blue suv on brown dirt road during daytime
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Renting a Car in San Diego: What You Need to Know in 2024


You’re in the right place as I’m going to walk you through the process of renting a car in San Diego.

By the end of the article, you’re going to feel comfortable with the entire San Diego car rental process — and have answers to frequently asked questions about driving in California that will boost your confidence.

First and foremost, most travelers want to know about the best place to rent a car in San Diego. When I rent a car while traveling, I recommend and always use Discover Cars, and you’ll see why in this article.

white Volkswagen Beetle on road at daytime

When booking your San Diego car rental online, I recommend and use Discover Cars. They search and compare many car rental companies, so you get the best deal — and have FREE cancellation up to 48 hours before your rental.

If you’ve seen mentions of San Diego car rental scams, we’ll cover that so you’re not caught off guard by hidden fees.

Ready to learn the ins and outs of renting a car in San Diego? Let’s get to it, starting with how to go about renting a car in San Diego with Discover Cars, and ending with a FAQ about renting cars in San Diego, California.

Renting A Car in San Diego With Discover Cars

One of the tasks you should complete when planning a trip to San Diego is to rent a car in advance. Not only does this save money, but you’ll also be certain that you’ll get a vehicle and can plan your vacation itinerary around the city without worrying about transportation.

There are several reasons why I recommend booking your rental car with Discover Cars:

  • This site compares rental car offers from multiple budget-friendly companies, so you’ll be sure to get the best deal.
  • The price displayed on Discover Cars includes all fees, taxes, and insurance – so you don’t have to worry about any hidden costs that might arise once you reach your destination.
  • Numerous people have had positive experiences booking with Discover Cars and have left reviews about each rental car company. This is useful if you want to ensure your experience will be hassle-free.

Reserving a rental car with Discover Cars is really simple, and I can demonstrate the process below.

Book Your Car Online with Discover Cars

Begin by choosing a pick-up location and the dates for which you’ll need the car.

Keep in mind that many car rental companies charge fees for operating outside of business hours. If you’re arriving or departing at night, you might want to consider using a taxi to get to the hotel and renting a car in the morning in the city.


After selecting your pick-up location and travel dates, you’ll receive a list of available cars and numerous options for filtering them to best suit your needs.

Be mindful of the pick-up location, as you can rent a car either at the airport or in the Downtown of San Diego.

Discover Cars - San Diego - Search Results
Discover Cars – San Diego – Search Results

Once you’ve chosen a car for rental, you’ll see more detailed information about the booking. Although all of this is important, pay particular attention to the following aspects:

  • Pick-up location – even if you opt for the airport, the rental car company might be situated a bit further away, requiring you to use a shuttle service. This service is free, and the pick-up instructions are usually straightforward.
  • Business hours – if your flight is outside of business hours, there might be an additional fee for the rental car.
  • Fuel policy – remember this when returning the car. If the car has less fuel than the policy requires, you might be charged extra.
  • Rental conditions – the blue link at the bottom outlines additional conditions like the driver’s age, required documents, and the refundable security deposit.
Discover Cars - San Diego - Chosen Car
Discover Cars – San Diego – Chosen Car

When planning your car rental adventure in California, it’s essential to be aware of the driver’s requirements. The minimum age to rent a car can be even 25 years, but note that drivers under the age of 30 may be subject to a young driver fee.

On the other end of the spectrum, the maximum rental age is 80 years, and drivers over 70 may need to pay a senior driver fee.

To be eligible for car rental in some companies, your driver’s license must have been issued by authorized authorities at least one year prior to the start date of your rental.

Discover Cars - San Diego - Refundable Security Deposit
Discover Cars – San Diego – Refundable Security Deposit

Many companies will also ask for a refundable security deposit. The amount varies significantly, ranging from € 200.00 to € 1000.00, so you’ll need to check with your specific company in their rental conditions. This amount will be reserved on your credit card and returned to you after the rental period ends, unless the car’s bodywork is damaged, and that money is used to cover the repairs.

And that’s it – a straightforward process on how to rent a car in San Diego, California.

A bridge near San Diego

5 Tips for Renting a Car at San Diego Airport

To make your car rental experience as smooth as possible, I’m sharing my top five tips to help you navigate the process like a pro. Let’s dive in!

1. Book in Advance: The San Diego International Airport (SAN) is a busy hub, and cars can be in high demand, especially during peak travel seasons. To ensure you get the type of vehicle you want and at the best rate, reserve your car well in advance. This not only guarantees availability but often leads to better deals compared to last-minute bookings.

2. Compare Different Rental Companies: Several car rental companies operate at the San Diego Airport, including major international chains and local providers. Don’t settle for the first quote you get. Instead, use the online platform Discover Cars to compare rates, read reviews, and find the best package that fits your needs. Remember to check for any hidden fees or restrictions.

3. Review Insurance Coverage: Before finalizing your car rental, make sure to understand the insurance options available. Your personal auto insurance or credit card might already cover rentals, so you may not need additional coverage. However, if they don’t, consider opting for the rental company’s collision damage waiver or liability insurance. This can save you from significant costs in case of an accident or damage. Always read the fine print and avoid purchasing unnecessary or duplicate coverage.

4. Understand the Fuel Policy: Each rental company may have a different fuel policy. Some might require you to return the car with a full tank, while others may offer a pre-paid fuel option. Make sure you’re clear on the policy to avoid any surprise charges. If possible, fill up the tank at a local gas station before returning as on-site refueling can be pricier.

5. Inspect the Vehicle Thoroughly: Before driving off, conduct a detailed inspection of the vehicle. Check for any dents, scratches, or damages and ensure they are recorded in the rental agreement. Also, familiarize yourself with the car’s features. This precaution will help you avoid potential disputes when you return the vehicle.

