Los Angeles, America.
So I spent two and a half weeks in Los Angeles last December/this Jan, a grad trip of sorts for Shane and I after having just completed our Masters. I feel a bit funny saying that cos the rest of my batch has moved on with their adult lives and here we are still using terms like ‘grad trip’ at the age of twenty five. Ho ho.
Anyway, first things first: LA is an expensive city. I must say that this wasn’t a budget trip per se for me, in the sense that I wasn’t scrimping and I did have a couple of nice meals and all, but I also wasnt living lavishly because I think the broke student spirit residing in me will never allow me to splurge unnecessarily without feeling an insane amount of guilt. But yes, after two and a half weeks there I’m just going to say that Los Angeles is an expensive city, and I wouldn’t recommend anyone on a tight budget to travel there because it’s just too pricey. It’s also a lot less budget-able than New York, where you can essentially walk everywhere or take the extensive metro network, and scrimp on things like museum entries which are mostly donation based, etcetera. But if you’re still determined to go, here’s some notes on how you can make it a more cost efficient trip!
Getting to LA
The only airline that flies direct from SG to LA is United. It’s a 15 hour flight there and an 18 hour flight back (different routes i think?), and no matter what airline you fly it’s going to cost you upwards of a thousand dollars.
After all the recent controversy with United (and Asian passengers!) the guys were a bit hesitant to take the flight. But pragmatism won out in the end. United’s flight is the only direct flight, as I’ve said before, and they have very good timings. You depart from SG at 11am and land 10:15am the same day in LA, meaning you start the day once touching down, and the flight back departs LA at 8:55pm, which is a nice safe hour that gives you a comfortable amount of time to meander from the city to the airport without having a crazy rush, if you time it right. Time not wasted on flying and transiting means money saved, especially if you had to take leave from work or something. Also, I’d flown United to San Francisco in October, and it was a pretty good experience, so I wasn’t super paranoid about the flight.
There were four of us on this trip, and I firmly believe that this is the ideal number for group travel to LA because so much of your cost savings is going to be predicated on splitting the bill. The regular flight price for United from SG to LA was 1.8k, but because we booked it in a group, the fee somehow went down to 1.3k. I dont know why for sure, but I suspect it’s because United charges a different fee for group bookings. Anyway, we ended up paying 1.3k to fly there.
In comparison, the only other airlines that will give you a comparable price is China airlines and Philippine Airlines with one or two transits, a total flight time of approx 20-24 hours. . Everything else – ANA, SQ, etc, all cost about 1,600 and above for our dates.
Cash or Card
I think this depends on your comfort level – I prefer paying with card because I earn more miles per dollar for overseas spend, which I then use to redeem flights (makes sense for me because I’m a frequent traveller). Also, I dont have to try and guesstimate how much I’ll spend then risk ending up with not enough/ too much foreign currency at the end of the trip.
But this is also contingent on the fact that i am not a spendthrift. I am extremely cautious with money in general, and I dont get trigger happy in stores. Sure, I like looking at shops, but I very, very rarely actually buy something unless I have had my eye on it for awhile (like the google home) or unless I have thought about it for a long time/ know i will get maximum utility from it. If you are trigger happy in stores and cannot handle a credit card, do NOT plan to use your credit card for anything except emergencies.
Getting Around in LA
Los Angeles is super spread out, which means you cant really walk anywhere. Their public transportation is slowly improving, but it isn’t great either. This means that a lot of cost is going to go to taking Ubers and Lyfts everywhere. Their Uber/Lyfts actually arent expensive compared to Singapore, if you consider the distance taken. Plus if you split it four ways, sometimes it can end up cheaper than taking public transport, and you get a lot of time saved. So do your calculations based on your group size.
I do suggest that once you get a US number, you download Lyft (I assume you already have uber). Lyft is kind of like the Grab of LA, in that it’s an uber competitor, it has frequent promo codes, and it’s often marginally cheaper. First timers to Lyft will get a certain amount of credit, I think it’s two five dollar rides. So just get everyone in your group to sign up for it, and you’ll get eight rides discounted. There are also promo codes like if you take Lyft from the airport to the city, that kinda thing, and they’re usually advertised in LAX once you touch down. On the other hand, I didn’t get a single uber promo whilst I was in LA.
