How to Travel from San Diego to Los Angeles by Train, Bus, Car, and Plane

Road to Los Angeles with skyscrapers
4kodiak / Getty Images

A Southern California trip isn't complete without visiting the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles and the laidback beaches of San Diego. It's about 120 miles from city center to city center and even though the distance is short, LA's infamous traffic can turn a quick trip into a multi-hour ordeal.

If you are lucky enough to not hit any traffic, going by car is one of the quickest and easiest ways to travel from San Diego to Los Angeles. There are also several direct bus options, which is the cheapest way to travel. If you want to avoid traffic altogether, the train is a comfortable option with unbeatable views. There are also direct flights between the two cities, but you'll likely end up spending more time at the airport than you would driving.

Illustration of routes between San Diego and LA
TripSavvy / Adrian Mangel 
  Time Cost Best For
Train 2 hours, 50 minutes from $36 Enjoying the scenery
Bus 3 hours from $15 Budget travelers
Flight 50 minutes from $99 Arriving on a time crunch
Car 2 hours 120 miles (193 km) Freedom to explore

What Is the Cheapest Way to Get From San Diego to Los Angeles?

With one-way Greyhound bus tickets starting at $15, going by bus is the cheapest way to get from San Diego to Los Angeles. The ride takes about three hours, depending on the time of day that you leave. While having a car has advantages for getting around, it can also be a hassle when traffic jams pop up (as they frequently do). The bus is not only affordable but also lets travelers sit back and relax throughout the journey instead of being attentive behind the wheel.

Buses leave San Diego from the Imperial Transit Center, right next to Petco Park where the San Diego Padres play. The Greyhound station in Los Angles is in the Art District of Downtown LA.

What Is the Fastest Way to Get From San Diego to Los Angeles?

Flight time between San Diego and Los Angeles is about 50 minutes, and taking only time in the air into account, it's the fastest way to travel between the cities. However, after traveling to the airport, checking in, going through security, and collecting your bags, the total time is just as long as driving or taking the train, if not longer.

San Diego Airport is centrally located in the city and easy to reach from almost all parts of town. For how big the city is, San Diego Airport is relatively easy to navigate with easy and quick access between the two terminals (it's also one of only two airports in North America to achieve carbon neutrality).

Los Angeles International Airport, or LAX, is one of the busiest airports in the country. Be sure to plan extra time when you arrive for getting out of the terminal, retrieving your baggage, and exiting the airport.

How Long Does It Take to Drive?

Using a car around Southern California can turn into a driver's nightmare. At rush hour, it's one of the most congested areas in the country despite having highways that stretch across eight lanes. Even when it isn't rush hour, an unexpected accident or traffic jam can cause backups for miles. On some freeways, the carpool lanes double as toll lanes, so be sure you're familiar with the rules of the road before you get behind the wheel.

From San Diego, the most direct way to get to Los Angeles is to drive north on I-5. It passes along the coast with brief glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, through Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base and north through Orange County. Without traffic, it takes about two hours to get to Downtown Los Angeles. If you need to get to the west side of LA such as Santa Monica or the airport, you'll need to cut over to I-405 at some point.

The alternative route is to take I-15 north from San Diego, which is more inland. It adds 20 minutes to the trip if there are no traffic jams, but it may have lighter traffic than I-5 on a busy day.

How Long Is the Train Ride?

The Amtrak Pacific Surfliner takes just under three hours to travel from San Diego to Los Angeles, stopping in several Orange County cities (including Anaheim) on the way to Downtown Los Angeles. Tickets start at about $36 if you purchase them in advance, but go up in price as seats sell out.

There are two Amtrak stations in San Diego, so be sure to reserve your ticket from the one that is closest to where you're staying. All trains start at the downtown Santa Fe Station near the Gaslamp Quarter and then travel north to the Old Town Station. In Los Angeles, the trains go to Union Station in the heart of Downtown LA, from where you can take the subway to other parts of the city.

When Is the Best Time to Travel to Los Angeles?

If you're going by car, you'll want to avoid being on the roads during weekday rush hour. The route passes through three separate metropolitan areas with huge populations—San Diego, Orange County, and Los Angeles. If you get in the car around commuting time, you'll likely hit rush hour traffic in each one. If driving late at night fits into your schedule, it's the best time to avoid traffic.

There's truly no bad time to visit Los Angeles, although each season has different advantages. Summer is hot and perfect for going to the beach, although it's also the busiest time of year and there will be lots of tourists. In winter there are far fewer crowds, and the weather is still relatively warm compared to most U.S. cities. Locals would say that April or October is the best time to visit, when the weather is sunny but mild with good air quality.

What’s the Most Scenic Route to Los Angeles?

The section of the train ride between San Diego and Orange County runs right along the beach, literally. If you were to step off the train, you would be right on the sand and could walk into the Pacific Ocean. It's a dreamlike train ride with the quintessential California backdrop. For the best views, make sure you get a seat on the west side of the train so have an ocean-view window (if you're traveling to Los Angeles and facing the front of the train, sit on the lefthand side).

Can I Use Public Transportation to Travel From the Airport?

For an airport as busy as LAX and a city as big as Los Angeles, there are surprisingly few options for getting out of the airport. The easiest way is to use the FlyAway bus, which has routes to Hollywood, Union Station, Long Beach, or Van Nuys. A ride on the FlyAway bus costs about $10, depending on your final destination.

You can also take a shuttle from the airport to the LAX Station of Line C (formerly the Green Line) of the Los Angeles metro. If you want to reach Downtown LA, you'll have to change trains at the Willowbrook Station to Line A (formerly the Blue Line).

Taxis or ride-hailing app vehicles are also available from the airport, but the time and cost can vary drastically based on your destination and the amount of traffic.

What Is There to Do in Los Angeles?

You could spend weeks traveling around Los Angeles and still be unable to experience it all. It's the second-largest city in the U.S. after New York City, so it's no surprise that LA is a hub for the arts, music concerts, cultural events, hot restaurants, and just about everything else. If you're a film geek, you can't leave without seeing the Hollywood sign, the stars on the Walk of Fame, or the Dolby Theater. Art lovers can see two renowned museums—the Broad and the Museum of Contemporary Art—right across the street from each other.

And if you're a foodie, it's hard not to be overwhelmed by the options. Authentic tacos, barbeque in Koreatown, or elegant farm-to-table cuisine are just an example of what you'll find in Los Angeles. At sunset, don't forget to take a trip to the Griffith Observatory for an unbeatable view of the skyline.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How far is it from Los Angeles to San Diego?

    It's about 120 miles from Los Angeles to San Diego.

  • How long is the drive from Los Angeles to San Diego?

    Without traffic, it takes about two hours to get to downtown Los Angeles from San Diego or vice versa. However, traffic can add significantly to that.

  • What train goes from San Diego to Los Angeles?

    Amtrak's Pacific Surfliner runs between San Diego and Los Angeles, taking just under three hours and stopping in several Orange County cities (including Anaheim) on the way.

Article Sources
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  1. Nations Online. "United States Most Populated Cities." Retrieved June 14, 2021