Tips for California travelers, from cheap LA gas to avoiding new 101 construction

SFGATE travel editor Silas Valentino crowdsourced a list of tips for smooth holiday travel

SFO long-term parking garage on a sunny day in March 2018.

SFO long-term parking garage on a sunny day in March 2018.

Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

First and foremost, the best piece of travel advice is to prepare. 

Trust those parental instincts when traveling by air and give yourself at least two hours from the airport’s front door to the gate. If going by land and car, the simplest travel tip is to leave well before rush hours or well after. 

For instance, if bound for Tahoe City on Interstate 80 from San Francisco during a busy day, the best time to leave to avoid most traffic is before 10 a.m. or after 7 p.m.

As the SFGATE travel editor, I was curious what other ideas my co-workers had for traveling during bustling holiday weeks. I collected them, and hopefully one of these suggestions will resonate with you to help enhance your holiday. 

Learn from our mistakes and heed our insights. These are a variety of travel tips crowdsourced from the SFGATE staff.

Plan for parking

I once heard a story from an airport spokesperson about a study that sought to pinpoint the most stressful time during air travel. 

Apparently, an airline equipped travelers with a heart rate monitor to observe exactly when their hearts beat the hardest. You’d assume it was during the TSA line, but that was the second-most stressful moment. 

In the end, it was the time spent searching for a parking spot upon arriving at the airport that provided peak anxiety. 

There is a simple workaround for avoiding unnecessary BPM stimulation when driving to the airport. Each of the major airports in the Bay Area have online dashboards with nifty gauges that show the capacity for their lots and garages. 

Check the websites for San Francisco International Airport, Oakland International Airport and San Jose International Airport and purchase a space before you arrive. Avoid circling the parking lot like a traveler subjected to Dante’s hell.

An aerial picture shows trucks, cars and other vehicles sitting in traffic on Interstate 5 in Kern County, Calif.

An aerial picture shows trucks, cars and other vehicles sitting in traffic on Interstate 5 in Kern County, Calif.

PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Cheapest gas on Interstate 5 to Los Angeles

According to GasBuddy, during the week of Thanksgiving, the cheapest gas in California is in Oroville at the Feather Falls Mini Mart, where a gallon costs $3.79.

Unfortunately, that’s far from the section of I-5 between SF and LA. If traveling to LA on the major interstate, these are the cheapest gas stations during Thanksgiving that I found on the website iExit:

Exit 407: Loves, Santa Nella$4.59 

Exit 319: EZ Trip Travel Center, Avenal$5.09 

Exit 205: Flying J, Lebec$4.99 

Exit 176: Shell, Castaic$4.97 

Exit 156A: Pemexpress, Pacoima — $4.89

Insider info on 101 between LA and SF

There’s currently road construction on Highway 101, according to a co-worker who drove to LA via Highway 101 earlier this week. 

She said the worst of it is in Santa Barbara, where the highway splits into two one-lane sections. She clarified that the lane modification did not last too long and was overall manageable. 

However, for anyone driving Highway 101 during heavily trafficked days (such as the Sunday following the holiday), this route will probably be unpleasant.

A Starbucks customer uses the Starbucks iPhone app to pay for a coffee.

A Starbucks customer uses the Starbucks iPhone app to pay for a coffee.

Katie Falkenberg/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Use apps to skip lines

It seems like everybody has an app these days.

If you expect a hankering for coffee or McDonald’s while at the airport, consider downloading the app to place your order ahead of time. Perhaps while passing through the security line?

As my colleague wrote, “I always walk past a line of 50 people trying to get coffee and they're all like, how tf did you do that?”

Moreover, Starbucks recently came out with a new benefit for air travelers that links its Starbucks Rewards program with Delta’s SkyMiles.

Check seats before checking in for upgrades

Prior to checking in for your flight, take a look online for the available seats on your flight.

Sometimes better seats have become available since you purchased your original ticket, and sometimes airlines lower or remove fees for certain luxurious seats.

A courtesy reminder for foreign currency

For international trips, never exchange money in the airport. 

Go to an ATM instead. You may even find a better exchange rate. 

SFGATE’s David Curran learned this while traveling in Mexico last summer. He took out cash from an airport exchange that was torn, taped and slightly mutilated, and the currency was rendered useless.

The PreCheck program allows those enrolled in a trusted traveler network to enter about 100 U.S. airports through a special security lane where they don't have to take off shoes, belts and jackets or remove laptops, liquids or gels.

The PreCheck program allows those enrolled in a trusted traveler network to enter about 100 U.S. airports through a special security lane where they don't have to take off shoes, belts and jackets or remove laptops, liquids or gels.

ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Consider TSA PreCheck

Early reports from airports this week suggest that the disparity between regular TSA and TSA PreCheck is outrageously noticeable. 

The TSA told me that it strives to ensure that travelers can pass through security in the regular line within 30 minutes — whereas the TSA PreCheck is 10 minutes. 

If you think TSA is hitting their goal, remain in the regular line and test your belief. 

I asked TSA why they started TSA PreCheck — is this not a solution to a problem that TSA has uniquely created in the first place? 

TSA’s response was that PreCheck, which began in 2011, is their attempt to remove all the low-risk travelers so they can focus on screening everyone else. 

PreCheck is open to U.S. citizens, nationals and lawful permanent residents. You’d be disqualified if you provided incomplete or false application information, violated federal security regulations, committed a variety of criminal offenses or landed on a terrorist watch list.

A Clear advantage when traveling with kids

As this is America where capitalism prevails, the company Clear Secure provides a similar service to TSA PreCheck, but for a cost. The standard price for an annual Clear membership can run up to $189.

The big plus is that with a Clear pass, you can bring children under 18 who do not have Clear with you through the line. And you can bring as many as you want.

When my colleague travels with her son’s baseball team, she takes the entire team with her through the Clear pass line while their parents wait in the regular TSA line. “Nothing is worse than standing in a TSA line with 15 obnoxious 16-year-olds,” she added. 

The best soundtrack for air travel

Courtesy of SFGATE culture editor Dan Gentile, an authority on Brian Eno:

“The old saying ‘when in Rome, listen to Italo disco’ is just as applicable in the airport. There’s simply nothing more relaxing that you can listen to in the terminal than Brian Eno’s ‘Music for Airports.’ Eno is considered by many to be the godfather of ambient music (he’ll make you a very quiet album you can’t refuse), and this album served as his mission statement. Hit play and you’ll be enveloped by soothing layered vocals and ethereal piano loops, intended as a contrast — and even a complement — to the relentless churn of travelers.

“It somehow turns the chaotic waves of thousands of travelers into a delicate dance of humanity, or at the very least, will help put you to sleep once on the plane.”

BEST OF SFGATE

Hiking | SF's easiest and prettiest hike ends at a waterfall
Travel | The story of Giant Rock, a mythical 7-story rock in the desert
Local | How the last pirates of Sausalito fought the man, and won
Culture | How Treasure Island ended up in an iconic 'Indiana Jones' film