So what we did was, whenever we had to head somewhere, one person in our group would check Lyft and one would check Uber. We’d just take whichever was cheaper. We stayed in LA city (as opposed to LA county), so most of our rides were like seven to ten dollars. When you divide that by four, that’s like two to four dollars each. Compared to the metro, which is $1,75 per ride and takes much longer, you can see how this is a good compromise.
All the two dollar four dollar rides do add up though, so you see how LA becomes expensive really quick.
If you’re wanting to head out to somewhere further, like Venice beach or Santa Monica, you can take the metro which goes straight there. It’s still $1,75 for the base tap-on ride but takes about an hour plus. A car will take half an hour from central LA but cost twenty to thirty dollars. So it’s really dependent on the needs of your group, but as a general rule taking a mix of long distance metros and short distance ubers should work out well. Otherwise, a day pass for the metro is about $7.
Car or No Car?
I used to labour under the impression that one was useless without a car in LA. Its all those damn books about the place, I tell you. Anyway. The long and short of it is, no, you dont need a car if youre only staying in central LA. You can just take the metro or uber/lyfts. And parking is a nightmare anyway, plus what they say about LA traffic being horrendous? Yep. That’s all true.
If you want to leave central LA for, say, palm springs or Joshua Tree, you’ll probably need a car. We rented one from Hertz for a road trip to palm springs and joshua tree!
one of my favorite moments on this trip. We rented this car cos it was big enough for all our luggage but turns out it’s also big enough for us to sit in the back!! We drove out to Joshua tree national park and stopped to watch the sunset, but it was so cold we ended up hiding in the backseat which turned into a picnic dinner 😌😌😌 M A G I C 😌😌😌
Getting a number
You’ll need a US phone number to sign up for Lyft, and it’s generally useful to have a sim card in the states because you can call ahead to check on availability of museum spots, dining reservations, opening hours, that kinda thing. I recommend T Mobile for tourists, which I’ve been using the past 4 trips to the states.
Tmobile has a tourist sim which lasts 3 weeks if I’m not wrong. Prices are as follows:
30USD – 2GB, unlimited texting, 1000 mins.
45USD – 3GB, unlimited texting, 1000 mins.
50USD – 10GB, unlimited texting, 1000 mins.
75USD – Unlimited data, unlimited texting, 1000 mins.
IMO the toss up is really between the 2gb and 10gb plans. If you’re looking at the 3gb plan you might as well top up 5 bucks and get the 10gb. When I went to San Fran I only got the 2gb plan because I was there for only 4 days. But this time I got the 10GB because it was two and a half weeks. I used about 9 out of the 10GB this trip, so I think it was a pretty safe estimate!
Hostels in LA are like, nearly non existent. And they’re not cheap anyway cos you pay per person per bed. Hotels are insane. So we booked an Airbnb for the majority of the time we were in LA central, and then when we did road trips we booked cheap motels that could house the four of us. The key is to book early – because all the cheap places will be taken fast. We literally saw an airbnb booking disappear from under our eyes when we were considering a couple of options, then experienced major fomo afterwards!
Again, when you travel in a group of four, it’s easier to get a whole apartment then split the cost, whereas if youre alone or with just one other person, it might be more economical to book a private room in someones house.
Things that you can do in LA aren’t expensive per se. Many things are free, and even more things are cheap. But it’s the getting to those places that will rack up the bills, cos of all your ubers and lyfts. It is not the kind of place where you expect to walk around and stumble onto hidden gems because of how spread out it is, you’ll have to roughly know where youre goin – your trip will greatly benefit from having a plan, basically!
In Central LA, here’s what I suggest:
Museums – The Broad
Start your day by queuing for museum tickets to The Broad. The Broad is my favorite museum in the world, and I honestly think they have one of the best permanent collections ever, as well as a great curatiorial team. They also offer free tours within the museum, which is worth taking if you have the time. All museum staff are mandatorily trained regarding all permanent and travelling exhibitions, so if you ask them about anything they’ll be happy to explain to you the pieces and exhibitions youre interested in.
