San Diego isn’t exactly the cheapest place to fly out of. Generally speaking if you want to go somewhere overseas you are better off driving up to Los Angeles than flying out of San Diego if you want to go to Asia, Europe or New Zealand, but what if you want to fly to destinations in Mexico, Central or South America?
It turns out there is a huge difference between flying to those destinations from Tijuana than flying from San Diego, both in time, and the cost of the fights themselves. Up until recently that required either crossing by foot or car at Otay or San Ysidro and making your way to the the airport in Tijuana, a minor inconvenience on the way out of the USA, but something that can add hours to your trip on the return home.
Just compare these two example flights using Skyscanner:
Approximately $120 difference and 7 hours flight time when flying to Havana, Cuba.
Flights are less than half the price, and half the travel time when flying to Mexico City
Leaving the United States
All of that changed when the Cross Border Xpress officially opened in December 2016. I’ve used it once when we flew to Mexico City, while Sarah has used it two other times, once for a conference again in Mexico City and another when she went to Cuba (also via Mexico City). The Cross Border Xpress makes air travel from San Diego to Mexico and onwards incredibly convenient, it’s really easy to get to from the southbound freeways in San Diego, you drive there, preferably get dropped off by a friend or an take an Uber or lyft (heres $5 credit towards your first ride) as parking is $15 a day, so adds up pretty quickly if you are gone for more than a few days. Once you get there you simply walk to the desks and check into your flight on the US side of the Border. From there you pay $16 for a one way “bridge ticket” (which is essentially a toll to help fund the construction of the CBX) or $30 return.
From there you take your boarding pass (note that when Sarah flew to Cuba she was unable to check in on the USA side due to it being an international connecting flight on Interjet – Volaris and Aeromexico shouldn’t have any problem checking in for domestic Mexican flights on the USA side, she was however able to check in once in TJ) CBX ticket and your luggage with you and pass through into the terminal. Your ID and boarding pass will be checked and you’ll walk straight into the duty free stores, which as others have noted, seems to be chronically overstaffed compared to the amount of travellers passing through. From there you’ll walk to US Customs, which again seems to be overstaffed, chances are they won’t actually check anything – at least in our experience before you begin the walk on the bridge across the border and into Mexico. You can grab a cart if you really need to, but smart travellers will have their carry on in a small backpack and won’t need to worry. Just remember that you have to leave the cart at the end of the bridge and can’t take it into Mexican territory. If you absolutely need help there are porters on the Mexican side who can help you take your luggage on to the airport and Mexican immigration.
Heres’ where I ran into a small issue – as I regularly cross into Tijuana via the land border at San Ysidro, I have what I’m told is a multi entry 180 day visa. There is a difference of opinion between the officials at the two crossings, and I almost got into trouble for presenting one that I’d used previously with a warning (possibly because the paperwork I had was only for the Border zone, I’m not really sure), so if you are going in this way make sure you have a freshly filled out entry card and leave the other one at home. I had to laugh when I went as I told the customs and immigration official my plans to go by bus from Mexico city to Oaxaca, which was in the middle of some protests that had turned into violence and the look of absolute horror on his face. Apart from that they are friendly and efficient and you’ll be past immigration in no time.
From there you’ll go through the customs, where you’ll be randomly selected for inspection if the button you push goes red, if its green you walk straight through. Once you are done its like almost any other airport, find your gate, and hope for the best. One thing to be aware of however is you are now in a Spanish speaking country and gates do change fairly regularly here for flights, so you’ll need to keep an ear out for any changes so that you make it to the right departure gate for your flight.
Coming back to the United States
Anyone who has travelled to Tijuana via San Ysidro knows how insanely busy it used to be at the old port of entry, with wait times of around 3 hours extremely common. I’ve found it to be a lot quicker at the new port of entry that was built last year, but it’s nothing compared to re entering the United States at the Cross Border Xpress, and this is where you really get value for money with your $12 toll.
Wait for your bags, which can take a little while to arrive at baggage claim, but rest assured they will arrive, or better yet if you are flying carry on only keep on walking to the exit of baggage claim towards the purple Cross Border Xpress signs. If you don’t have a return pass this is where you purchase it.
Make sure you hold onto your boarding passes for your flight to Tijuana (as the Cross Border Xpress is ONLY for those who are flying, you cannot cross if only going to TJ) as well as your return Cross Border Xpress toll.
The process is essentially the reverse of what you went through with entry, with the exception that you probably won’t see any Mexican officials on the way back, follow the bridge until you get to US Customs and immigrations. It’s here where you will make literally the fastest entry into the United States out of any port I’ve been in. What we’ve noticed is that immigration officials tend to outnumber people actually crossing, at least in our experience – possibly because the CBX isn’t that popular yet. Regardless, they are much friendlier than any CBP officials I’ve encountered compared to flying in at say LAX of SFO, and especially when compared to the San Ysidro port of entry (where I’ve been grilled multiple times regarding my Green Card).
The Cross Border Xpress allows San Diegans to take advantage of considerably cheaper flights out of Tijuana and greatly speeds up the border crossing process, meaning that we get to explore far more of Mexico and Central/South America at a far cheaper price. I just hope that its lack of popularity at the moment and the current political climate don’t throw a spanner into the works as it’s great to be able to drive 30 minutes, cross the border quickly and be on a plane flying domestically (and avoiding all the insane regulations that come with going through TSA inspections in the USA) to whatever destination in Mexico you want.
The Cross Border Xpress is easy to find using Google Maps on your phone.Simply take the I-5 or I-805 freeways to the 905 and follow signs to the Cross Border Xpress. There are also minibuses departing from the San Ysidro Trolly station next to the Jack in the Box.