Where to Stay When You're in San Diego

Updated: Jun 9

I think the hardest part of planning any trip is deciding where to stay. Whether you are trying to do a vacation on a budget or you are planning a total splurge event, choosing the right accommodations can make or break your family getaway. Over the last five years, our little family has visited San Diego nearly a dozen times. We have done everything from budget getaways to luxury birthday bash celebrations … and everything in between. So, here is my breakdown of the best places to stay, by budget type, when you visit San Diego and the surrounding area.

Now, keep in mind, San Diego, like much of Southern California, is not cheap. I’m not saying you can’t have any awesome fun weekend getaway for under $500. But I am saying you will be hard pressed to do so and that your definition of “fun” better include “free” and a liberal use of the word “adventure”. After all, most basic hotel rooms are going to cost you upwards of $100 a night.

I just love this photo from Town and Country; it embodies the feeling you get when you find the perfect hotel.

For your convenience, I have broken my suggestions of where to stay down by general price. I normally stay away from “budget travel” in my blogs, and I’m not sure if you can really define my suggestions here as budget travel … but I do think I impart some good bargain-hunting advice. For your reading pleasure, you will find places to stay that I classify as ...

Budget Friendly

Comfortable Travel

Luxury Vacation

Though San Diego offers a TON of kid and family friendly destinations like the Zoo and Safari Park, Balboa Park, Legoland, and soon a new Sesame Street themed water park (we can’t wait), I wouldn’t call the majority of their accommodations “family friendly.” So, I have also included my favorite family friendly option for each category.

Our family has either stayed at or HIGHLY researched all of the suggestions I make here. To my own chagrin, no one is paying me for my opinions, no one is providing me free nights in their hotels, or discounts on room service, or any other type of compensation. But if someone would like to I am very open to that exchange!

So I will discuss both specific hotels we have stayed in and popular districts/neighborhoods of San Diego and what kind of vibe you can expect. But first…

An Aside About Booking Accommodations In Popular Tourist Destinations

When Fat Papa and I first started dating way back in 2010, I was barely making $35,000 a year while living in the Bay Area, and my now mother-in-law said something that ducking shocked my tail fathers. She was talking about booking a hotel room for her and Fat Papa’s step-father on their drive from Santa Cruz, CA, to Santa Fe, NM, and she insisted that she would never stay somewhere that offered rooms for less than $100 a night. At the time I couldn’t believe how frivolous she was being. I though, “My God, here is a wealthy woman so stuck up that she can’t bring herself to even spend one night in a less than luxury hotel.” Well, ducky friend, let me tell you, since then, I have learned a thing or two. (I’m sorry, fairy mother-in-law, I love you.)

Itsy Bitsy and Grandma at the San Diego Zoo (Jan 2018)

My mother-in-law was not being stuck up or entitled when she said what she said. I just wasn’t a seasoned enough traveler to understand her point of view. More importantly, I was only a budget traveler up to that point (something I don’t think my mother-in-law has been since she was a teenager … if ever). But to be honest, especially when traveling with Itsy Betsy, my fairy mother-in-law's advice about never booking accommodations in a hotel that offers rooms for less than $100 a night, while shocking on the surfaces, has paid off.

In fact, the only time we have EVER had problems with a hotel in San Diego was the very first trip we took. I found a RIDICULOUSLY good deal on a place down near the water for LESS than $100 a night. What happened?

We checked in after midnight, with a 1 year old, San Diego was in the midst of a heat wave, the air conditioner was broken, we reserved a crib that they had not set aside for us, we had to change rooms at 2 a.m. due to the heat and no air … it was disastrous. Plus the staff were rude and made the problems out to be our fault. As if “this is what you get” for booking a discount rate. And, I guess it was what we got.

So, buyer beware. In places like San Diego and other major tourist areas, if you can get a room for under $100 a night, just know that you need to be ready for an “adventure” and be sure to use a liberal definition of what “adventure” means. Now, I’m not saying you can’t find the genuine diamond in the rough out there. Especially if you put in the leg work, do your research, and take advice from those who have frequented the location. I’m just saying that you are far more likely to get what you pay for.

Thank you fairy mother-in-law for your good advice and common sense when booking travel!

Budget Friendly Accommodations

Getting ready in the hotel for a day at the zoo (Sep 2017)

If you are looking to save a few bucks, or you are not looking for anything fancy when it comes to a room, then your best bet for booking accommodations in San Diego is going to be either Hotel Circle or near Waterfront Park. That's right, you can get a great price and a view!

