Updated: Jun 9, 2022
San Diego is one of Fat Papa's, Itsy Bitsy's, and my favorite places to visit. I think we have visited San Diego more than any other destination we like to frequent for vacations. While our trips generally focus on the Zoo and Safari Park, as Itsy Bitsy has gotten older, we have started visiting other fun places in San Diego as well. And what we have found is this … San Diego is expensive! So, knowing the best way to buy tickets and package experiences is key for any San Diego vacation.
Like many popular tourist destinations, San Diego offers visitors a wide variety of attractions from amusement parks to museums to watersports and more. You will never be at a loss for new adventures when visiting this great city. Luckily, a variety of third-party ticket sellers have also been attracted to this popular tourist market. Why is this lucky? Because these third party vendors provide visitors a variety of ways to buy tickets and bundle experiences to make vacations easy and more economical.
But third-party vendors aren’t the only game in town to save a few bucks on tickets for all your San Diego excursions. Depending on where you are staying and what activities you plan to participate in, your hotel or activity of choice may even offer special promotions or ticket bundle options. It never hurts to call ahead and ask.
Then there are the seemingly never-ending corporate promotions that go on during popular tourist seasons. Growing up in Southern California, it seemed like there was always a promo with some soda company that you could turn in an empty bottle for $10 off a ticket at some local attraction. Obviously, as an out-of-town tourist, these promos are going to be harder to find, but not impossible. They just take some extra sleuthing.
One thing is clear, though, when it comes to getting the best deal on attraction tickets in San Diego … the possibilities seem endless and rather overwhelming. Well, I’ve got you covered there, ducky friends! Over the years, Fat Papa and I have used every trick in the book to bring down our travel costs in San Diego to help justify our constant travel to this one destination. In this blog post, I am going to share with you all of my tips and tricks for getting the best pricing based on your interests, where you are staying, and the activities you are booking.
In general, my experience on getting a good deal on tickets for San Diego attractions breaks down like this …
Each of these options has their niche market and attractions that they support, and each one has its pros and cons. Ultimately, which one will work best for you is going to depend entirely on the type of activities you are wanting to book in San Diego and the focus of your vacation.
Hotel and Resort Deals
Any time you are planning a vacation and know where you want to stay and know what you want to do, your first step in booking your travel should be to call the hotel or resort where you plan to book. Why? Not only will the concierge be able to provide you with great information about the local area, but they will be able to tell you about any promotions or special ticket pricing they are able to offer guests.
While each hotel is different and promotions change regularly, when you stay at properties in popular tourist areas, many compete with each other by offering ticket deals. This is especially true of “vacation” properties like Hilton Grand Vacation MarBrisa Carlsbad, which will entice guests to listen to their 90-minute time-share pitch with a gift of free LEGOLAND tickets.
Fat Mama Tip: If you stay at a vacation property that offers free ticket attractions in exchange for listening to their time-share sales pitch BE CAUTIOUS. Fat Papa and I have sat through a few of these and the pitches are very high-pressure and amost always longer than advertised. So if you don't want to buy a condo or time-share, just keep saying no! Also, consider whether the price of the free tickets is worth 90-minutes of your precious vacation time.
Additionally, the local hotels may know about any local promotions going on for discounted tickets. So, starting off your ticket search with the hotel concierge is always a good idea.
San Diego is full of different charming districts, each with a unique feel and atmosphere. Visiting all of them as a tourist can be difficult but the Old Town Trolley makes that easy. While the Old Town Trolley doesn’t offer much in the way of ticket bundles, they do offer a wide variety of tours and activities that provide visitors a unique perspective of San Diego.
If you plan to fly to San Diego and don’t want to rent a car, purchasing multi-day passes for the Old Town Trolley is a great way to get around this metropolis. With 11 stops covering 100 points of interest (including Coronado), the Old Town Trolley is convenient and fun for families. Fat Papa, Itsy Bitsy, and I always love touring cities with hop-on hop-off tours like this one because they are easy and entertaining for kids.
Individual tickets for just the hop-on hop-off portion of the Old Town Trolley experience begin at $46 per person with discounts available for multi-day passes. Additionally, if you purchase Gold or Platinum level passes ($53 and $63 respectively), you will be getting many more “freebies,” including discounted or free entrance into a variety of San Diego attractions.
The Old Town Trolley also offers a few ticket bundles, but they are a bit limited. Some of their tour packages include other unique tours (like ghost tours, bay cruises, or Hydra-Terra vehicles), while other passes will include tickets to the San Diego Zoo, Maritime Museum, or USS Midway. So, if you are wanting to see a TON of San Diego and really get a sense of what this beautiful city has to offer, then I highly recommend booking an Old Town Trolley tour with tickets to some of their most popular stops!
Fat Papa and I have been big fans of CityPASS in the past and have used this ticketing option in multiple cities including San Francisco, Seattle, and New York City. However, I’m not sure that I would recommend this option for Southern California. Let me rephrase that … If you can find no other way to buy tickets for all the Southern California attractions you want to visit, then buy with CityPASS.
