Northern California Transport

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Car, Motorcycle & RV

For flexibility and convenience, you’ll probably want a car, but rental rates and gas prices can eat up a good chunk of your trip budget.

Further Afield Los Angeles & Las Vegas

For muscle beaches, celebrity sightings and camera-ready wackiness, head south from San Francisco on coastal Hwy 1 to Los Angeles. It’ll take 12 hours depending on traffic and how often you stop. A quicker jaunt is less-scenic Hwy 101 (nine hours); the fastest route is boring inland I-5, which takes about six hours.

Las Vegas, NV, is a nine-hour nonstop drive from San Francisco. Cross the Bay Bridge to I-580 east, then take I-5 south; veer off towards Hwy 99 south (at exit 278), to Hwy 58 east, then take I-15 the last 160 miles. A slower, gloriously scenic option is to go east through Yosemite National Park on Hwy 120 (summer only; verify by calling 800-427-7623), then south on Hwy 395, east on Hwy 190 through Death Valley National Park, then south on Hwy 95 straight into Sin City.

Automobile Associations

For 24-hour emergency roadside assistance, free maps and discounts on lodgings, attractions, entertainment, car rentals and more, consider joining an auto club.

Driver’s License

  • Visitors may legally drive a car in California for up to 12 months with their home driver’s license.
  • If you’re from overseas, an International Driving Permit (IDP) will have more credibility with traffic police and simplify the car-rental process, especially if your license doesn’t have a photo or isn’t in English.
  • To drive a motorcycle, you’ll need a valid US-state motorcycle license or a specially endorsed IDP.
  • International automobile associations can issue IDPs, valid for one year, for a fee. Always carry your home license with the IDP.


  • Gas stations in Northern California, nearly all of which are self-service, are ubiquitous near cities, but not in national parks and sparsely populated mountain areas.
  • Gas is sold in gallons (one US gallon equals 3.78L). At press time, the cost for mid-grade fuel hovered around $3 a gallon.


California law requires a minimum of $15,000 liability insurance for all vehicles. When renting a car, check your auto-insurance policy from home or your travel-insurance policy to see if you’re already covered. If not, expect to pay about $10 to $20 per day, depending on coverage maximums. Sometimes the minimum liability insurance is included in the rate, but to protect your assets, make sure you have appropriate coverage.

Insurance against damage to the car itself, called Collision Damage Waiver (CDW) or Loss Damage Waiver (LDW), costs another $10 to $15 per day; you may be required to pay the first $100 to $500 – or more – for repairs (this is called the ‘deductible’; ask if your specific policy has one). Some credit cards cover this, provided you charge the entire cost of the rental to the card. If there’s an accident you may have to pay the rental-car company first, then seek reimbursement from the credit-card company. Carefully check your card’s policy before renting.


  • Parking is usually plentiful and free in small towns and rural areas, but scarce and expensive in cities.
  • Expect to pay $30 to $50 to park overnight in a garage.
  • When parking on the street, read all posted regulations and restrictions, and pay attention to colored curbs, or you may be ticketed or towed – which costs a fortune in San Francisco. Red curbs mean no parking or stopping; yellow have posted restrictions, usually limited to loading by commercial vehicles; green have posted time limits; white zones are for loading and unloading only; blue curbs are exclusively for disabled parking and require a placard.


It’s easy to find campgrounds throughout Northern California with electricity and water hookups for RVs, but in big cities RVs are a nuisance, since there are few places to park or plug them in. RVs are cumbersome to drive and they burn fuel at an alarming rate (you only get a measly seven to 13 miles per gallon). But they do solve transportation, accommodation and cooking needs in one fell swoop. Even so, there are many places in national and state parks and in the mountains that RVs can’t go. Book RV rentals as far ahead as possible. Rental costs vary by size and model, but expect to pay over $100 per day. Rates often don’t include mileage, taxes, vehicle-prep fees and bedding or kitchen kits. If pets are even allowed, expect a surcharge.

