San Diego has specific boundaries – natural dividing borders to an extent – with an ocean to the west, mountains, and deserts to the east and north, and an entire country to the south, Mexico. Between these borderlines, is a simple highway system, and while many of the major attractions in San Diego are scattered throughout the area, they are easily accessible and close to the shoreline.
In Downtown San Diego, it is very easy to get around. So, if you are staying downtown, the busiest areas can be accessed by foot, a short taxicab ride, Uber or Lyft ride, a bus or trolley, or FRED, which we will explain later. However, transportation gets a bit hairier if you want to extend yourself outside of downtown to visit San Diego’s many beautiful beaches, historic sites, and coastal towns with unique boutiques, surf shops, trendy restaurants, and laidback bars. In addition, excursions to the mountains and deserts just outside of San Diego are also worth your time. The Best way to get around San Francisco is a Hire Car, but if this is not an option for you this guide gives you all you need to know about getting around San Francisco Without a Car.
The public transportation system in San Diego is pretty darn good, offering another option to get you to the outskirts. Regardless of the areas of the San Diego community you wish to visit, we will explore all of the transportation options that are available, so you can plan your budget, and so there is no mystery to how to get around once you arrive in “American’s Finest City.”
The San Diego Airport and Ground Transportation From and To “SAN”
The major airport in San Diego is the San Diego International Airport (SAN), which was once called Lindberg Field (named after aviator Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo and non-stop transatlantic flight). You will arrive and depart in either Terminal 1 or Terminal 2. Only one runway serves the airport, and during the busiest times of the year, it gets crowded with an abundance of traffic entering or leaving the two terminals. In our particular case, fog hampered our early departing flight, and we had to wait 30 minutes for it to clear before our plan could take off. This isn’t unusual, especially during May and June.
On the day of our departure, we got to the airport early, so we made a stop at Stone Brewing – because of the whole process of getting to the airport, checking bags, and going through security calls for a beer. Right? Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens in Terminal 2 offers its local San Diego craft creations and sits along with other eating and drinking options in the terminal. There is Beaudevin Wine & Tapas Bar, Bubbles Seafood and Wine Bar, California Pizza Kitchen, PGA Tour Grill, Phil’s B.B.Q., Prado at the Airport, QDOBA Mexican Grill, Saffron Thai, Jack in the Box, Panda Express, several coffee shops, and LOTS more. You can also find Einstein Bros. Bagels “pre-security,” and other places to grab a coffee or quick bite in the ticketing and baggage claim areas.
Terminal 1 offers a smorgasbord of eating options as well, including Bankers Hill Bar & Restaurant, Craft Brews on 30th St., Emerald Express, Pacifica Breeze Café, and numerous coffee shops and burger joints. In addition, there are plenty of shops at the San Diego Airport, so you can pick up gifts on your way out from places like Bay Books, Best Buy, Tech on the Go, The Beach House, Brighton Collectibles, and various ladies boutiques and newsstands with souvenirs.
US Airports can be pretty weak on dining options but no one can accuse San Diego Int’ of that!
Ground transportation out of SAN is simple if you are heading to Downtown San Diego because it is only three miles away. From Terminal 1 or 2, you can take a “skybridge” to the Transportation Plaza. At the Transportation Plaza, you will find shuttle vans, buses, and taxicabs. If you are taking a bus, you can buy a $2.25 fare for the Metropolitan Transit System’s Flyer Route 992, which serves the terminals every 15 minutes, seven days a week, and will take you from the airport to Downtown San Diego.
The red-and-white striped buses follow a route along Broadway Avenue to 9th Avenue, with frequent stops to service office buildings and hotels. The $2.25 fare includes one transfer to local transit buses and the trolley. The Flyer makes a stop across from the Santa Fe Depot, and from this depot, you can board the Coaster commuter train – which we did on one San Diego trip – for a $6 ride up to Oceanside, the last of the train’s stops.
From the Santa Fe Depot, you can Get transfers to almost any destination in the San Diego Area. The MTS Has a very handy route Planner that you can use to plan your Trip.
How to Get Around San Diego?
Taxicabs, Uber, and Lyft From the San Diego Airport, SAN, and Around the San Diego, California, Area
Fortunately, taxicabs that depart from the airport have regulated fares, so you will never be gouged by an unscrupulous cab driver, though the cost to take a cab is still pricey. The initial fee is $2.80 and $3.30 per mile. Taxi rides from SAN to Downtown San Diego hotels are roughly $25 plus a tip, and the fare to Coronado is about $35 plus a tip. Limousines are not regulated, so be careful as fares will vary.