Entry to the Broad is free. You just have to queue for it, and it’s often a long queue. Yayoi Kusama’s exhibiton was in town the week we were there, and that was ticketed at $30, which meant the queue would be mad no matter what. We made use of our jet lag and went on day two of our trip – meaning we were awake super early and started queueing at 630. There are a couple of breakfast places open nearby catered to the working crowds, so one or two people in your group can be runners and go get coffee and breakfast for the rest while you queue.
There is another trick to getting into the Broad fast – they do media passes. So if youre in town on a conference, or if you write for a magazine, or if you have a sizeable social media following lol, just write in and request one. It’ll take a couple of days, but they’ll give you one. I got lucky last year – I had a media pass for the airbnb conference, and they just waved me in. Woohoo!
Architectural Wonders – The Walt Disney Concert Hall
Entry to the broad is based on timed tickets, so you probably wont get it right away. Take your time while waiting to head to the Walt Disney Concert Hall, which is literally right next to the broad. It’s designed by Frank Gehry, and it’s really a gorgeous structure. You can either walk around the outside of the structure – there are stairs taking you to the top – or take a free tour of the museum during opening hours! Just ask the staff at the front desk. Unfortunately, no free passes or student tickets to the actual LA Philharmonic performances. Those are mad expensive. Sorry, broke students – just do the free tour, then youtube the performance once you’re home.
Other architectural wonders that are walkable from here: The Bradbury Building, just down the Angel’s Flight (more on that later). It’s the oldest commercial building in LA, and where scenes in Blade Runner were staged, as well as where the last scene in 500 days of summer was filmed. People actually work in this building now, but the building itself is such an architectural star that visitors are allowed to wander up till the first landing but not beyond it.
One more: The Orpheum Theater. It holds a special place in my heart because this is where the Airbnb Open conference was held last year, and it’s such a beautiful building! It’s a historic theater with a beaux arts facade,
Lunch – Food Trucks or the Lemonade
The Broad is also surrounded by some nice lawns, so you can grab lunch at the food trucks nearby and picnic off the grass. But FOOD TRUCKS ARE EXPENSIVE IN LOS ANGELES!
This was such a shock to me because in New York you can get Halal guys for like six bucks?? Here they have this fake version of the Halal guys and it’s FIFTEEN BUCKS for a gyro. No thx.
The guys got a korean rice bowl from this food truck (also about 17 bucks) but I walked a little further to MOCA, which is across the Broad.Hot tip: The Museum of Contemporary Art is free after 5pm on Thursdays, for those of you interested in visiting. It’s not as good as the broad though. They do have a great eatery at the basement called Lemonade, which does poke bowls or marketplace salads. It’s about twelve bucks, and much healthier than most of the fare you’ll get in America.
Iconic Attraction – The Angel’s Flight
We got SO lucky with this because the iconic Angel’s flight that you see in the La La Land montage only reopened in late 2017! It’s been closed for years, and technically they weren’t even supposed to be able to film La La Land there but someone in the film team convinced the metro team. Later on the authorities were like, it never should have happened. LOL.
But anyway I super recommend taking it because theres nothing like this in Singapore, it’s only 50 cents (as compared to in San Fran where it’s an actual tourist attraction and so, costs 7 bucks), and also, it’s literally up the major flight of stairs connecting you from the MOCA/Broad area to Downtown LA. Which is a pain in the ass (literally) to climb up and down from. So yeah!! I took this three times cos I loved it so much!!
It drops you right at Grand Central Market, which is where you can get a great (and cheap) dinner. Another good to know is that Grand Central Market is one of the only places you can use a free restroom in that area, so if you need to pee, mark that in your map. Coincidentally, there’s also a Tmobile located not far off from the bottom of the Angel’s Flight, so you can get your sim card if you havent already done so. Also, the Bradbury building is only two blocks down – as mentioned above.
Highly recommended – Two hours at The Last Bookstore
I already wrote a post about The Last Bookstore, which is one of my favorite bookstores in the world, last year after my trip to LA. Here it is for those of you who are interested: https://jemmawei.com/2017/05/10/2083-ladiaries-airbnb-walks-the-last-bookstore/
I spent quite a lot of time here this trip – both bringing the boys to see it as well as spending an evening there during my solo days. They’ve got couches around so they’re happy for you to sit and read, the music playlist they have on is always ace, and they even have a graphic novel section where you can peruse copies of the latest Xmen issue or whatever. The second floor is also wonderful, and is full of photo spots for the instagrammer in you. There are also cute pop up stores and an artist collective on the second floor, where you can buy aesthetically pleasing and pricey kitsch items. Either way, it’s an amazing place, and I cant imagine a trip to LA wtihout dropping by here at least once.
