrible so we were glad we didn’t drive.
Day 8: Hollywood Walk of Fame, Dolby Theatre, Madame Tussauds and Avengers at TCL
The Hollywood Walk of Fame was about 15 minutes from our hotel so we decided to just walk around the area for the rest of the day. The walk was peppered with street vendors and performers. Vibrant? Yes, but I didn’t quite expect such ‘down-to-earth’ dynamics on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The whole street was just really chaotic and rowdy.
We walked down further to the TCL Chinese Theatre which had the most eclectic architecture but was so crowded with tourists (the most we’ve seen throughout our trip) that we didn’t hang around for long. Since our trip coincided with the opening of Avengers: Endgame, we took the chance to purchase tickets for the evening show at TCL.
For our time in LA, we bought the 3-day Go Los Angeles Card which covers a neat list of activities in LA for a fixed price. One of the activities covered was entry to the Madame Tussauds Wax Museum. I wasn’t huge on visiting but since it was covered and we had a couple of hours to spare before the movie, why not? It turned out to be pretty fun though, and the wax figurines were pretty darn realistic. I was fully prepared for the wax figurines to start moving.
We did a quick run for dinner at In-N-out (again…this is probably our 8th burger by now) before the movie. After the movie, we stopped by the Dolby Theatre and it was hard to believe that the unassuming, super accessible theatre hosts the Oscars!
Day 9: Griffith Park Hike and Warner Brothers Studio Tour
Now on the second day of the 3-day Go Los Angeles Card, we used it to participate in a two-and-a-half-hour Griffith Park Hike with Bikes & Hikes LA. Reservations were made a couple of days in advance.
The hike was generally manageable and delivered delightful views of LA and the Hollywood sign. Would have been better if the sky was clearer but I’m not really complaining. The views we had were good enough.
Other than sharing interesting tidbits about Griffith Park and the observatory (which unfortunately was closed), our guide also shared a bit on the different districts in LA. Like how Silver Lake has the highest concentration of vegan restaurants.
And so, we specially made a trip down to Silver Lake and headed to the highest-rated vegan restaurant, Vegan Gold, for a vegan Asian lunch. This was a USD10-20 trip by Lyft. Silver Lake was actually a detour from our next stop but we had to have lunch somewhere right? 😛
Our next stop was the Warner Bros. Studio Tour. The tour was also covered under the Go Los Angeles card though you have to make reservations by email. We were guided through different sets and soundstages and even got to go into the actual soundstage of the Conan show. There were also costumes from various movies such as Aquaman and Harry Potter. For fans of Friends, Warner Brothers also recreated the iconic Central Perk set.
We were drained out from our previous days and decided to call it a day. If you want to follow our itinerary, I would suggest to reserve an earlier slot for the Warner Bros Studio tour (1PM should be good) and leave the studio tour by 430PM. After the tour, you could head to OUE Skyspace to catch the night views and do the LA slide. Admission to OUE Skyspace before 530PM would still be covered by the Go Los Angeles card. You could even walk around downtown LA for a while after that.
Day 10: Universal Studio Hollywood
Perhaps the most expensive activity covered by the 3-day Go Los Angeles Card was the entry to Universal Studio Hollywood. No prior reservations required and you can enter simply by flashing the card or the corresponding QR code.
The areas of the park that could be freely explored were rather limited. The bulk of the park grounds was taken up by working soundstages and the studio tour. I’ll share more on the rides in a separate post. The theme park closed at 6 pm, which was rather disappointing, considering that Disney frequently operates till midnight. We spent the remaining of our night at the CityWalk shopping.
Mode of transport to-and-fro Universal Studio Hollywood: Lyft
Day 11 to 14: Back to San Francisco
Our last domestic flight was from Los Angeles to San Francisco. Unfortunately, the thing with San Francisco International Airport is that domestic flights frequently got cancelled. At least, that was what we understood from Southwest. We rebooked our flight and it was cancelled again. The next earliest flight was either 10 am or 2 pm. Unsure whether we could make it in time for the 10 am flight, we decided to book the 2 pm one.
Since we already bought tickets to the NBA conference semi-finals for the same night, we really had to be back in San Francisco that day. We decided to rush down to the airport to see if we could get on other earlier flights for fear that the 2 pm one would get cancelled. We were there with just enough time for the 10 am flight and fortunately, the lady at the Southwest counter was able to waive the extra charges for changing to the earlier flight. And we managed to touch down in San Francisco with many hours to spare before the match. Phew!
Lyft, again, was our choice of transport to our hotel since we had 4 pieces of luggage with us. If you are travelling light, you could always take the BART if your hotel is near the BART station. It would cost about USD5 per person if you’re staying in the Union Square area.
Day 11: Warriors game!
Our use of Lyft and Uber greatly reduced once we were in San Francisco as the public transport there was more developed. We took the BART to the Oracle Arena for the Golden State Warriors’ matchup against Rockets.
P.s Warriors won!
