20 Ways to Vacation in California on the Cheap
California consistently ranks among the most expensive states in the country. But that's hardly a barrier to vacationing in the Golden State, even on a tight budget. Here are 20 tips for traveling cheaply in California.
By identifying the least popular time of year to vacation in your chosen destination, you can find stellar deals and avoid the crowds. Visit Lake Tahoe during March or November, for example, or check out Mammoth Lakes during September or October. Go to the desert -- Palm Springs or neighboring Palm Desert-- from late April to late May, or late September to late October.
National parks are exciting destinations for families, couples, and solo travelers -- and California is home to nine. Entrance fees range from free to $35 a vehicle, or buy an annual unlimited access pass for $80. There are plenty of ways to keep this vacation cheap, whether you're exploring Yosemite, Redwood, Sequoia, Joshua Tree, or Death Valley. California also boasts 11 national monuments (many with lower admission fees), including the Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains in the south and the Lava Beds, a series of volcanic tube caves that include rock art thousands of years old, in the north.
Pay an all-inclusive fee for a weeklong trip, with food and lodging covered in exchange for your help in a volunteer project focused on sustainability and conservation. The Sierra Club, Wilderness Volunteers, the American Hiking Society, and the Half Moon Bay Coastside Chamber of Commerce are good resources for California ecotourism.
There's no need to pay big bucks and visit posh sites such as Newport Beach, Laguna Beach, or Malibu in order to enjoy California's Pacific coast. There are plenty of beach towns and beach-side state parks where you can enjoy a cheap vacation. Watch whales and ride horses at Manchester Beach, or relax at the private, wilder Lost Coast with its cliffs and serene atmosphere. On the stretch of coast between Malibu and Santa Barbara, food and lodging weighs lighter on the wallet. The lesser-known beaches are cleaner and draw fewer crowds.
Camping is one of the least costly ways to vacation, regardless which sites call to you. California offers a variety of climates and landscapes and scores of public and private campsites. In Yosemite, for example, fees run between $10 and $26 a night. Many sites fill up during the summer, so make reservations well ahead of time.
The Southern California CityPass costs $329 for ages 10 and over and $286 for children ages 3 to 9. While that may seem steep, if theme-park hopping is on the agenda, this is definitely worth the investment. The pass affords admission to Disneyland and California Adventure, Legoland, and Sea World San Diego, which charge high entry fees. Tack on the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park for $48 (ages 10 and up) or $38 (ages 3 to 9), and save 27 percent for adults and 33 percent for children off the combined individual admission fees.
The San Francisco Bay Area (which encompasses Oakland, San José, and smaller communities) is notoriously pricey, but there are numerous free and cheap sights and activities. Check FunCheap.com for daily updates on cheap and discounted events. Most local museums sponsor at least one free-admission day each month. The Oakland A's host $2-ticket Wednesdays (sold out for 2015!) and free concerts abound throughout the area. San Francisco's cable cars, which travel three routes, cost $5 each way or $13 for an all-day pass. A walk across the Golden Gate Bridge or a stroll along Pier 39 and Fisherman's Wharf is always free.
Free spots for kids in the Bay Area include the Adventure Playground in Berkeley, the Randall Museum (temporarily relocated to Mission Art Center), and the Fan Lot, an interactive play area at AT and T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. Older children will enjoy Ardenwood Historic Farm ($3 to $6 admission) in Fremont, the High Scores Arcade ($5 donation/one hour of play) in Alameda, and the Bay Model in Sausalito, a working model of the region's river system. And don't overlook the hidden, winding double slide at the intersection of Seward and Douglass Streets in San Francisco. Bring along a plastic tray for a fun, speedy ride down.
For a budget-friendly vacation, enjoy scenic vistas of the Pacific Ocean while driving along California State Route 1, which runs between San Francisco and San Luis Obispo and then merges into U.S. Route 101 heading to Los Angeles. Make pit stops at the Monterey Bay Aquarium ($40 for adults; $25 for ages 3 to 12; $35 for seniors), Big Sur, Hearst Castle ($25 for adults; $12 for children), and Ventura Harbor Village. Look for cheap accommodations or camp along the way.
If you happen to be lodging at a place with a kitchen, save money by preparing your own meals -- and by all means, shop at the bounteous farmers markets scattered throughout the state. California supposedly has more farmers markets than anywhere in the country, and they're filled with seasonal and luscious produce, rich dairy, and farmstead meats, all sold at competitive prices.
For a budget-friendly wine country vacation, timing and location matter. Harvest time is high season; low season runs from December through February. For affordable lodging, seek out accommodations in outlying communities, such as Philo, Boonville, and Calistoga. Check out free tastings listed in the Napa Tourist Guide, and then pack your lunch and rent a bike, or find affordable designated drivers through Craigslist.
