If you are planning transportation to and around San Diego and its surrounding areas, you are in luck. San Diego is easy to get to by airport, freeway and train. The city has a trolley system, which makes it one of the easier cities to get around using public transportation in the Southern California area. That said, Southern Californians rely on their cars for freedom, and some of San Diego’s best family attractions are toadally spread out, so you’ll most likely want to bring a car or rent one to get around San Diego.
Transportation to San Diego
Whether you drive or fly depends largely, of course, on where you’re coming from and how many tadpoles (aka kids) you will have hopping along with you. You can fly right into the city of San Diego directly from many major cities. If you will be visiting Los Angeles or Orange County before or after (or during!) your trip, you can easily take the I-5 freeway to or from these destinations. Larger families who live within driving distance may find it’s more economical to drive, but you should always factor in the additional cost of gas and food while on the road. And speaking of gas costs, leapin’ lily pads! California has some of the highest gas prices in the country, so keep that in mind when budgeting for your trip.
Despite having good public transportation within the city itself, you’ll want to have a car when visiting Southern California. This is especially true if you will be hopping about to LEGOLAND or the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which are in northern and eastern San Diego county, respectively. If you do decide to drive, be sure to check out our helpful tips for a smooth car ride.
The Santa Fe Depot in downtown is a hub for Amtrak, which has stations in northern San Diego (Oceanside) and connects to Orange County (including a station near Disneyland) and into downtown Los Angeles. So if you really want to take a relaxing, traffic-free, coastal route (just like floating downstream on a lily pad, watching the scenery pass by) when traveling between San Diego and Orange County or Los Angles, hop on a train! Pick a seat on the ocean side of the train for frogtastic views.
San Diego International Airport is ideally situated three miles northwest of downtown San Diego, roughly a 10-minute drive. It is served by many domestic carriers, with over 60 non-stop markets and almost 500 daily fights. There are only a handful of international flights. Visitors from other countries are likely to be routed through the Los Angeles or San Francisco-area airports rather than direct.
Transportation Around San Diego
Although not as large and sprawling as Los Angeles, San Diego is the second largest city in California that is best traversed by car. You’ll find popular tourist attractions spread throughout the city. That’s why visitors will likely find renting a car the easiest way to hop about, or navigate. We have partnered with five top-name brands to bring you the very best rates on car rental rates. All of the car rental companies operate at the airport. None are directly in terminal and will require a shuttle ride to their locations behind the terminal and runway, so be sure to factor that into your travel time to and from the airport.
With three major interstate roadways, it’s fairly easy to get around, although visitors should expect a fairly good amount of congestion if you are traveling during commuting times.
There is no central bus service, although there are several operators that offer different stops and stations around the city.
The only public transit available from the airport is the Flyer Route No. 992, which is a Metropolitan Transit System bus that travels between the airport and downtown. The bus service, which stops between Terminals 1 & 2 and the Commuter Terminal, connects downtown with trolley, COASTER and Amtrak stations.
All aboard! Woot woot! You might want to hop about and explore coastal San Diego by train. The COASTER light rail train connects downtown San Diego and Old Town with great San Diego beach towns along the coast to the north of the city. The most northern stop in San Diego County is Oceanside, where you can end your journey or switch trains to Amtrak or Metrolink to continue further north into Orange County.
San Diego has several affordable trolley lines that extend to nearby areas and beaches. For fun, you can jump on the inexpensive vintage streetcar that makes a Downtown loop. It passes by the Santa Fe Depot, the Civic Center, the 12 & Imperial Transit Center, PETCO Park, the Gaslamp Quarter, Seaport Village and more every 30 minutes.
The major car rental companies operate at the airport, although all will require a shuttle ride behind the terminal and runway. Therefore, you’ll want to factor that into your travel time to and from the airport. If you are going to leave the San Diego city area to visit Legoland, the San Diego Zoo or The Safari Park, you’ll definitely want to spring for a car.
Traveling Between Los Angeles and San Diego
For visitors planning to visit both San Diego and Los Angeles (about 120 miles away) — or Orange County and Disneyland, in the middle of the two cities — it is usually much cheaper and faster to rent a car or take Amtrak rather than fly between the two cities. Amtrak operates from the historic Santa Fe Depot. Plus, there is a city bus line to it from San Diego International Airport. Amtrak’s Pacific Surfliner takes about two and a half hours to get to Los Angeles’ Union Station. The train stops in several Orange County cities, including Anaheim. The Coaster is an additional commuter rail service. It runs to Oceanside and then could connect to Orange County’s Metrolink. The Coaster operates during regular commuting hours, but it has limited weekend service.
In the downtown and beach areas, there is metered parking Monday through Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. (or as marked). Meters accept coin, credit card, Near Field Communication payment (like Apple Pay, Samsung Pay or Android Pay) or payment through the Parkmobile app, which will remind you 15 minutes before your meter expires. It also has a “find my car” feature in case you get lost or “froget” where you parked. (Hey, it happens!)