Planning a Family Trip to San Diego
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When people think of San Diego, they often conjure up images of sunny days, warm sandy beaches, swaying palm trees and the best tacos this side of the border — and they would be right! This town enjoys balmy weather for most of the year and a pace that offers the perfect blend of outdoor adventure, culture and chilling out. There is so much to see here that when planning a family trip to San Diego, the hardest part is narrowing down the list of fun things to do.
How to Get to San Diego
With recently expanded airport terminals and a brand-new rental car center, flying to San Diego is easy-peasy. All the major airlines have regular flights into San Diego International Airport (SAN), including Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Delta, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, Frontier Airlines and several more. There are even nonstop international flights on British Airways, Japan Airlines, Lufthansa and Edelweiss Air.
This trip might be a good opportunity to use an airline companion certificate. If you have the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card, you could use the annual companion fare that you receive each year on your card anniversary. Get the companion fare from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22). The Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express also gives members a companion fare on their card anniversary.
Look also to the low-cost carriers. Kids fly free with a paying adult on Frontier on certain dates, or use your Southwest Companion Pass to buy your ticket and take along a family member or friend for just the cost of the fare’s taxes.
While it is possible to plan a family trip to San Diego without renting a car, public transportation in this city is not widespread. Given Southern California’s car culture, it may be easier to get around by renting a vehicle. There are several choices offered here, and many deals when combined with airline tickets. Avis, Hertz, Budget, Enterprise, National and many more are in the rental car center (which, by the way, has one of the best art collections we’ve ever seen in what is basically a glorified parking garage).
The airport is positioned right in the city, so drive times to local hotels are often no more than 10–15 minutes to downtown, Mission Valley and beach hotels.
If driving is not on your agenda for this vacation and you prefer to chill by the pool while the kids play in the water, then ride-sharing programs may be your best bet. Both Uber and Lyft have strong stakes in this city, and San Diego is filled with fast and easy ride-sharing options with cars that can comfortably fit an entire family. Most of the hotels also have convenient shuttles that pick up guests at the airport. Either of these options will prove less expensive than the local taxi system, with smaller vehicles that often have challenges fitting a family of four and all their luggage.
One of the most charming things about San Diego is its neighborhoods, many of which are historic and celebrated. In San Diego proper, the older neighborhoods are punctuated with large signs hanging over the main street in the area. Hillcrest, University Heights, Little Italy, the Gaslamp Quarter and others are all clearly marked with these signs from the 1940s and 1950s. Each is colorful and fun in their own way and unique to that neighborhood, and all are illuminated.
For families visiting San Diego, there are a few neighborhoods sure to please every member of the family regardless of generation:
Little Italy: Originally settled by Italian fishermen and their families, this vibrant neighborhood is now home to some of the city’s top restaurants. The whole neighborhood has a family-friendly festival atmosphere day or night, all week long. Visit the Little Italy Mercato Farmers Market on Saturday mornings, where the kids can sample fresh fruit Popsicles while the grown-ups try handmade tamales or 30 kinds of salsa.
Embarcadero: Along the downtown waterfront that arcs San Diego Bay, the Embarcadero has recently gone through a major facelift and become a center of activity and fun. Visitors here will find maritime museums with historic vessels like the USS Midway Aircraft Carrier Museum, tour boats for cruises around the bay, live music, art installations, food vendors and more. Our family loves this area, and has spent entire days exploring all the sights.
Gaslamp Quarter: Originally called New Town because a settlement of early San Diego moved here from Old Town just a few miles away, the Gaslamp Quarter is now a bustling collection of shops, galleries, restaurants and nightclubs. For families, there is much to see and experience during the day. The historic structures of this area have been well preserved and reused, offering an interesting mix of old and new. Within just a couple of blocks stands Petco Park, home to the San Diego Padres, and a number of family-friendly concerts and events throughout the year.
La Jolla: Up the road to the north a bit, La Jolla is an affluent enclave of homes, shops, restaurants and entertainment. Families love to visit La Jolla Cove and the Children’s Pool to see sea lions, seals and their pups play on the beaches and rocks. On our last visit, the kids had a blast scrambling across rocks to peer into tide pools teeming with sea life. We went for a morning and ended up staying all day — it was that fun.
Old Town: Where San Diego was first settled, Old Town has now become an homage to California’s strong roots in Mexico. Many of the original adobe buildings are still in place from the time before California was part of the US. There are shops and restaurants with Mexican themes, and some restaurants that rank among visitors’ favorites. If you visit Old Town make sure to see the Whaley House, widely recognized as one of the most haunted places in the country. The nearby graveyard dates back to the 1840s, and is plenty spooky in and of itself.