CityPASS Southern California offers a geographically broad range of attraction options and provides tourists the opportunity to build their own ticket bundle. I think it is for this reason that the discounts offered are rather minimal. The discounts are there, but small … like a few dollars per location. And when you are paying multiple hundreds of dollars to go to Disneyland, a $14 discount just doesn’t seem like much.
However, there is something nice and convenient about being able to get tickets for Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, LEGOLAND, and the San Diego Zoo all in one place. Believe you me, I am willing to pay for convenience.
So if you are planning a HUGE Southern California vacation that includes Los Angeles and San Diego, then a CityPASS may be the right choice for you when it comes to tickets. But you will be paying for convenience (nothing wrong with that, I do it all the time). If, however, you are trying to find the most economical option, you will want to look into different ticket bundles or promotional options that you can combine.
Fat Mama Tip: If you plan on seeing Disneyland and San Diego in the same vacation, I highly recommend booking two hotels; one near Disneyland and one in San Diego. While staying in Carlsbad is a great option and makes the drive north and south manageable, you will be much happier if you just split the trip in two.
Also, this will help you when buying tickets. Most hotels near Disneyland or Universal Studios offer ticket deals to their guests. So, if a CityPASS doesn’t work for you or you can’t find another way of getting discounted tickets to the duckiest place on earth, your hotel will be able to help you out. Just give them a call before booking to ask for pricing; you might even get a package deal that include tickets and the room.
Go City San Diego has to be my favorite option to get the biggest bang for your duck when trying to do the most in San Diego. If you want to do LEGOLAND. The Go City pass is probably the best price you are going to find on LEGOLAND tickets (especially if you plan to go for multiple days) and the over 50 other attractions included in this 1–7-day pass.
With options to customize the number of days your pass covers or the specific attractions you want to see, the Go City pass will fit into any budget. While not always the best price for single-day Zoo and Safari Park tickets, your BIG savings with this pass happen when you purchase more All Inclusive days and then cram those days full of fun!
I really like this pass because of the extreme flexibility it offers. With over 50 different attractions in San Diego and Southern California, there is something for absolutely everyone. But the best part is, the more places you visit and the more activities you do, the more you save!
The price you pay for your pass is based on the number of days you want to use it. A one-day All Inclusive pass costs $102 for adults and $94 for kids. This pass can then be used at ANY of the attractions partnered with Go City. Is one day not enough for you? Then add on as many days as you want, up to a seven-day pass which costs $328 for adults and $289 for kids. That is a HUGE savings on the cost of admission to most of the major San Diego attractions.
If you plan to hit up just a couple places, you may want to look into other ticket options (unless its LEGOLAND, then buy tickets through Go City). But if you want to do everything and see everything, then the best bang for your duck is going to be an All Inclusive Go City pass.
Direct From Attraction
Buying your tickets direct from the attractions you plan to visit is always a solid option. You know the tickets you are getting will be legitimate, you know there will be no issues redeeming the tickets, and you know getting into the attraction will be smooth sailing. You just might not get the best deal … on single day passes.
I almost never recommend buying single day passes directly from the attractions you are going to, especially if you plan to hit up a wide variety of attractions in one city. In major tourist places, there are always going to be legitimate third-party vendors offering great prices on single day passes for bundled attractions. But when your vacation is more focused or themed, and you are planning to spend multiple days at the same attraction, then there may be benefits to buying your tickets through the attraction.
If you are anything like Fat Papa and me, you might like to go a little overboard with your hobbies … vacations … lifestyle. We like to joke that it’s not just our waistlines that are big, its just the way we approach life … BIG! So, when we vacation, we tend to vacation with a purpose and go all-in. For us, when it comes to San Diego that purpose is the Zoo and Safari Park.
So I can tell you every which way that makes sense economically, conveniently, and most beneficially for buying tickets when it comes to the Zoo and Safari Park. But what I have found is that the same logic I apply to the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is true of many places. If you plan to focus your entire vacation around a single location or attraction, then buy your tickets direct. BUT do your research -- you might be surprised at how economical multi-day passes or even memberships can be. Let me explain…
The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance might be a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation and education, but that doesn’t mean tickets are going to be cheap. If you are planning to do just one or two days at the Zoo and/or Safari Park, using one of the above-mentioned third-part vendors is a great economical option.
If, on the other wing, you are zoo-natics (that’s zoo fanatics for those not in the know) and plan to spend three or four full days at the zoo, or you plan to come back for multiple zoo visits throughout the year, then your best bet is going to be a San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance Membership. While memberships do require an initial upfront investment, you may be shocked at how quickly your Zoo Membership will pay for itself. Let me break it down…
One-Day and Two-Day Passes vs. Memberships
Children ages 3 - 11 are able to get into the zoo for $52 for a one-day pass or $94 for a two-day pass. But a child’s membership is for children ages 3 – 17 and only cost $62 (this is not a typo, this is what the Zoo’s website says, so really, if your kids are teens, don’t buy them tickets, buy them memberships). Let’s do the math … this $62 membership, which is good at both the Zoo and Safari Park, gets paid off in just two days (or one day if you’re a teen).
