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Traffic woes have increased over the years but San Diego is still easy to navigate by car. Most downtown streets run one-way, in a grid pattern. However, outside downtown, canyons and bays often make streets indirect. Finding a parking space can be tricky in the Gaslamp Quarter, Old Town, Mission Beach, and La Jolla, but parking lots are often centrally located. Rush hour on the freeways is generally concentrated from 7 to 9am and 4:30 to 6pm.

You won't have any trouble finding a gas station -- they are everywhere (and almost all accept credit cards). Be aware that San Diego's gas prices are often among the highest in the country; as of this writing they were topping out at $3.93 per gallon (one U.S. gallon equals 3.8 liters or .85 imperial gallons, and taxes are already included in the printed price).

Also, generally speaking, San Diegans are not the best drivers in the rain -- vehicles careening out of control during the rare wet weather keep the Highway Patrol and local news channels very busy. For up-to-the-minute traffic info, dial tel. 511.

Note on driving to Mexico: If you plan to drive to Mexico, be sure to check with your insurance company at home to verify exactly the limits of your policy. Even if your insurance covers areas south of the border, you may want to purchase Mexican car insurance because of the two countries' different liability standards. Mexican car insurance is available from various agencies (visible to drivers heading into Mexico) on the U.S. side of the border.

Driving Rules

San Diegans are relatively respectful drivers, although admittedly they often speed and sometimes lose patience with those who don't know their way around.

California has a seat-belt law for both drivers and passengers, so buckle up before you venture out. State law requires drivers to use hands-free cellphone technology (drivers age 17 and under cannot use a cellphone at all); text messaging while driving is also illegal. The first-offense fine for both is $20. Smoking in a car with a child age 17 and under is punishable by a $100 fine; an officer cannot pull you over for this, but can tack it onto another infraction. You may turn right at a red light after stopping unless a sign says otherwise; likewise, you can turn left on a red light from a one-way street onto another one-way street after coming to a full stop. Pedestrians have the right of way at all times, not just in crosswalks, so stop for pedestrians who have stepped off the curb. Penalties in California for drunk driving are among the toughest in the country. Speed limits on freeways, particularly Hwy. 8 through Mission Valley, are aggressively enforced after dark, partly as a pretext for nabbing drivers who might have imbibed. Also beware of main beach arteries (Grand Ave., Garnet Ave., and Mission Blvd.). Traffic enforcement can be strict -- random checkpoints set up to catch drunk drivers are not uncommon.

Parking

Metered parking spaces are found in downtown, Hillcrest, and the beach communities, but demand outpaces supply. Posted signs indicate operating hours -- generally Monday through Saturday from 8am to 6pm. Be prepared with several dollars in quarters -- some meters take no other coin, and 25¢ usually buys only 12 minutes, even on a 2-hour meter. In the downtown and Hillcrest areas the city is also experimenting with meters that use wireless technology and will accept credit cards. There is one meter per block, so after you get your receipt, return to your car and place it on the vehicle's dashboard.

Most unmetered areas have signs restricting street parking to 1 or 2 hours; count on vigilant chalking and ticketing during the regulated hours. Three-hour meters line Harbor Drive opposite the ticket offices for harbor tours; even on weekends, you have to feed them. If you can't find a metered space, there are plenty of hourly lots downtown. Parking in Mission Valley is usually within large parking structures and free, though congested on weekends -- particularly leading up to the winter holidays.

Downtown parking structures on Sixth Avenue (at Market and K sts.) have helped ease parking issues, but it's still a challenge. Of special concern are game nights -- and days -- at PETCO Park (Apr-Sept). Unless you're staying downtown or want to attend the game, it's best to avoid the baseball traffic and head elsewhere for dining or nightlife.

Curb Appeal: Check Your Colors -- Street-parking rules are color-coded throughout the city. A red curb means no stopping at any time. Blue curbs are used to denote parking for people with disabilities -- the fine for parking in these spaces without a distinguishing placard or a disabled license plate is $400 (out-of-state disabled plates are okay). A white-painted curb signifies a passenger loading zone; the time limit is 3 minutes, or 10 minutes in front of a hotel. A yellow curb is a commercial loading zone -- which means that between 6am and 6pm Monday through Saturday, trucks and commercial vehicles are allowed 20 minutes to load or unload goods, and passenger vehicles can unload passengers for 3 minutes (from 6pm-6am and all day Sun, anyone can park in a yellow curb zone, though some yellow zones are in effect 24 hours -- be sure to check any nearby signage). A green curb designates short-term parking only -- usually 15 or 30 minutes (as posted). Unpainted curbs are subject to parking rules on signs or meters.

