Cheap CA vacations: the best free attractions and places to stay at

Have you ever imagined cheap CA vacations? Few people know but this expensive state in the US reserves awesome free attractions and even free accommodation!



This blog post will be about how to backpack around the wonderful state of California with a limited amount of funds

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 Califorina.

Finding saver tips from things like accommodation/work-exchange, riding the bus, grocery shopping/cooking helps a lot, so that's why I'm here to share it with you.

We gonna go through 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 doesn't cost any dollar 

And also meet the best free spots to visit in three big cities:

  • San Francisco 
  • Los Angeles 
  • San Diego

7 general tips to cheap California vacations

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 spending 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! 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.

California, specially Southern Cali, has some of the best beach getaways in the USA, check them out!

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. If you’re wanting 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 other snacks as well as I shopped for produce at other local markets and got to cooking. With California being the third most expensive state in the entire country, some grocery stores were expensive. 

With me being a vegan traveller, 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! Being a full time digital nomad, sticking to a set budget is essential in slow or long term travel and being able to see as many cities/countries as possible.

Take advantage of free food! At the hostel I volunteered at, the hosts often had free food available for the guests. Items such as vegan canned soups, water, peanut butter, bread, rice, and other goodies were all free and kindly offered for breakfast and other meals in general. 

Using the food available at my accomodation and incorporating those with 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. Always take the local transportation bus & train (metro card) when traveling in Cali!

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 popular cities, walking is also another popular form of getting around. Where I was located in San Francisco, all the destinations I went to for yoga, groceries, and the local park, were all close together and 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 for a couple of dollars cheaper.

It's also important to use a VPN or a private browser when searching for flights. If you’re looking for an affordable flight in the span of 2 weeks, the flight site will recognize your computer or browser has been on flight websites and they typically raise the price if they notice a search engine pattern.

Try not to plan your vacation around San Francisco’s high season (Summer months) as flight prices and tourist attraction prices will be at an all time high.

4. Save money in a long term trip in California

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

Even hostel prices 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! (just check on the website hostelworld to see for yourself). In Los Angeles, some hostel beds in a dormitory are even going for up to $70 for one night!

The way I was able to skip these ridiculous prices for a place to sleep in between my adventures was through work exchange

Work exchange is when you exchange time or skills in return for free or affordable accomodation. 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 and able to be split up in exchange for a bed in a room with one other volunteer- it was a dream come true! 

There are a lot of stigmas and false truths around work trade or volunteering in general but work trading, especially 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 do slow travel or spend more than one month in a specific area. The hosts I volunteered for in San Fran were extremely kind. They always made sure I was okay and safe and gave me tips on sights to see and things to do around the city!

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 travellers; 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 and zero cents 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

cheap getaways in california 

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 Fran, and Los Angeles so you don’t have time for work trade- not a problem. 

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

Along with hostel beds, Airbnb commonly has great priced rooms for travellers on a budget. Be aware, you get what you pay for so don’t expect anything luxurious. 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 around 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.

cheap ca vacations

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 to have a cheap CA vacation:

6. Plan your budget trip to California in advance

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 monthly spending limit allows travellers to explore more places for longer.

Breaking down a spending budget can start in a week’s terms. To start off, write how much you would like to spend per week on food. 

If your weekly budget for food is $50 then your monthly budget will be around $200 (a fair number considering California’s food prices). When it's time to hit the grocery store, make a list of all the items you will need, be sure to record the exact prices after your first visit to a local market or store so you can have a more accurate estimate of your expenses.

For accommodation, have in mind the cheaper alternative ever would be volunteering for a work trade in which your accommodation will be completely free.

And for transportation, remember that if you’re taking uber everywhere, transportation can easily add up to hundreds of US dollars for just one week. Thankfully the California transit system is one of the best in the entire country and has a variety list of transport to choose from. 

Now let's go to the fun part, the free activities! Listed down below are sites, parks, monuments and museums in California cities that are completely free to visit (or at least a small fee).

7. Remember: the best memories doesn't cost any dollar 

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.

When we go to new countries, we want and tend to pick up everything we see. The habit of over shopping is not only going to be costly with having to deal with overpriced vendors, 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 bags and carry-on is overall safer considering the fact that thousands of bags get lost every day.

So instead of souvenirs, take as many pictures as possible and when you get back home, print and frame them. Souvenirs can get lost or forgotten over the years but an amazing picture with a touching backstory cannot be easily forgotten. 

Best spots to visit in San Francisco on a budget

cheap weekend getaway in california

Visiting the Golden Gate Bridge - FREE

I took the bus that took me directly to the entrance of the golden gate bridge and gave myself a self guided tour by walking around with another fellow solo traveller. 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 bored locals) to wait for the sun to set and watch all of 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”? Well this next free hotspot is the famous houses where the comedy TV is supposed to take place. Not going to lie, I thought it was a little boring but 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.

cheap weekend getaway in california

Mission Dolores Park - FREE

This was a park I went to almost everyday during my stay in San Fran. 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 opportunities and shops across the street.

Ocean Beach - FREE

Another one of my favorite spots in San Fran was a short visit to Ocean Beach. A couple of gals and I from my hostel caught the nearest bus and headed over to ocean beach 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 5 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 speaker and 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

heap vacations to los angeles ca

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 guide and a group of other curious travellers but it's also possible to view the sign for free. 

If 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/personalities and colors at Venice beach and ride the ferris wheel at Santa Monica.

heap vacations to los angeles ca

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. Although none of the overpriced name brand products may be on your shopping list, It's still a great experience to take a stroll down the avenue and window shop.

Everything you see may be on your itinerary to buy in the future once you’ve manifested your super cool dream job. (:

The Getty - FREE

The Getty is a free museum that has historical European paintings. I’m not too much of a fan of ‘art’ and museums- I was more attracted to 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.

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

cheap ca vacations

San Diego Embarcadero - FREE

Embarcadero basically means a ‘landing place’. Many Cali cities resting by water have embarcaderos including San Diego. There are plenty of activities that take place here including eating at any of the 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 take a stroll around. The park also offers a museum for curious history finatics.

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 beautiful ocean water. Entrance to the beach is completely free and a great destination for those wanting to explore San Diego.

cheap ca vacations

La Jolla Shores Beach - FREE

La Jolla beach is one of the better 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 ang get to know San Diego as a packer

To end off the amazing hacks and tips we’ve just learned (thank you Tiffany), it is more than possible to have cheap CA vacations

Whether you want to see the beaches and be by the Mexico - California border in San Diego, explore the interesting personalities at Venice Beach in Los Angeles, or take photos by the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

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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