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The cheapest places to visit in California and budget travel tips

Find out the cheapest places to visit in California and get amazing tips for budget CA vacations, including free attractions and free accommodation.


cheapest place to visit in california

This blog post will be about how to travel around one of the most beautiful (and most expensive) states in the USA with a limited amount of funds. From the cheapest places to visit in California (most of them are actually free!) to special budget travel tips, you'll find all you need to plan your backpacking trip.

A guide to cheap California vacations

I'll go into depth about how I stayed one month in San Francisco California, one of the most expensive cities in the USA, and only spent two hundred dollars. I will also share my experience with budget travel in LA and San Diego.

As a backpacker on a budget, the more I am able to stretch my money, the more time I get to spend abroad. So let's talk about how I went to so many beautiful places and had fun-filled and cheap vacations in California.

Finding saver tips from things like accommodation, riding the bus, grocery shopping and cooking helps a lot, so that's why I'm here to share my knowledge with you.

And if you are wondering what are the cheapest places to visit in California, I'll go even beyond that: I'll tell you about amazing destinations that you can visit for free.

So to sum up, this is what you'll find in this article:

a) The cheapest places to visit in California

I'll tell you about the best cheap (or free) spots to visit in three big cities:

  • San Francisco
  • Los Angeles
  • San Diego

b) 7 general tips to cheap California vacations

  1. Learn to save money with food in your trip
  2. Use affordable modes of transportation 
  3. Find the rigt flight in the rigth time 
  4. Save money in a long term trip in California
  5. Save money in a short term trip in California
  6. Plan your budget trip to California in advance
  7. Remember: the best memories don't cost a dollar 

The cheapest places to visit in California

Now let's go to the best part, the free activities! Listed down below are the cheapest places to visit in California: sites, parks, monuments and museums that are completely free to visit or charge a small fee.

I'll focus on three of the main destinations in California: San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego.

Best spots to visit in San Francisco on a budget

Golden Gate Bridge - FREE

I took a bus directly to the entrance of the Golden Gate bridge and gave myself a self guided tour by walking around with another fellow solo traveler. We chatted as we walked down the 1.7 mile long bridge.

My solo walking excursion was much better than those “hop on, hop off” bus tours that get up to about $40 and don’t fully allow you to immerse completely into the city’s culture.

Twin Peaks - FREE

Twin Peaks is the tallest point in all of San Francisco! Upon arriving at the top of the hill, it is common for tourists and locals to wait for the sun to set and watch the lights in the entire city turn on.

It's a great spot to snag a photo and show family and friends as well. A truly remarkable scenery.

Picnic across the Painted Ladies - FREE

Have you ever watched the show “Full House”? This free hotspot is the famous houses where the comedy TV is supposed to take place. There’s a nice park across the road from the houses where you can enjoy a perfect view while snacking on some fruit with friends.

the painted ladies are one of the many free attractions of san francisco

Mission Dolores Park - FREE

This was a park I went to almost everyday during my stay in San Francisco. I came here to meditate, do yoga, read, and even have small meals. It was a great place to go and hang out with a friend as well as there were many sightseeing places and shops across the street.

Ocean Beach - FREE

Another one of my favorite spots in San Fran was Ocean Beach. A couple of gals and I from my hostel caught the nearest bus and headed over there for an amazing view.

The landscape was absolutely stunning as it seems like the ocean runs on forever. I visited a couple of times to watch the sunset and out of all the five countries I’ve solo traveled to, I can’t recall any beating Ocean Beach.

Golden Gate Park - FREE

A bit similar to Mission Dolores, Golden Gate is the more known park that attracts tourists. It's got cafes to chill at, a looking tower, a lake to stroll by and a couple of other things that come at a cost.

Golden Gate park is commonly known for catching a great sunset so if you’re looking for an affordable evening of fun, grab a snack and watch the sky turn from blue to a beautiful magenta pink.

