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San Diego has long-been renowned as one of Southern California’s most pleasant gems, not only for its comfortable climate but also for its excellent beaches, rich cultural heritage and an often-overlooked set of beautiful mountains in the backdrop. Those renting a car here will find less traffic than in other parts of the region, as well as plenty of excellent attractions, whether you’re looking for a world-renowned surf spot or a picture-perfect overlook of the city lights. Virtually every major car hire firm is available in places throughout metropolitan San Diego, as well as at the airport near the city centre.
Who to Book With
Visitors to San Diego can choose from more than a dozen rental firms, including major names like Hertz, Budget, Avis, Thrifty, National Car Rental and Enterprise, in addition to budget brands such as Fox Rent-a-Car and Advantage. The majority of rental outlets are located downtown, at the airport or in Mission Valley, although there are dozens more in places like National City/Chula Vista, Pacific Beach and Mira Vista. To avoid disappointment and get the best rates, booking online in advance is recommended, however.
Best Time to go
San Diego’s frequently sunny skies make it a popular destination throughout the year, although car hire rates will generally be higher from June to September when warmer ocean temperatures attract larger beach crowds. Nonetheless, a drive in the area during the mild, sunny winter months may be just the pick-me-up you’re looking for.
Need to Know Essentials
To pick up your rental car you must provide the following documents:
- A driving license (International Driving Permit, UK or EU license acceptable)
- Your passport
- The credit card used to reserve your vehicle
- Your booking number
Driving in San Diego is typically a pleasant experience, as in true California fashion, it is generally a car-friendly destination. However, parking can be exceptionally expensive in certain areas of the downtown, and traffic can cause substantial delays, despite the lack of sheer gridlock seen in nearby Los Angeles.
When driving on freeways in the city limits and suburbs, speeds limits are generally set at 55mph (usually 65mph outside of town), although expect a large number of local residents to exceed this limit whenever possible. Most streets downtown are one-way and lay in an easy-to-navigate grid system. Traffic laws are strictly enforced and fines can be quite high, even for something as simple as a parking violation.
When driving south of downtown, be particularly careful with navigation. You may end up in a queue at the Mexican border on Interstate 5 in a rental car that is not supposed to be taken outside of the United States. Check with your rental firm if you’re thinking about going to Tijuana for a day; chances are they have a policy against it.
When heading to the east, be aware that hazardous driving conditions are possible during the colder months as some roads have substantially high elevation; this has been known to catch some visitors off guard. When headed north to Los Angeles or east (along the Mexican border), be prepared for immigration stops, although tourists are commonly waived through.
Despite the majority residents getting around by car, San Diego boasts a user-friendly public transport system – the MTS – which combines a network of bus an rail systems that are quite useful for tourists. Taxis are always on offer, although they are expensive, and transport out of town is available via Amtrak trains.
Visitors are advised to stop by the Transit Store at the intersection of 1st Avenue and Broadway downtown. Here, you can purchase full-day bus, light rail and trolley passes and get maps and useful information from tourism-savvy personnel. Single trip passes can be purchased on buses or at trolley stations, and day passes are on offer from automated machines at trolley stops.
Long-distance rail services to Los Angeles and destinations north (including San Francisco) via Amtrak are often convenient, although sometimes expensive. Meanwhile, the Coaster Light Rail train provides commuter services from the Santa Fe Depot downtown to a number of San Diego’s beautiful northern suburbs, including Old Town, Encinitas and Solana Beach before finally terminating in Oceanside. Likewise, the Sprinter Light Rail heads east into Mission Valley and El Cajon. See the MTS website for maps, as well as fare and schedule information.
There are about a half-dozen taxi companies operating in San Diego. Getting a cab from the airport or the downtown is fairly easy, although if you’re elsewhere you’ll need to call in advance (Yellow Cab: 619-444-4444, Orange Cab: 619-291-3333 and San Diego Cab: 619-226-8294). All taxis are metered; a trip from the airport to the downtown will cost about $15, while journey to Pacific Beach or La Jolla are about $45.
Buses and trams
Buses provide cheap transport to nearly all major tourist destinations, including Balboa Park, Sea World, Mission Beach and the San Diego Zoo. However, you’ll need to allow for extra time. Check out the MTS website for detailed information. Likewise, the city’s Blue Line trolleys can be useful for getting to points as far south as Imperial Beach San Ysidro near the border.
Although San Diego itself is an excellent destination thanks to its stunning location between the Pacific, the mountains and the desert, the lovely atmosphere of the entire region calls for visitors with the freedom of car hire to venture outward.
The Silver Strand Highway and Coronado Bridge - A great drive out onto a super-narrow Pacific Peninsula that culminate in a rise on the bridge above the harbour, downtown San Diego and the city of Coronado. Don’t forget there are plenty of great beaches along the way!
Route 101 (La Jolla to Oceanside) - Travel from San Diego’s upscale Spanish-flavoured seaside suburb to the lovely city of Oceanside along California’s iconic seaside highway, Route 101.
Anza Borrego State Park - Head up and inland to Julian and Anza Borrego State Park. Here, visitors can breath cool mountain air and sample fresh local produce on the way up to a traditional mining town. Eventually you will find yourself in the vast open spaces and desert glow of one of the California’s most stunning state parks.