What's the most affordable way to plan a trip to Southern California?

April 19, 2019, 5:00 PM · Planning a visit to the Los Angeles area? You should at least consider it — this is a great destination for theme park fans. Southern California is the birthplace of the modern theme park industry, with Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm leading the way, Universal Studios establishing the model for movie-themed parks, and Six Flags Magic Mountain now claiming the title as Roller Coaster Capital of the World.

But Southern California's theme parks and other attractions are spread over an immense metro area, separated by miles and miles of often-traffic-clogged freeways and even a few mountain ranges. There's no relatively compact theme park district in Southern California, as there is in Orlando. Planning your LA-area vacation is essential, not just to get the best deals on tickets, hotels, and airfare, but to ensure that you don't waste your get-away time stuck in a car on the highway.

Let's start with Southern California's top attraction — the Disneyland Resort. Located in Orange County's city of Anaheim, Disneyland is just located just six miles from Knott's Berry Farm, in Buena Park. But Disneyland lies 35 miles south of Universal Studios Hollywood, which is located north of downtown Los Angeles, at the edge of the San Fernando Valley. And you would have to drive another 26 miles north up the 5 from Universal to Six Flags Magic Mountain, which is located over Newhall Pass in the Santa Clarita Valley's city of Valencia, in northern Los Angeles County.

You might think that drives of 35 and 26 miles aren't too bad. But forget about driving a mile-a-minute in LA. Freeway traffic means that these drives can take more than an hour each... and that's if traffic isn't too bad.

So there's no one hotel or AirBnB you can book to get to all four of these theme park destinations, without wasting hours of your time in traffic driving between them. If you want to visit all of the Los Angeles area's top theme parks, you will want to break your trip into segments, staying in different hotels for each one.

If you are wondering what would be the best time to visit Disneyland, there isn't much of an "offseason" there anymore. Your best bet is to find a day when its popular Southern California Select annual passes are blocked out and that's also convenient for you. Rainy days are the best for low crowds, which means visiting during the (relatively) rainy season in January through March and taking your chances. But that's also "refurbishment season" in the parks, when some rides and areas will be closed for repair. So... go whenever you want.

For tickets and vacation packages including nearby hotels, please visit our Disneyland tickets page. Disneyland has three on-site hotels, but some of its Good Neighbor hotels are located just as close to the parks' front gates as the official hotels and are often quite a bit cheaper.

You can save on nightly parking costs at local hotels by taking the Disneyland Resort Express shuttle bus directly from or to Los Angeles International Airport or Orange County's John Wayne Airport in nearby Santa Ana, then just walking or using Anaheim Resort Transit to get around. But if you want to venture beyond the Disneyland Resort in Southern California, you will need a car. Our tip is to wait to rent a car until after the Disneyland portion of your trip. That will save you overnight parking costs and days of rental costs when you really won't use the car at the very walkable Disneyland Resort.

For tickets to other attractions throughout Southern California, we recommend the Go Los Angeles Card. That ticket includes admission to dozens of local attractions, including Six Flags Magic Mountain, Knott's Berry Farm and Soak City, Legoland California, and the Warner Bros. Studio Tour. If you get the three-, five-, or seven-day version of the Card, it also includes a one-day admission to Universal Studios Hollywood as well.

The adult price is $82 for one day, $126 for two days, $213 for three, $273 for five, and $319 for seven days. All days must be used within 14 days of the ticket's first use. Here is the list of attraction that you can get into with the Go Los Angeles Card, with their one-time ticket costs listed for reference. (All participating locations and prices are from the time of publication.)

Use the three-day card just to visit Magic Mountain, Universal, and then Warner Bros. and the nearby LA Zoo on your third day, and you've saved $38 over the already-discounted prices linked above. You can extend your savings with more creative itineraries. But keep those freeways in mind!

To help you minimize your travel time across Southern California, I've grouped the participating attractions by their locations. Excepting Magic Mountain and Legoland, you comfortably can hit up your choice of attractions from any two adjacent areas from the lists below in one day, but I wouldn't try anything more aggressive than that. For each area, I've also included nearby popular attractions not included on the Card, in italics.

