6 Tips for Planning a California Vacation on a Budget
Updated: Apr 24
Are you planning a family vacation in California on a budget? If you are headed to the west coast for some fun in the sun but trying to stick to a budget, you're not alone California is notorious for being expensive, both for residents and tourists. It can be challenging to plan a vacation that lets you see and do the things you want while also sticking to your financial plan. Read on for 6 key tips to help you make ends meet while you revel in the glory of California dreaming.
1. Evaluate flights carefully.
California is home to a mind-boggling number of airports. This is a great thing for you, the traveler, as it means there is competition to drive prices down! In some instances, you may find it best to fly in and out of Los Angeles via LAX. Many airlines offer great fares there. However, if you're planning to spend much of your time outside of the greater LA area, you might be better off overall flying into a small airport, like Burbank, and using Uber rather than renting a car from LA. If you're wondering where to vacation in California on a budget, try this strategy: test out different flight, hotel, and car rental combinations before finalizing your plans. I always use this method when planning a trip, and I am often surprised by what I find!
2. Be flexible on dates.
California is the real deal. Because it's the home of so many major events across entertainment, sports, media, and tech, hotels can book up well in advance. Some events, like Coachella, are well-established and happen every year. This means that hotel companies likely raise their rates for event dates well in advance. Try to schedule your trip around those times and you'll be better off when it comes to cost.
3. Explore freebies.
California is loaded with awesome free things to see and do. From the Griffith Park observatory in Los Angeles to Santa Monica beach to the Hollywood Walk of Fame, you could easily plan an entire vacation revolving around free attractions. Budget-friendly California vacations are a real thing! (That being said, you will pay through the nose for parking anywhere you go, so park wisely.)
National Parks sometimes have free admission days, so take advantage of California's natural beauty whenever possible, too! If all else fails, California is largely coastline, and driving up the Pacific Coast Highway might just be one of the most gorgeous ways in the world to spend a day.
4. Consider camping (or glamping).
If you're a fan of the great outdoors, Cali is a great place to make the most of nature! Pitch a tent and enjoy warm weather as you adventure throughout the state. Camp sites are usually half the cost of a reasonable hotel, if not even less. It's a surefire way to save some cash!
If a Southern California vacation on a budget is your ideal trip, give the San Onofre Bluffs Campground a chance. There's nothing quite like sleeping right next to the ocean!
5. Pick and choose your splurges.
Don't get me wrong, there are some awesome things to do in California that cost an arm and a leg. They might even cost a bit more than you'd hoped to spend. But it's your vacation, and who knows when you might get there again, right? I hear you.
If you're looking to splurge on a once-in-a-lifetime experience, there are still ways to do it in moderation. Headed to Universal Studios Hollywood? Eat a decent breakfast beforehand, skip lunch in the park, and opt for a Butterbeer instead. Head offsite for an inexpensive dinner when you're all done riding the Hippogriff ride for the 18th time, and call it a night. Same thing goes for Sea World, Disneyland, or the Warner Brothers Studio Tour. Big-ticket attractions are costly, so save on food, souvenirs, or transportation wherever possible.
Budget-friendly California beach vacations are also a great way to save money while seeing some of the most gorgeous sights you'll ever set eyes on. Take a stroll along Venice Beach and focus on the blue and purple mountains in the distance, juxtaposed against the colorful carnival rides on the Santa Monica Pier and the crystal-clear waters. It's absolutely heavenly.
6. Take pictures instead of buying souvenirs.
This is my favorite cost-saving strategy for budget vacations, regardless of my destination. Souvenirs are great, but most things can be purchased anywhere these days (local crafts and food items aside, of course). Why purchase something in San Diego that you'll have to haul all the way to San Francisco and then stuff into your carry-on? California is gorgeous and is filled with tons of natural beauty, as well as awesome landmarks. Take photos of them, have fun with it, and let those serve as your souvenirs.
Have you been to California? What budget-friendly vacation tips did you pick up? Share yours below!