For both taxis and limos, ask for a flat rate upfront, when traveling about San Diego, so there is never a surprise. You will find taxi stands outside of your hotel and at many shopping centers, so you will never be left stranded if taxicabs are your preferred mode of travel while on a San Diego vacation or a business trip. If you do need to call for a taxi, the most dependable providers in San Diego come in a variety of colors: Orange Cab, Silver Cabs, and Yellow Cab.
In addition, Uber and Lyft are available throughout San Diego County with no restrictions. At rates that we found to be 40-50 percent cheaper than cab costs, we chose to use the on-demand, rideshare companies Uber and Lyft instead of taxis when traveling around San Diego in a pinch. From SAN, an Uber ride to Downtown San Diego cost us $14 on our most recent stay. A trip from the San Diego Airport to La Jolla costs around $20, and a trip to Pacific Beach is about $15. There are designated areas for Uber and Lyft pickups at the airport, and drivers cannot stop anywhere else in the terminals or they get ticketed, so ensure that you are in the right spot.
Renting a Rental Car in San Diego, California
The popular areas of San Diego are spread out, so if you want to experience all that the sprawling metropolis of San Diego has to offer, you will save money and time by renting a car. In California, you have to be 21 years old to rent a vehicle, and rates are higher if you are under 25 in most cases – while some even refuse to rent to customers under 25. Booster or safety seats are required for children who are 8 years old and younger, or under 4’9″.
The average price to rent a vehicle in San Diego is about $39 a day with an 8.75 percent tax, but you can find better deals for economy, compact cars. Furthermore, you can reduce daily rates if renting a vehicle for a week, at an average of about $250 for seven days. We are fans of RentalCars.com. They offer Free Cancellation should plans change, Or you just find a better deal. They also have friendly Fuel policies which help you avoid the hire car Fuel Scams!
Since the Mexican border brushes up against San Diego, there are some border inspection stations along the major highways, so it is crucial that you carry your driver’s license at all times, and if you are an international traveler, keep your passport on you wherever you travel to avoid any issues with U.S. Border Patrol officers.
Parking and Parking Costs in San Diego, California
If you rent a car or take a road trip to San Diego, you will find abundant parking in most parts of San Diego. In Downtown San Diego, parking meters run $1 to $2.50 an hour, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., Monday-Saturday. Parking at meters outside of those times is usually free, but be careful because some of those metered spots are NO PARKING zones during rush hour, and you might get towed or receive a $45 fine if you miss the signs.
Balboa Park and its associated museums and attractions, including the San Diego Zoo, have the surprising bonus of free parking! The Park is right in the middle of the city and is prime real estate, attracting thousands of visitors each day, yet they have managed to resist the lure of charging to park. So any visit to the park, museum, or zoo need not incur an extra fee.
During events and in the evenings, parking gets scarce in Downtown San Diego, as locals and tourists flock there to walk the streets and party. If you are staying at a hotel, parking is usually through valet only and is seldom free. Even hotels offering Self Park still Charge between$15 – $60. Downtown parking lots run anywhere from $15-$50 per day, depending on the area’s popularity. It is normally a better option to use the hotel’s Parking as that is charged per day and you can come and go as you please.
Parking lots Charge per visit and every time you leave you will need to pay meaning the costs can easily rack up if you are coming and going, which is kind of the point of hiring a car.
Coronado and La Jolla love their parking fees, and we didn’t find a single area in either locale that didn’t have parking meters or expensive parking lots that charge by the hour. Finally, Mission Bay had the best parking situation, with large free parking lots and plenty of open spaces wherever we went. You will still find most Hotels charge for parking however but are usually a little cheaper and the convenience can be worth the cost.
Taking Public Transportation in San Diego: The Buses, Trolleys, Trains, and FRED
Most of the Public Transportation is handled by the San Diego Metropolitan Transit System or MTS. We find it one of the best systems in the US and you can get to and from most locations in San Diego Cheaply and relatively easily.
Red trolleys serve Downtown San Diego, Old Town, Mission Valley, South Bay, East County, and the U.S. Border. This trolley system, or light-rail, operates three lines, from 5 a.m. to midnight, seven days a week, at 15-minute intervals; and the Metropolitan Transit System does a great job of staying on schedule. The Blue Line makes about a dozen stops from the San Ysidro Transit Center on the U.S.-Mexico Border to the Old Town Transit Center. The Green Line moves from the Old Town Transit Center to Gillespie Field and Santee Town Center. And from Gillespie Field, the Orange Line heads into the heart of Downtown San Diego, with stops at the Gaslamp Quarter, Convention Center, Civic Center, Seaport Village, American Plaza, as well as numerous other places.
