Planning Your San Diego Vacation: The Decision Tree
Helping people plan a San Diego family vacation is a large part of what I do. I am here to help you break down the planning process into manageable stages that are fundamentally split into four — when to visit, how long to stay, where to stay, and what to do.
The first two decisions are usually the easiest because other factors such as work and school holidays may determine your dates and how long you can stay. However, family travelers tend to agonize over the latter two decisions far more than couples or single travelers. When kids are involved, everyone is highly incentivized to minimize drive time, stay organized, and maximize the fun quotient so that everyone in the family is fuss-free.
I hope that outlining a thought process below will help you plan the best San Diego vacation for your family.
Decide When to Visit San Diego
The top three things that come into play when deciding the best time to visit San Diego are usually school holidays, price, and beach weather. Some families also may plan around special events like Comic-Con or Padres home games but this is less common.
Families tend to visit San Diego mostly during winter break, President’s Day weekend, spring break, and summer break. If you are locked into these dates, don’t fret. These may be peak dates but they are still fantastic times to come. Our attractions will not feel as crowded as like attractions in other major cities can be. And, you don’t have to ever pay gate pricing at our top attractions between the Go San Diego sightseeing pass and my ticket discounts.
The one piece of advice I have for those planning a San Diego vacation with kids during school holidays, is to book your hotel as soon as possible. Rates during these times will usually only increase as dates get closer. Popular beach hotels will also sell out quickly.
Our air temperature averages 70 degrees year-round so there really isn’t a bad time to visit when it comes to weather. Air temperature and ocean temperature can impact your beach day.
If you’d like the best possible beach weather (almost) guaranteed for ocean swimming, sunbathing, and general beach going, plan to visit between mid-July and Labor Day Weekend. This is when the sun is out and the ocean temperatures are warmest of the year. We also usually have pretty amazing September and October weather, too. We do have morning, sometimes all-day, seasonal coastal cloud cover in May and June known as May Gray and June Gloom. It’s still a good time to come and shorts weather but you should know that it might not always be sunny.
We residents still go to the beach year-round though we use it differently in the “colder” months. Winter minus tides reveal spectacular tide pools during the days. It is always awesome to lay out a blanket on the sand and soak up some rays even if it’s December and you have no intention of going in the water. People surf, swim, kayak, snorkel, and SUP year-round but from late fall through early spring they’re usually wearing wetsuits because this is when ocean temperatures are not as warm as they are in the summer. You can rent wetsuits (even for kids) at many places near popular beach hotels around town. However, you’ll see kids and adults heading into the water in winter without them (I personally think the ocean is a bit chilly for this though).
If you decide to visit while it’s not peak beach weather, there is still upside. Sightseeing and walking around theme parks will be less hot and perhaps a bit less crowded, though you will still need sunscreen.
When Rates Are Best
As mentioned earlier, you don’t need to worry about tickets to major attractions rising and falling on peak dates. Prices are more or less the same year-round aside from special promotions that some parks may occasionally offer.
October is one of the best times of the year for a San Diego family vacation as the tourism board organizes an annual Kids Free San Diego event. Over 100 attractions, hotels, and restaurants offer free kids’ admission, stays, and meals when accompanied by a paid adult. The maximum age to qualify for a free ticket, stay or meal is set by the participating business but it is usually 12, 10, or 9. Families benefit from this promotion the most when it comes to saving on attractions ticket as all of our theme parks participate. The majority of our kid-friendly museums and tours participate, too. It’s important to read the terms and conditions, which usually aren’t solidified until the summer months prior, to make sure that you qualify for the promotion.
You’ll see lower hotel rates after Labor Day in September, sporadically in October (this is a popular month due to Kids Free San Diego), early November, early December, January, February outside of the President’s Day holiday week, after Easter in April to mid-May. Spring break season starts the second week of March and continues through mid-April or after Easter. Summer break season starts in mid-May and ends after Labor Day.
Decide How Long to Stay in San Diego
A weekend is great if that’s all you can manage, but a minimum of three days on the ground is recommended because there is a lot to do. What also happens, for example, is that kids can become hard to pull off of the sand, especially at the beach hotels. They love building sandcastles and playing at the shoreline, especially if they don’t normally live by the beach. Do not plan a too-structured itinerary as you will need flexibility to wing it and change course, especially with young kids.
Luckily, many of our theme parks and attractions can be enjoyed in a half of or three quarters of a day. Get there at opening, eat lunch, tour for another hour or two and head to the beach after that. We have some upgraded experiences like the Cart Safari at San Diego Zoo Safari Park where you’ll zoom around in a small group with a staff member and even access some behind-the-scenes areas. Inside Look tours at San Diego Zoo start 30 minutes before the Zoo even opens and also provide an up-close expedited experience. Look at every theme park and museum’s event or tour schedule to see what is on offer that may enhance your experience.
