All visitors to the US must have a valid passport. Citizens of 38 countries may enter without a visa under the Visa Waiver Program for stays of up to 90 days. To use this program, you must have an e-passport embedded with an electronic chip; prior to travel, apply for eligibility through the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA). On arrival in the US, a Customs and Border Protection officer will make the final determination to allow entry.
A number of countries including the UK, Canada and Australia have consulates in California and are able to provide assistance to their nationals.
If clearing customs and immigration at San Diego International Airport, the process is straightforward. If crossing at the San Ysidro International Border, expect long lines and additional scrutiny if you’ve come from the interior of Mexico.
Everyone above the age of 21 is allowed 1 liter of liquor and 200 cigarettes duty free. Citizens may bring in $400 worth of gifts; non-citizens, $100. Cash exceeding $10,000 must be declared. Fresh produce, meats, plants, and products from endangered species are prohibited.
Visitors can get up-to-date travel safety information from the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the US Department of State, and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Be sure to obtain travel insurance before arriving in the US; this will cover you for trip interruptions, lost baggage, and some limited medical expenses. If coming from abroad, always check with your primary healthcare insurer at home to see if you have any coverage while in the US. An international medical insurance policy is a good idea to protect you against the unexpected. Although you won’t be denied medical care if you fall ill in the US, you can expect a staggeringly large bill.
If renting a car, establish what your auto insurer and credit card company covers in case of accident or theft. An auto insurance policy is not valid in Mexico; if you plan on driving there it’s important to buy Mexican insurance before you cross over the border.
Enjoy the brilliant sunshine, but slather on the sunscreen during the day, and be sure to take a hat whenever you’re outdoors. California has one of the highest incidences of skin cancer in the USA – no surprise since people pursue outdoor activities year round.
Ocean waters are generally clean, except after a heavy storm; accumulated and untreated runoff from miles away washes down storm drains and empties into the ocean, and sewer leaks are common.
Smoking is forbidden inside any public enclosed area, including restaurants and bars. The city has banned smoking in parks, on beaches and and open spaces.
San Diego has some of the country’s best hospitals including Scripps Hospiral La Jolla and Scripps Mercy Hospital with 24-hr emergency rooms. If it is not a life-threatening situation, opt for urgent-care clinics which are less expensive. If you don’t have health insurance, head to a community clinic. Expect to pay on the spot for services rendered. Many pharmacies in the city, such as CVS, Rite-Aid, and Walgreens, are open 24 hours.
San Diego is a safe city; most petty crime is limited to theft and car break-ins. Common sense prevails: don’t walk around late at night, and don’t leave valuables inside your car. San Diego’s proximity to the Mexican border makes car theft a concern – if your car is found across the border, the paperwork to bring it back is overwhelming. Neighborhoods prone to theft include Pacific Beach, San Ysidro, and Mission Valley.
Dangerous riptides can occur along the coastal beaches; ask lifeguards about swimming conditions at unfamiliar beaches. Posted green flags indicate safe swimming, yellow mean caution, and red flags denote hazardous surf. If you are caught in a riptide, let the current carry you down the coast until it dies out, then swim in to the shore.
San Diego International Airport has a Lost and Found department. If you lose an item on the transit system, call The Transit Store. Items of value will be transferred to the police department after a set time.
San Diego is safe for women travelers, but lone females should always be alert to their surroundings, especially after dark. While the incidence of rape in San Diego is not high, a rape crisis hotline is available in an event of sexual assault. Don’t walk on the beach alone at night, be careful in parking lots, take the usual precautions at hotels, and control alcohol intake.
During an emergency, dial 911 from any tele-phone. Be prepared to specify your location and whether medical and/or police assistance is needed. Call the San Diego Police department for all other matters.
The excellent booklet Access in San Diego, published by Accessible San Diego, gives specific access information on many hotels, restaurants, and shopping centers. Also included are public and private transportation firms equipped with lifts, and car rental agencies that offer hand-controlled vehicles. You’ll also find a directory of medical equipment suppliers and disability organizations.
