San Diegans have a love-hate relationship with San Diego International Airport (tel. 619/231-2100; www.san.org), also known as Lindbergh Field. The facility (airport code: SAN) is just 3 miles northwest of downtown, and the landing approach is right at the edge of the central business district. Pilots thread a passage between high-rise buildings and Balboa Park on their final descent to the runway -- you'll get a great view on either side of the plane. The best part: We usually count the time from touchdown to gate-park in seconds, not minutes, and departures are rarely delayed for weather problems.
Lindbergh Field is the nation's busiest single-runway commercial airport -- all 600 daily arrivals and departures use just one strip of asphalt. And while its dainty size makes it easy for travelers to navigate, its truncated facilities make it virtually unusable for international travel. Most overseas visitors arrive via Los Angeles or points east (Air Canada and British Airways are the only international carriers flying into San Diego). Domestically, the city is served by most national and regional airlines, although none utilize Lindbergh Field as a connecting hub. City officials are well aware of the critical need to enlarge or move the airport. Plans have ranged from a floating airport-at-sea (yes, really) to setting it in the Anza-Borrego Desert to conscripting Miramar Naval Air Station.
The latest plan calls for a build-out of the current site, and a facilities improvement of Terminal 2 -- dubbed "The Green Build" for its commitment to recycling and energy conservation -- is presently underway. This $1 billion project is scheduled to be completed in 2013 and will include a two-level roadway to separate traffic coming to pick up or drop off passengers, curbside check-in, 10 new gates, and additional shopping and dining options. Beware of traffic delays due to construction.
Planes land at Terminal 1 or 2, while the Commuter Terminal, a half-mile from the main terminals, is used by regional carriers American Eagle and United Express and for connecting flights to Los Angeles (for flight info, contact the parent carriers). The Airport Loop shuttle provides free, 24-hour service from the main airport to the Commuter Terminal, or there's a footpath. General information desks with visitor materials, maps, and other services are near the baggage claim areas of both terminals 1 and 2. You can exchange foreign currency at Travelex (www.travelex.com) in Terminal 1, across from United check-in, and in Terminal 2, beyond security, near the food court. Hotel reservation and car-rental courtesy phones are in the baggage-claim areas of terminals 1 and 2.
If you are staying at a hotel in Carlsbad, Encinitas, or Rancho Santa Fe, the McClellan-Palomar Airport (tel. 877/848-7766 or 760/431-4646; www.sdcounty.ca.gov) in Carlsbad (CLD) may be a more convenient point of entry. The airport is 42 miles north of downtown San Diego and is served by United Express from Los Angeles.
Attention visitors to the U.S. from abroad: Some major airlines offer transatlantic or transpacific passengers special discount tickets under the name Visit USA, which allows mostly one-way travel from one U.S. destination to another at very low prices. Unavailable in the U.S., these discount tickets must be purchased abroad in conjunction with your international fare. This system is the easiest, fastest, cheapest way to see the country. Inquire with your air carrier.
Getting into Town from the Airport
By Bus -- The Metropolitan Transit System (MTS; tel. 619/233-3004; www.transit.511sd.com) operates the San Diego Transit Flyer -- bus route no. 992 -- providing service between the airport and downtown San Diego, running along Broadway. Bus stops are at each of Lindbergh Field's three terminals. The one-way fare is $2.25, and exact change is required. If you're connecting to another bus or the San Diego Trolley, you'll need to purchase a Day Pass; free transfers are no longer given. A 1-day pass is $5 and is available from the driver. The ride takes about 15 minutes, and buses come at 15-minute intervals.
At the Transit Store, 102 Broadway, at First Avenue (tel. 619/234-1060), you can get information about greater San Diego's mass transit system (bus, rail, and ferry) and pick up passes, free brochures, route maps, and timetables. The store is open Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.
By Taxi -- Taxis line up outside terminals 1 and 2. The trip to a downtown location, usually a 10-minute ride, is about $15 (including tip); budget $25 for Coronado or Mission Beach, and about $30 to $35 for La Jolla.
By Shuttle -- Several airport shuttles run regularly from the airport to points around the city; you'll see designated pickup areas outside each terminal. The shuttles are a good deal for single travelers; two or more people traveling together might as well take a taxi. The fare is about $8 per person to downtown hotels; Mission Valley and Mission Beach hotels are $12; La Jolla, $20; and Coronado hotels, $16. Rates to a residence are about $3 to $7 more than the above rates for the first person, with discounted rates for additional passengers. One company that serves all of San Diego County is SuperShuttle (tel. 800/974-8885; www.supershuttle.com).