Up north: [Hotels]

Universal area: [Hotels]

Hollywood: [Hotels]

Downtown(ish): [Hotels]

Between Downtown and Westside:

Westside: [Hotels]

Between the Westside and South Bay:

South Bay: [Hotels]

Orange County: [Hotels]

Farther down the 5: [Hotels]

That leaves the Huntington Library and Gardens at 1151 Oxford Road in San Marino, which is located conveniently within walking distance of Theme Park Insider world headquarters, but is a 25-minute drive from Universal in good traffic. It's a wonderful destination, but perhaps not the best use of an entire day on the Go Los Angeles Card, since it'd be tough to pair it with something else on the Card on the same day, and you can just buy a ticket to it for less than the per-day cost of the Card.

Obviously, there's far more to do in Southern California that anyone could fit in a single vacation, but we hope that these links and advice help you to plan an affordable and enjoyable you to the Los Angeles area. And if you need more help with making reservations, please don't hesitate to call our travel partner at +1-800-680-1272 for assistance.

Have a great trip!

Replies (13)

April 19, 2019 at 6:13 PM

There's so many more interesting things to do in greater Los Angeles than included in a Go Card, like the Watts Towers, Museum Row around LACMA (L.A. County Museum of Art), and Walt Disney historical locations around the Los Feliz and Silverlake districts of Los Angeles.

Here are free things to do around Los Angeles (a 2016 list, but mostly still relevant):

https://www.welikela.com/free-fun-los-angeles-2016/

April 19, 2019 at 6:42 PM

I will forever be amused that the original location of The Walt Disney Studios is now the Gelson's Supermarket in Silver Lake. (They make some great cakes. Highly recommended.)

Definitely take advantage of all the free stuff to do in the area, too. Like I said, there's way more to do than you can finish in a single trip. (But I suspect that most TPI readers will want to hit up the parks on their visits here.)

April 19, 2019 at 8:32 PM

Robert shame on you for telling the masses about LAs little known jewel!

April 19, 2019 at 9:51 PM

And to chime in here on DL and WDW comparison: for a truly old school perspective of attractions, I think DL wins due to the absence of FP+ and SoCal residents don’t do everything at the crack of dawn. You can accomplish quite a lot in a day there and you do not have to micromanage your vacation like you do at WDW. The trade off is the traffic, which cannot be understated to people that are unfamiliar. Going from downtown to DL can be a two hour affair. DL to Six Flags can take forever.

April 19, 2019 at 10:43 PM

If I can stop one person from booking a hotel downtown and then planning to drive to Disneyland and to Magic Mountain from there during their trip, this post will have been a success.

April 20, 2019 at 1:20 AM

This is a great breakdown of major So Cal tourist attractions and the best way to do them (though San Diego is conspicuously absent). I'll throw in the following as well:

From a tourist standpoint, So Cal can be thought of as three distinct regions: Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego. While geographically they aren't that far apart, expect it to take anywhere from 60-90 minutes to get LAX or downtown LA to the Anaheim area, and expect at least another hour and a half to get to San Diego from there. As a result, it is impractical to do more than one region unless you're willing to relocate, and you need enough time in your trip to justify it. My personal recommendation is this:

-If your trip is 4 days or less, stick to one region. For a Disneyland-centric visit, this means staying within Orange County. If Disneyland isn't a high priority, you'll get more bang for your buck by staying up in Los Angeles.
-For 5-6 day trips, you can usually fit two of the three regions in. This is typically the best option if you want to do a Disneyland trip that also includes some additional So Cal sightseeing.
-I only recommend trying to do attractions in all three regions if your trip is at least 7 days (not including arrival and departure days). A seven day trip is sufficient to see much of So Cal without having to rush, though obviously more time is required if you want to do everything.

