8 Tips for Planning a California Vacation on a Budget
Updated: May 15, 2022
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.
Fortunately, planning a trip to California on a budget isn't impossible. It just takes some forethought and careful strategy, on everything from airline tickets to hotel reservations. When it comes to saving money on a California vacation, being strategic about your flight, your lodging, and timing is key. There's a lot more you can do to save money, too. Read on for key tips to help you make ends meet while you revel in the glory of California dreaming.
Best Budget California Vacation Tips
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, like Southwest Airlines or JetBlue.
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.
Flexibility can save you big on airline flights. If you're still 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. Visit during the shoulder season.
Another way to save by changing your time is to visit during the "in-between" time. You could consider visiting during the shoulder season. The shoulder season is defined as the time between the high and low seasons for tourism. In California, this means visiting between September and November or March and May.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to save money on your trip as well. For example, you could look for hotel deals and discounts, or take advantage of what California's state parks have to offer. No matter what, you with a little bit of planning, you can absolutely find ways to visit California on a budget!
4. Find the best hotel deals
Hotels in California can be expensive. However, there are ways to save money on hotels in the sunshine state. You can start by looking for hotel deals online. There are many websites that offer discounts on hotels in California, from Booking.com to Expedia.com and beyond.
If at all possible, try to book your hotel room in advance. This will give you the opportunity to find a better rate. You should also consider staying at a hotel that is not in the heart of the city. Hotels in downtown areas are typically more expensive than those located in more suburban areas.
Still want to save? Look for hotel discounts and coupons. You can often find these online or in travel magazines.
While it can be tempting to splurge on a luxurious hotel or resort, cutting back here leaves you more money to spend on other aspects of your vacation.
5. 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 California vacations are a real thing! (That being said, you will pay through the nose for parking anywhere you go, so park wisely.)
When you're planning a trip to California on a budget, don't forget our nation's best-kept "secrets"--our National Parks! 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.
6. 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 when you are trying to enjoy a budget friendly family vacation in California.
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!
7. 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.
8. Take pictures instead of buying souvenirs.
California on a budget is still filled with excellent shopping that is world-class in every way. When you're on vacation, it's extremely tempting to want to buy everything in sight anyway. It's even harder when you're in a place like this!
Taking photos instead of buying souvenirs may help. This is actually 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. You'll be glad you did when you get home and your wallet is a lot fuller than it would have been otherwise!
Have you been to California? What budget-friendly vacation tips did you pick up? Share your budget California vacation advice below!
Have questions about the best way to save on your flights to the sunshine state? Check out our post, "Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Visa Credit Card From Chase: Is It Worth It?" to see whether this benefit-packed credit card could help put some serious cash back in your pocket.
And that's it! With a little bit of creativity and flexibility, you can plan an unforgettable California vacation without breaking the bank. Just remember to have fun--that's what vacations are all about, after all!
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