By Car -- If you're driving to downtown from the airport, take Harbor Drive south to Broadway, the main east-west thoroughfare, and turn left. To reach Hillcrest or Balboa Park, exit the airport toward I-5, and follow the signs for Laurel Street. To reach Mission Bay, take I-5 North to I-8 West. To reach La Jolla, take I-5 north to the La Jolla Parkway exit, bearing left onto Torrey Pines Road.
Greyhound buses serve San Diego from downtown Los Angeles, Phoenix, Las Vegas, and other Southwestern cities, arriving at the downtown terminal, at 120 W. Broadway (tel. 800/231-2222 or 619/239-3266; 001/214-849-8100 outside the U.S.; www.greyhound.com). A number of hotels, Horton Plaza, and the Gaslamp Quarter are within walking distance, as is the San Diego Trolley line. Buses from Los Angeles are as frequent as every hour, and the ride takes about 2 1/2 hours. One-way fare is $22 and round-trips are $34. You can whittle the price down by purchasing nonrefundable tickets or by getting them in advance online.
Greyhound is the sole nationwide bus line. International visitors can obtain information about the Greyhound North American Discovery Pass. The pass can be obtained from foreign travel agents or through www.discoverypass.com for unlimited travel and stopovers in the U.S. and Canada.
Trains from all points in the United States and Canada will take you to Los Angeles, where you'll need to change trains for the journey to San Diego. You'll arrive at San Diego's Santa Fe Station (tel. 619/239-9021), downtown at the west end of Broadway, between Pacific Highway and Kettner Boulevard. It's within walking distance to many downtown hotels and the Embarcadero. Taxis line up outside the main door, the trolley station is across the street, and a dozen local bus routes stop on Broadway or Pacific Coast Highway, 1 block away.
Amtrak (tel. 800/872-7245; 001/215-856-7953 outside the U.S.; www.amtrak.com) trains run between downtown Los Angeles and San Diego about 11 times daily each way. They stop in Anaheim (Disneyland), Santa Ana, San Juan Capistrano, Oceanside, and Solana Beach. Two trains per day also stop in San Clemente. The travel time from Los Angeles to San Diego is about 2 hours and 45 minutes (for comparison, driving time can be as little as 2 hr., or as much as 4 hr. if traffic is snarled). A one-way ticket to San Diego is $31, or $45 for a reserved seat in business class.
International visitors can buy a USA Rail Pass, good for 15, 30, or 45 days of unlimited travel on Amtrak. The pass is available online or through many overseas travel agents. See Amtrak's website for the cost of travel within the Western, Eastern, or Northwestern United States. Reservations are generally required and should be made as early as possible. Regional rail passes are also available.
San Diego's B Street Cruise Ship Terminal is at 1140 N. Harbor Dr., right at the edge of downtown (tel. 800/854-2757 or 619/686-6200; www.sandiegocruiseport.com). Carnival Cruise Lines (tel. 800/764-7419; www.carnival.com) counts San Diego as a year-round home port, while several others, including Holland America Line (tel. 877/932-4259; www.hollandamerica.com), Royal Caribbean (tel. 866/562-7625; www.royalcaribbean.com), and Celebrity (tel. 800/647-2251; www.celebritycruises.com) make seasonal stops here.
Three main interstates lead into San Diego. I-5 is the primary route from San Francisco, central California, and Los Angeles; it runs straight through downtown to the Tijuana border crossing. I-8 cuts across California from points east such as Phoenix, terminating just west of I-5 at Mission Bay. I-15 leads from the deserts to the north through inland San Diego; as you enter Miramar, take Hwy. 163 south to reach the central parts of the city.
If you're planning a road trip, being a member of the American Automobile Association (AAA) offers helpful perks. Members who carry their cards with them not only receive free roadside assistance, but also have access to a wealth of free travel information (detailed maps and guidebooks). Also, many hotels and attractions throughout California offer discounts to AAA members -- always inquire. Call tel. 800/922-8228 or your local branch, or visit www.aaa-calif.com, for membership information.
Visitors driving to San Diego from Los Angeles and points north do so via coastal route I-5. From points northeast, take I-15 and link up with Hwy. 163 S. as you enter Miramar (use I-8 W. for the beaches). From the east, use I-8 into the city, connecting to Hwy. 163 S. for Hillcrest and downtown. Entering the downtown area, Hwy. 163 turns into 10th Avenue. If you are heading to Coronado, take the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge from I-5. Maximum speed in the San Diego area is 65 mph, and many areas are limited to 55 mph.
San Diego is 130 miles (2-3 hr.) from Los Angeles; 149 miles from Palm Springs, a 2 1/2-hour trip; and 532 miles, or 9 to 10 hours, from San Francisco.
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.