How to road trip California on a budget: save on gas, accommodation and food – and stop at the most budget-friendly destinations!
How to Road Trip California on a Budget
Trip? IN THIS ECONOMY? In fact, yes – despite gas prices and rising inflation, roadtrip can be a fun, budget-friendly way to travel on the most beautiful coast of the United States
In fact, given the rising cost of flying and carpooling, it can be more affordable (and much more exciting) to hike in California by car than to fly! Do not let the sticker shock at the pump deter you – with just a little planning and preparation you will be on a memorable experience where you can explore all of California’s best cities and sights in no time.
Saving on gas
First, I would highly recommend buying a Costco membership if you do not already have one.
Costco gas stations offer big discounts, with prices often $ 0.20 to $ 0.30 less than competing local gas stations – savings that increase rapidly when you refill the tank regularly on long-distance driving.
The gas savings alone can pay for the membership itself ($ 60 when purchased directly, and often available at a great discount on Groupon), but don’t forget to use it for groceries too! Filling up on snacks, water and even alcohol at Costco prices will slow down the impulse consumption in mini markets and traditional grocery stores.
Second, be sure to download GasBuddy app. When you enter your start and stop destinations, the app will give you the cheapest petrol prices along your updated daily route.
With a map that clearly shows the location of each option, GasBuddy is particularly helpful in drawing your attention to more affordable stations that may not be immediately off the highway or within sight of the road – it is often worth filling out a few minutes extra from your route. up at a station a mile away, but at a significantly better price.
I have been using this app on my latest Roadtrip in the western United States and saved lots of money!
Cheapest time to visit California
It should come as no surprise that California is a hot tourist destination, with visitors traveling from all over the world all year round – and the prices of everything from attractions to hotels will reflect that. With enviable weather most of the year, there really is no “low season,” but there are a few special time frames you might want to avoid to slow down price increases.
The summer months (May-August) are an obvious time to avoid if you can, but autumn (late September / October) will bring better prices, less crowds and even better weather in coastal towns notorious for foggy mornings through spring and summer.
If you are willing to risk a cloudy / rainy day or two, you may see even greater savings in the winter months to early spring, but be sure to miss the spring break, which starts in March.
Assuming you travel up the coastline, it should come as no surprise that larger beach towns can break the bank. Our tip? Spend the day in your favorite city, and spend the night in a more affordable city nearby.
While you can easily swing a hotel in big cities like San Francisco or LA for under $ 200, accommodation in smaller, more “boutique” areas like Napa or Santa Barbara can easily drive you $ 400 / night or more – and that’s when you go a little further along your route for an accessibility worth half the price.
Planning ahead is key, but if you are willing to be flexible and spend the first or last hour of your day driving, you will see more destinations and save big! Listed below are larger roadtrip towns you will be sure not to miss, and more affordable accommodations nearby.
Free or cheap stops
- Hiking Redwoods at Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park ($ 5; skip Muir Woods, too busy and no parking)
- Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco (free)
- Street art tour, San Francisco (free)
- Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (free, not including rides – often free live music / events)
- Mystery Spot, Santa Cruz ($ 13, incl. Parking)
- 17 Mile Drive, Monterey ($ 11.25 admission)
- Big Sur / Pfeiffer Beach ($ 10 – $ 12 admission to State Park)
- Carmel Mission ($ 10) and Point Lobos State Natural Reserve ($ 10 parking, or free if you park along PCH)
- Kayaks for Rent in Santa Barbara ($ 12 / hour)
- Solvang Danish Village, Solvang (free)
- The Getty (free); free admission days at other LA museums (free)
- Walk along the seafront in Venice and watch the canals (free)
- Balboa Park and Coronado Island, San Diego (available)
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When to save
Breakfast and lunch are particularly easy times to choose budget options without missing out on much – no one has FOMO over an overpriced, $ 20 salad. Continental breakfast is a huge win here and you can also bring breakfast bars (these are my favorite bars with all-natural ingredients) so you don’t have to eat at a restaurant.
Picnic lunches are fun and affordable (Sprouts deli sandwich, anyone?) And can be easily brought to the beach or a local park to take advantage of the California sunshine!
On a road trip, the exact city or hotel you are staying in does not mean as much as you would think (as long as it is a safe area!).
I can say from experience that hotels on a road trip are very rarely an eye-catching detail as you spend much less time there than you would think and are likely to change location every night.
The quaint, locally owned motel or B&B is often as good (if not better!) Than a generic 3-star chain hotel.
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Let’s be honest – the silly souvenirs in tourist shops are usually cheesy, cheap quality and take up valuable space in your car. Instead of picking up a collection of print-screened t-shirts and fridge magnets, you can save your money and take pictures to create a memorial album to commemorate your road trip.
Use a little more in advance for one instax mini cameraor go even more budget-friendly and have your phone photos turned into a Polaroid-style photo book!
When to splurge
Attractions unique to the city / area
Whether you are a native of California or visiting California for the first time, my motto is to treat each trip as if it were the last time you are there – because you really never know if or when you will return!
This is considered as spending on the attractions that you will not see anywhere else, whether it is time or money. Some state or national parks may be reasonably affordable, but take more of your day – and probably worth it!
The same could be said about certain more expensive attractions like Disneyland, Universal Studios, Alcatraz, Monterey Bay Aquarium or San Diego Zoo. It can cost you both time AND money to venture into the country off the coast to unforgettable places like Lake Tahoe, Yosemiteor Joshua Tree National Parkbut considering that you have a car at your disposal, then it is definitely a wealth I would recommend.
Consider that you will be sitting in your car for longer than you are probably used to! If you rent a car, choose the more comfortable option – whatever it looks like to you, whether it’s seat heaters, more leg / headroom, a larger trunk to store your luggage and free up space.
Do you take your own car? Get a car organizer in the back seat to store all your items and keep them within reach (but away from your seats), a lumbar support pillow, travel pillow, diffuser for essential oil, phone holder or sunshade extender. Trust that the little things can make a BIG difference!
Activities that create lasting memories
Take the surf lesson in San Diego, or take a wine tasting Napa. Locally famous restaurant with Instagram-worthy views and a Food Network chef? Do it! You do not have to worry about throwing out a few key experiences you want to talk about long after the road trip is over – you just can not put a price on memories like that.