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Think you can’t afford a trip to LA? Think again. You might not be able to go to Disneyland or Universal Studios, but there are plenty of other things to do in La La Land. In fact, many of the city’s most famous attractions don’t cost a dime. Here’s a great guide to Los Angeles on a budget.
The best low-cost way to get around is by using LA Metro Rail, with service to many hot spots such as Hollywood, Universal Studios and downtown LA. Fare is a bargain compared to other major American transit agencies. Visitors must obtain a TAP card for $1 from vending machines and then decide which pass is best, e.g. single ride, day pass, etc.
With the nation’s heaviest traffic, LA streets and highways can be extremely congested, particularly in Hollywood and downtown LA. Highways and freeways are usually described as “the 405,” “the 101,” the “110,” etc.
Most of Los Angeles County streets operate on a grid, with streets running north-south and east-west. Many businesses, including restaurants, charge a fee for parking. When at an intersection, two cars are allowed to make a turn on a yellow light in LA, while observing other traffic. Despite a large population in the Greater Los Angeles area, honking is generally a no-no, unless it’s an emergency. Casually honking in traffic will identify a motorist as a tourist.
California State Parks
There are many campsites in the Angeles National Forest but all are quite far from most city attractions. Because of this, transportation costs can more than offset any savings in camping, especially if making multiple trips to see the sights. The closet KOA campgrounds site is in Pomona and even that’s quite a drive into the heart of the city. A slightly better choice would be California state beaches like Leo Carrillo State Park and Malibu Creek State Park. However, both charge $45 a night, unless you want to hike and bike at Leo Carrillo for $10 a night. Besides, both campsites are also quite far from LA. Dockweiler RV Park is close to Manhattan Beach and Venice Beach but no tent camping is allowed.
Located on world famous Hollywood Boulevard, Banana Bungalow isn’t anything like the bungalows at Chateau Marmont. But Banana Bungalow is an excellent choice for the budget conscious. Rates are seasonal but nothing is offered for more than $99 and weekly rates drop the price even lower. The Hollywood-Vine Metro station is two blocks away and the Chinese Theater is 1.3 miles away. Another Banana Bungalow is located in West Hollywood, about four miles away.
Much like the capsule hotels of Japan, PodShare is located in the heart of Hollywood. In fact, it’s only two blocks from the iconic intersection of Hollywood and Vine and the LA Metro station. The drawback? Due to the immense popularity, reservations may be hard to get, especially during the summer.
Hosteling International Santa Monica
Just two blocks away from Santa Monica Beach, this outstanding hostel is the perfect spot for a budget vacation in LA. Moreover, it’s Trip Advisor’s top-ranked specialty lodging in Santa Monica. This hostel features 260 beds on four levels, along with laundry facilities, a computer center and other amenities. Santa Monica’s very popular Third Street Promenade is just minutes away and is a great destination for low-cost dining. For travelers preferring lodging in Venice Beach, a great recommendation is Samesun Venice Beach.
Stay on Beverly
It’s not in Beverly Hills, but it’s one of Trip Advisor’s top-ranked hostels in LA. While it has been consistently ranked high, the drawback is that it isn’t close to any major attractions and the closest Metro station – Vermont-Beverly – is just over a mile away. Nevertheless, this hostel has great amenities, such as free Wi-Fi, coffee and water, as well as a mini fridge and a self-service check in.
USA Hostels Hollywood
USA Hostels Hollywood is Trip Advisor’s third-ranked hostel in the country and one of the most popular in LA. Like other USA Hostels, dorm rates are very affordable although prices go over $114 for a private room with a private bath. Still, the location is hard to beat, just a half mile from the Chinese Theater and even closer to the Hollywood-Highland Metro station.
America’s Best Value Inn
Located near the Echo Lake neighborhood, this motel really is a good value. It has received several outstanding ratings from previous guests and offers a complimentary continental breakfast. This motel is not far from Dodger Stadium and Elysian Park, the second largest and oldest park in LA. Despite its name, this motel is about five miles from Hollywood and three miles from downtown. It is, however, a better choice than the America’s Best Value Inn on West Sunset Boulevard.