Adult tickets are sold to guests ages 12+ and cost $62 for a one-day pass and $104 for a two-day pass (see what I mean about the teen pricing). However, unlike the kid’s membership, adult membership pricing (ages 18 - 64) is a little more expensive starting at $159 per adult for the Wildlife Protection Premium level. This means that adults will cover the cost of their membership in … carry the 1 … 2.56 visits (or the third day you enter the Zoo or Safari Park).
I recommend starting out with the Wildlife Protection Premium level membership because it comes with no blackout dates and offers the most flexibility for planning your zoo-cation. The non-premium membership is only $20 less in price but the blackout dates make it harder to go to San Diego spur of the moment. There are also San Diego Resident Memberships, but I am assuming if you are reading this blog post you don’t live in San Diego.
So, you can see why purchasing memberships will most likely be your least expensive way to Zoo-It-Up if you plan to attend three or more days in a single year. Additionally, the adult memberships come with great benefits like a 10% discount on all food and merchandise plus 2 admission coupons for 50% off so you can bring friends.
Upgraded Memberships – You Will Save More Than You Realize
Fat Papa and I both have Wildlife Champion Memberships, which are two levels above the Wildlife Protector Premium. We did this because when Itsy Bitsy turned 5, she wanted a zoo-party for her birthday. Now, this was 2021, things were finally starting to open up “after” COVID (this was before Delta) and we, as overindulgent parents, were only too excited to go back to the Zoo.
To make the trip extra special the Rakhardts, Gigi, Pappy, and Fabby were all able to attend and we wanted to help them out with tickets as much as possible. So, I started doing my research and I found the AMAZING Wildlife Champion Memberships. These memberships cost $400 each …
***blink – blink***
I know, I know … get over the sticker shock. Fat Papa had the same reaction when I first told him too, but as a once-poor kid do you think I would suggest spending $800 unless it was going to save us money in the end? Okay, yes, I totally would, but this wasn’t one of those cases. So, what did we get for a $400 membership X 2?
For me, the big selling point for the Wildlife Champion Membership was that each member is able to sign in one guest every day. That’s right, my one membership is good for two tickets every time I go to the Zoo or Safari Park. That alone was almost enough to justify the expense because we had a group of 7 adults with us going to the parks for 4 days. So rather than pay $1,113 for all the adults to get memberships, Fat Papa and I paid $800 and we each signed a guest in every day.
But wait … that leaves 3 adults, 4 days of tickets, and only $313 to cover it all or else we made a BAD financial decision. Well, ducky friends, the Wildlife Champion Membership comes with some other AMAZING benefits. Aside from getting to sign someone in with us every visit, we each also received two complimentary guest passes (total of 4 park tickets) and two 50% off admission coupons each (4 coupons brings the cost of four days at the zoo down to the same as two days).
This brought us down to needing to cover a total of 6 tickets for the Zoo and Safari Park across four days, which should cost $312, bringing us in $1 less than the price or regular memberships … Except that the Wildlife Champion Membership also comes with a 15% discount which we were able to apply to additional ticket prices. BOOM!
As if that wasn’t enough, we also received two 50% off special experience coupons (each) and priority parking at the Safari Park (huge feet saver at the end of the day). So, between the free entry passes, discounted admission, discounts on tours, and discounts on merchandise, our upgraded membership was AMAZING and paid for itself.
To be honest, the membership paid for itself DOUBLY; when we went back to the Zoo and Safari Park with my whole family in December and we were still able to sign Gigi and Pappy in for free. So now the more we use our passes, the more we are adding to our savings by buying an upgraded membership.
Overall, I have calculated our savings at more than $500 (that is after recouping the initial $800 cost of the two memberships). That's in just 7 days of visiting the Zoo and Safari Park. Now, granted, that includes our savings bringing friends, going on tours, and buying stuffies. But if you plan to do those things, the savings really add up!
Even if you are a family of three, having one adult get the Wildlife Champion Membership and then splitting it among the two adults may prove to be more profitable. Especially if you plant to bring friends, participate in tours, eat at the parks, and buy souvenirs. I love the Zoo and Safari Park so much I’m still trying to convince Fat Papa to let us increase our membership again … just for the prestige. But we just can’t justify the expense.
So, bottom line, do the math, run the numbers, and see what membership level makes sense for your family. You might be surprised at the benefits you can get by paying a little more upfront to save a ton down the road.
Well, ducky friends, there you have it. These are my Fat Mama suggestions for getting the best deals on tickets to some of the best attractions in San Diego. I hope this helps take some pressure off of you when planning your next vacation. After all, most of these tips and tricks will work for any major tourist area, you just have to do a little research.
Keep calm and quack on!