Car Rentals

Those staying downtown will find plenty to see and do without having to rent a vehicle; Balboa Park, Old Town, even Tijuana are within easy reach with public transportation. In just about all other parts of San Diego, though, you will probably want your own set of wheels. You can reach virtually all sights of interest using public transportation, but the distances between attractions and indirect bus routes usually make it a very time-consuming proposition.

All the major car-rental firms have an office at the airport, and several have them in larger hotels. Note for Mexico-bound car renters: Some companies, including Avis, will allow their cars into Mexico as far as Ensenada, but other rental outfits won't allow you to drive south of the border. Drivers between the ages of 21 (the minimum-age requirement for most companies) and 24 will most likely pay an additional surcharge; few companies have upper-age limits.

If you're visiting from abroad and plan to rent a car in the United States, keep in mind that foreign driver's licenses are usually recognized in the U.S., but you may want to get an international one if your home license is not in English. International visitors should also note that insurance and taxes are almost never included in quoted rental-car rates in the U.S. Be sure to ask your rental agency about additional fees for these. They can add a significant cost to your car rental.

Check out Breezenet.com, which offers domestic car-rental discounts with some of the most competitive rates around. Also worth visiting are Orbitz.com, Hotwire.com, Travelocity.com, or Priceline.com, all of which offer competitive online car-rental rates.

Saving Money on a Rental Car -- Car-rental rates vary even more dramatically than airline fares. Prices depend on the size of the car, where and when you pick it up and drop it off, the length of the rental period, where and how far you drive it, whether you buy insurance, and a host of other factors. A few key questions could save you hundreds of dollars:

  • Are weekend rates lower than weekday rates? Ask if the rate is the same for pickup Friday morning, for instance, as it is for Thursday night.
  • Does the agency assess a drop-off charge if you don't return the car to the same location where you picked it up?
  • Are special promotional rates available? If you see an advertised price in your local newspaper, be sure to ask for that specific rate; otherwise, you may be charged the standard cost.
  • Are discounts available for members of AARP, AAA, frequent-flyer programs, or trade unions?
  • How much tax will be added to the rental bill? Local tax? State use tax?
  • How much does the rental company charge to refill your gas tank if you return with the tank less than full? Though most rental companies claim these prices are competitive, fuel is almost always cheaper in town.

Demystifying Renter's Insurance --Before you drive off in a rental car, be sure you're insured. Hasty assumptions about your personal auto insurance or a rental agency's additional coverage could end up costing you tens of thousands of dollars, even if you're involved in an accident that was clearly the fault of another driver.

If you already hold a private auto insurance policy, you're most likely covered in the United States for loss of or damage to a rental car and liability in case of injury to any other party involved in an accident. Be sure to find out whether you're covered in the area you're visiting, whether your policy extends to everyone who will be driving the car, how much liability is covered in case an outside party is injured in an accident, and whether the type of vehicle you are renting is included under your contract. (Rental trucks, SUVs, and luxury vehicles or sports cars may not be covered.)

Most major credit cards (especially gold and platinum cards) provide some degree of coverage as well, provided they're used to pay for the rental. Terms vary widely, however, so be sure to call your credit card company directly before you rent.

If you're uninsured, your credit card will probably provide primary coverage as long as you decline the rental agency's insurance and as long as you rent with that card. This means that the credit card will cover damage or theft of a rental car for the full cost of the vehicle. (In a few states, however, theft is not covered; ask specifically about state law where you will be renting and driving.) If you already have insurance, your credit card will provide secondary coverage, which basically covers your deductible.

Note: Though they may cover damage to your rental car, credit cards will not cover liability, or the cost of injury to an outside party, damage to an outside party's vehicle, or both. If you do not hold an insurance policy, you may seriously want to consider purchasing additional liability insurance from your rental company, even if you decline collision coverage. Be sure to check the terms, however. Some rental agencies cover liability only if the renter is not at fault; even then, the rental company's obligation varies from state to state.

The basic insurance coverage offered by most car-rental companies, known as the Loss Damage Waiver (LDW) or Collision Damage Waiver (CDW), can cost as much as $20 a day. It usually covers the full value of the vehicle with no deductible if an outside party causes an accident or other damage to the rental car. Liability coverage varies according to the company policy and state law, but the minimum is usually at least $15,000. If you are at fault in an accident, you will be covered for the full replacement value of the car, but not for liability. Some states allow you to buy additional liability coverage for such cases. Most rental companies will require a police report to process any claims you file, but your private insurer will not be notified of the accident.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.