Remember, a bit of research and preparation can make your car rental experience at San Diego Airport smooth and economical.

Gaslamp Quarter
Gaslamp Quarter

What are common car rental scams in San Diego?

Staying informed and vigilant can help you avoid falling victim to these common scams. Always read contracts thoroughly and ask questions if you’re unsure about any charges or policies.

1. Hidden Fees and Upcharges: Some car rental companies might advertise very low rates, but when it’s time to settle the bill, unexpected fees and charges can surface. These could be for anything from ‘airport fees’, and ‘cleaning charges’, to ‘service fees’. Always get a clear breakdown of all costs upfront or use Discover Cars to see the final price of your rental when you reserve the car.

2. Unnecessary Insurance Push: Renters might be pressured into buying extra insurance coverage even when their personal car insurance or credit card already provides adequate protection. It’s essential to know what you’re already covered for to resist this aggressive upsell.

3. Fuel Charges: Rental companies might offer the “convenience” of returning the car with any amount of fuel, but they’ll charge you for a full tank at inflated prices. It’s generally cheaper to refuel yourself before returning the vehicle.

4. Damage Scams: There have been instances where renters are accused of causing damages that existed before the rental. It’s crucial to document any pre-existing damages and ensure they’re noted in the agreement before driving off.

5. Upgrade Tricks: You might be told that the car you booked isn’t available and be offered an “upgrade” – sometimes at an extra cost. Stay firm if you’re happy with the type of car you originally selected, or ensure that if you do accept an upgrade, it comes without additional charges.

6. Drop-off Fees: If you’re planning to drop off the car at a different location than where you picked it up, be aware of potentially hefty one-way drop-off fees. These should be discussed and agreed upon at the time of booking.

San Diego shore

Renting A Car in San Diego: Frequently Asked Questions

Here are some common questions I receive when discussing car rentals in California, specifically in San Diego. If you have any other questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments below!

How much does it cost to rent a car in San Diego?

It costs around $400 to rent a car in San Diego for one week in January 2024. You can quickly check the pricing for the dates that you need in the form here.

Do you need a rental car in San Diego?

No, tourists don’t necessarily need a car in San Diego, as the city has decent public transportation, and many attractions are centrally located. However, renting a car can offer greater flexibility, especially if planning to visit outlying areas or take day trips.

Even though Downtown San Diego is quite walkable, even going to Balboa Park will take you some time. If you have a car though, you don’t even have to pay for parking in many parking lots in Balboa Park and many other locations outside of Downtown.

Can a foreigner rent a car in California?

Yes, a foreigner can rent a car in California, provided they have a valid driver’s license from their home country and meet the rental company’s requirements, which often include age and credit criteria. It’s also recommended to have an International Driving Permit (IDP) alongside the original license, though it’s not mandatory for all rental agencies.

Is driving in San Diego easy?

Yes, driving in San Diego is generally easy, with well-maintained roads and clear signage. However, like any urban area, it can have traffic congestion during peak hours, and parking downtown might be challenging. Familiarizing oneself with local driving customs and rules will enhance the experience.

Is downtown San Diego walkable?

Yes, downtown San Diego is highly walkable, with many attractions, restaurants, shops, and parks located within close proximity to one another. The Gaslamp Quarter, in particular, is a popular pedestrian-friendly area.

Can you rent a car in California and drive out of state?

Yes, you can rent a car in California and drive out of state. However, it’s essential to check the rental company’s policy on out-of-state travel to ensure there are no restrictions or additional fees.

a group of sea lions resting on the rocks by the water
La Jolla Cove, San Diego

Top things to visit near San Diego

San Diego and its surrounding regions are brimming with attractions. With a rental car, you have the freedom to explore at your own pace and discover hidden gems beyond the city limits.

1. La Jolla Cove: This picturesque seaside spot is a must-visit. With its stunning cliffs, crystal-clear waters, and resident sea lions, La Jolla Cove is one of the best beaches in San Diego County. Having a car makes it easy to get there and explore nearby areas like La Jolla Shores and the Village. It’s also a great place to get some souvenirs from San Diego like a beach towel or some surfing accessories.

2. Cabrillo National Monument: Located on the Point Loma Peninsula, this national monument offers panoramic views of San Diego’s skyline and coastline. The historic Old Point Loma Lighthouse is also a major attraction, making it an enriching visit.

a bird's eye view of the water and cliffs
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve

3. Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve: For those who love hiking and breathtaking coastal views, Torrey Pines is a must. The reserve has several trails that weave through unique pine forests and overlook the Pacific Ocean.

4. Sunset Cliffs Natural Park: As the name suggests, this is one of the best places in San Diego to catch a sunset. With 68 acres of cliffs, arches, and coastal formations, Sunset Cliffs offers plenty of photo opportunities and serene spots to relax. If you are looking for a romantic way to spend some time with your partner, this is the spot for you!

5. Drive the Pacific Coast Highway: While in San Diego with a rental car, it’s almost obligatory to take a drive along the Pacific Coast Highway. Whether you’re heading north towards Orange County or simply exploring San Diego’s coastal towns, the views and stops along this route are unparalleled.

ocean, coast, california

Final Thoughts: Renting A Car in San Diego

Driving in California is generally considered safe, and renting a car in San Diego is a simple, hassle-free process.

For the sake of convenience, just pick your rental up at San Diego Airport when you fly in, as it has plenty of agencies on site.

One of the most important things to keep in mind for a California car rental is to rent with a reputable company like Discover Cars. I also recommend their Full Coverage Policy, which I always use.