Practically Free Day Trip to San Diego: An Entire Day of Fun for only $12

Maruska —  July 30, 2017

Day in San Diego

San Diego is one of my family’s favorite cities in the country. There is a ton to do with kids and you get the benefit of big city living, too. One of our favorite day trips from Orange County is a trip on the Coaster, playing at Waterfront Park, and exploring Old Town. This entire trip cost my boys and I $12. You’ll be shocked at how fun this practically free trip is!


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We drive from South Orange County to the Oceanside Transit Center to catch the Coaster, which is San Diego’s version of the Metrolink. Parking in the parking structure is free and they have the “1 Day Region Plus Pass” for $12. Kids under 6 are free. This pass gives you the ability to ride ALL public transportation for $12 on a single day. Once you arrive at the station, locate the ticket kiosk and simply click on “Current Promotions” and select “Region Plus Day Pass.” This includes the trolleys and round trip tickets on the Coaster. The Coaster traveling to San Diego is typically the one closest to the station. You can refer to the TV screen with platform listings to double check. The Coaster travels along the coastline and has breathtaking views. We play games such as Uno, 20 Questions, and I Spy while we enjoy the 45 minute trip to the city. For this day trip you’ll exit “Santa Fe Depot” which is the last stop on the Coaster.

Click here for the Coaster schedule.

Waterfront Park:Waterfront Park

We discovered this gem of a park when visiting the city one weekend and love it! To get there from the station head North (back the direction you came from on the train) towards Ash Street. Then turn left on Ash and you’ll see the park on the corner of Ash and Pacific Highway. It’s about 1 block from the train station.

Not only does the park have amazing slides, playground equipment, swings, and art, it also has a beautiful view of the Tall Ships and the kids can watch the trains and trolleys as they pass. Plus they have a fountain running along the entire park that the kids can play in. Families often picnic on the grass and watch their kids play in the fountain when it opens at 11 AM. I recommend bringing your kids’ swim gear and sunscreen because they will get very wet! Their bathrooms are clean and the entire park is closely monitored by security guards so you can easily change your kids after they play in the water. Plus, you’ll want to pack a picnic lunch and snacks for you to enjoy.

Click here for more information about the Waterfront park.

Trolley Ride:

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After you’ve enjoyed a couple of hours at the park, head back to Santa Fe Depot and find the “Green Line” trolley towards “Santee.” Wait on the side of the tracks directly in front of the station. Trolleys arrive every 15 minutes. You do not need a new ticket to ride the trolley. Just be sure you keep hold of your “1 Day Region Plus Pass.” San Diego does have personnel walk through the trains checking for tickets. Once you jump on the trolley, you’ll exit at Old Town. This is 4 stops from Santa Fe Depot. Be sure you look at the front of the trolley to make sure you get on the Green Line, not Orange Line, because they both depart from that station.

Click here for the trolley’schedule and maps.  

Old Town:

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Once you arrive in Old Town you’ll head towards the direction of the main plaza. When you get to the fence welcoming you to Old Town, turn right. There’s lots to explore in Old Town including live performances, toy shops, and other stores. Our favorite free museums in Old Town are the Wells Fargo History Museum and Old Town Model Railroad Museum. On our last trip we also visited the Sheriff’s Museum. All of these museums are free but they do encourage donations.

Wells Fargo History Museum:

Wells Fargo Museum

My kids call this the “telegraph museum” because they love sending messages to each other using Morse Code on the two telegraph machines in the museum. There’s also a huge stagecoach, a room similar to those that people on the Pony Express may have stayed in, tools used for mining and living in the old west, and an interactive map. There are also coloring books and crayons for kids and they will give the kids a sticker if you ask!

Click here for more information about the Wells Fargo History Museum.

Old Town Model Railroad Depot:

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Continue down the dirt path in the center of Old Town towards the street. Follow the main road, San Diego Avenue, for about 3 blocks past the dirt path. This is about a 10 minute walk from the Wells Fargo History Museum. There’s a big red sign that says “Trains” so you can’t miss it!

When you arrive you’ll be greeted at the door and you can get a “Scavenger Hunt” for your family. We love the scavenger hunt because you notice things about the layout that you would never notice on your own. There’s a day and night room with plenty of step stools so your little ones can easily see the trains. If you attempt or complete the scavenger hunt then you get a prize. Gary, the owner, is often there and will answer any questions for you. He is amazing! Be sure to leave a donation at this stop.

