How to See California on a Budget

Thrifty Rent-A-Car System, Inc.
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Want to visit the Golden State, but not sure it is within your means? Check out these tips for seeing California on a budget!

Beaches are a great free activity to see California on a budget!

California is an incredible place to visit, but it isn’t exactly easy on the old pocketbook. Here, we share seven of our favorite tips to explore California for cheap!

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1. Consider boondocking

If you are interested in RVing at all, you have probably heard of boondocking. Boondocking is camping off-grid for free, without the traditional amenities offered in campgrounds. You can stay in the same place for days or weeks at a time without paying a cent. Boondocking is completely legal in California on any Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land. As everything is more expensive in California, camping for free is a great way to see California on a budget. On our honeymoon, we stayed at a hotel on Shelter Island. It was beautiful, with a views of the water on each side. The entirety of our stay there, there was an RV parked in a park across the street (presumably boondocking). They enjoyed the same view we did, without spending a cent! Check out the Bureau of Land Management website to find out where to camp in California for free.

Boondocking is a great way to see California on a budget!
Boondocking is a great way to save on your lodging costs.

2. Hotels.com

Camping and boondocking not your style? No worries! It is still possible to see California on a budget while staying in hotels. I love using Hotels.com for scoring great deals on hotels. They not only offer rooms at a discount, but you can usually find an additional discount code through Retailmenot.com. Additionally, when you stay 10 nights with them, you get one free. Looking for other tips to save on your hotel stay? Check out our six best tips for hoteling it on a budget here!

3. Consider a National Parks Pass

Yosemite National Park is one site included with the National Parks Pass--allowing you to see this and other amazing California sights for cheap!
Yosemite National Park

California is full of national parks, monuments, and trails! There are 33 of them to be exact. For only $80, you can get a National Parks pass that is good for a full year. Note: it is actually good through the end of the month purchased the previous year, so try to purchase towards the beginning of the month to get the most bang for your buck! Some of the more well-known sights included with the pass are Alcatraz Island, Death Valley, Joshua Tree National Park, Yosemite National Park, and Redwood National Park. With so much to do, this pass will really stretch your vacation budget and allow you to view some of the most beautiful sights in California for cheap. Read about how we made the most of our National Parks pass on our honeymoon here!

4. CityPASS

CityPASS is a program that helps you save on activities in large cities. The pass pays for itself in two or three activities. Any more that you complete above and beyond that will save you even more money. CityPASS offers different deals in different cities. For example, the Southern California CityPASS sites offer discounted tickets on Disney and Universal theme parks. Please note that there are limits on how many attractions you can visit in certain cities. CityPASS is available in San Francisco and Southern California, in addition to other cities outside the state.

Save up to 50% on combined prices for admission to must-see attractions! Shop Now at CityPASS.com!

5. Take advantage of free outdoor activities

One of my favorite activities while we were in San Diego was biking along Pacific Beach. It was completely free (except we kept stopping for food and drinks!). The people-watching and views right along the beach made it a fun and interesting experience. People at the beach were having campfires and surfing, which was costing them nothing!

Another fun and free experience was visiting La Jolla. Here, the seals come right up on the rocks in large numbers. It was cool to see wildlife so close and still be in their natural habitat. Be sure to check out California’s beautiful beaches to see the state without breaking your budget.

Viewing the seals in La Jolla is a great way to have fun and see California on a budget!
Viewing the seals in La Jolla is a great way to have fun and see California on a budget!

6. Use gift cards to save on dining out

I get it–eating at local restaurants is part of the fun when traveling! However, consider throwing a few chain restaurants into the mix to save on your dining costs. Starting a couple of months before Christmas, many franchise chains start offering gift card discounts, such as “get a free $10 gift card when you purchase $50 in gift cards”. Double score if you can purchase the cards while restaurants are an extra 5% back on your credit card (both Chase Freedom and Discover offer this on a rotating basis). Last year, Olive Garden had 35% back when you paid with your Chase Freedom card. Pair a deal like this with a gift card bonus, and enjoy saving on your meals out during vacation! Be sure to checkout the deals at Restrauant.com, Groupon, and Living Social too to find deals on local eateries.

10/31: Save Up to 75% Off Activities, Beauty, Tech & More

Rather cook your own meals while traveling? Check out our post on healthy road trip meals here!

7. Save on your rental car and gas

Like everything else in California, gas is expensive! Help negate this cost by getting a rental car that is fuel efficient. By renting a car that gets good gas mileage and using sites/apps such as Gasbuddy to determine the cheapest places to find gas, you can make your California trip more affordable. If you know what franchise of gas stations will be available along your route, try using the gift card trick above to save even more on your gas.

Be sure to get your rental from a reputable company that still offers good prices. We tend to use Fox, Thrifty, and Dollar rental car since they usually have the best deals.

What are some of your favorite things to do in California? What are some ways you lower the costs of your trips? Feel free to share below!

If it wouldn’t be a trip to California without visiting Disneyland, be sure to checkout our article on the best ways to save on your Disney vacation here!

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