USA Independence Day Special: When the car ain't the star...

In Los Angeles, non-drivers are viewed with suspicion. But, who needs a stretch limo when you've got a bus pass?
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The Independent Travel

The tourist information clerk at Los Angeles airport stood open-mouthed in astonishment. "You want to get around LA without a car?" she almost shouted. "You need a car, honey. You won't see the sights without one."

The tourist information clerk at Los Angeles airport stood open-mouthed in astonishment. "You want to get around LA without a car?" she almost shouted. "You need a car, honey. You won't see the sights without one."

But I had hired a car in LA before and used it to get out of town as soon as possible, none too happy about driving bumper-to-bumper in multi-lane traffic. I had avoided downtown (too dangerous and nowhere to park), nearly crashed as I tried to simultaneously gawp at and drive past the Hollywood sign and then spent more than an hour hunting for it in the jungle of vehicles at Disney's car park. There had to be an easier way.

Walking past a mass of car-hire desks, I experienced my first misgivings. No one, it seemed, saw LA without wheels.

Getting out of the airport was my first challenge. But 45 minutes later and only $8 lighter, I found myself at my Santa Monica base, having taken one of the many shared shuttle mini-buses there, which go direct to any hotel's door. The journey took only slightly longer than a taxi, yet it was less than a third the taxi price. Santa Monica's a good place to stay because not only is it on the beach with a funky village-like atmosphere of its own, but it also has one of the best local bus networks, reaching out to Venice Beach, the Getty Centre and downtown.

There are Metropolitan Transit Authority buses direct from Santa Monica to sights such as Hollywood and Long Beach, but it turned out to be easier and just as quick to take the Big Blue Bus express downtown to Union Station, where you can hop on to the metro red line.

Union Station is worth a visit in its own right – it is the quietest railway station imaginable, complete with gleaming marble floor and high-back leather seats. Restaurants boast starched white tablecloths and there isn't a Big Mac in sight.

It turned out to be indicative of LA's public transport system as a whole, which has to be the city's best-kept secret. It is clean, efficient and almost empty – only about 200,000 passengers a day take the efficient Metro compared with three million a day in London. Though the comparison is not really fair as LA's metro is only a fledgling one with three lines – the red, blue and green – in a week riding it at different times of the day including rush hour, I never had to stand up once. Try saying that about the Underground.

And there is no smelly food in your face, either, with strict rules against eating and drinking on the trains and the platforms. Even drinking a cup of coffee on the go could see you facing a $250 fine.

What is more, it is cheap, with a metro ticket costing just $1.35 or $1.60 with a transfer. Downtown, the Dash bus service only costs 25 cents a ride and Long Beach, to the south of LA, has its own complimentary shuttle service to sights from the Queen Mary to the aquarium.

As I found, you can get to most of the main tourism sights in LA easily on public transport, excluding Disneyland (there are buses, but they are complicated and take for ever). However, most hotels run their own tours so you still don't need to hire a car. Why not try these trips:

Santa Monica to Venice Beach (Big Blue Bus no 2)

Price: 50 cents Time: 15 minutes

It takes less than an hour to walk the seafront linking Santa Monica Pier with Venice Beach, which is full of interest, with plenty of people-watching opportunities as the locals skate, cycle and jog past. There's Muscle Beach, where body- builders work out, and near Venice Beach you will find a host of stalls selling everything from a quick 10-minute massage to handbags. When you are tired on the way back, there are the Big Blue Bus stops with buses every 15 minutes.

Santa Monica to Downtown (Big Blue Bus no 10)

Price: $1.25 Time: 45 minutes

Whizzing past the almost stationary traffic on the freeway in the bus lane meant even in rush hour the journey took only 45 minutes. A trip on any express service gives you a free transfer to any of the smaller Dash buses serving downtown LA – a map shows you where to get off for everything from the cheap clothes and shoes stores in the fashion district to the architecture around Pershing Square.

Downtown to Hollywood and Universal Studios (Metro red line)

Price: $1.35 Time: 22 minutes

It is worth getting off a stop early at Hollywood and Vine just to see the decoration of palm trees, film reels, movie cameras and car benches. Then follow the stars on the pavement bearing the names of movie stars to the Hollywood and Highland station to see the Renaissance Hollywood Hotel, the new base for the Oscars. Outside Mann's Chinese Theater you will also find stars' handprints in the concrete. Universal City, the metro stop for Universal Studios, is one station down the line. From here, a free shuttle bus takes passengers to the studios.

Downtown to Long Beach

Price: $1.60 Time: 50 minutes

This journey involves just one change from the red line on to the blue, which goes all the way to Long Beach and travels above ground. The metro line ends conveniently right by the information kiosk for the town's free shuttle bus service – the Passport – which runs services every 15 minutes or so to the Queen Mary. This glamorous transatlantic liner twice the size of the Titanic is now a hotel. It has a number of interesting tours.

Tips

* Have the right change for buses

* Don't eat or drink when travelling, or you risk a $250 fine.

* If you are going to change buses or trains to get to your destination, ask for a transfer when buying your ticket.

* A pack of 10 metro tokens cost $9, a $4.50 discount on their normal price.

The Facts

Getting there

The best return quoted by Trailfinders (020-7938 4500) is £455 on British Airways. It must be booked by 2 July.

Where to stay:

In Santa Monica, the Bayside Hotel (001 310 396 6000) has ocean-view rooms from $84-139. The Comfort Inn (001 310 828 5517) has rooms for $64-150.

Down the beach at Venice, the Cadillac Hotel (001 310 451 1111; www.thecadillachotel.com) has rooms from $59-110; or try Hotel Reservations Network (001 214 361 7311); www.hoteldiscount.com).

Transport

Shuttle mini buses such as Xpress Shuttle ( www.hoteldiscount.com) and SuperShuttle ( www.supershuttle.com) can be found at the airport. The Big Blue Bus ( www.bigbluebus.com) links Santa Monica to downtown, Venice Beach and Getty Centre. The Metropolitan Transit Authority is at www.mta.net.

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