Top Worldpackers work exchange in San Francisco: Join a friendly hostel community with daily tasks a few hours per day

Best spots to visit in Los Angeles on a budget

the cheapest places to visit in LA

Hike to the Hollywood Sign - FREE

If you’re going to Los Angeles it's basically mandatory to take an instagram pic by the infamous Hollywood sign. You can go with a guided tour, but it's also possible to view the sign for free.

When viewed from the front, there is no way to get directly close to the sign. You’ll be able to get close enough to snag a good picture but nowhere near close enough to touch.

If you are going alone be sure to bring lots of water, as the hike can get up to 2 hours, and google some directions to not get lost!

Self Guided Hollywood Walk tour - FREE

There are many guided tours for sale of a walk around the block of Hollywood avenue checking out all of the famous stars that have made their impact in the film/entertainment industry.

Although you can hire a tour guide to walk you around the city for a few hours a day, taking a self guided tour is a great way to save a few bucks.

A visit to Santa Monica & Venice Beach - FREE

You can’t complete a trip to LA without visiting two of the most famous beaches in all of California! Admission is completely free and both beaches are within 1 hour walking distance of each other.

It is also possible to rent a bike for an hour or two to ride to your preferred beach destination, but walking in between is the more affordable option.

Enjoy the interesting characters and colors at Venice beach and ride the ferris wheel at Santa Monica.

visit california on a budget

Window Shopping at Rodeo Drive - FREE

Anyone wanting to visit LA probably has an interest in seeing the infamous Rodeo Drive, the hotspot with all the expensive name brands only super rich celebrities can afford.

If you’re a budget backpacker like me, none of these items will be on your shopping list. Still, it's a fun experience to take a stroll down the avenue and window shop.

The Getty - FREE

The Getty is a free museum that has historical European paintings. Even though I’m not much of a fan of museums, I loved the beautiful garden in the back.

The museum has a beautiful fountain and garden decorated with an array of different species of flowers that were super cool to check out and better yet - everything was completely free!

Runyon Canyon hike - FREE

Runyon Canyon is a great place to do a quick hike and see most of Hollywood from the hills. On your walk up, you’ll pass by lots of cute doggies and maybe get a chance to adopt one for the day! It's also a great spot to take a seat and enjoy the scenery as there are many designated seating areas and benches scattered across the entire trail.

Beverly Hills Tour - small fee

In order to view the most popular neighborhood in Los Angeles, a budget backpacker has two options- book a sightseeing tour with a hostel or go on foot and attempt to explore as much as possible while solo.

Although it's possible to view Beverly Hills alone, it may be difficult as the celebrity’s houses are located somewhat far apart and there are no names on the outside. For this one I would suggest going through a tour with a hostel as they’re usually cheaper than outside organized tours.

Even if iyou go for a paid tour, this is still one of the cheapest places to visit in California.

Top Worldpackers work exchange in Los Angeles: Help a hostel with housekeeping and enjoy L.A

Best spots to visit in San Diego on a budget

what to do in san diego on a budget

San Diego Embarcadero - FREE

Embarcadero basically means a ‘landing place’. Many California cities resting by water have embarcaderos, including San Diego. There are plenty of activities that take place here, like eating at restaurants, exploring the fishing village, or just taking a sight-seeing stroll.

Balboa Park - FREE

This is another sightseeing spot to chill, have a picnic, or just walk around. The park also offers a few interesting museums.

A day at Mission Beach - FREE

Mission is a beautiful laid back beach where you can walk (or bike) for miles on the pedestrian walkway with a perfect view of the ocean. Entrance to the beach is completely free and a great destination for those wanting to explore San Diego.

mission beach is one of the free attractions of san diego

La Jolla Shores Beach - FREE

La Jolla beach is one of the best swimming destinations for San Diego. Grab your swimsuit, sunscreen, and a snack because entrance to this attraction is also free.

