Explaining San Diego Public Transit, Part 2

You don’t need a car to get here.

I’m calling this post “part 2” because you may recall a while back when I wrote a post on Getting By Using Public Transit in San Diego. In that post, I detailed the different public transit options in and around San Diego County to help you, the visitor to my fine city, find your way around.

I realized however, when I re-read the post, as I often do, that I didn’t explain too much about the different ticket purchasing options that might be useful to you so as to help you plan your trip a little more thoroughly. There’s nothing worse than standing around scratching your head at a train ticket machine while a group of impatient people form a line behind you. Trust me…I’ve been there, and I want to use what I’ve learned from those experiences to help you have a little bit of a smoother first time navigating around our public transit system.

In the other post, I mentioned that there are all sorts of trains, trolleys, buses, ferries, etc. to get around on. Oh my!

In this post, I’m going to go over ticket buying options as well as which transit options connect to one another to help you plan out your journeys around the region.

The Compass Card

I highly recommend getting a Compass Card if you plan on using the buses (both MTS and NCTD), Coaster, Sprinter, or MTS Trolley in San Diego County. To clarify, the NCTD stands for North County Transit District and covers transit in North San Diego County. NCTD governs buses in North County, the Sprinter and the Coaster trains. MTS stands for Metropolitan Transit System and covers the San Diego Trolley as well as all MTS bus lines (i.e. all the buses closer to downtown and around the actual city of San Diego). A Compass card can be used to purchase tickets for all of these transit systems, which is a really convenient option.

You can purchase a Compass card either online, at a ticket vending machine, or in person at locations all over the county. I would go into greater detail, but the San Diego MTS guys have already done a great job of that, so I’ll just link to their site.

I should also note they just added a new mobile ticketing app that you can use in lieu of a compass card.

Pass options:

There are various options available to you depending on where you plan on traveling to, but if you want freedom to roam about as you please on all of the various transit options, I recommend the $12 Region Plus Day pass, or you can buy a monthly pass for $165 if you’re going to be here for a little while and want the freedom to roam about. There are also options for regional passes that don’t include North County at a variety of price points, so my advice is to look at the options and decide on a pass (or just loading up various tickets as needed) based on your travel plans.

Here is the MTS information, including the Region Plus Coaster Pass information:

NCTD also has information on their passes as well as more information if you just want to ride the Coaster, which many people like to do:

**Please note that Compass Card is NOT valid for Metrolink, Amtrak (except Amtrak trains that stop along the Coaster route (see this page), or the Coronado ferry. Tickets for those must be purchased separately.

Connecting Transit Options

Say you’re staying in Carlsbad and you want to spend the day at the San Diego Zoo. This is a common desire! You would want to purchase the Coaster Region Plus Day Pass ($12) on your Compass Card ($2 to purchase the card). This will allow you to take the Coaster from Carlsbad to downtown. You would stop at Santa Fe Depot, which is the downtown stop. Then you would want to transfer to the #7 bus, which has convenient stops along Broadway Avenue, which is where Santa Fe Depot is located.

Here is a link to a regional transit map that I think you might find useful…

San Diego Transit Map

But that map is pretty complex. Here’s a basic outline…

  • Coming from LA or Orange County…you’ll be on either the Amtrak or the Metrolink.
  • You will arrive in Oceanside. If you are on Amtrak, you can continue as far South as Santa Fe Depot (downtown San Diego). If you are on Metrolink, you will need to get off here and switch to the Coaster, which will take you as far as Santa Fe Depot.
  • Coaster is your go-to train for going up and down the coast through the whole county. It’s a great option for beach stops, as most of the stops are in desirable beach communities.
  • If you take Coaster downtown, you can connect with the MTS Trolley system and MTS bus system by getting off either at Old Town or Santa Fe Depot.
  • You should also know that across the street from Santa Fe Depot is America Plaza, where two of the trolley lines stop, so depending on where you’re going, know that America Plaza is convenient to Santa Fe Depot.
  • From Santa Fe Depot, you can take the 992 bus to the airport (from the street in front of America Plaza). You can also connect with many bus lines on Broadway, which is the major street that runs into Santa Fe Depot.
  • If you want to take the ferry to Coronado, you’ll need to either walk (it’s a bit of a walk but do-able) or take the Green Line trolley to the ferry terminal, which is located behind the San Diego Convention Center.

I know, it’s complicated…


No car? No problem. This beautiful beach is within walking distance of a Coaster Stop (Carlsbad Village station)

Southern California is NOT on par with cities like London, Sydney, or Tokyo when it comes to public transit. Sad day! However, I’ve commuted by transit in this city and once you get used to how it all works, it’s not so bad. And you can actually get to most of the cool places visitors want to go by transit, so it’s a good budget option if you’re looking for a way to get around town without spending your life savings on a rental car.

If you’re planning on coming here and getting around without a car and you’re feeling a bit confused, I would be happy to help you out. Seriously. Just ask! When it comes to transit in this city, I either know the answer to your questions or at the very least know where to look to point you in the right direction.

I can also point you in the right direction for Los Angeles trains and Metrolink information, but when it comes to our neighbors to the North, I usually just drive because Los Angeles is a whole other beast.

Anyway, I hope you’ve found the information in this post to be helpful. And seriously…don’t hesitate to ask me if you have questions about all this stuff when you’re planning your San Diego getaway.

Happy Travels!


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