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We are a group of up to 8 people traveling to San Jose in first week of February. We are planning to travel to following locations - San Fransisco, Yosemite, Los Angeles and Las Vegas over 10 days.

What is the best^ transport option between cities? Bus, plane or rental car? Please factor in weather conditions for first 2 weeks of February.

^ best = reasonable priced and scenic. Time is a constraint to a lesser extent.

  • @pnuts: No because 'plane' is the backup 'plan'. It can be the best option say between SFO and LA. I don't know, hence I asked. Also one may take bus from one place to another but take flight between different set of cities. – Vinayak Garg Dec 30 '16 at 13:23
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    @neminem Joking aside, at that time of year it does snow in the mountains and high desert, and heavy rain often causes mudslides along the coast. – choster Dec 30 '16 at 16:07
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    Yosemite is huge. However, since you're traveling there in early February, it's quite unlikely that the high-country roads will be open to private vehicles. Even Glacier Point may be off limits to car traffic. All your group will likely be able to "see" in Yosemite is Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias. Nothing to sneeze at, of course!! Do bring lots of warm clothes! However, if your heart is set on hiking in Yosemite's high country, maybe skip Yosemite this time and plan to go back in the summer some time in the hopefully not too distant future. – Mico Dec 30 '16 at 19:22
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    Why is this closed? The OP is asking what's the best way to travel (with a reasonable definition of best) between a fixed set of points, not for us to construct their itinerary. – lambshaanxy Dec 30 '16 at 23:07
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    Also, SF, SJ, LA, Vegas & Yosemite all in 10 days is pretty aggressive. I would advise dropping one or two of those. – lambshaanxy Dec 30 '16 at 23:09
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You're gonna need a car big enough for 8 people! Or two. Either will be hard to park in SF. On the other hand, 8 fares for transit, train or airline won't be cheap either. That vs the value of 8 peoples' time.

Beware, USA credit card readers aren't all ready for chip cards. Many still need magnetic stripe, including all gasoline stations. Target shops are all chip, and they sell Mastercard gift cards which have stripes.

San Jose to San Francisco

A "short drive" that soon turns into 2+ hours with commute traffic. You'll spend more time in SF trying to park than actually seeing anything. (2 spots near each other? forget it unless you use expensive garages.)

Take CalTrain. Trains every 30-60 minutes, some are express.

CalTrain requires Proof-of-Payment. You must buy and validate a ticket at the station before you board. A fare inspector might appear and check it.

You can fool around with driving to BART if you really want to, but the closest BART gets to San Jose is Fremont, the drive there is long and very congested, and BART parking is nigh impossible. BART uses stored-value cards exactly like Washington DC Metro. It also supports Clipper.

Inside San Francisco

While in the City proper, use taxi/Uber/Lyft, or the Muni public transit system, which is excellent.** Many drug and liquor stores sell Muni Maps. You pay for Muni one of several ways:

  • $2.50 cash fare. You >>MUST<< take a transfer (proof of payment again), good for unlimited additional rides on Muni for 90 minutes (longer if you get it from a human driver). Human drivers can also take a $5 bill and give you 2 transfers. Other than that, human drivers need exact change. Transit works can't give change and local shops don't like to. In the underground, you buy tickets from the machines.
  • Clipper. This is a cash-storage smartcard that works on all the systems I'm mentioning.
  • Muni Passport. This is for tourists, it's a 1, 3 or 7 day "all-Muni pass" which includes the Historic Cable Cars. You buy it downtown near the Embarcadero or Powell St cable car terminals.

("the City" capitalization was a style of a beloved newspaper columnist named Herb Caen. Many will appreciate the reference.)

San Francisco to Berkeley/Oakland

Just for reference -- BART does that. Trains every 7-20 minutes, also SFO and OAK airports.

San Jose to Berkeley/Oakland

Just for reference -- Amtrak Capitol Corridor does that. 15 trains/day (really), hourly-ish. Also stops at Coliseum for OAK airport. No Clipper.

Yosemite

Drive. Period. There's no other transit.

Prepare for big Sierra snow - heavy, deep and fluffy, unlike the dreary, icy snow of the American east. California does not use road salt because it's a different kind of snow.

So many California drivers have zero experience driving in snow at all, that CalTrans is surprisingly draconian about things like chains. Yes, chains on cars. Welcome to California.

San Jose to Las Vegas

Driving: Seems like a bad idea unless you do a San Jose - Las Vegas - Los Angeles triangle. This is the worst side of the triangle, don't do it twice if you can avoid it. I hate it, and I don't even do the worst part, Pacheco Pass.