Road Conditions & Hazards

For up-to-date highway conditions in Northern California, including road closures and construction updates, dial 800-427-7623 or visit For Nevada highways, call 877-687-6237 or check

In mountain areas where winter driving is an issue, tire chains and snow tires may be required on two-wheel-drive vehicles. Four-wheel-drive vehicles with snow tires are usually excluded. The speed limit with chains is 25mph. Ideally, carry your own chains and learn how to use them before you hit the road. Otherwise, you can buy chains (but not cheaply) on the highway, at gas stations or in nearby towns; the best prices are at automotive stores. State-regulated chain installers operate on major highways, such as I-80 or US-50; expect to pay $30 for installation, $20 for removal (note that it’s far easier to remove than install them; consider paying only for installation). In rural areas, you’re on your own. Most car-rental companies don’t permit the use of chains, and also prohibit driving off-road.

In rural areas, livestock sometimes graze next to unfenced roads. These areas are typically signed as ‘Open Range,’ with the silhouette of a steer. Where deer and other wild animals frequently appear roadside, you’ll see signs with the silhouette of a leaping deer. Take these signs seriously, particularly at night.

In coastal areas thick fog may impede driving – slow down and if it’s too soupy, get off the road. Along coastal cliffs and in the mountains, watch for falling rocks, mudslides and avalanches that could damage or disable your car.

Road Rules

  • Drive on the right-hand side of the road.
  • Talking or texting on a cell phone without a hands-free device is illegal – even when stopped at a light.
  • The use of seatbelts is required for drivers, front-seat passengers and children under age 16. Drivers are responsible for compliance.
  • Any child under age eight must be buckled up in the back in a child or infant safety seat, unless they’re over 4ft 9in tall.
  • All motorcyclists must wear a helmet. Scooters are not allowed on freeways.
  • High-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes marked with a diamond symbol are reserved for cars with multiple occupants (minimum two or three, depending on the road), sometimes only during morning and afternoon rush hours.
  • Unless otherwise posted, the speed limit is 65mph on freeways, 55mph on two-lane undivided highways, 35mph on major city streets and 25mph in business and residential districts and near schools.
  • It’s forbidden to pass a school bus – from either direction – when its red lights are flashing.
  • Except where a sign says that it’s illegal to do so, turning right at red lights, after coming to a full stop, is permitted; intersecting traffic has the right of way. Likewise, turning left on red between two intersecting one-way streets is also permitted, unless otherwise indicated.
  • At four-way stop signs, cars proceed in the order they arrived. If two cars arrive simultaneously, the one on the right has the right of way. When in doubt, politely wave the other driver ahead.
  • When emergency vehicles (ie police, fire or ambulance) approach from either direction, carefully pull over to the side of the road.
  • California has strict anti-littering laws; throwing trash from a vehicle may incur a $1000 fine.
  • Driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs is illegal.
  • It’s illegal to carry open containers of alcohol inside a vehicle – even empty ones. Unless containers are full and still sealed, store them in the trunk.


To rent, you’ll typically need to be at least 25 years old, hold a valid driver’s license and have a major credit card, not a check or debit card. A few companies may rent to drivers under 25 (but over 21) for hefty surcharges. If you don’t have a credit card, you may be able to make a large cash deposit instead.

With advance reservations, you can often get an economy-size vehicle with unlimited mileage from around $30 per day, plus insurance, taxes and fees, which typically double the rate. Weekend and weekly rates are usually more economical. Airport locations may have cheaper rates but higher fees. City-center branches may offer free pickups and drop-offs.

Rental rates generally include unlimited mileage, but expect surcharges for additional drivers and one-way rentals. Some companies let you pre-pay your last tank of gas; this is rarely a good deal, as prices are higher than at gas stations and you’d need to bring the car back almost empty. Child or infant safety seats are compulsory (reserve when booking); they’re sometimes free, or $10 per day (with a capped maximum of about $65).

If you’d like to minimize your carbon footprint, some car-rental companies offer ‘green’ fleets of hybrid or biofueled rental cars, but they’re in short supply. Reserve well ahead and expect to pay more for these models – but you’ll save on gasoline.


Motorcycle rentals and insurance are not cheap, especially if you’ve got your eye on a Harley. Depending on models, renting a motorcycle costs $100 to $200 per day, plus taxes and fees. Discounts may be available for multiday and weekly rentals. Security deposits range from $1000 to $3000 (credit card required).