Though Fat Papa, Itsy Bitsy and I really like to travel in style, San Diego is a great city for budget friendly travel. Because this city is such a draw for tourists, business, and education, all the major hotel chains compete not just with one another but with properties in their parent companies' portfolios too.

This means you can get great hotels at fantastic prices ... most of the time. Sure, you're going to get gouged for last-minute travel or around major holidays ... but that is why if you plan to budget travel you need to ... PLAN ... and book ahead.

Hotel Circle

This area is a tourist hub and is exactly what it sounds like. A … sort of … circle of hotels … really it's more of two long streets with hotel after hotel after shopping center after hotel. In this area, you will find a wide variety of chain and a handful of boutique hotels and motels that cater to the tourist crowd. As Hilton Honors members, our family regularly stays here at one of the many Hilton properties available in this area.

Hotel Circle is our preferred place to stay, especially for a quick weekend getaway, because we know that we can reliably get a quality one bedroom suite with a kitchen in a clean part of town. Additionally, Hotel Circle is centrally located to the sites we want to see with easy freeway access to the Zoo and Safari Park (our main reasons for visiting San Diego). In general, rooms in Hotel Circle are going to run between $89 - $170 a night for a basic room and between $200 - $300 for a suite.

Some properties along Hotel Circle are only a footbridge away from shopping.

But what is really great about staying in this area is that everything you need is going to be within a 5-minute drive. Forgot the diaper bag (we did that once)? Well, there are a variety of grocery stores (including Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s) within 2 miles. Looking to DoorDash something to the room? There are tons of chain restaurants and local cuisine to choose from that participate in food delivery/pickup. Want some fun pool toys because just about EVERY property here has a pool? Target is right across the freeway with everything you need for the pool or beach year round (it’s San Diego, its always beach weather).

Speaking of pools, the Town and Country Hotel in Hotel Circle is on the TOP OF MY LIST of places to stay the next time Itsy Betsy, Fat Papa, and I go to San Diego on our own. To be clear, we have not stayed here YET. But OH MY TAIL FEATHERS this place looks amazing! I recently discovered the Town and Country, thanks to my AMEX Platinum Card (thank you credit card gods) when I was browsing their travel services and since then have done a TON of research on this place.

We love family friendly pools with walk-in entrances rather than steps.

The Town and Country Hotel looks FREAKING AMAZING. First, we are big fans of fun pools. Let me rephrase this … Itsy Betsy is a BIG FAN of fun pools. To be honest, this girl is a big fan of puddles of water; tell her she gets to play in water, be it a mud puddle or the ocean and she is happy as … well a duck in water. So when we saw that this hotel had a water slide … that’s right a WATER SLIDE … you better believe I started digging deep on the accommodations.

Itsy Bitsy can't wait to try out this twisty waterslide!

What is also fun about this hotel is that anyone familiar with the San Diego area may recognize the name. For example, Gigi and Pappy BOTH laughed at me when I said how much I wanted to stay here because THEY remember the Town and Country from when they were living in San Diego LONG before I was born. Despite the Town and Country being built in 1953 (the first hotel constructed in Mission Valley), it has recently been renovated and the designers play up that retro nostalgic charm. The redesign is incredibly cute and really embraces the bold colors and beach resort themes that we think of from the 1960s.

This large mural at the Town and Country brings in iconic 60s colors and tropical vibes, all at the same time.

Offering everything from basic rooms to premium suites, the Town and Country is a bit of luxury without a huge luxury price tag. Though as of writing this (amidst the holiday rush), I am seeing the least expensive room rate listed as $215 per night, within the last two months I have seen the nightly price as low as $139 a night.

Guests an the Town and Country can expect rooms with fun pop art and splashes of color to brighten the scene.

Additionally the Town and Country offers a variety of discounted rates for frequent travel members (you can join their loyalty program for free), AAA members, military, and promotions through various credit cards, including Amex and Chase. So, as with any budget travel, plan ahead, watch the prices, and take advantage of any member discounts, special promotions, and credit card points that you can. These are great ways to bring your nightly costs way down.

Fat Mama Tip: Planning can go a long way in getting a great price. If you plan to travel during a peak season, make sure you are not booking during other peak travel seasons. If you plan to travel over spring break, book in October before the holiday rush for the best pricing. Want a great price for a summer vacation? Check prices out during January and February when people are still recovering from their holiday spending. Looking for a holiday getaway? Then mark your calendar for Christmas in July and start looking for winter accommodations while the weather is still delightful.