It's a circuitous route and a 9 hour drive, barring traffic or snow. There are 3 gigantic "freeway gaps" (Pacheco Pass US-101 to I-5, I-5 to CA-99, and Boron/Kramer Jct) and you'll spend half your time behind a slow truck thinking "I thought freeways were a thing here". There will be risk of snow/ice in Pacheco and Tehachapi passes, and in Nevada... but not the crazy Sierra stuff.

Flying: SJC is a "737 airport". It's made for regional hops, and the flights to LAS are thick and cheap, since it's a huge tourist destination for the natives. Southwest has 9 direct flights, Delta has 3. (warning: Southwest is a great airline but not on the booking sites, deal direct.)

The Las Vegas Strip area is almost walkable, and transit, cabs and Uber etc. are readily available. There's even a monorail (plus 2 more monorails within casinos), most free for any comer.) Casinos do not like under-21 people in the casino proper, but will sometimes turn a blind eye to passersby who are not gambling. The shopping is gigantic.

Las Vegas to Los Angeles

Just for reference: Flying: plenty of flights. Driving: easy by comparison, 4 hours all freeway. Possible snow in Nevada and Cajon Pass.

San Jose to Los Angeles

Many decent options, no great ones.

Flying: again SJC is the perfect airport, and flights are thick and cheap to LAX, Burbank, John Wayne, Ontario or the utterly charming Long Beach. (Again, as these are largely commuter hops, the big carriers Southwest, Alaska or Jetblue are not on the booking sites). But then you won't have a car, and that's a problem because L.A. is enormous.

The Coast Starlight train is magnificent, a tourist adventure all to itself. But it's rather slow. (and often late, since long trains accumulate delays, and southbound came from Seattle, so if you go one-way, prefer northbound for less delays.) For what it's worth, Amtrak comes into the main transit hub, Union Station. But it's hard for L.A. to have good public transit over such a vast area.

Driving: Again, getting to I-5 is ugly, but then it's all freeway. Risk of weather in Pacheco Pass and the Grapevine. You can also reach I-5 via Altamont Pass instead of Pacheco for a 100% freeway route (I-680 to I-580 to reach I-5) but it is vulnerable to crushing traffic jams.

If you find yourself driving I-5, a great spot to take a break is Harris Ranch at Coalinga. It's about halfway in the SJ-LA run.

You can bypass I-5 ugliness by taking US-101 the whole way, which is all 4-lane, prettier, and maybe 1 hour slower. It may matter where in L.A. you are trying to go. Ask your maps app.

For a really beautiful drive, add 2 more hours and take CA-1 (the Pacific Coast Highway). Route to Monterey then stay on Highway 1 through San Simeon, Lompoc and Malibu.

By the way, this is about those road numbers.

** I mention Muni being excellent, to counteract two stereotypes: first from non-Californians that California is all cars and transit is terrible (not in SF!). And second, from City residents who say Muni is awful; yes it is flawed and underfunded, but it is a world-class transit system that is flawed and underfunded. And it has cable cars!

  • Thanks Harper! Very detailed answer, I will research about all the keywords. And great tip about Mastercard gift card. I was thinking how we can transact cash less and avoid currency exchange each time. – Vinayak Garg Dec 31 '16 at 6:59
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The only answer to this is: it depends. It depends on so many factors, so I will point out the pros and cons I used for my trip to California.

Keep in mind that California is huge. You're talking about distances that are over a day's trip apart from each other. Perhaps you should take more time for your trip or visit less locations? Each of those locations alone have more than enough to see for 10 days.

Yosemite is (nearly) inaccessible by public transportation. You will need your own transport (or pay for a very expensive taxi) to get there. On top of that Yosemite is huge. I mean, really huge. You may want to explore certain parts on foot or by renting a bike or boat, but the problem is getting there. A rental car seems to be the best idea here. Keep in mind: make sure your rental car is allowed on dirt roads and keep the weather in mind.

On the road between Los Angeles and San Fransisco it depends on what you like. There is a train connection to San Jose and a megabus to San Francisco. Of course, you'll have to stick to the schedule those go on, while driving you'll have much more freedom.

I do not have experience nor have I done research on traveling from California to Las Vegas, but google maps shows the drive from Los Angeles is relatively short, under four hours. There is also a bus going there, which takes around 5 hours. Both would most likely be quicker or about equal time to flying if you count getting to the airport, unless you get stuck in traffic, which is quite likely at certain times.

In general, it all comes down to this:

Which locations do you really want to see (the cities/park or the route there)? And how can you visit these locations you want to see while avoiding driving when you are tired?

