California’s wine country is a dreamy destination worthy of any travel bucket list! However, wine tasting tours and luxury accommodation in Napa Valley isn’t always within reach for those short on cash — something my 20-something year old, college student self was all too familiar with.
For those who want to experience the fairytale vineyard landscapes and some of the country’s best wines on a bare-minimum budget, this Napa itinerary and our money-saving tips will make this trip within reach for even the most frugal travelers!
Napa, California Budget Travel Tips
Travel With Friends!
Napa is known for being a romantic destination, though I found a ‘girls trip’ with my best friends to be one of the most fun and memorable trips I’ve taken in years. Plus, the more people you bring along = more people to divide costs among; I would recommend 3-4 people total for the perfect ratio of intimacy and energy.
Plan in Advance
The further in advance you plan your trip, the cheaper it will be when it comes to flights and lodging. Summer is peak season in Napa, so go during the shoulder season (e.g. April or September/October) for lower prices. A two or three-day stay is plenty of time to see the sights, taste wine, relax and have a good time — any longer and you will undoubtedly blow your budget.
I managed to visit three vineyards (in addition to other activities) in one day on a relaxed schedule, so there’s no reason to extend your trip longer than you necessarily need to.
Thankfully I live within driving distance of Napa Valley, so the $60 in gas used to get to Napa and back home — divided among 4 people — made for a shocking $15 per person roundtrip drive. This obviously won’t be the case for everyone; those who live out of state will likely need to fly.
If you’re smart about booking your flights, you can find really reasonable airfare prices. I always suggest checking KAYAK first; remember to include the small Santa Rosa and Napa County airports in your flight searches, in addition to Sacramento, San Francisco, and Oakland.
Both of the USA’s cheapest budget airlines — Allegiant Air and Frontier — fly into Oakland/San Francisco from all over the country. Depending on where you fly in from and how flexible your dates are, round trip flights for under $150 or even $100 can easily be found!
If you find an affordable flight directly to Napa County Airport, you’ll need to take a taxi into Napa as the airport does not allow Lyft or Uber to pick up passengers on the airport premises.
Flying into one of the outlying airports? From San Francisco (SFO) you’ll want to rent a car; public transportation includes multiple transfers, and with a group of multiple people the cost savings will be minimal relative to the hassle of BART and buses. From Sacramento, Santa Rosa, or Oakland, you’ll want to take a Lyft. Lyft is cheaper than Uber, and a one-way drive from any of these three airports to downtown Napa should run you about $70-$80.
If you fail to book a hotel room at least 3-4 months in advance, you’ll find your only available option being the Motel 6 (as my friends and I learned the hard way). Most hotels in Napa and the surrounding area cater to the affluent, usually charging upwards of $300 per night; however, book early and you can find quaint rooms that are a bit of an upgrade from the ‘6’.
The Best Western Inn at the Vines is a comfortable alternative at a nearly identical price, while the bit more luxurious Cabernet House, An Old World Inn is a slight splurge. Again, booking early is key here!
Airbnb is pretty much out of the question when it comes to affordability. The residents of Napa know their location’s worth, and charge nightly rates accordingly. Trust that this is never going to be your most affordable option at any time of year.
Hotel/motel prices spike significantly on the weekends, so plan your trip for M-T-W or T-W-Th if you can. You may miss out on the nightlife the two popular bars in town have to offer on Fridays and Saturday, but your wallet will thank you.
In Napa, Lyft is going to be your best friend. As I mentioned earlier, Lyft is consistently cheaper than Uber; it’s also more affordable than getting a driver to wait on you at every winery stop you make. My friends and I found the Lyft drivers in Napa exceptionally friendly and knowledgeable of the area, giving us tips regarding the best places to eat and taste. This is, by far, your easiest (and most thrifty!) way of getting around.
Napa is also known for it’s plentiful wine tours, but these come as expensive (if not more so) as getting a driver!
Now to the best part — actual wine tasting.
As a general rule, buy a bottle of wine and split it with the group rather than purchasing flights at every winery. It’s always going to be more affordable, and each of you can end up spending as a little as $10 at every location you visit. However, there are a few experiences you might want to make an exception for. Remember to check each location’s tasting room hours beforehand.
Mumm’s is one of my favorite stops, with impressive views of surrounding vineyards and refreshing sparkling wines. A champagne tasting flight will run you about $25, but the panoramic scenery alone is worth it! Robert Mondavi, perhaps one of the most well-known wines reigning from this region, also has a wine tasting basics class for $25. Afterwards, grab a glass of wine and enjoy the open-air patio!
To save money on your Lyft fare, I’d suggest venturing out to some of the best valley wineries one day and then staying within close proximity to the Napa-city region on the second day; a suggested itinerary might include Robert Sinskey, Mumm, Peju Province, and Robert Mondavi.
If you have the time and are willing to pay the extra fare, tasting at Castello di Amorosa –a literal castle — is an absolutely breathtaking experience! Plus you can visit neighboring Sterling Vineyards on your way back towards Napa.
Great wineries nearby the actual town of Napa for your second day include Silverado, Black Cat, and Andretti Winery, with Domaine Carneros and Artesa Vineyards not much further away.
Skip the cheese plates at wineries — they’ll surely break the bank, and will leave you still hungry 20 minutes later. My favorite food experience was picnicking at V. Sattui Winery, minutes away from Mumm! Once inside, grab a number (the lines can get long) and choose from the variety of prepared pastas, salads, and main dishes. Take your food outside and enjoy your lunch on the grassy lawn! Oxbow Public Market is another great stop, with lots of different food vendors.
Because Napa is a known tourist destination, local restaurants will often charge up to 2x the standard price for food. You can find inexpensive eats in Napa — like authentic Italian! — at Clemente’s at Val’s, quality Mexican at Tacos el Muchacho food truck, yummy breakfasts and Greek dishes at Small World Restaurant, or tapas at ZuZu. Be sure to stop at Gott’s for a huge variety of high-quality burgers for dinner on your last night!