Riding Public Transit with Kids Is Easy as 1-2-3


All kids love to see the trolley or bus go by. But have you ever been on the bus or the trolley in San Diego? Figuring out the system can be daunting, especially if you are riding public transit with kids.

Never fear! You’ll be a pro in no time, thanks to these three easy steps to riding San Diego’s Metropolitan Transit System (MTS) with kids.

riding transit with kids in strollers
San Diego’s trolleys are very family-friendly and can easily accommodate strollers. Even young children can get excited about a trolley ride!

Step 1: Find your route and station

My go-to method for planning my trip is the PRONTO app. Select “Next Departure” for the buses and trolleys leaving from stations close to your chosen location. Or choose “Trip Planner” to enter a starting point, destination, and time of departure.

trolley coming down the lineIf you’re not using the PRONTO app, all this can also be done in a web browser. Tell your search engine, “Navigate to [destination] via MTS,” or “Navigate from [location] to [location] via MTS.” This will bring up a list of choices for how to reach your destination via trolley or bus. You can change your departure and arrival times and choose your route, all in one place, just like in the app.

San Diego has three trolley lines: green, blue, and orange. Some lines share tracks and stations, so check the display on each trolley as it arrives to make sure you’re getting on the line you want. Also, check the arrivals display above each track to be certain you’re on the correct platform for the direction you’re heading. 

trolley and bus fare infoStep 2: Pay your fare 

Let’s start with the best news: All youth ages 18 and under ride free in San Diego with a youth pass. Register your child’s PRONTO card as a youth pass online, or purchase one in person at an MTS store or NCTD customer service center. Tap your youth card or scan mobile app for your free ride. Older youths may be required to show proof of age on board.

The adults in your riding party have three options to pay for the trip: mobile app, vending machine, and PRONTO Card. 

graphic PRONTO mobile app
Search for “PRONTO San Diego” in the app store.

Mobile app

By far the fastest way to buy tickets on the fly is through MTS’s mobile app PRONTO. (Search for “PRONTO San Diego” in the app store.) The app links to a credit/debit card so you don’t have to re-enter payment info every time you purchase a ticket. You can ask the app to create a new virtual PRONTO card for you, or you can link an existing PRONTO card to your account on the app if you already have one.

Once you’ve signed up, buying a ticket takes about 15 seconds. (This is easily done while pushing the stroller and running for your trolley.) You can link multiple cards to your mobile account, so you can carry the fare for the whole family on one device. Scan the app’s QR code at the trolley station or onboard the bus to pay your fare.


transit with kids easy as 1-2-3
Scan on board the bus or before boarding the trolley.

Physical transit passes, called PRONTO cards, are the size and shape of a credit card. Purchase and load your PRONTO card at the vending machine at your trolley station (see below) or at your local grocery store or transit center.

When it’s time to board, scan your card at the station or on the bus and the correct fare will automatically be deducted from your account. 


Vending machine

using PRONTO vending machine with kids
Purchase your bus or trolley fare using the mobile PRONTO app or from a vending machine at the trolley station.

Every trolley station is equipped with at least one PRONTO ticket vending machine that accepts cash and credit/debit cards. Here, you can purchase a single-ride paper ticket for the trolley, or a refillable PRONTO Card. Important: Tickets are not sold onboard trolleys, so pay your fare before you board.

You can also purchase a one-way fare onboard the bus using cash only – no credit or debit cards, and no change is given. If your trip includes a transfer, the ride charged to your PRONTO card will automatically allow transfers for two hours after the first scan.  

What will it cost?

One-way fares for adults over age 18 are $2.50 one-way. (Senior/disabled/medicare special fares are also available.) Receive unlimited free transfers between buses and trolleys within two hours of your initial ride. No matter how many rides you take in a day, your PRONTO account will never be charged more than the cost of a day pass, which is $6. Be sure to scan before every ride, so you can receive your free transfers and earn your day pass.

Step 3: All aboard!

On the trolley

kids love riding public transit
Heavy stroller? Push the blue button to use the trolley’s ramp.

Trolleys are very family-friendly. Large aisles accommodate most strollers, bikes, and carts full of stuff – all of which you’ll see regularly onboard. Heavy stroller? Push the trolley door’s blue button with the wheelchair symbol to get a ramp up to the trolley. (Back up and wait a minute for it to deploy. The kids love this part!) 

Depending on the time of day and station, trolleys may stay at the platform for long minutes or mere seconds. Be ready to board and keep your kids away from the yellow platform sidewalk – as I tell my little ones, seeing kids close to the tracks makes the drivers nervous!

Officers randomly patrol trolleys, checking that passengers have valid fares. You won’t always see an officer, but have your ticket or app ready to show when they do pass through your trolley car. Riding without a fare can cost you a $25 fine. 

On the bus

riding the bus with kids in San Diego
Bus drivers will let you know if it’s okay to take your stroller onboard or if you need to fold it up.

Buses are also kid-friendly, but they do not accommodate strollers as well as trolleys do. Some drivers will ask you to fold up your stroller before boarding. I learned to pack an easy-to-remove kid-gear bag and bring my quick-fold stroller when I plan to take the bus.

Pay your cash fare, tap your PRONTO card, or scan your mobile app when you board. Buses don’t give change, so bring the exact fare if you can. Some buses will announce the next stop, but feel free when you board to tell the driver where you plan to get off, especially if you don’t know the area. Drivers are generally very helpful and will give you a heads up when your stop is approaching. My kids love to pull the yellow cable to signal the driver that our stop is up next!

But Is It Safe?

Rowdy or loud behavior at transit stops can make riders – especially parents – uneasy. Walking past a person camped out with all their belongings can be uncomfortable. But the perception of public transit as dangerous or scary is mostly unfounded in San Diego. The Metropolitan Transit System has recently beefed up its security presence and continues to improve its security practices

While waiting at the station, be confident, stay alert, and talk to your kids about your experience. If you feel uncomfortable, don’t hesitate to move away from anyone who seems dangerous or unsanitary. As more families use and promote public transit, the system will get even safer and its reputation will improve.

Once you’re in the swing of it, public transit will open up San Diego to you and your family. Take transit with kids to a San Diego Moms event, or to Old Town, San Diego Zoo, Liberty Station, or Mission Valley. Petco Park and the airport are an easy ride away. With only a little planning, you and your kids can be riding San Diego’s bus and trolley in style!

Note: San Diego’s transit fare system was updated from Compass to PRONTO in October 2021. Compass cards and the Compass Cloud app are no longer accepted.

During the first week of October we celebrate Clean Air Day in California! Take the Clean Air Pledge and commit to using public transit more often.


  1. Yes! It really is that easy once you get the hang of it 🙂 We ride the bus and trolley several times a week and my 1yo and 3yo love it. Most bus drivers have been kind and welcoming to us.

  2. So glad to see this article that encourages families to explore public transport. I would love to try it when exploring San Diego. Travelling in public transport definitely gives kids an an opportunity to see their cities in a new light and is a fantastic way to learn on the road. I loved reading this article and hope to see many more from this author. 🙂

  3. I’m so confused! The SD transit page says strollers aren’t allowed on trolleys? Is that enforced or go people take strollers on anyway? Thanks!


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