Waterfront Park

If you are looking for a bit of a view with your budget friendly hotel, then look no further than the hotels surrounding Waterfront Park on the border of Little Italy along Pacific Coast Highway. This is right in the midst of Downtown and the harbor so don’t expect to get the quietest accommodations here. But, as all the noise would suggest, there is a ton to do in the area. From the VERY COOL family friendly splash pad that can be found at Waterfront Park to the variety of ships you can tour along the harbor, such as those at the Maritime Museum, or the deluge of restaurants in the historic Gaslamp District, and food trucks along the harbor, you won’t run out of places to explore.

Waterfront Park is a cool place to explore during the day with the family, but don't forget the kids' bathing suits!

Now, admittedly this is not our favorite place to stay. The waterfront is a little too loud, congested, and … lets just say … unkept for our comfort level. We have stayed down by the water twice, once was a horrible experience (that first time we visited San Diego that I described above) and the other time we stayed at the Embassy Suites which was a perfectly fine stay, but nothing special.

Historic Gaslamp Quarter is a great place to find amazing restaurants in San Diego and is close to Waterfront Park.

The other reason we avoid the Waterfront area and most of downtown, is because they aren't really centrally located to most of what we want to visit. While technically closer to the San Diego Zoo (by the way the duck flies), navigating the downtown area and Waterfront always feels difficult compared to Hotel Circle, which is easy and straight forward (literally, straight forward onto the freeway). Also, there are fewer services in the area and certainly less kid-friendly restaurants, but the Children’s Museum is near by, so that’s a plus.

The Maritime Museum of San Diego offers a variety of dockside adventures for seadogs and land lovers alike.

Along Waterfront Park, you will find a wide range of accommodations, but if we are looking just at the Budget Friendly ones, then most are going to be in the 2-3 star range, similar to Hotel Circle, but have a slightly … grimmer … more edgy … feel. Here you can find accommodations for as low as $60 a night (but remember you get what you pay for) but on average a good budget friendly and family friendly hotel is going to be around $140 a night with suites starting around $160. Not a bad deal at all.

Comfortable Travel Accommodations

If you’re not concerned with having a view but you want a vacation that is less about budget travel and more about fun, then I highly recommend breaking out of the Downtown San Diego area. May I recommend Carlsbad? Sure, it's about a 45-minute drive away from San Diego, but if you have any intention of going to Legoland, then staying in Carlsbad and driving to San Diego really isn’t a bad way to go. We have done this twice now, once when we went to Legoland and once when we had a large group of people to accommodate.

Carlsbad is a great place to stay if you are wanting to explore Southern California without having to switch hotels.

Sandwiched between Legoland, The Carlsbad Outlets, and the Crossings at Carlsbad Golf Course, you will find a collection of premium hotels by Sheraton, Hilton, and Westin. Feeling kind of like one large property, but actually separated by roads, pools, and a variety of golf cart trams, these properties offer a comfortable and family friendly vacation option. We have stayed twice at the MarBrisa Carlsbad Resort, also known as Hilton Grand Vacations at MarBrisa, and really enjoy this property.

Pools everywhere ... you know how we feel about pools ... you know why we like this place.

Now, don't let the double name fool you, this is all the same property. You just might have to do a little extra leg work to get the best price. MarBrisa is both a “Hilton Grand Vacation” property and a "Grand Pacific Resort" and can be booked through either entity ... no matter what the time-share people say. So, buyer beware … if you get a discounted rate because you agree to listen to their 90-minute pitch about joining the vacation club, none of the properties are as exclusive as they make it seem. But it's a nice little discount if you can get it.

I will fully admit, these properties feel like a luxury vacation. BUT ... because you are staying in Carlsbad ... which is home to ... well Legoland ... you get Comfort Travel prices. Sure, you're going to pay more in gas, but not so much more as to make up for the price of a luxury stay in San Diego. Unless gas prices keep going up, then, sure, just splurge for a resort in San Diego proper.

Why do we like the MarBrisa even though it so far away from the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park (the whole reason we go to San Diego)? Three reasons: the rooms, the food, the pool.

We love when we can stay places with full and separate living room, kitchen, and dinning setups.

At the MarBrisa, you can easily get a one or two bedroom suite, and with advanced planning, 3 bedroom condos are even available. When I say suite and condo, I mean fully appointed with multiple bathrooms, full kitchen, dining area, balconies or patios, the whole nine-yards. Everything you need for a really comfortable stay. This came in really handy when we went to San Diego for Itsy Bitsy’s 5th birthday and brought the Rakhardts, Fabby, Gigi, and Pappy with us. Having all that room to congregate was really nice.

Celebrating Itsy Bitsy's 5th birthday in San Diego while staying at MarBrisa was fantastic (June 2021)