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
Road trip? In THIS economy? Actually, yes — despite gas prices and inflation on the rise, road tripping can be a fun, budget-friendly way to travel the most beautiful coast in the U.S.
In fact, considering the surging costs of flights and ride-share services, trekking California by car can be more affordable (and plenty more exciting) than flying! Don’t let sticker shock at the pump deter you — with just a little planning and preparation, you’ll be off on a memorable experience exploring all of California’s best cities and sights in no time.
Saving on Gas
First, I’d highly recommend buying a Costco membership if you don’t already have one.
Costco gas stations offer major discounts, with prices often $0.20 to $0.30 less than competing local gas stations — savings that add up quick when you’re refilling the tank regularly on long-distance drives.
The gas savings alone can pay off the membership itself ($60 when purchased direct, and often available at a steep discount on Groupon), but don’t forget to use it for the groceries too! Stocking up on snacks, water and even alcohol at Costco prices will curb impulse-spending at mini marts and traditional grocery stores.
Second, be sure to download the GasBuddy app. Upon entering your starting and stopping destinations, the app will provide you with cheapest gas prices along your route updated daily.
With a map clearly depicting the location of each option, GasBuddy is particularly helpful in drawing your attention to more affordable stations that might not be immediately off the highway or within eyesight from the road — it’s often worth an extra couple minutes off your route to fill up at a station a mile away but at a significantly better price.
I’ve used this app on my recent Western United States road trip and saved a ton of money!
Cheapest Time to Visit California
It should be no surprise that California is a hot tourist destination, with visitors traveling from worldwide all year long — and prices of everything from attractions to hotels will reflect it. With enviable weather most of the year there really is no “off season,” but there are a few particular time frames you may want to avoid to curb price hikes.
Summer months (May-August) are an obviously time to avoid if you can, but fall (late September/October) will bring better rates, smaller crowds and even better weather in coastal cities notorious for foggy mornings through the spring and summer.
If you’re willing to risk a cloudy/rainy day or two, you can see even bigger savings in winter months through early spring, though be sure to miss the spring break hoards starting in March.
Assuming you’re traveling up the coast line, it should be no surprise that major beach cities can break the bank. Our tip? Spend the day at your city of choice, and stay the night at a more affordable city/town nearby.
While you can easily swing a hotel in large cities like San Francisco or LA for under $200, accommodation in smaller, more “boutique” areas like Napa or Santa Barbara can easily run you $400/night or more — and that’s when venturing a bit further along your route for an availability half the price is worth it.
Planning ahead is key, but if you’re willing to be flexible and spend the first or last hour of your day driving, you’ll see more destinations and save big! Listed below are major road trip cities you’ll want to be sure not to miss, and more affordable overnight stops nearby.
- Napa: Nearby hotels include Panama Hotel & Suites in San Rafael and Days Inn by Wyndham Novato/San Francisco
- Santa Cruz/Monterey: Nearby hotels include Hampton Inn & Suites Watsonville and Stage Coach Lodge
- Big Sur/Paso Robles/San Luis Obispo: Nearby hotels include Masterpiece Hotel and Hotel Avisa Downtown
- Santa Barbara: Plenty of inexpensive options in Buellton and Ventura
- Malibu: Inexpensive options in Thousand Oaks
- Orange County: Inexpensive options in Anaheim and Costa Mesa (book in advance!)
Free or Low-Cost Stops
- Hike the Redwoods at Reinhardt Redwood Regional Park ($5; skip Muir Woods, too busy and no parking)
- Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco (free)
- Street art walking tour, San Francisco (free)
- Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk (free, not incl. rides – often free live music/events)
- Mystery Spot, Santa Cruz ($13, incl. parking)
- 17 Mile Drive, Monterey ($11.25 entrance fee)
- Big Sur/Pfeiffer Beach ($10-$12 entrance fee to state park)
- Carmel Mission ($10) and Point Lobos State Natural Reserve ($10 parking, or free if you park along the PCH)
- Rent kayaks in Santa Barbara ($12/hr)
- Solvang Danish Village, Solvang (free)
- The Getty (free); free entrance days at other LA museums (free)
- Walk the Venice beach boardwalk and see the canals (free)
- Balboa Park and Coronado Island, San Diego (free)
Read more: The Best Photography Locations in California
When to Save
Breakfast and lunch are especially easy times to opt for budget options without missing out on much — no one has FOMO over an overpriced, $20 salad. Continental breakfasts are 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 sandwiches, anyone?), and can easily be 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 stay overnight in doesn’t matter nearly as much as you’d think (so long as it’s a safe area!).
I can say from experience that hotels on a road trip are very rarely a standout detail, as you’re spending much less time there than you’d think and are likely to change locations each night.
The quaint, locally-owned motel or B&B is often as good (if not better!) than a generic 3-star chain hotel.
Read more: 5 Best Camping Stoves: Round Up And Review
Let’s be honest – the silly souvenirs at tourist shops are usually cheesy, cheap quality and take up valuable space in your car. Rather than picking up a collection of print-screened t-shirts and fridge magnets, save your money and take pictures to create a keepsake album memorializing your road trip.
Spend a little more upfront for an instax mini camera, or go even more budget-friendly and have your phone pics turned into a Polaroid-style photo book!
When to Splurge
Attractions unique to the city/area
Whether you’re a California native or visiting California for the first time, my motto is to treat every trip like it’s the last time you’ll be there — because you really never know if or when you’ll be back!
This considered, splurge on the attractions that you won’t see anywhere else, whether it be time or money. Some state or national parks might be reasonably affordable but take more of your day — and likely worth it!
The same could be said for certain more expensive attractions like Disneyland, Universal Studios, Alcatraz, the Monterey Bay Aquarium or San Diego Zoo. It may cost you both time AND money to venture inland off the coast for unforgettable locations like Lake Tahoe, Yosemite, or Joshua Tree National Park, but considering you have a car at your disposal, it’s absolutely a splurge I’d recommend.
Read more: Travel Guide to California’s Channel Islands
Take into consideration that you’ll be in your car for longer than you’re likely accustomed to! If you’re renting a car, opt for the comfier option — whatever that looks like to you, whether it be seat warmers, more leg/head room, a bigger trunk to store your luggage and free up space.
Taking your own car? Get a backseat car organizer to store all your items and keep them within arms reach (but off your seats), a lumbar back support cushion, travel pillow, essential oil diffuser, phone mount or sunshade extender. Trust that the small things can make a BIG difference!
Activities that make for lasting memories
Take the surf lesson in San Diego, or do the wine tasting in Napa. Locally famed restaurant with Instagram-worthy views and a Food Network chef? Do it! Don’t worry about splurging a little on key experiences you’ll be talking about long after the road trip is over — you just can’t put a price on memories like that.