Group travel almost always lowers the per person cost of a vacation. In California, where you'll do a lot of driving, this means savings on the rental car (by splitting the rental fee, fuel, and parking costs) and group rates at parks and other attractions. If someone in the group is entitled to a discount -- for belonging to AAA or AARP, for example, or for military service -- the cut rate may extend to others. If everyone is so inclined, shared lodging is another boon for the budget.
California loves its festivals, parades, and fairs. These range from food and wine/beer events to Renaissance fairs to rodeos to sandcastle exhibitions to art/film showings to ethnic celebrations, and so on. SeeCalifornia.com maintains a comprehensive list. Many events are free and provide an unforgettable way to pick up on the local vibe.
This southern California city isn't the most popular urban destination in the state, but it's a smart choice for frugal travelers. Travel websites rave about its glories, from stunning vistas, beaches, parks, and sunsets to the delicious, cheap food and interesting and cheap thrift stores. Then there's the famed San Diego Zoo ($48 for adults; $38 for ages 3 to 11) and SeaWorld ($50 Monday to Friday; $59 otherwise). Passes to multiple parks (the zoo, SeaWorld, Safari Park) can take the sting out of high one-time admission fees. BalboaPark.org is a good resource for package deals to local museums. Baseball fans will appreciate "park at the park," an opportunity for adults to pay as little as $15 to sit on blankets in a grassy yard beyond Petco Stadium where the Padres play and watch the game while picnicking and playing whiffle ball with the kids.
An adventurous spirit and wilderness survival preparation go a long way on a hiking trip through the state. The memoir Wild: Lost and Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed, has inspired hikers since its publication in 2013. Strayed's path was extra long and arduous, but two alternative trails recommended for beginners by the website Without Baggage are the Sykes Hot Spring in Big Sur and the California Riding and Hiking Trail in Joshua Tree. Both can be completed in fewer than four days, and you probably won't spend money on lodging or restaurant meals. For low-cost supplies, check Craigslist and outlet stores in your area before setting out, and be prepared to pay a $5 daily parking fee and perhaps a park entrance fee of $10 or so.
The average rate for all types of accommodations (the entire place, private room, and shared room) throughout California currently is $168 a night on Airbnb; a private room averages $90 a night. But an average is just that, and there are many listings for $30 to $55 for a room in all regions of the state. For comparison's sake, the average daily rate for a 3-star hotel in San Francisco in 2014 was $186, according to data compiled by Statista. Hidden fees and tipping can drive hotel rates higher still. When booking an Airbnb stay, check reviews on the site and also on Yelp, and read up on how to be a good guest.
A day pass to one of the Disney theme parks costs $99 or more, with slight discounts for youngsters. But there are cheaper alternatives. Knott's Berry Farm, an amusement park with big, thrilling rides in Orange County, costs $37 for ages 3 to 11 and $42 for adults when buying online three days in advance. Young children will enjoy Adventure City in Anaheim, where tickets go for $17 a person up to age 55 and $12 beyond that. Other similarly priced, well-reviewed, family-friendly amusement parks include Funderland Amusement Park in Sacramento, Gilroy Gardens Family Theme Park in Santa Clara County, Castle Park in Riverside, and Camelot Park in Bakersfield.
If you're set on exploring an expensive spot such as San Francisco or Los Angeles, save more than pennies by choosing accommodations outside the city. Oakland, Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, and Berkeley allow easy access to San Francisco without decimating your budget. Ditto for areas such as San Pedro, Anaheim, and Venice Beach near Los Angeles. Driving into the city center is possible but can be a hassle; both areas have public transit options.
Outdoorsy, eco-conscious types might enjoy a low-budget California vacation arranged through World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. For a grand total of $20 to $50, participants work on an organic farm for four to six hours a day, for any number of days, and learn about sustainable agriculture. In exchange, volunteers get free meals and board. Most participants spend the non-working portion of their days away from the host farm, seeing sites in the area. There are currently 187 organic farms in California participating in WWOOF, and many are in urgent need of volunteers.
Being the victim of theft, getting in an accident, or having pre-purchased tickets rejected at the gate can boost the expense factor substantially. Check online travel guides for tips about areas to avoid, and make sure there is insurance for the rental car, either through your credit card or by paying a fee at the rental agency. City driving can be dicey and the coastal highways can be tricky to navigate for out-of-towners. Car break-ins are not uncommon in some areas. And beware of ticket scams. Experts caution against buying tickets through scalpers, eBay, or Craigslist. After buying legitimate tickets online through an authorized broker, photocopy or photograph both sides of every ticket and email the documented proof to yourself.