Day 12: Fisherman’s Wharf, Pier 39 & Haight-Ashbury
To get around easily, we downloaded the Muni app and bought the one-day visitor pass for USD12 via the app. The pass gave us unlimited rides on the cable car and the muni buses.
We took the cable car from Powell to Fisherman Wharf and walked down to Pier 39. While you’re there, please get some chocolate fudge. We bought ours from The Fudge House, which admittedly was expensive, but tasted heavenly. And please visit the Sea Lions at Pier 39 too! It was surprisingly therapeutic to watch them.
If you have the time, you could also visit Alcatraz. But alas, we didn’t have the luxury of time.
We took the buses (with the assistance of Google maps) and went over to Ghiradeli Marketplace to stock up on chocolates to bring back home. Then, on our way to Haight-Ashbury neighbourhood, I spotted Target AND Ulta (*cue angelic chorus*) and demanded to do a not-so-quick shopping stop-over. I was always under the impression that Target and Ulta were everywhere. Sadly, the nearest Target and Ulta were more than 1 km away from our hotel. Walgreens and CVS were far more common.
By the time we got to Haight-Ashbury, most of the shops were closed. However, the colourful facades, tie-dye commodities, peace signs, smoke shops and dozens of bars still brought out much of its famed hippie culture. There was always this aroma that permeated the air in the streets there, which I presume is from the tobacco and cannabis at the smoke shops. There were a couple of thrift stores such as Wasteland that I thought was worth visiting too. Unfortunately, the homeless situation also seemed more apparent in this neighbourhood.
Day 13: Chestnut, Presidio, Lucasfilm and Golden Gate Bridge
For our second last day in San Francisco, we bought the one-day muni pass for USD5 to cover our bus rides since we won’t be taking any cable cars. Breakfast was at Sears Fine Food. It was pretty pricey and their pancakes were overrated. They did redeem themselves with their eggs benedict though, which fortunately was a lot better.
Alternatively, you could head to Chestnut street, which is a quiet, laidback street with nice cafes and indie fashion labels.
We shopped at Chestnut for a while before walking over to Presidio national park, which also houses Lucasfilm. We were fortunate to have a friend, who worked there, give us a tour of the building.
After the tour, we walked across the park to the Palace of Fine Arts. “A monumental structure, which was originally constructed for the 1915 Panama-Pacific exposition” (quoted from Wiki), the site now is a popular place for wedding photography. And I can see just why.
Just a few minutes away, was Crissy Field, which was connected to the Crissy Field East Beach.
There are go karts and scooters for rent in the vicinity so you could rent those for getting around. We opted to walk instead. It took just under an hour to complete the stretch of the beach and the view of the iconic Golden Gate Bridge was just incredible.
Day 14: Yosemite
Although we only had 2 weeks in 3 cities, we still managed to find time to visit one more National Park! I was initially torn between Sausalito, Muir Woods and Yosemite. While Sausalito and Muir Woods made more sense in terms of proximity, it was really difficult to not visit Yosemite!
I booked a tour with Extranomical Tours directly as they were one of the few tours that included the Sequoia Grove (though we didn’t get to go in the end…). Denise, our tour guide, was extremely knowledgeable and passionate about what she does. Be sure to request for her tour if possible. Lunch and dinner were quick 30-minute affairs at fast food joints but I was happy to have the time channeled to the actual park.
As mentioned, we had to skip the Sequoia Grove as the weather did not permit for a stop. This may happen if you’re travelling between October to May.
The tour gave us time to get up close with the Bridalveil Falls (right up to the plunge pool), El Capitan and about 2 hours of free time in Yosemite Valley. We set off at 615 am and only returned to the hotel at about 10 pm.
Day 15: Time to head home
Yes, time to head home but not without a last breakfast! On a friend’s recommendation, we walked over to Mr. Holmes Bakehouse.
Even before they opened, there was already a short queue outside. We got a couple of doughnuts and croissants and they were fantastic. 10/10 would recommend! We wiped out five of those between the two of us in less than an hour.
To get to the airport, we used Lyft as we had a ton of luggage. If you’re travelling light, the BART will get you to the airport in less than an hour from Powell station.
And with that, we concluded our trip. 🙁
I think we really did a lot in 2 weeks in the United States WITHOUT RENTING A CAR! Checked off lots of things that one would do on her virgin trip to the US as well. On hindsight, I was really thankful to not be driving! Parking was incredibly expensive, especially overnight on the hotel compounds; traffic in LA was horrible; the mountain roads to Yosemite would also have frightened the hell out of us. Admittedly, a road trip would have been a whole different experience but maybe next time, when we get more comfortable with driving (or actually, when I pick up driving…). And for reference, I estimate we spent about USD870 on buses, trains, domestic flights, Lyft and Uber which translates to about SGD1200. It’s about another SGD580 for the day tours. If you’re comparing it against rental cars, remember to factor in insurance, petrol and parking fees.
I hope my tried-and-tested itinerary helps to allay any concerns with non-drivers visiting the West Coast and Vegas. Feel free to drop me any questions in the comments!