Best Western Burbank Airport Inn
This Best Western consistently receives high honors from guests via Trip Advisor. Located in North Hollywood, it’s not far from Universal Studios and Universal CityWalk. While a visit to Universal Studios may be out of the picture due to costs, a trip to Universal CityWalk can be very entertaining, if only for the many colorful neon-lit buildings when it gets dark. Visitors may also get a chance to see a live taping of a television show by obtaining free tickets in front of Universal Studios for taping at Hollywood studio. However, most TV programs are on hiatus between March and late July.
Economy Inn Hollywood
The Economy Inn lies east of Highway 101 and about a mile from the Hollywood-Vine Metro station. Despite being on world famous Sunset Boulevard, the motel is four miles from the primary section of the famous strip but is in a generally quieter neighborhood. Free WiFi and refrigerators are available in all 19 rooms. Not far from the hotel is the famous Manor Hotel, the luxury retreat for Scientologists.
Located in the Westlake neighborhood, Jerry’s Motel is quite likely the top-ranked motel in LA. The closest Metro station is the Westlake-MacArthur Park Station, a block from the park made famous by the 1960s hit single and featured in several TV shows and movies. Downtown LA is just minutes away, allowing visitors to explore some of the city’s most iconic landmarks such as the Disney Concert Hall, City Hall, Angels Flight Railway, Union Station and Olvera Street. Another hot spot in downtown LA is LA Live, more on the upscale side but well worth a visit.
Rodeway Inn and Suites Pacific Coast Highway
Despite the name of the address, this high-rated motel isn’t along the Pacific Coast. But past guests have ranked it 89 percent thumbs up on Trip Advisor. Redondo Beach is just over seven miles away and Hermosa Beach, site of the popular TV show “The O.C.,” is only a few miles north. In the opposite direction, the historic Queen Mary is about nine miles from the motel.
California Chicken Cafe
Established in 1991, this top-rated café has become so popular, it’s since opened seven more locations, including Venice Beach and Santa Monica. A three-piece rotisserie chicken with one side dish is just $8, wraps range from $7 to $8.50 and salads are $10 or less. The original location is on trendy Melrose Avenue, where it isn’t unusual to see Hollywood celebrities shopping or dining out.
The Original Farmers Market
The Original Farmers Market is not only a great place for low-cost food, but it’s also a popular tourist attraction. Like many famous dining destinations, this LA landmark is a favorite of many past and present celebrities, from Marilyn Monroe and The Beatles to Gordon Ramsay and Jimmy Kimmel. Today, there are more than 100 restaurants, food vendors and shops, some more affordable than others, like China Depot, Fritzi Dog and ¡Loteria! Grill. Celebrating its 80th anniversary this year, the Original Farmers Market is hosting free live music on Thursday and Friday nights through August 29.
One of the most famous hot dog stands in the country, Pink’s has been a Los Angeles institution for decades. There is usually a line of people waiting to get served, but for hot dog lovers, it’s worth the wait. Many well-known celebrities have visited the main location at the corner of Melrose and North La Brea, such as Martha Stewart, Emeril Lagasse, Betty White and Aretha Franklin. Taking advantage of its enormous success, Pink’s has expanded to more than 10 locations throughout the country. Another great spot for hot dogs and burgers is Carney’s, located inside a vintage train car on the Sunset Strip.
The Vegan House
Just off Hollywood Boulevard, the Vegan House serves all kinds of healthy items from noodles and wraps to salads and a la carte. Many delicious choices are just $9, such as pad Thai, stir fry mixed veggies and “Yummy Salad.” The Vegan House also takes online orders.
With several locations throughout Southern California, Original Tommy’s is yet another LA institution. Many locals say this is the best place in the city for high-quality, yet low-cost burgers. Original Tommy’s also sells refreshments like hot dogs, chili tamales, breakfast burritos, fries and more.