To give you an idea, here’s a really basic overview of what a typical San Diego family vacation day looks like.
- Day 1: San Diego Zoo and the beach (don’t combine the Zoo with Balboa Park next door in the same day as it’s a lot of walking/stimulation for young kids).
- Day 2: LEGOLAND California (in summer, you may want to spend the entire day here because in addition to the theme park, the water park is open).
- Day 3: Visit the La Jolla seals and sea lions, then head up to Birch Aquarium also in La Jolla. You can also take a family hike at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve and go to the beach. Families also schedule surf lessons and kayak tours while in La Jolla in addition to eating one or two meals (we have some of San Diego’s best restaurants).
- Day 4: San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the beach (due to drive-time and how into the awesome experience your kids are – just the park may be all you do in one day).
- Day 5: Balboa Park Museums and beach time.
- Day 6: Go to downtown San Diego to enjoy the USS Midway, Waterfront Park, lunch or dinner in Little Italy, New Children’s Museum, Seaport Village and/or a SEAL Tour (you can even split this into two days).
- Day 7: Cabrillo National Monument (our National Park where Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo discovered California) paired with lunch and museums in Old Town San Diego.
Do you see what I’m saying about there being a lot to do? I could go on.
Find Family Accommodations
In my article about best San Diego family hotels, I walk through this thought process. There are three things that drive the decision of which hotel to choose which are preferred accommodation type, how important beach access is, and what you plan to do — the latter may drive which neighborhood to choose. Usually, families need to find a balance between all three factors as there is rarely a one-size-fits-all solution.
Decide Your Preferred Accommodation Type
They type of accommodation you’re after may entirely decide which hotel you choose. If you must stay in a five-star hotel, there are about five options including Beach Village at The Del and Fairmont Grand Del Mar. If you must have a splash pad or waterslides, there are a handful of hotel pools with these like Hyatt Regency Mission Bay Spa and Marina and Omni La Costa. If you must have a supervised kids’ club, then Fairmont Grand Del Mar and Omni La Costa are your two choices.
If you are brand loyal and are looking to redeem or earn miles, we do have quite a few excellent Hilton (including Hotel del Coronado), Marriott, and Hyatt properties throughout the county in a variety of price ranges.
Some families find it more economical or practical to opt for a vacation rental. We have a variety of local companies that you can refer to, in addition to Airbnb. There are a couple of vacation rental resorts like Grand Pacific Palisades that you would book like a hotel but they have full-kitchens and community areas with activities, swimming pools and more. Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara, is indeed a Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts property but it has rooms, one-bedroom villas with full kitchens, and two-bedroom villas with a full kitchen and you might be surprised by how reasonable they can be in off-peak season.
Rest assured that you can also rent a variety of baby gear for your hotel or vacation rental through our partner, Toddlers Travels (mention that La Jolla Mom sent you). You can pick gear up at their warehouse near the airport or they can deliver it to you. This is handy for families with babies who use swings to fall asleep or require larger, sturdier cribs than hotels provide. They also rent beach gear, toy packs, high chairs, bath tubs, car seats, strollers and more so that families can pack light.
If your decision regarding exactly which hotel you’d like to stay in isn’t yet made, what we do now is make a list of hotels (or vacation rentals) that seem like good contenders budget-wise and amenity-wise. Then, we keep moving through this where to stay decision tree.
Determine What Kind of Beach Access Is Preferred
It is important to understand where your hotel is located as many people assume our top hotels are closer to the beach than they really are. The truth is that the majority of our luxury hotels are actually inland from the beach. This means you’ll need to drive or take an Uber to the sand, though Fairmont Grand Del Mar offers a beach concierge service where they will set you up with chairs, umbrella, and water at Del Mar beach to give its guests the best of both worlds.
If driving to the beach is a deal-breaker for you, then you’ll need to find accommodations that are beachfront or within walking distance. You’ll also need to be prepared to pay more for the convenience or choose perhaps a moderate hotel versus a luxury hotel, which may fit your budget more comfortably. I have a great list of top San Diego hotels on the beach.
Cross off the hotels on your list that don’t meet your beach access criteria.
Think About What You Plan to Do in San Diego
There are guests who let the hotel determine what part of town they stay in, as we mentioned before. For example, loyal Four Seasons guests have no problem basing their vacations at the brand’s property in Carlsbad near LEGOLAND in North San Diego even though they may drive 45 minutes to downtown, Balboa Park, or Coronado a few times. (What this demonstrates though is that as long as you are happy with your hotel choice, the rest can all fall into place, so don’t stress too much about picking the right neighborhood.)