Top Worldpackers work exchange in San Diego: Be a content writer at an International Hostel

7 great tips for cheap vacations in California

The Golden Bridge is free, making it one of the cheapest place to visit in california

As a 20-year old full time traveller, I am always looking for ways to get out and explore the world without breaking the bank. I knew I would have to be very wise with my spendings, as California is the third most expensive state to live in the United States.

Although it may seem impossible to travel within California on a budget, it doesn't mean it actually is! It is totally worth it travelin around there, since it has some of the best beach getaways of the USA, amazing sceneries and a lot of culture.

Later on I'll tell you about the cheapest place to visit in California. Before that, lets jump into my secrets and tips on how I was able to have an amazing trip to California all within my backpacker’s budget.

1. Learn to save money with food in your trip

I know, I know, when we go on vacation the first thing we want to do is check out the fanciest restaurants and order a three course meal with dessert included. But if you want to visit California on a budget, eating out often is not an option. 

Actually, from my two months staying in San Francisco I only ate out one time and did not regret my decision whatsoever. By eating in and cooking all the time I saved hundreds of dollars and got a chance to experiment with my chef skills.

So far I’ve visited three amazing and surprisingly different cities in California: San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego. My first time visiting Cali was a week-long trip to LA and I stayed in a hostel; since my time was much shorter, I had a bit of a bigger budget. I allowed myself to eat out once a day, twice if it was extremely necessary.

When I got to San Francisco a few months later for another Cali trip, I knew I would be there for much longer than my first trip to LA and I would have to spend wiser as I was on a strict budget. 

I shopped once a week at Trader Joes for frozen meals and snacks and shopped for produce at other local markets and got to cooking. 

With me being a vegan traveler, I made sure to stock up on fruits and veggies at local corner stores with the cheapest prices; and I shopped in more ‘diverse’ areas as opposed to getting groceries from a high income neighborhood (life hack). 

Be sure to set a weekly budget for how much you want to spend on groceries and do not go over that limit.

Also, take advantage of free food! In San Francisco I volunteered at a hostel through Worldpackers, a platform where you can find hosts offering free accommodation in exchange for a few hours of work. There, the hosts often had free food available for guests, such as vegan canned soups, water, peanut butter, bread, rice, and other goodies.

Using the food available at my accomodation and incorporating those to my home cooked meals was how I was able to save hundreds on my amazing slow travel trip in San Francisco.

2. Use affordable modes of transportation in California

Another way I was able to save so much money in California was by taking local transportation

In each of the cities I toured, I made it a necessity to collect a local metro transportation card for the train and the bus. I got a clipper card in San Fran and was able to ride the bus around EVERYWHERE, down from the moment I came off my first landing flight departing from the SFO airport.

In Cali, especially in the biggest cities, walking is also another popular form of getting around. From the hostel I volunteered in San Francisco, most places I visited were within walking distance.

3. Find the rigt flight in the rigth time 

In order to find cheap flight prices, I scan for all possible bookings through the website This site finds the lowest prices and compares them to other sites and it is the best option for budget backpackers.

A personal hack I use is to search for flights during the weekdays at night. On the weekends, flight prices sky rocket as people are out of work considering their next vacation spot. I book late at night because this is when airlines usually put their bookings even cheaper.

It's also important to use a VPN or a private browser when searching for flights. Otherwise, the website will recognize your computer or browser has been on flight websites and they typically raise the price if they notice a search engine pattern.

Extra tip: try not to plan your vacation around the high season (Summer months) as flight and tourist attraction prices will be at an all time high.

4. Save money in a long term trip in California

cheapest places to visit in california

Let's get into accommodation in Cali. I'll be honest: it can get very expensive. Looking at the average Airbnb price for the most common tourist hot spots: San Francisco’s average range was about $143 a night, LA being $175 and San Diego was about $186. 

