preparing the visit


Los Angeles was not on our holiday hit list. So how come we ended up spending nearly 3 weeks there in 2012?

Well it all started with an invitation to chair a specialist conference on the campus of the University of Southern California. Once I had accepted, the 3 day conference snowballed into a full 18 day family holiday visiting both the sights of Los Angeles and driving out to see the lights of Las Vegas.

This site will tell it all - planning, getting there and back, and all the visits.

One of the key decision was what to do after the conference. Fly somewhere else, e.g. Hawaii, Florida, Mexico. Or visit another part of California, e.g. San Francisco, or one or more of the parks. We considered a cruise, but the only really viable option at that time of the year was a cruise to Alaska. Finally after looking at what Los Angeles had to offer the tourist we decided to stay in the City of Angels. But we also looked at different options for a short road-trip, e.g. San Diego, San Francisco, the parks, or Las Vegas. We decided on Las Vegas simply because the logistics were easy and the city had changed so much since our last visit (in the late 80’s) that it was worth a re-visit.

The first question was - could we actually go to the USA? Both of us had valid passports, but neither of us had the newer so-called biometric passports. Mine was “machine readable” and thus technically valid but my wife’s passport was not even machine readable - thus not valid for access to the US. She would need to re-new her passport or get a visa from the US consulate. The US consulate in Luxembourg said that the US consulate in Spain could issue a visa. Naturally the US consulate in Spain said it could not, and you needed to get the visa in the country of your residence. So it was going to be biometric passports for us both!

France requires the old passport and a full birth certificate (full meaning with hand written bits on it about parents, children, marriages and divorces). But you can order the birth certificate on the Web. You then have to go physically to the French consulate and they take your photo, and your money. About 4-6 weeks later you have to go back and pick up your new passport.

The UK requires a photo having very specific requirements (as per the description of the Web and with it certified as to its likeness), your old passport, the correctly completed application form, and your money (or more specifically you credit card number). If you have done everything correctly your old passport turns up in the post after 2 weeks and your new passport after about 4 weeks.

So really not so difficult, but it appeared complicated at the time.

With these passports you can use the US ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) before traveling.

In addition I needed to obtain an International Driving License, which was very kindly provided by the automobile club in Luxembourg (ACL). They were very helpful since I had not anticipated needing this to the last minute. And in fact nobody asked to see it, and my Luxembourg driving license worked perfectly for the US rental car. Mind you it might have been different had we been stopped by the local police.

The first steps were to book flights, hotels and the rental car. The conference organisers booked for us the famous Biltmore hotel for a few days. But we were on our own in terms of flights, etc.

So the plan was to travel “usefully” to Los Angeles using business class. Usefully meant firstly a good deal, secondly the right dates, and thirdly stopping in some place that would extend or enhance our trip without it costing an arm and a leg. Sources were the usual Web retailers, the specialist long-haul dealers, and the direct booking sites of the major carriers.

I spent hours looking at options, but finally:

Impossible to get from our apartment to Los Angeles direct, a stop-over was inevitable. But where? London, Paris, Amsterdam, Madrid, Zurich, Frankfurt. I even looked at an option with Air Turkey, and even a round-the-world with multiple stops. Some places like Frankfurt were surprisingly difficult to get to from Spain. Madrid to Los Angeles would have involved at least 2 stop-overs. Zurich looked a good bet. London and Paris also looked like good options.

Most if not all the Web retailers were offering the same flights for more or less the same price, +/- 40€, and did not appear to offer any substantial advantage over the offers from the main carriers. This surprised me since we had in the past always booked through these discount sites for all our major trips.

The specialist travel companies all appeared to offer Virgin at more or less the same price as offered on the Virgin online retail site. None offered BA, KLM/Air France or American.   

Alternative “interesting” stop-overs did not look attractive, e,g, a Florida stop-over would cost a lot more than a direct flight.

Our preferred option would have been Swiss through Zurich (with our Miles & More cards), even if the stop-over did not synchronise well. But they were asking nearly 8,000€ for a business class ticket. Lufthansa were also far too expensive. KLM/Air France, American and British Airways looked the most competitive. But British Airways offered better prices for our particular dates. e.g. we had a fixed outward-bound date but were flexible about return dates.

In looking through British Airways options I found that waiting to book late actually would cost more, e.g. best book early to get lowest prices. In addition flying out of Gibraltar through Heathrow would cost about 3,400€ (business class), and require two nights stop-over in Heathrow for connecting flights. Whereas flying out of Malaga through Gatwick and transferring to Heathrow would cost only 2,400€ (business class), and would require only one overnight stop-over in Heathrow. I actually phoned British Airways to ask why there was such a big difference, and they did not know. But the guy suggested using a specialist taxi service between airports, which we did for a total return price of 90 UK pounds.

I even checked the option to drive the first leg to Madrid or Barcelona, but it did not change things. I also considered driving back to Luxembourg, but the options were the same, and a business class return flight Luxembourg-London-Los Angeles would actually cost more than flying out of Malaga.