All buses, trolleys, and the Coaster are equipped with lifts. Amtrak trains have limited accessible spaces and recommend advance reservations. Greyhound provides a lift-equipped bus with advance notice. Super Shuttle provides transportation from the airport, also with advance notice.
If driving your own car, reserved parking spaces are marked by a blue curb, a blue-and-white wheelchair logo on the pavement, and by a posted sign. You may park for free in most metered areas, but a special permit must be displayed.
Every intersection and sidewalk in San Diego has ramped curbs or at least a ramped driveway. Ramped access is standard in government buildings, museums, some theaters, and large hotels and restaurants.
Hotels with more than five rooms must provide accessible accommodation. It is best to call in advance to reserve one of these rooms, and specify if you need a roll-in shower. When making restaurant reservations, do clarify that you require access.
Imperial Beach, Ocean Beach, Coronado, Mission Beach, Oceanside, Silver Strand State Beach, and La Jolla Shores have power and manual beach chairs. These are free to use, but it’s best to book ahead.
Denominations of paper bills are in $1, $2, $5, $10, $20, $50, and $100. Rare but still in circulation are paper bills of $2, $500, $1000, $5000, $10,000 and $100,000. Coins are 1¢, 5¢, 10¢, 25¢, 50¢, and $1. The $1 coins have a slight gold cast to them and are slightly larger and heavier than a 25¢ coin. If paying for anything in cash with a merchant, expect to have any paper bills larger than a $20 scrutinized.
San Diego International Airport has international exchange kiosks in Terminal 1 and Terminal 2. Travelex has two other locations in Horton Plaza and Fashion Valley. Major banks handle most transactions, but you will need to bring plenty of ID. Large hotels exchange currency as well, but offer low rates. Exchange windows in San Ysidro handle transactions in dollars and pesos.
There are 24-hour automatic teller machines (ATMs) all over the city. Look on the back of your bank card or credit card to see which network it’s associated with. ATMs inside convenience stores or malls charge you for use, as does your own bank if you go outside the network.
Most major banks are found throughout San Diego. Banking hours are usually 9am or 10am until 6pm, Monday through Friday, with Saturday hours from 9am to 1pm or 2pm.
Visa and MasterCard credit and debit cards are widely accepted, Diners Club and American Express cards slightly less so. If using a non-US-issued credit card, make sure it has a magnetic strip on the back, since chip-and-pin readers are not common.
Coin telephones are hard to find in San Diego, but they still exist at San Diego International Airport, transit stations, hospitals, some hotels and restaurants, and government buildings. You may dial emergency services on 911 without coins from any of these phones. If you carry an unlocked phone, you can find SIM cards with a variety of prepaid, no-contract plans at supermarkets, corner stores, Target, and Walmart. T-Mobile and AT&T stores also carry SIM cards. There are free Wi-Fi hotspots all over the city: in cafés, fast-food restaurants, and even in Horton Plaza shopping center. Public libraries also have computer terminals to use, as do hostels, but you must be a guest. Most hotels offer free Wi-Fi, as does San Diego International Airport but in 30-minute sessions.
Regular post office hours are 8:30am–5pm Monday to Friday, with some branches open on Saturday mornings. Stamps are usually available from vending machines in the lobby, and signage indicates the cost of postage for mail sent to domestic and international addresses. Stamps are available at many supermarkets and franchised mail service stores, which also provide shipping services. Hotel concierges can post mail for you. FedEx and UPS offer courier services with guaranteed overnight delivery and reliable international service. Many of their franchise offices sell packaging supplies. Much cheaper, the US Postal Service offers overnight service in the continental US and two- and three-day services internationally.