Their website is being redone but you can check Yelp for more information.

Sheriff’s Museum

Sheriff's Museum

We heard about this museum when we visited the model train museum. It’s directly across the street from the Old Town Model Railroad Museum, and also free, so we decided to check it out. There’s a jail cell where your kids will be locked in, motorcycles that they can climb on, and other sheriff-themed memorabilia. My kids liked it but there were a few parts that we avoided. Mainly a video about a crime scene investigation with fake blood on the floor and a “Heaven’s Gate” mass murder exhibit on the second story so we did not look at that at all. I do think this would appeal to older kids but it wasn’t appropriate for my 3- and 5- year old. My kids enjoyed the downstairs area, though, so I still think it’s worth checking out unless your kids are sensitive to this type of place.

Click here for the Sheriff’s museum website.

Other fun and free Old Town activities:

My kids love listening to live music in Old Town and watching the performers. They also love the “windchime store” a few doors away from the Wells Fargo Museum. Additionally, there’s an old school house, garden, picnic area and many other historic sites. Depending on how much time you have before your train arrives you may want to check some of these places out.

Head Back on the Coaster

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Once you’ve had your fill of Old Town, head to the same train station that you used when you got off the trolley. Be sure you wait on the center platform marked “Coaster” and wait for your train back to Oceanside.

Know Before You Go:

  • Use a debit, MasterCard, or Visa to pay for your train ticket.The machine does not accept AmEx.
  • Use the restroom before boarding the Coaster. They do have a bathroom on the train but it’s tricky to manage 2 kids on a moving train!
  • We have not had major traffic when heading down to Oceanside on the weekday but if you plan on going on a weekend then you will need to plan for traffic.
  • You’ll get the best views on the second story on the Coaster.
  • Depending on the age of your kids, you may or may not need a stroller. When my kids were 2 and 4 I brought an umbrella stroller to hold our stuff and to give the kids a break from walking when they were tired.
  • Pack a lunch and snacks for your kids. It’s a long day and mine always get hungry on the train!
  • Bring a towel and swim suit if you plan on letting your kids play in the fountain. If the park is your first stop, I’d recommend having them wear their suit on your way down and then bringing a change of clothes.
  • Bring a plastic bag to put wet swim suits and your towel in so you’re not carrying around wet clothes in your backpack.
  • Bring cash for museum donations.
  • If you want to do everything in this post, go on Sunday, Wednesday, Thursday, or Friday so both the Old Town Model Railroad Depot and Sheriff’s Museum are open.
  • We typically leave our house on a weekday at 8:15/8:30 AM, take the 9:42 AM Coaster down, and then the 2:22 PM or 3:51 PM train back on the weekdays. Check the Coaster schedule for the current schedule prior to taking your trip.
  • This trip costs more with kids ages 6 and up or extra grown ups because they will need their own train tickets. Factor in an additional $12 per child or adult.
  • You can easily spend all day in Old Town if this is your first visit. In this case, you just need to get off the Coaster at “Old Town SD” instead of “Santa Fe Depot”. You can also save some money by purchasing a round trip ticket rather than the RegionPlus Day Pass since you won’t be taking the Trolley. By purchasing a round trip ticket you can save $1 on adult/kid tickets and $6.50 for senior tickets.

Additional Information:

Oceanside Transit Center205 South Tremont Street, Oceanside, CA

Waterfront Park1600 Pacific Highway, San Diego, CA 92101, Hours: 6 AM-10 AM daily , Fountain Hours: 11 AM- 7 PM daily

Wells Fargo History Museum2733 San Diego Ave, San Diego, California 92110, Hours: 10 AM- 5 PM daily

Old Town Model Railroad Depot: 2415 San Diego Ave, Ste 107 -108, San Diego, CA 92101, Hours: Sunday-Monday: 11 AM-6 PM, Tuesday: Closed, Wednesday-Friday: 11 AM-6 PM, Saturday: Closed

Sheriff’s Museum: 384 San Diego Ave., San Diego, CA 92110, Hours: Open Wednesday – Sunday, Spring & Summer: 11am – 6pm, Fall & Winter: 11am – 5pm

Kelly Rafter
Blog Contributor

About the Author
Kelly and her husband have two little boys, ages 3 and 5. She loves taking her boys on adventures around Southern California that focus on learning, getting their wiggles out, and having fun! When she isn’t fulfilling her mommy duties she teaches at a local community college and is an educational consultant.