Best Points Hotels in San Diego for Families
San Diego is a favorite destination for visitors, and almost every major hotel brand has multiple locations scattered around the city and its outer reaches.
If you are pledged to Hilton Honors, your points can be redeemed at the Hilton San Diego Bayfront resort downtown (31k to 60k points per night) and the Hilton Torrey Pines in La Jolla (43k to 50k points).
Marriott also has a grand collection of hotels here, and Marriott Bonvoy members can redeem points at the Marriott Gaslamp Quarter San Diego (from 50k points), the Westin San Diego Gaslamp (from 50k points), the Courtyard by Marriott San Diego Old Town (from 35k points) and more.
IHG has many properties in the area but a fair number of them can’t be booked on points for more than two people. You can sometimes find availability at the InterContinental San Diego and Kimpton Solamar Hotel (both from 50k IHG Rewards Club points) or the Holiday Inn Express San Diego (from 40k points).
Hyatt also has properties in the area. Consider the Andaz San Diego (Category 4, from 15k World of Hyatt points) and the Hyatt Regency La Jolla (Category 3, from 12k points).
Here are a few of our favorites points hotels in the area:
Hilton San Diego Resort & Spa: Right on the sandy beach of Mission Bay with outdoor fire pits and spectacular sunsets, this Hilton has a variety of room types and lots of fun ocean activities. Rates start at $160/night or from 58k to 70k Hilton Honors points.
Embassy Suites by Hilton San Diego Bay Downtown: Near Seaport Village, the USS Midway Museum and the waterfront, this Embassy Suites is a family favorite for its location and views. Rates start at $194/night or from 48k to 60k Hilton Honors points.
Hotel del Coronado: This luxurious and historic hotel is located just over the Coronado bridge, with beachfront, ocean and/or downtown views from almost every room. The location for several movies, TV shows and photo shoots, the Hotel Del Coronado has an array of family activities including marshmallow roasts on the beach. Rates start at $323/night or from 83k to 95k Hilton Honors points.
Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina: Right on the waterfront and centrally located downtown, this hotel has two towers, a massive pool area complete with a waterfall, and easy access to the boardwalk, Gaslamp Quarter and more. Rates average $329/night or 50,000 Marriott points.
Sheraton San Diego Hotel & Marina: This high-rise hotel is connected to a gorgeous marina filled with sailboats, cabin cruisers, yachts and more. Sit poolside or by the fire pit and enjoy snacks while watching the boats and sunsets. Rates start at $122/night or 35,000 Marriott points.
SpringHill Suites by Marriott Downtown/Bayfront: Brand new on the waterfront and very stylishly appointed, this new all-suites hotel offers unobstructed bay views. The hotel is walking distance to Little Italy, the Embarcadero and more. Rates average $283/night or 50,000 Marriott points.
At the Hilton properties we’ve recommended, you can use a free Weekend Night Reward. Card holders of the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card get a certificate each year on their anniversary. If you hold the Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card, you can earn a Weekend Night Reward when you spend $15,000 on the card in a calendar year.
Holders of Marriott’s cobranded credit cards are also eligible for free night certificates that can be used at these San Diego hotels. The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant™ American Express® Card rewards card holders with an up to 50k free night certificate on each anniversary year. You can get a up to 35k free night certificate on your anniversary when holding the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Credit Card.
The IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card confers a free night certificate for properties costing 40k or less each year on the card holder’s anniversary. Hyatt’s card holder anniversary gift is a Category 1–4 free night certificate with the World Of Hyatt Credit Card.
Here are a few things to remember:
- May and June might be the worst months to visit San Diego, due to a gray and cold marine layer that invades the city. Locals call it “May Gray” and “June Gloom.” October is the best month.
- In San Diego, locals refer to highways by their number. They say “take The 8 East to Texas Street” or “go north on The 5” instead of Highway 8 or Interstate 5.
- San Diegans are huge fans of tacos and believe no place makes them better than San Diego (except Mexico, of course). Order rolled tacos with cheese and guacamole to see why.
- Wear sunblock for your protection. Overzealous tanning at the beach or pool will result a virtual sign around your neck that screams “tourist,” not to mention the physical discomfort.
- Purchase a Southern California CityPass to save your family money on admission to a variety of parks, including the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld, Disneyland and more. Passes start at $204.
- San Diegans are super friendly when you approach them, but they may not go out of their way to approach you.
- Things to do in San Diego With Kids
- Tried and True in Blue: JetBlue Economy on the A321 From San Diego to JFK
- Southern California’s 10 Best Amusement Parks and Attractions
If you visit San Diego with your family, there are so many things to do that you’ll be planning your next visit before you even leave.
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Images by author except where indicated.
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