The San Diego Trolley costs $2.50 for a one-way trip, and the ticket is only good for two hours. Therefore, we recommend a day pass at $6 for unlimited rides on the trolley and non-premium regional buses. You can purchase day passes at most trolley self-serve vending machines, at the Downtown Transit Store, or at Albertson’s markets.
You can access San Diego Transit buses from any bus stop. At bus stops where ticket vending machines are unavailable, you can pay the fare on the bus itself; however, paying this way is “cash only,” and you have to have the exact amount of money because no change is returned. Most routes are $2.25, but longer trips will cost you $6, and you can also purchase the $ 6-day pass, for no-worry bus travel all day.
“Coaster” commuter trains run daily and can take passengers from Downtown San Diego to beach access points in Oceanside, Carlsbad, and Solana Beach, as well as other stops along the way. A one-way ticket is $5 – $6, depending on the distance of the trip, and the frequency of pick-ups is normally 30 minutes during most of the weekdays, and four trains total on Saturday. You can also use Metrolink to get to Union Station in Los Angeles by high-speed rail from the Oceanside Transit Center for $20, which is a great deal for those that want to hit L.A. for a day.
Finally, there is FRED. FRED is a “free ride everywhere downtown” cruiser that operates Monday-Thursday from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday from 7 a.m. to midnight, Saturday from 8 a.m. to midnight, and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Yes, FRED is free, and from any corner in downtown, you can wave down one of these very distinct, blue, all-electric, open-air vehicles for a ride to another part of downtown. You can also download a FRED app at www.thefreeride.com/fred to request a ride, for up to five passengers. Tipping is not required, but the drivers certainly appreciate it. The app works much like Uber and Lyft, and I’ll be darned, it works great! We tipped $1 per person, which can be done with cash or through the app.
Personal Electic Hire Vehicles
The Last few years have seen a huge rise in the number of Electric Scooters and E-Bikes available to rent around the City. There has been a complete explosion as Lime, Bird, and Jump Scooters and bikes have appeared all around the City.
These ultra-cheap and high-tech gizmos unlock with your smartphone ($) and then charge you per minute you use the Bike or Scooter. You then simply park it up and lock it via your smartphone.
With San Diego’s seriously dry climate these make perfect sense and huge numbers of people use them daily, from locals going about their business to Tourists zooming up and down the Pacific Beach Promenade!
The Final Word on Getting Around San Diego
San Diego does very well with its public transportation system. Therefore, if you are staying downtown and only want to go to a few hot spots, big attractions, and some local beaches, you can get about just fine and relatively cheaply by using public trolleys, buses, trains, and FRED, However if you are staying outside of Downtown San Diego, rental care offers ultimate flexibility and will allow you the opportunity to take an excursion to the mountains and the deserts outside of San Diego proper, which is worth your time if you are staying in the area for a while. Although, you must consider that if you do rent a car, your total transportation costs will include high parking fees in most areas. In any case, getting around San Diego is simple, and the options to do it are plenty.
Have Your Say?
Let us know if you have tried Getting around San Diego Without a car? What did you think of the Transportation System? How did you get to and from the Airport? Or did you just suck it up and hire a car? If you have any questions or want to know how to get to or from any specific location just drop us a Comment Below!
2 thoughts on “Getting Around San Diego without a car – Our San Diego Transportation Guide”
Hi I am staying at the holiday inn express in old town. I have about 10 hours this Friday to look at SDSU and UC San Diego. Would the trolly system work for both of these or should I rent a car?
You will be able to jump straight on the Trolley for SDSU, you want the green line @ Washington Street to the SDSU Transit Station.
However, the Link to SDSU is more complicated. You are going to need to jump on the Bus, you need Bus 150 that runs along the Pacific Highway with a stop a short walk from Washington Street/Holiday Inn Express, Old Town. The $6 1 day pass would cover it all, so this is certainly your cheapest option.
Will you be planning on having a Car when you attend the University If you choose one of these options? If not it might be a good idea to get a feel for the transport situation regardless if you are likely to be using it regularly when here, it could play a role in your decision making.
Hope that helps