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    I would append to that, as someone who has driven from California to Vegas, that, as with much of California itself, distance has less to do with the time than when you leave. Sunday mid-afternoon driving back from Vegas, for instance, you can expect it to take at least twice as long as if you'd left during the week (assuming you also didn't leave at a time that would cause you to hit the regular LA rush hour traffic, obviously.) Flying is definitely nicer for that (and can get ludicrously cheap). The drive is also... not scenic. Downside is obviously then you don't have a car in Vegas. – neminem Dec 30 '16 at 15:06
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    An important thing to note about Yosemite in February is that it's full of snow and many parts of it are inaccessible without suitable equipment (such as cross-country skis or snow-shoes). You'll definitely need snow chains on a car and, frankly, if you're not used to driving in snow, going into the high mountains in February is a very bad idea. – David Richerby Dec 30 '16 at 19:19
  • @DavidRicherby: Thanks! Looks like we may have to skip Yosemite (sadly). We are not used to driving in snow. So we'd rather have some other adventure! – Vinayak Garg Dec 31 '16 at 7:01
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With 8 people, I would recommend renting two cars, presuming you have two eligible drivers in the group.

This will give you a lot of flexibility, comfort and storage.

This only "weather" you may experience is light rain in the Bay Area an probably snow in and around Yosemite.

Everywhere you mention is easily, and best, accessible by car.

  • Yes that would be best. But we'll do what we collectively decide. – Vinayak Garg Dec 30 '16 at 18:47
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    There will definitely be snow in Yosemite in February. It receives an average of 1.7m (66 inches) of snow every year and it keeps on snowing until April or even May. – David Richerby Dec 30 '16 at 19:22
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You'll definitely want to rent a car. I'm from California, we all know public transit in California is a joke. There are trains and buses to take you to major metro areas and they are pretty cheap, but they are very very slow. I once took a Greyhound bus from LA to Salinas (~6 hour drive) and it took over 11 hours. So here's how I see this working for you:

If you're flying in to San Jose, I would recommend spending 1-3 days seeing San Jose, San Francisco, and anything else in the Bay Area that interests you. Driving/parking in SF is a hassle, so you may want to drive to a BART station in East Bay and take the rail into SF.

Yosemite is not too far from the Bay, but as Belle points out, it is very large. You'll want to go see the Yosemite valley (Halfdome, El Capitan, etc), but the whole park is worth a drive, so you'll want want to have a car to see as much as you can. In February it may be a little chilly for camping, but people do camp there all winter (see here).

I would do Vegas next, as it's a shorter drive than all the way to Los Angeles. Like I said: I'm a Californian, so I'm a little biased, but don't see spending too much time in Vegas. But it's south of Yosemite, and only about 4-5 hours from LA, so it's not too far out of your way.

From Vegas, the drive south to Los Angeles will require most of a day. Driving in the desert is pretty quick: things are flat and straight, and there will be very little traffic until you reach the outskirts of LA.

Once you're in Los Angeles, the only option is a rental car. The city of LA and its suburbs are very spread out, so walking is not an option and taxis will add up fast.

Then (and this is my favorite part) take a day to drive the Pacific Coast Highway back north to the Bay, where you can fly home. This is the most scenic drive in California, and one of the most iconic postcard-picture spots in the entire US. You may have to cut this drive out and fly out of LA, but I absolutely adore and highly recommend Big Sur and the drive up the central coast.

In my mind the best way to see what you want in ten days is:

  1. Fly in to San Jose
  2. Check out San Jose
  3. Check out San Fransisco (~1 hour drive)
  4. Drive out to Yosemite (~4 hour drive)
  5. Check out Yosemite.
  6. Drive south to Vegas. (~6 hours)
  7. Check out Vegas
  8. Drive west to LA
  9. Check out LA
  10. Check out LA and Big Sur, drive north to San Jose to fly home. (~7 hours driving)

My need to move some of the driving days around, depending on what you really want to see.

EDIT: Googling revealed this, which outlines the basic trip you want (just skip the Grand Canyon).

  • If they're in San Jose, why would they drive to the East Bay to catch BART? CalTrain would be the better option. – choster Dec 30 '16 at 15:43
  • Good point, I'm not really familiar with CalTrain. It is more reliable than AmTrak? – Will Dec 30 '16 at 15:51
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    CalTrain is the commuter rail system on the peninsula and generally reliable. Amtrak doesn't go to San Francisco at all; there is one train a day in each direction between San Jose and Oakland, and then you'd still need to take taxis from the Amtrak station to BART or to the City. – choster Dec 30 '16 at 15:57
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    You can't see the "whole park" of Yosemite in winter due to road closures. The Valley is where it's at, and even getting there has some extra complications like having to carry (and maybe use) chains. – Doc Dec 30 '16 at 17:53
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    @VinayakGarg You need to look at weather reports and you need to look at a map. The Grand Canyon is 800 miles away from San Francisco. That's the distance from Chennai to Ahmedabad, though I guess the roads are better; also, there is snow. It's four hours' drive even from Vegas. The rims of the canyon receive substantial snowfall in winter, as does Yosemite. – David Richerby Dec 30 '16 at 19:29

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