So we booked business class British Airways Malaga-Gatwick and Heathrow-Los Angeles. The cost was 2,400€ return, but they actually asked for an additional 140€ per person to book seats on the transatlantic flight! Paying extra to book your business class seat looked to me just a bit too much - but if you want to sit with your wife then you have to pay - so I paid.

In addition I bought a very reasonably prices full travel insurance also from British Airways. 

Los Angeles is a big city with nearly 4 million people and covering more than 1,200 square kilometers. So wherever you stay you are going to be a long way away from something, and traffic in Los Angeles is notorious.

What became immediately obvious was that the conference location and the conference hotel in downtown LA were not in the best place for the usual tourist attractions. We finally decided to stay in two different locations, the first near Universal Studios and the second providing good access to the Getty museums.

But which hotel, or hotels? I did have in my back pocket some major hotel “membership” cards. I looked at the usual hotel discount Websites, and was not impressed with the offers in the 4-5 star categories. Also I had to remember I wanted parking and wireless Internet, and both can substantially affect the bill.

After spending hours building comparison tables I finally decided to use exclusively one particular hotel provider and their “membership” card. I booked an overnight in London, two separate locations in LA, and the hotel for Las Vegas.

In the Heathrow hotel we received a free room upgrade, free evening snacks, free breakfast, and free wireless Internet. It was excellent and very convenient.

Our first holiday hotel in LA was near Universal Studios. We received a room upgrade, free parking (work $20 daily), free wireless Internet (work $9 daily), free continental breakfasts (worth $14 daily), and a free afternoon-evening snack (worth $11 daily). Our room was on the 18th floor with a panoramic view over the Universal Studios site. Fantastic room, great location, great service. Perfect. In addition I loved the room safe big enough for my 13¨ laptop.

Our booking in Las Vegas was in a recently re-furbished, non-gambling hotel, with an upgrade to an executive floor corner suite. We had a panoramic view of Las Vegas from our room on the 50th floor. We also had free wireless Internet and free parking. The suite was a full service suite with a small fully-fitted kitchen. Great room, impressive views at an accessible price. The most impressive part was when entering the room it was in the dark. As you entered the electric blinds start to raise revealing a wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling panorama over Las Vegas!

Our last hotel in LA was more off the beaten track, but fine for the task with easy rides to the two Getty museums. We had a room upgrade to the executive floor, and free breakfast and even snacks, parking and wireless Internet. The hotel was near one of the largest shopping complexes in LA, but unfortunately (!) we did not have time to visit it.

Renting a car is a minefield. I was looking for an 18-day rental and it was almost impossible to compare prices across all the different companies. I found at least 5 different suppliers: the mainstream companies, the low-cost companies, local companies, US discounters, and European discounters.

The price appeared to be made up of a basic rental cost, plus a whole series of “optional” insurances, plus petrol options, plus the cost of a GPS. Moving between different classes of car, from compact to premium, usually cost only a few $ a day extra, The key was the “optional” insurances and type of coverage, etc. all looked slightly different from one provider to another. This “optional” insurance would easily double the rental price of the car. In addition your credit card can provide some type of insurance coverage, but again it is not clear just what was covered. The fine print says you must pay at least 35% of your trip with the card, but what does “trip” actually mean, flight, hotels, or what?

The main stream companies, such as Hertz, were just too expensive, quoting prices in excess of $1,600 for an “intermediate” car for 18 days. The budget companies all quoted around $500 to $600, but the insurances and extras were to be dealt with upon pick-up - thus no idea of total overall cost. Local companies appeared to offer slightly better prices, but they did not provide airport pick-up and drop-off.

US discounters offered more or less the same package as budget companies, and with the same problem that insurances and extras were “extra”.

Many companies were charging around $9 per day extra for the GPS.

I found several European-based (mostly in the UK) offering so-called “all paid” prices that looked the most competitive. I booked with one company that offered an 18-day full-size rental with GPS and “all” insurances for around $850. When the booking came in it was with the company Dollar.

When we went to pick-up the car naturally I was advised to take an extra road-side help package (in case of accident or break-down), plus the car was rented empty and you had to pay $90 for your first full-tank, but you could bring it back empty! So I still paid out another $300-odd in “extras”.

So we got a full-size for 18-day for around $1150, but I still felt that I was being conned and could have found a better price somewhere, somehow.

One of the things I forgot was an adapter for US sockets. I thought (falsely) that the “usual” 2-prong plug would have its place in the bathroom or somewhere. No chance, so I had to buy a 2-prong to US 3-prong adapter. Also with 110V it takes some time to recharge your electric shaver, tooth brush, computers and phones.

I also forgot that Memorial Day (last Monday in May) occurred during our holiday. It is a major holiday break in the US, and is the unofficial start of the summer. It fell on a weekend so it also affected the following Monday. The only error throughout the holiday was to assume that we could take a nice drive up the Californian coast on Memorial sunday. After 2-hours of traffic, we quit and drove back to the hotel, through another 2-hours of traffic!


How it started


Things to remember

Booking flights


rental car