All four major US television networks have affiliate local channels in San Diego (10 news for ABC, CBS 8 for CBS, Fox 5 San Diego for Fox and NBC 7 San Diego for NBC). Public broadcasting is represented as well.
Local news and talk radio stations include KOGO, KFMB and KPBS. The morning local newscast traffic reports can be particularly useful. Try to listen to them before you head out in the morning and you may save yourself from a massive traffic jam.
Newspapers can be found at stands throughout the city. The daily San Diego Union Tribune is strong in regional news on both sides of the border. The San Diego Reader is the best source of the latest happenings in town. You’ll find details of movies and theater timings, and music events. Free copies can be found all over San Diego.
Most museums are open from 10am to 5pm. Check the website or call before making plans, as many close one day of the week. Retail shops usually open at 10am and close at 5pm or 6pm. Regular hours at shopping malls are 10am–9pm Mon–Sat and 11am–7pm Sun.
Department stores sometimes open at 7am for super-sales or extend their hours during the holiday season. Malls close only during a few major holidays, such as Christmas and New Year; however, some stores may be open on Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November) and Easter Sunday.
You shouldn’t have any trouble finding 24-hour convenience stores, gas stations, drug stores, and supermarkets. A few Walmarts and Targets in San Diego are also open 24 hours.
From the first Sunday in November until the second Sunday in March, San Diego operates on Pacific Standard Time (PST), which is 8 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). For the remaining months, the clock moves ahead 1 hour and becomes Pacific Daylight Time (PDT), or 7 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time.
The US uses plugs with two flat blades and sometimes a third round grounding pin. Either type will fit in American sockets. Power is set at 110 volts, so 220-volt-only appliances will not work efficiently, and a power converter will be necessary. Small appliances like hairdryers or curling irons are inexpensive to buy at discount stores, and hotels usually provide hairdryers. Most modern electronics are designed to work on either the 110 or 220 system; however, if coming from abroad, you will need a plug adapter. It might be easier to buy this at home before coming to the US. Most adapters sold in US stores are just for Americans traveling abroad. If you do forget to bring an adapter, you can usually find one in a Best Buy store.
San Diego enjoys the most temperate climate in the nation. The rainy season usually begins in December, with a few large storms rolling in by spring. Winter days can be warm and sunny, but ocean temperatures are cold. Late spring often presents what locals call “May gray” and “June gloom.” During this time, you often find a lot of low cloud cover, but you can just as easily get endless days of dazzling sunshine. Sometimes you might find a rare, mild summer shower. Summer evenings are pleasant but often cool, so make sure you bring a sweater or lightweight jacket with you. During the summer months, be aware that if you leave the coast and head inland the temperatures are considerably warmer.
Before you travel, order a copy of the San Diego Visitors Planning Guide from the San Diego Tourism Authority website. You may view past copies online. You’ll also find links to download mobile apps for La Jolla, Little Italy, and other attractions and museums. Once you’re in San Diego, stop by the San Diego Visitor Information Center at the Embarcadero, where staff will answer your questions about activities and tours. They also sell tickets to attractions. The Coronado Visitor Center can give you a map of Coronado and suggest activities in the area.
Old Town Trolley Tours makes 11 stops in a continuous 2-hour loop around San Diego’s most popular attractions, including Old Town, the Embarcadero, Seaport Village, Horton Plaza, Gaslamp Quarter, Coronado, Balboa Park, and Little Italy. From Old Town, tours depart at 9am and every 30 minutes until late afternoon, depending on the time of year. Departure times vary from each stop. The tours are narrated and drivers are quite knowledgeable. Adult tickets are $39 ($35.10 online), and you can hop on and hop off as you please. The same company operates San Diego SEAL tours, which uses a type of amphibious vehicle to first tour the streets of the city before it enters San Diego Bay to power past Navy vessels and harbor sights, and La Jolla and Mission Beach tours.
Five Star Tours operates bus tours to popular attractions throughout San Diego County, including Legoland, San Diego Safari Park, wine tours, city tours, and a number of trips to Tijuana and Ensenada, Mexico.
