By Elaine J. Masters
Navigating traffic and crowded streets to San Diego International Airport can be as much of a struggle as getting through security and onto the airplane. There is another option — flying from Tijuana. Just steps from the Otay Mesa border crossing, the Tijuana Airport (TIJ) is surprisingly modern and spacious, and flights from Tijuana are often cheaper than flights from San Diego.
A new bi-national bridge is on schedule to open by the end of the year to allow travelers to walk directly from the U.S. side into the airport, and travel services are being built along both sides of the border. Until the new bridge is open, travelers can walk across the border to waiting taxis about five minutes away. While improvements are on-going, the path is simple to navigate even with luggage.
Veteran traveler and San Diego resident Teresa Pooley recently took her first flight out of TIJ. She and her husband parked in the U.S. and took a shuttle to the border.
“It was easy to walk across with only two pieces of luggage, even though there’s still construction in the walking area,” Pooley said. “Cabs were right there and the ride was only about six minutes. The airport is beautiful, totally modern and very large, almost as nice as Lindbergh.”
Her hotel and flight package to Cancun was also much less expensive and more direct than a flight from San Diego would have been. This is true for many Latin American destinations.
Flying to Lima, Peru? One of the cheapest September deals from San Diego right now is a Delta Airlines roundtrip to Lima for about $1,164, with a layover in Atlanta. From Tijuana, on the other hand, you can get to Lima and back on the same dates for just $577 on Aeroméxico, with a layover in Mexico City.
How about a trip to Costa Rica? From San Diego, one of the September best deals right now is a roundtrip to San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital, on United Airlines for $521 with a layover in Houston. From Tijuana, the roundtrip to San Jose costs $343 on Aeromexico with one stop in Mexico City.
(The savings are not as great for flights to destinations outside of Latin America. To most destinations within the United States, for example, you’ll pay less flying out of San Diego than Tijuana.)
Getting to TIJ is already speedy for county residents. State Route 125 leads drivers directly to the Otay Mesa border crossing. Interstates 5 and 805 lead south and east to Route 905, which has a clearly marked border exit. Several companies offer secure parking on the U.S. side with shuttle rides to the border. Some require advance reservations. Buses, taxis and shuttles also take passengers to the Otay crossing.
While identification isn’t checked when entering Mexico, U.S. citizens always need a valid passport or SENTRI Card to return home. When traveling through Mexico, south of Baja, travelers will need to purchase a Visitor’s Card (FMM), which is not technically a visa, and can do so easily at a kiosk inside the airport terminal. The cost is about $22 U.S.
By the end of the year, travelers will be able to walk from the United States directly into the TIJ airport terminal. A new second level, mezzanine area, is being built for fliers who purchase tickets for the Cross Border Xpress Bridge.
Spanning 325 feet between countries, it will take only about five minutes to walk across the bridge and over the Federal Highway into the terminal or back into the U.S. Tickets to use the bridge will be $15 each way and will only be available for airline ticket holders whose flights leave within 24 hours. On the U.S. side of the bridge there will be short- and long-term parking, tourist shops and food. Curb access will be available for taxis, shuttles or those being dropped off at the bridge. The Cross Border Xpress Bridge will be staffed by U.S. and Mexican customs and immigration officers.
Coming into the U.S. from international flights will be easier too. Fliers may pick up their baggage in a secure area and purchase tickets for the bridge. They then gain access to the new second level of the TIJ terminal to walk over to U.S. Customs and Immigration.
There are other reasons to celebrate the cross-border improvements and additions. The Cross Border Xpress will be the first of its kind in the western hemisphere and the second self-sustaining cross-border bridge in the world.
The new customs office required a presidential permit approved by both the U.S. and Mexico.
“Once it opens, the 10-year project will be a boon for travelers as well as business in the region,” says Stephanie Saathoff, spokesperson for the funding group, Otay Tijuana Venture, LLC.
San Diego’s South Bay region is poised to benefit from increased airport services as new restaurants, hotels, car rentals and international businesses develop, she said.
San Diego has been looking for solutions to its crowded skies. Cindy Gomper-Graves, CEO of the South County Economic Development Council, says that the cross-border terminal, the second in the world, will bring increased air capacity and growth.
“[It will] offer easier access and more destinations for flights into the Pacific Rim and Mexico, making travel for companies that have locations in both areas more efficient,” she said.
With all the focus on improvements at the Otay Mesa crossing, flying in and out of the San Diego region through the Tijuana Airport is a travel alternative that is poised for success.
—Elaine J. Masters, founder of the blog TripWellness.com, is an award-winning author, travel writer and long-term San Diego resident.