Best Budget Attractions
TCL Chinese Theatre
The Chinese Theater is one of the most famous landmarks in LA, and one of the most visited. The museum is well known for its celebrity footprints and handprints on the concrete floor in front. Honoring the greatest of all entertainers, among those immortalized are Mary Pickford, Al Jolson, Fred Astaire, Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell. Hollywood Boulevard is the primary location for the world famous Hollywood Walk of Fame, with hundreds of stars on the sidewalks honoring important contributors to the entertainment industry, such as Charlie Chaplin, Marlene Dietrich, Walt Disney, The Beatles, Katherine Hepburn and even Mickey Mouse and Snow White. The Chinese Theatre is another great spot to obtain free tickets to live TV show tapings.
Adjacent to the TCL Chinese Theatre is the Hollywood and Highland Center, an enormous shopping and entertainment complex. One of LA’s most important venues is located here – the Dolby Theatre, home to the Academy Awards. The complex also offers outstanding views of the iconic Hollywood Sign in the distance and some affordable dining options. Other Hollywood landmarks nearby include Capitol Records, Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, El Capitan Theatre, Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre and Pantages Theatre.
One of America’s top museums, Getty Center an excellent choice as a budget attraction. Admission is free to the 240-acre campus, but parking is $15 for cars or motorcycles and $10 after 5 p.m. on Saturdays. Alternatively, visitors can take Metro’s Rapid Line 761, which stops at the main gate. Bicyclists can park their bikes at the racks near the elevators for free. Among the museum’s highlights are Greek antiquities, Paul Gauguin’s “Arii Matamoe,” Van Gogh’s “Irises” and Impressionist selections from Monet, Renoir and Manet and drawings from Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo.
Yet another landmark structure is the Griffith Observatory. Perched on Mount Hollywood, Griffith Observatory offers spectacular views of Los Angeles. Admission and parking is free, but the parking lot fills up quickly. Disabled parking spots are also available and even if spaces are full, staff members are on hand for assistance on parking information. Most other visitors must park along the hillside road leading up to the observatory and then walk. A shuttle provided by the LA Department of Transportation is available on weekends from the Vermont-Sunset Metro Red Line station.
Live Studio Tapings
One of the best free things in LA is the opportunity to view a live taping of a television show. Studios like CBS, Paramount and Warner Bros. all conduct live tapings at many of America’s most popular programs like “The Ellen Show,” “Dr. Phil,” “American Idol,” “The Big Bang Theory” and “2 Broke Girls.” Most of the top-rated shows complete their production schedules in spring, but return to filming in July or August. Audience Limited is a good source for information on obtaining free tickets, in addition to any of the studios.
Drawing 16 million visitors annually, Venice Beach is the top visitor attraction in LA. An eclectic mixture of street performers, rollerbladers, weightlifters and more easily makes Venice Beach one of the best spots in LA for people watching. Souvenir shops and low-cost eateries are plentiful along this half-mile boardwalk and ocean temperatures average in the high 60s during the summer. There is no admission fee to Venice Beach but parking fees range from about $5 to $15. For public transportation to Venice Beach, visitors can take the Metro Rail Green Line to Redondo Beach, then transfer to Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus.
Visitors continuing north on the boardwalk or by car or public transportation will reach Santa Monica Pier, another popular tourist destination that requires no admission but paid parking. Through September 11, the Santa Monica Pier will host free live music concerts on Thursday nights.
Bonus Attraction: Celebrity Cemeteries
Visiting a cemetery might not be high on a traveler’s list, but in LA, many are tourist attractions. Many of the most famous stars of Hollywood are buried in Los Angeles and there is no charge to visit. The graves of several Hollywood legends like Natalie Wood, Marilyn Monroe, Dean Martin, Burt Lancaster, Farrah Fawcett and Jack Lemmon can be found at Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park. Rudolph Valentino, Mel Blanc, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Janet Gaynor, Jayne Mansfield and Mickey Rooney are all buried at Hollywood Forever, and Forest Lawn Glendale is the final resting place for Humphrey Bogart, Karen Carpenter, Lon Chaney Sr., Sammy Davis Jr., Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Elizabeth Taylor, Spencer Tracy and Michael Jackson.
Randy Yagi is a freelance writer covering all things San Francisco. In 2012, he was awarded a Media Fellowship from Stanford University. His work can be found on Examiner.com Examiner.com.