Whether or not you need a San Diego car rental depends on what you’d like to do, the length of your San Diego vacation, and what part of town you’re staying in.
It is possible to go carless in San Diego, but most people do not.
We’ll cover San Diego airport car rentals, how ride share works here, and a few other ways to get around town.
San Diego Geography
San Diego is spread out. It takes about 45 minutes to drive between LEGOLAND and Coronado at the southern end of San Diego where many people stay.
It’s about the maximum distance that most tourists travel.
Here are a few other sample driving distances (without traffic, of course):
- La Jolla to San Diego Airport: 25 minutes
- San Diego Airport to Downtown: 5-10 minutes (many downtown San Diego hotels have complimentary shuttles).
- La Jolla to Carlsbad: 40 minutes
- Downtown San Diego to Temecula Wine Country: 1 hour
- Downtown San Diego to Tijuana border: 25 minutes
- Coronado to San Diego Zoo Safari Park (Escondido): 45 minutes
- Coronado to SeaWorld San Diego: 25 minutes
- La Jolla Village to SeaWorld San Diego: 15 minutes
Is there traffic in San Diego? Yes, during rush hour. You’ll also see it during special events like on the I-5 freeway in Del Mar during racing season.
How to Get Around Without a San Diego Rental Car
San Diego’s spread out geography means that most people opt for San Diego rental cars. A few exceptions include travelers who are attending conferences or planning a short weekend in downtown or those who merely need to rely on San Diego airport transportation to get them to and from their San Diego base.
San Diego Airport Transportation
In the event you need a car or shuttle to your hotel or home, a few options exist. Most options, with the notable exception of black car services, will be met at the airport Transportation Islands across the street from terminals 1 and 2.
Black Car Services
I’ve written about my favorite San Diego black car services but here is the gist for services able to be scheduled in advance (listed in order of how they typically price).
Blacklane: This is an app-based service that we use worldwide and can also be scheduled online. Rates recently have increased in San Diego, but they fall in the middle of Uber and some of the other nicer black car services.
These drivers also often drive for Uber, so the quality of service and cars is nearly the same (though in my opinion Uber drivers in San Diego aren’t vetted nearly as well).
La Jolla Star Transportation: This is best for people staying in or near La Jolla. Their cars are always tidy, and the drivers arrive early. They’re professional and courteous. You’ll need to call for reservations.
Blackstar Premium Cars: For those who want a little more room, they drive the BMW 740li which has more legroom in the back seat. Request a quote online.
Empire CLS: This service stands out because they own every car and chauffeurs are full-time employees, which allows incredible quality control. Empire CLS is what many CEOs, Hollywood elite, and travel agents use and you will get what you pay for. They also have luxury vans, limos and luxury motorcoaches for larger parties in addition to VIP meet and greet services.
A variety of rideshare services exist in San Diego with Uber and Lyft as the most popular. They work very well across town.
If you’re departing San Diego International Airport, rideshare services may drop you at the terminal curb. Skycabs for some airlines can check you in here, too.
If you’re arriving to the San Diego International Airport, both of our terminals have a designated rideshare pick-up area. You’ll collect bags at baggage claim and then request a driver on your preferred rideshare app. Then, walk across the street to the Transportation Plaza in front of your terminal. A big green sign on a pylon signals where to wait for a rideshare, which is an island in between two lanes
(I’m not a fan of this set-up mostly because the island can get quite crowded. Drivers can pull up to either side of it, making spotting a car difficult. Drivers are urged to keep moving and can’t stop to wait for you making circling around may be necessary which is a drag after a long flight. I prefer a car service with meet and greet service inside the terminal.)
Of course, it’s possible to hop into a taxi and they’ll be waiting in their own designated areas at the Transportation Island. While it’s possible to call a taxi, many are usually already waiting.
San Diego Airport Car Rentals
San Diego airport car rentals are easy. A quick, complimentary shuttle ride takes visitors to the new Consolidated Rental Car Center, about 5-10 minutes (depending on how many traffic lights you hit) away.
For the sake of convenience, I would recommend sticking to San Diego car rental agencies located here.
It’s easy to search rates on rentalcars.com. You’ll no doubt find good rates from rental car agencies located inside the center.
Rental Car Center Agencies include (as of the time of this writing):
- Alamo Rent a Car
- Avis Rent a Car (economy through luxury cars and 15-person passenger vans)
- Budget Rent a Car
- Dollar Car Rental
- Economy Rent A Car
- Enterprise Rent a Car
- E-Z Rent-A-Car
- Firefly Car Rental
- Fox Rent-A-Car
- Green Motion USA
- Hertz Rent A Car (economy through luxury cars like Mercedes convertibles and Land Rovers)
- National Car Rental
- Payless Car Rental
- Thrifty Car Rental
Having lived overseas, we used Avis for long-term and short-term car rentals when returning to California for visits and they continue to be my car rental agency of choice. Now that I’ve taken more of a behind-the-scenes look at the travel industry, if possible, I recommend that you use Avis, Budget or Hertz. These San Diego car rental companies are the top choices of many travel agencies and vetted members of Virtuoso for a good reason.