Other visiting families may want to base themselves close to the attractions that they intend to visit. Here are some examples of why families might choose one location over the other. Many families choose to stay in Coronado because they’d like to visit the San Diego Zoo (15 minutes away), go to the beach, and be able to walk to shops and restaurants. Families keen on surfing and water sports often choose La Jolla Shores because of the kayak tours, surfing, and beachgoing at La Jolla Shores Beach is some of the best in the state. Others may opt for Carlsbad because they’d like to stay at a nice resort and to center their vacation around golf or LEGOLAND California. A North County San Diego location can also be a bit easier on families who are splitting time between San Diego and Disneyland Resort.
If you anticipate zooming around the city, perhaps visiting LEGOLAND in the north and San Diego Zoo in the south, I might suggest a central location like La Jolla, Del Mar, or Mission Bay that has easy freeway access.
Study the locations of the hotels on your list. If you prefer to minimize driving, cross the ones off that would have you driving across town a lot. Now, if you need to widdle down your hotel list further, weigh how the price and amenities on offer fit your goals.
Build Your Itinerary
By the time you’ve decided when to visit San Diego and where to stay, you probably have a vague idea of what your itinerary will look like. I’ve already mapped out some quick sample days. It does help to group activities so that you are spending time in one part of town on each day while keeping in mind your kids’ tolerances for sightseeing.
What I’ll do now is answer some questions that I often receive — many are also addressed in my VERY detailed post about things to do in San Diego with kids, a must-read.
Should I visit the San Diego Zoo or San Diego Zoo Safari Park?
The number one San Diego attraction is the San Diego Zoo. It’s an amazing facility especially if you understand how and why every dollar you spend there goes to upkeep and conservation. For this I would watch The Zoo: San Diego on Animal Planet (they are currently filming the second series). The Zoo is easier to get to as it’s in Balboa Park, just 10 minutes or so from the airport. It’s also easy to navigate with small kids because the animals are closer together.
If you or your kids prefer animal interactions, I would suggest San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Get there when it opens so that you’re in Walkabout Australia when the kangaroos and wallabies are let out to run around you (no barriers between you and them) right at opening time. It’s awesome. See the only platypuses outside of Australia in the enclosure next door and then go feed lorikeets while they are hungry. Then take the free Africa Tram for a tour around the park. If the Caravan Safari fits into your budget, you’ll also be able to feed a giraffe and a rhino — this is the most popular paid safari at the park.
Ideally, you’d have time to visit both. I could go on and one about how great they are. Do not plan to visit both on the same day because they are 45 minutes away from each other.
How much time do I need at LEGOLAND California or SeaWorld San Diego?
If you are limited by a nap schedule or simply trying to fit in a lot into a short amount of time, you can enjoy SeaWorld San Diego and LEGOLAND California each in a half-day (perhaps leave after lunch). Ideally, you’d be able to spend a few hours after lunch to get the most out of your ticket spend but you won’t feel like you’re missing out on anything, especially if you arrive when the parks open.
What activities will my teen enjoy?
SeaWorld San Diego is home to several thrill rides and is the park that teens and tweens tend to enjoy most. Families with younger and older kids should slot this theme park in because toddlers love the Sesame Street Bay of Play, too. Teens also love the rides, arcade, mini golf and walking around Belmont Park, our seaside amusement park in Mission Beach. There is also the Patriot Jet Boat which is a super fast speedboat ride on the San Diego Bay set to rock music.
What are the best free family activities?
One of the reasons why I think San Diego is one of the best places in the world for a family vacation is because you can have a fantastic time and spend very little on sightseeing. The beaches are free (depending on the part of town, parking may not be). You can hike Torrey Pines State Park and other family friendly trails. Head to La Jolla Cove to visit our famous seals and sea lions. Walk around Old Town where it’s free to enter the park and a lot of its museums. You only need to pay for parking at Cabrillo National Monument but you can spend a half-day walking the trails, learning about the discovery of California, earning a Junior Ranger badge, and tide pooling in winter.
What are the best family restaurants?
In San Diego, you can take your kids to any restaurant and even some of our breweries. In La Jolla, we Farmer & the Seahorse which has outdoor games on its lawn. Kids like chilling in the teepee outside at Campfire in Carlsbad while parents enjoy the super relaxed community vibe. Viewpoint Brewing in Del Mar has a little playground in the back. Crack Shack’s giant plastic chicken is good for a laugh in addition to awesome grub, but you can play bocce ball, too, at this Little Italy staple. The list goes on.