San Diego is a sprawling patchwork of neighborhoods that spreads across 325 square miles. As the second largest city in California, San Diego has two million fewer residents, or nearly half as many people per square mile, as Los Angeles. It has an unbelievable quarter of the people per square mile as San Francisco, where residents are packed like sardines into 47 square miles – a fact that may actually make getting around easier. Each city has its own challenges when it comes to navigating from Point A to Point B, and San Diego’s challenge is how spread out the city is – its blessing is also its curse.
As a savvy San Diego traveler, you can get anywhere you want to go in San Diego when you understand the many options available to you. There are city buses, trolleys, a Sprinter light rail, Amtrak Pacific Surfliners and Coaster commuter trains, along with rental cars, taxis and private cars, shuttles, the Coronado Ferry, water taxis, pedicabs, and horse-drawn carriages. Whew! That doesn’t even count the many city tours you can take.
Here are the biggies:
Most people want to rent a car on vacation so they have maximum flexibility and can go on their own schedules. When you fly into San Diego, there are no car rental businesses in the airport. However, there are free shuttles from the airport to all the major car rental properties nearby. Keep in mind that parking is limited, especially in Downtown San Diego, and that ticketing and towing are aggressive.
Taxi, Lyft, Uber
San Diego taxis are safe and reliable. On special occasions like New Year’s Eve, for example, it can be difficult to impossible to get a cab, but for the most part, it’s easy. Rate sheets for flat rate fares are listed on Silver Cab’s website and San Diego Cab’s website to give you an idea of pricing. Before agreeing to a cab, discuss the fare. Do they charge a flat rate, by the mile, by the minute? Lyft and Uber are also active in San Diego, if you use those services when you travel.
San Diego MTS Trolleys and Buses
The San Diego Trolley is part of the San Diego Metro Transit System (MTS). There are three main trolley lines in the city. The Green Line goes from Downtown north along the coast and east through Mission Valley to Santee. This is what you would take to get between Hotel Circle and the Convention Center or Downtown and Chargers Stadium. The Orange Line runs between the Santa Fe Depot Downtown and El Cajon. If you wanted to go to the free Friday evening concerts in El Cajon, take this line. The Blue Line runs from Downtown to the border with Mexico. If you want to try out some Baja-med cuisine in Tijuana, this is your line.
The Metro Transit System (MTS) has a web of bus routes all across the city of San Diego, which includes La Jolla and Escondido. You can type in the name of the hotel you’re staying at and the destination you’d like to go to for step-by-step directions in their trip planner. For example you can get from Downtown to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park near Escondido by a series of buses. You can also get to La Jolla from Downtown on a single bus.
North County Transit District
In North County, the North County Transit District bus system is similar to the MTS with Breeze buses covering much of North County. They also have a Flex mini-bus that you can reserve seats on, which serves Carlsbad, Encinitas, and Solana Beach. It’s a good choice if you want to visit LEGOLAND California, the outlet mall, or any of Carlsbad’s other attractions on your own timeline. There are also trip planning tools on their website.
The Sprinter is a light rail service that travels from the Oceanside Transit Center to the Escondido Transit Center primarily along Highway 78. It provides previously unavailable quick access to East San Diego. If you want to visit Escondido’s wineries and breweries, the Sprinter makes it easy to get there. If you’re a hiker or biker, there are several nearby trails. Stone Brewing World Bistro & Gardens is worth the trip on its own.
The San Diego Coaster commuter train runs along the coast between Downtown San Diego and the Oceanside Transit Center. There are places along the way where you are riding right along the ocean with unobstructed views. It takes about an hour from one end to the other, and makes eight stops along the way. This is a good choice from Downtown to Old Town, or to Carlsbad. You could reserve a Flex ride to LEGOLAND from the Carlsbad train stop to the park, or the train to the golf course.
The Pacific Surfliner has traditionally run between San Diego and Los Angeles. Recently, Amtrak has added six new Pacific Surfliner trains that make all the stops the Coaster commuter train makes between San Diego and Oceanside. If you want to go to the San Diego Fair or the Del Mar Race Track, get off at the nearby Solana Beach stop. Want to go to Disneyland or Hollywood? Take it all the way to LA.
Coronado Island Ferry and Water Taxi
Downtown you can catch the Coronado Ferry on the Broadway Pier and ride across San Diego Bay to Coronado Island. Catch it at Ferry Landing on the island coming back. The ferry runs between the two daily from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and later on weekends. Crosses are every hour on the hour. There are lots of transportation choices once you’re on the island too.
Another easy way to get from place to place along San Diego Bay is by water taxi. They charge a flat rate of $7 per person one-way, no matter where you’re going in the bay. Call ahead to reserve a seat.
Bicycle Rentals and Pedicabs
Riding bikes in San Diego comes in all forms. Coastal neighborhoods along the Pacific Coast Highway (101) are crowded with bike clubs in full gear on the weekends. Mountain bikers head east toward challenging mountain trails. Beach cruisers wobble between pedestrians along the popular Pacific Beach boardwalk. There are a ton of mom and pop bike rental businesses in nearly every neighborhood who have been faithfully serving tourists and locals alike for years, and who welcome your business.
You can catch pedicabs all along Harbor Drive near the bayfront museums, restaurants, and cruise ships, and pretty much anywhere in the Gaslamp Quarter, as well as a few other popular tourist areas. The city has cracked down on price gouging and working illegally. Look for stickers on the pedicabs and ask to see rate sheets.
Once you spend some time looking over all the options, you’ll find that you may not need to rent a car and struggle with traffic in an unfamiliar city, no matter how spread out it is. By putting together some combinations, you can easily get where you need to go. If you’re staying Downtown and want to visit the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, just hop on the Coaster at the Santa Fe Depot and ride to the Oceanside Transit Station, take the Sprinter from Oceanside to the Escondido Transit Center, and take the African Loop bus to the park. You could also take MTS buses from the hotel to the park, but with a lot more stops and some walking. No matter what you choose, get out and enjoy America’s Finest City where it’s always sunny and 72.