Alternatives to San Diego Car Rentals
We’ve covered this above, but if you choose not to have a car in San Diego, there’s no doubt you’ll need to use a ride share app of some sort, car service, or taxi to get around.
Hourly Bike, Scooter and Car Apps
I hesitate to mention these because they have been problematic for residents. However, especially if staying in the Pacific Beach and Mission Beach neighborhoods where bikes are typical, you’ll see these options (literally) laying around.
And, I figure if you know about these services in advance and plan to use them, maybe you’ll pack a helmet (please wear a helmet).
Riders pick up Bird electric scooters all over San Diego beach cities including Pacific Beach, Mission Beach and even La Jolla. It’s an on-demand personal electric vehicle sharing network where riders locate scooters on the app, release them for use and park them nearly anywhere out of the public right of way when finished.
(People ride Bird scooters way too fast on beach boardwalks. My daughter and her friends have been nearly hit more times than I care to count. Please don’t be one of those people.)
Lime Bikes offer electric assist bikes, electric scooters, and smart pedal bikes (1, 3 and 8 speeds) for getting around San Diego. Ofo are regular bikes spotted by their yellow color, and there’s also Mobike. You’ll find these mostly in the beach cities and downtown.
I haven’t used ZipCar personally but it is available in San Diego should you need a car for an hour or two here or there. It tends to be useful around university areas (and UC San Diego is in La Jolla), but as San Diego is a car-reliant city, there is likely not demand for this type of service as there say a major city. I have a $25 promo for new ZipCar sign-ups should you be interested.
In a nutshell, San Diego’s public transportation network isn’t great unless you’re staying in downtown San Diego with access to trolley and train stops.
The MTS Trolley makes it easy and inexpensive to reach Old Town San Diego, Tijuana and Mission Valley (check the map here). Old Town Trolley also stops near many downtown hotels (more on this service below).
The Coaster is a commuter train that serves eight stations between downtown San Diego and Oceanside (the ride between the two ends is about an hour). It conveniently connects with other public transportation systems at many stops.
Those looking to take day trips from San Diego may want to consider Amtrak. It’s a pleasant way to stop at San Clemente and its beaches, Misson San Juan Capistrano, Anaheim Stadium, Disneyland (a shuttle operates to the park), Hollywood, and even Santa Barbara for a weekend. Onboard amenities include WiFi, dining and a business class car or two.
San Diego MTS also operates a myriad of bus routes. A handy real-time trip planner allows users to plug in their start and ending point to determine the most efficient way to get there using the bus and trolley.
San Diego Sightseeing that Gets You Around Town
Old Town Trolley
The Old Town Trolley is a sightseeing vehicle that stops at various points from Coronado to La Jolla and is easy to catch especially from the downtown San Diego hotels.
A ticket allows riders to hop-on and hop-off at leisure for the day without a reservation. A 2-hour narrated tour covers over 100 points of interest, so it’s also an excellent way to get the lay of the land. It’s also possible to buy discounted Old Town Trolley tickets.
Take the 15-minute ride across the San Diego Bay between downtown and Coronado. Catch the Coronado Ferry in downtown at two spots: the Embarcadero and the Convention Center. From Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day weekend, the Coronado Ferry operates a complimentary shuttle that takes guests from the Coronado Ferry Landing to the shops and restaurants on Orange Avenue and the Hotel Del Coronado.
Best Neighborhoods to For Going Carless in San Diego
As mentioned above, the Coronado Ferry makes it possible for people to travel between Coronado and downtown San Diego. Outside of this season, it takes about a 25-minute, flat walk down Orange Avenue or a short Uber ride from Hotel Del Coronado to the Coronado Ferry Landing.
(However, it’s probably easier especially with luggage, use another form of transportation to and from the airport.)
Downtown San Diego
Sure, the landing between buildings, I’ve read, is one of the scariest for pilots to navigate in the world. However, San Diego International Airport’s downtown location makes the time spent between baggage claim and downtown San Diego hotel a matter of minutes.
Some of San Diego’s best shops and restaurants await in the Gaslamp Quarter, and one can fill a long weekend or even a week based entirely here. It’s by far the easiest place to get around San Diego without a car.
La Jolla is one of the San Diego neighborhoods where people tend to stay put. Booking San Diego airport transportation to and from La Jolla and then relying on Uber is common, depending on itineraries.
Getting around San Diego without a car works particularly well if staying at The Lodge at Torrey Pines. This five-star boutique hotel has concierge cars that take guests within a 5-mile radius that includes La Jolla Village, La Jolla Shores Beach, Westfield UTC mall and even Del Mar.
Hopefully, this information helps you decide whether or not you need a San Diego rental car. Have questions? Leave a comment.