San Diego Scenic Tours offers half- and full-day narrated tours on air-conditioned buses or mini-buses around San Diego, the harbor, and Tijuana (passports are required).
Flagship Cruises offers several ways to tour the harbor. There are 1- and 2-hour narrated trips covering the harbor, Shelter Island, Point Loma, Coronado Bridge, and more. Dinner, nature, and whale-watching cruises are also available.
Walking tours – like those organized by Balboa Park Tours and Coronado Walking Tour – are also very popular.
You don’t have to go far to find something to buy in San Diego. Shopping malls are everywhere, with the same stores as every shopping mall in the country. The best bargains can be found around public holidays. San Diego has three major outlet centers within an hour’s driving distance: the Carlsbad Premium Outlets in North County, the Las Americas Premium Outlets at San Ysidro, and Viejas Outlet Center on the Viejas Indian Reservation, east on I-8. You can usually find good deals at the designer spin-off shops. Upscale boutiques are located in La Jolla, and if you’re looking for unusual gifts, the museum shops in Balboa Park are a good starting point. Current sales tax in San Diego County is 8 percent. A non-refundable sales tax is added to all retail purchases.
With its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, Mexico, and surrounding ranch and farmlands, you won’t go hungry in San Diego. The Gaslamp Quarter is packed with restaurants, but many are overcrowded and on the noisy side. Foodies tend to go to restaurants in Little Italy or Bankers Hill. For romantic dining with an ocean view, La Jolla offers the city’s best choices. Prices of entrées in the more popular tourist areas match those of any urban area. You’ll find affordable ethnic restaurants everywhere, with some of the more interesting choices in the Hillcrest neighborhood. If traveling with kids, the best family-friendly restaurants are in Mission Valley and Mission Bay.
On weekends throughout the year and during the summer months, it’s wise to make a reservation. Some of the better restaurants can be bought out for a private event, so call ahead rather than just show up. Lunch hours are usually 11am to 2pm or 3pm, with dinner service beginning at 5pm or 5:30pm and kitchens closing at 10pm. Dress code is casual everywhere. Most food servers expect a 15–20 percent tip; leave it in cash, or add it to your credit card bill. With large parties, an 18 percent gratuity may be automatically added to the check.
Entrées on the lunch menu are often less than half the price of those at dinner. Some restaurants offer early-bird dinners from 4pm until 6pm, with a limited number of discounted entrées. Many restaurants and bars offer happy hours on weekdays. For the price of a drink and a few dollars, you can snack on anything from a hot buffet to chips and dip. Some Mexican restaurants sell inexpensive tacos on “Taco Tuesdays.” Check out the advertisements in the San Diego Reader. The legal drinking age in California is 21. If you look under 30, restaurant servers and merchants will ask to see your photo identification. In Tijuana, the legal drinking age is 18.
No matter your budget, you’ll find something in San Diego – from the ultra-posh to the humble dormitory-style hostel. Given the city’s popularity, be sure to make your reservations early to avoid frustration.
Staying at a motel chain like Days Inn or Motel 6 offers standardized accommodations with no surprises. Most major chains can be found in Mission Valley’s Hotel Circle. Parking is generally free, breakfast is often provided, and you aren’t charged countless petty fees. If you plan to stay in San Diego for more than a few weeks, consider renting an apartment. Keep in mind that summer rentals, especially along the beach, are more costly. Be sure to ask what amenities are included.
You can always find accommodations on online booking sites such as Booking.com and Airbnb, but it’s important to read the reviews, which are written by bona fide guests, carefully. Sometimes the price is right but the location is remote.
The only comfortable place to camp legally near the city is in San Diego Metro KOA. This well-located campground offers a swimming pool, hot tub, and bicycle rentals. RV owners can try Campland on the Bay, which also accepts tent campers.
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