Late night entertainment:
Upright Cititzens Brigade had the best show I watched in LA, but there are lots of comedy clubs, and I spent the most time at the now closed (!! :c ) iO West hollywood. But if youre in the market for comedy, The Groundlings, Nerdist School (now called The Ruby), and Second stage are also all good ones to go to.
If you’re trying to hit Upright Citizen – they do have free shows, but theyre mad popular and you just gotta get there early to queue. Paid shows arent that expensive, they can be five or ten dollars, but they sell out fast so either go early and put your name down on the waitlist (lots of people buy tickets then just dont show up to various shows all over town, not just UCB), or reserve a seat online.
Outside Downtown LA
Fun and free things to do include heading down to the beaches – Santa Monica and Venice beach are both really nice, and if youre in Venice, walk down their famous canals! It’s surprisingly fun to just stare at houses.
It’s about half an hour by car from central LA.
Nearer to the city center, Griffith Observatory of La La Land fame (ok i kid, it’s always been iconic) is also free to enter and offers some of the best views of the sunset. I wrote a whole post on it when i went two years ago, here: Funny Stories from Griffith Observatory.
There are also free museums and free museum days in LA, here is a complete list from Time Out for your handy referral 😀 If you have a limited amount of time in LA and cant afford to wait for the free days, bring your student ID as many places have discounted student prices.
Tipping and taxes
One thing that drives me crazy about America is their resistance to being straight up about how much something costs. For the life of me I cannot understand why they dont just tell me how much a pair of shoes cost!!! How hard is it to display the tax-included cost of an item? Instead, if the advertised price is ten bucks for a lipstick or something, it’ll inevitably ring up to about eleven dollars at the counter once they include tax. This is mega irritating, but theres nothing you can do about it, so.
Tipping is also huge in the States. It’s a whole debate, so lets not get into that, only know that you have to tip. Here are some general rules of tipping:
– Cab drivers need to be tipped, but it’s optional if you take Uber/Lyft.
– You need to tip for table service. So if you sit down to eat, it’s gonna cost you an additional 15 to 20 percent.
– Service staff are paid really badly in the States (I have a couple of american friends who worked as waitresses for a long time, so I’m not just talking out of my ass) so they really do rely on your tip to make ends meet. So dont be cheap and not tip if youre sitting down for dinner. Generally you tip more if youre impressed by the service, otherwise it’s a standard 15percent. If its a fancy place like a hotel dinner or something, probably twenty percent.
– If youre purchasing from a cafe to go, pay with cash. Things like buying coffee, etc, it’s always better to just pay in cash because then youre just paying for your cup of coffee. There’s usually a tip jar at the side but my theory is if I’m taking it to go, I’m not technically being served, so I’m just gonna pay for my coffee and that’s it. If you pay with card, they’ll give you this little iPad thing and ask you how much you want to tip right in front of them: No Tip, 15, 17, or 20 percent, and it’s embarrassing to say no tip lol. So it’s usually just easier to pay in cash.
If you’re staying in LA for long, figure out where the nearest laundromat is to your apartment and if they have any deals. The one near our place was pretty great, it’s called Aroma Laundry & Water and had old school arcade games. Also, free laundry on certain days of the month – see sign above my head.
Hokay, this post is long enough as is, and I hope the info was useful to you guys headed the LA way!
You can see why heading to America is expensive – all these small additional costs add up real quick. But well, if you wanna go, you wanna go. So best be mentally prepared 😀 LA is a really iconic place, but I still maintain that lots of what’s great about LA lies outside the city center (Disneyland, Joshua Tree, Palm springs..) so if you have the chance to do an extended trip, you wont regret a little change in scenery by renting a car and heading out of town!
If any of you have additional tips for saving money in LA, please send them my way and I’ll compile a list. Otherwise, happy trails, yall. Till next time: