7 Tips for visiting the San Diego Zoo

Posted By Allison on Nov 7, 2013

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The world-famous San Diego Zoo is one of the top attractions for families in the San Diego area. It is conveniently located near downtown San Diego and offers visitors the chance to see exotic animals that are not commonly found in other zoos.

Our family recently made a return visit to the San Diego Zoo. Here are our top tips for planning a visit.

7 tips and tricks for visiting the world famous San Diego Zoo | tipsforfamilytrips.com | Southern California | family vacation | spring break | summer vacation | travel

Avoid paying full price

There are lots of discounts available for the San Diego Zoo. Here are my go-to bargains.

  • Bundle – I book my San Diego trips through Get Away Today Vacations because they can bundle my hotel and tickets for the lowest possible price. They also sell individual tickets to the San Diego Zoo and other popular Southern California parks for less than the official sites. Read to the end of this post to get a $25 coupon code and learn more about my partnership with Get Away Today.
  • CityPASS or Go Card are also good ways to bundle admissions if you plan to visit other popular attractions in and around San Diego like LEGOLAND, SeaWorld and Disneyland. Get Away Today sells Southern California CityPASS for less than the official site.
  • Visit in October – for the past couple of years, the San Diego Zoo and many other San Diego attractions have offered kids (ages 3-11) free admission with a paying adult during the month of October. This deal may not include all the amenities (like the tram) that are included in the regular ticket. Visit this post for more information.
  • Check with your hotel – If you’ve already booked a hotel in San Diego, chances are that you can purchase discounted tickets from the front desk.

San Diego Zoo

Pack a picnic

This isn’t absolutely essential, since the San Diego Zoo has a variety of restaurants to choose from. However, it drives me crazy when I buy a pricey kids meal and then my child eats less than half of it. The San Diego Zoo allows you to bring in your own food, so save yourself some cash and fill a backpack with cheese slices, crackers, baby carrots, grapes, bottled water, cookies and trail mix, or something equally easy that your family will actually eat.

Arrive early

This is a good rule of thumb for nearly all attractions. When you arrive early at the San Diego Zoo, you get to enjoy popular exhibits without the crowds. Morning is a good time to visit favorite animals such as koalas, bears, lions and tigers because they are often more active in the morning.

San Diego Zoo

Don’t put off the pandas

Beat the crowds by visiting the pandas soon after the zoo opens. The panda exhibit is not as large as other popular exhibits, because there are only a few pandas. It is the only habitat at the San Diego Zoo that is built for lines. A member of the zoo staff is on hand at all times to talk about the pandas, and presumably, to keep the line moving. Panda crowds were not a problem on the October weekday we were there, but they could be a problem during weekends and school breaks.


The San Diego Zoo is large and few families will have the time or energy to see every animal exhibit, plus take the guided bus tour and see the shows. Early on, do a quick review of the zoo map and show schedule to make sure you see all of your priority exhibits.

Our top exhibits included koalas, pandas, elephants, polar bears, monkeys, gorillas, hippos, giraffes, lions and tigers. We were able to see all of these, and many interesting exhibits in between. We rode the aerial tram one way and took the guided bus tour. We spent little time in the Children’s Zoo and did not see any shows.

San Diego Zoo

Pay attention to the plants

The San Diego Zoo is not just a home for exotic animals, but for exotic plants as well. It is a botanical garden with many beautiful flowers and unique varieties. The zoo grows its own bamboo for the pandas, as well as food for other animals throughout the zoo.

Save the bus tour for the afternoon

The guided bus tour is included with regular admission, so be sure to save time for it during your visit. It is a 35-minute narrated tour on a brightly painted open air, double-decker bus. There are a couple of good strategies for the bus tour:

  1. Take the tour early in the day. Beat the crowds and get an overview of the zoo, so you know what to go back and see up close.
  2. Take the tour in the afternoon. The best time to ride the bus is when your feet are tired.

I vote for #2. Early in the day when the family is fresh and crowds are lighter is the best time to walk around the zoo and see priority exhibits up close. The downside of this plan is that many other visitors will have the same idea, so you’ll spend longer in the bus line. Buses load continuously all day, so you probably won’t have to wait long. This is a good time to spend some of the money you saved by packing a lunch on a cold soda or treat.

San Diego Zoo

The San Diego Zoo is one of our favorite attractions in San Diego. We also enjoyed the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, which is located about 30 miles away. The Safari Park has some of the same animals as the San Diego Zoo, but offers some unusual zoo experiences as well. If your family loves zoos, you may want to enjoy both on the same trip.

Good to Know

Where: 2920 Zoo Drive in Balboa Park, just north of downtown San Diego

When: Year-round

How much: For a single day pass:

  • $50 per adult (ages 12+)
  • $40 per child (ages 3-11)
  • FREE for ages 0-2
  • Prices updated February 2016. See website below to check current rates.

How long: One full day

Amenities: free parking, restaurants, stroller/wheelchair rental, lockers, backstage tours and special experiences are also available for an additional cost

Website: www.sandiegozoo.org

Planning a trip to San Diego?

We recommend booking your San Diego trip with Get Away Today. Find a cheaper vacation package? They’ll beat the price by $10. Learn more about our partnership with Get Away Today here.


ANYTIME: Save $25 on any San Diego vacation package of 2 nights or more that includes 2 tickets (San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld, etc) when you use the coupon code SDFamily.

Allison on EmailAllison on FacebookAllison on InstagramAllison on Pinterest
Hi there! I am the founder of Tips for Family Trips. I am a married mom of two children, ages 10 and 12, living near Salt Lake City, Utah. We took our first child on a two-week road trip when she was four weeks old and we have been traveling as a family ever since. We love to get out of the house to see and do fun things, both far away and in our own neighborhood.


  1. Sitting here in San Diego planning our visit to various spots and your website is a great find. Thanks so much!

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  2. You are to the point!!! No talk about nonsense. I like that. You said tips and that’s what you gave us. THANKS Allison !!!

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      • My wife, 2 grandkids and myself had a ballllll..in San Diego. We stayed 4 days and will return next summer. Would live there but…Can’t get get the large house for what we pay here in Phx.
        Your tips helped immensely.

      • I’m so glad that you had a great trip! I agree that I could happily live in San Diego. It’s such a fun and beautiful place.

  3. Thanks for the tips we are going Sept 5th for my sons 3rd birthday! We are very excited!

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  4. Thanks for sharing. I am always wishing to visit this world class zoo.

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    • You’re welcome. It is a great zoo. We hope you are able to visit soon.

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  5. I just read your tips on the safari park (we are doing both) so I had to come over here to read these tips as well!

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  6. Hi, We’re wondering if bus and aerial tours are free with paid tix? and can we hop on hop off?

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    • The bus tour, aerial tram and Kangaroo Express bus are included with the regular pass. The bus tour starts and finishes in the same place, with no stops. You can take one way trips on the aerial tram, which has two entry/exit points. The Kangaroo Bus has four stops in the zoo, and you can hop on and hop off. It comes by about every 15 minutes.

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  7. Just did the San Diego Zoo and how funny I found this post. I was planing on writing something like that but the funny thing is that I did exactly what you did. Besides, the 3 to 11 year old deal is no longer valid and they charge $35 per kid. Only under two is free now. You can get a $5 discount with a hotel brochures. We had fun.

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    • Thanks for the update! I’m so glad to know that most of these tips hold up over time. I’ll update the pricing in the post. So glad you had a great time at the zoo.

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  8. I found a $6 off regular ticket prices for up to 8 tickets from retailmenot.com. I want to buy the tickets online now before the code expires, even though our vacation isn’t until May. I went through the booking processes on their website and they don’t have any options to pick a date for visiting. Do you know if I buy tickets online are they good for any future date?

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    • I’m not certain of the answer, but I would read the retailmenot terms carefully. If in doubt, I would call or email the San Diego Zoo before you commit. If you buy tickets directly from the zoo’s site in advance, they are good for one year from date of purchase. Hopefully, the same will be true of these tickets. Thanks for this discount tip!

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  9. Thanks for the reply. Yes, they are good for one year. I saved $18 it’s a great deal.

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  10. Even though I live in San Diego, I’d never been to the Zoo before last Saturday and I must say your website was very helpful when planning my fun day at the Zoo. The post is very straightforward and the information is very useful. I’m gonna write a post about my experience on my blog and I’m gonna mention your page 🙂 Thanks for sharing!

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    • Thanks so much! I’m so glad to hear you had a great day at the zoo. 🙂

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  11. Planning our first trip to the San diego zoo- we are a family of 6. Thrilled to get the kids in free for October. My husband and i will do just the general admission- which comes with the guided bus tour and skyfari aerial tram correct? But my understanding is that the kids, since are free, do NOT get to use those for free? I’m having trouble finding how much those are to pay for separately and WHEN we buy those. Please help!

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    • Hi Tricia! That’s a great question, and I have found more information. You are correct that the adult admissions will include the bus tour and aerial tram. You are also correct that the free kids admissions (ages 3-11) do not include them. If you want to add them on, here are details:

      In 2017, it will cost $12 per child to add the bus tour and tram to their free admission (compared with $42 regular admission.) You can purchase this upgrade at any ticket window. Hope that helps!

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  12. Thanks for the details!! Is thanksgiving weekend a good time to visit ?

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    • You are welcome. 🙂 I haven’t personally visited in November, but I suspect that the zoo will be crowded on Thanksgiving weekend because the long holiday weekend will attract both travelers and locals. If you plan for crowds, you should still have fun. If you can visit any day other than Friday or Saturday, crowds may be a lot lighter.

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