Even hostels are a bit pricey. In other countries you can snag a bunk bed for as little as five dollars a night whereas the cheapest bunk in San Francisco is $20 and the most expensive can range up to $36 a night. In Los Angeles, some hostel beds in a dormitory are even going for up to $70 for one night!

As I briefly mentioned above, the way I was able to skip these ridiculous prices for a place to sleep in between my adventures was through volunteering, also known as work exchange.

That is when you exchange your time and skills in return for free accommodation. In San Francisco, I applied for a hostel to work for 15 hours a week doing simple household chores such as laundry, taking out the trash, filling the dishwasher, and greeting guests. 

Two hours of work a day that was self led in exchange for a bed in a room with one other volunteer - it was a dream come true! 

This kind of volunteer program with Worldpackers has allowed me to explore different parts of the world on my own time and my own budget. 

Volunteering is the best option for those who want to travel slower than a typical tourist. The hosts I volunteered for in San Francisco were extremely kind. They always made sure I was okay and safe and gave me tips on the cheapest places to visit in California.

Work exchange with Worldpackers in San Francisco not only saved me a lot of money but also gave me the opportunity to make friends and meet other solo travelers; many unforgettable memories were created. 

The hostel in which I volunteered was about $30 per night for a bunk and I stayed for about 2 months; calculating full expenses would have been $1,800. Almost two grand for accommodation that I got for zero dollars by exchanging my time and skills

Slow travel is highly recommended in more expensive areas as you’re able to take more time to thoroughly explore the whole city and explore volunteer opportunities for free accommodation.

5. Save money in a short term trip in California

how to travel within California for cheap

Okay, say you don’t have that long in Cali. Maybe you’ve got a few weeks to explore the whole state and you want to hit San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles so you don’t have time for a work exchange. Not a problem!

Hostels are another great alternative to those looking to explore California on a budget. My first piece of advice I can give is to not stay directly in the city center as accommodation prices are usually higher than in nearing suburban neighborhoods. 

Along with hostel beds, Airbnb commonly has great priced rooms for travellers on a budget. There are decent shared and private rooms going for $25 (Airbnb's nightly average is $138 a night) located in Oakland California, a neighboring city just 30 minutes away from San Francisco.

When it comes to accommodation on vacation, I always say it is just a place to sleep. Never look for a bougie all inclusive resort; most of your time and money will be spent out exploring. Do not invest all of your money into accommodation when only around 25% of your time will be spent there. Affordable accommodation is available, it just might not be the most luxurious option.

volunteer in California

But if you want to get the best of California, either on a long or short term trip, you can volunteer with Worldpackers. Take a look in some awesome positions and get to know the cheapest places to visit in California:

6. Plan your budget trip to California in advance

cheapest place to visit in california

One of the main keys to have cheap CA vacations, especially for long term travel, is creating a budget.

When we are on vacation, we often want to splurge, buy as many things as possible and say “I'll just earn the money back when I get home”. Well, with the expensive rates of tourist cities in California, it may take a while to re-save all those hundreds spent.

When I was in LA for a week, I budgeted all of my expenses and gave myself $750 USD to spend on everything, including accommodation, food, tours, airfare, and transportation. Creating a spending limit allows travelers to explore more places for longer. Breaking down a spending budget can start in a week’s terms. 

7. Remember: the best memories don't cost a dollar 

experiences are better than things

Last but not least tip: the phrase I’ve been living by (that has saved me hundreds of dollars as a matter of fact) is that photos are the best souvenirs.

The habit of over shopping is not only going to be costly, but souvenirs also take up lots of precious suitcase space. The best way to travel is carry-on only. Many airlines charge a hefty fee for checked in luggage and carry-on is also safer considering that thousands of checked bags get lost every day.

I hope this article with some of the cheapest places to visit in California and my best budget travel tips has showed you that traveling California does not have to put a huge hole in the bank. 

Here’s to successful trips and the birth of new budget backpackers!  

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