Lastly, when it comes to timing, I personally feel it is less important to pick based on crowds and more important to pick based on seasonal events. Take a look at the events put on by the parks and other destinations in So Cal, then pick the time that will allow you to hit the most of interest. With the exception of holiday weekends, it is rare for any of the So Cal parks to be so busy that all headliners can't be accomplished in a day, so you're much better off aiming for things you want to see than trying to avoid something you don't (which tends to have mixed results in the first place).

April 20, 2019 at 1:49 AM

Ah AJ, the San Diego post is coming! Patience... ;^)

April 20, 2019 at 5:24 AM

I broke this up into two separate 1-week vacations. 1st week stayed at a hotel across the street from Disneyland. Also did Knotts Berry Farm, and the beaches from Dana Point to Long Beach.

2nd week stayed in Hollywood area. Did Universal Studios, Six Flags Magic Mtn, Sony Studio Tours, and Warner Bros Studio Tour. Also did the beaches from Redondo to Malibu. If your into westerns, I recommend Gene Autry Museum of the American West. I really enjoyed Universal's Tram tour, I did this 6 times. I also highly recommend Warner Bros. Studio Tour. I have done this tour a second time when I was in the area years later.

I also recommend that everyone needs to see the Pasadena Tournament of Rose Parade in person. You have the parade, but also the post parade float viewing, and the pre parade decoration viewing.

April 20, 2019 at 9:19 AM

Had to take a shot in the dark when planning a Los Angeles trip this year since none of the parks had listed opening dates for their new attractions by the time I’d had to bid on vacation time. This site pointed me to the public school and annual pass calendar which helped me pick what hopefully will be a good week.

Staying in a timeshare a mile southeast of Disneyland. To save some time and money from using the parking garages, I was thinking about walking to the parks from the hotel if I’d be safe from traffic.

April 20, 2019 at 11:44 AM

My mom just back from a trip there with her grandkids. They didn't get Disney but did do Universal and a few other places, not too bad on traffic but notable how there's so much to see in this area.

April 21, 2019 at 12:09 AM

Literally across the street from the tar pits is the Petersen Auto Museum. I don't recall if tickets are part of the Go card, but given its proximity to the tar pits and the Farmers Market/Grove, it's worth checking out. A pretty fun museum, and we actually walked from the tar pits to the museum, then to the market for an early dinner.

April 22, 2019 at 7:51 AM

We're in the process of planning a trip to Southern California in late July/early August. This will be our 4th trip to the region and second time with our now 9-year old son. We've always planned our trip in segments with different hotels for each portion. We typically group SFMM with USH and north LA/Pasadena to avoid having to jump to another hotel for what is typically just a 1-day trip to Six Flags. While the drive up to Valencia can take over an hour from the north side of town, it's not too bad if you're planning to arrive early to SFMM for rope drop, which puts you against the primary rush hour direction in the early morning hours.

We've found that staying within walking distance of Disneyland is a MUST. Parking in the garages at Disneyland is no fun, and can be incredibly time consuming. We find the rates for the Disney hotels to be borderline obscene, but there are plenty of other hotels within a mile to a mile and a half of the park gates that are far more affordable. Most guests are probably going to walk well over 5 miles in a typically theme park day, so what's another 2-3 miles?

Living in the DC Metro area, the LA traffic doesn't bother us too much. We're used to taking over an hour to travel 10 miles, so for us it's not much different than being at home. However, if you are traveling with your family, pay attention to the signs and try to use the Carpool/HOV lanes when you can - though beware of the the Express Toll Lanes that look like Carpool/HOV lanes but will charge you a toll electronically (through your rental car company that will assess extra fees on top of the tolls). Most navigation apps on your smart phone can guide you to these special lanes to expedite your trip, but don't always know the difference between Carpool/HOV and tolled lanes.

April 23, 2019 at 12:40 PM

Cracking article Robert. I only said to Mrs Plum on Saturday I fancy doing California for a change in 2021 and this article appears. So, "thank you". Please add telepathy to your list of talents.

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