This is the second installment in the series TBT Travels: A Taste of California.
Since I already burst your bubble about how crazy expensive California is, let’s just dive right into the money-saving tips and budgeting breakdown.
Our yearly vacation budget is $2600, and we decided to devote $1500 to this trip. Once we started doing research, though, we realized that this wouldn’t be totally feasible unless we stayed at some seriously seedy motels. I’m all about saving some money, but I’ll only go so far. We extended our budget to $2000 and decided to scale back on other trips later in the year.
So, while I wouldn’t exactly call this a “budget” trip, we did cut a lot of corners to stay on our budget, and we did a ton of research on the front end to make sure we got the best deals possible. Also, we were booking everything just 1-2 weeks out, so we paid higher prices than we would have several months before the trip.
Here’s the breakdown of how we spent our money and some tips for saving a few bucks in each category.
We wanted to fly into LA and out from San Francisco, so we knew we’d pay more for these tickets than doing roundtrip from the same airport. Dan had a $500 American Airlines voucher, so we used that to book our flight home from San Francisco. We booked at the lowest price we could find, which was $200 per ticket, including one checked bag each. We chose the most economical flight possible to LA, which was (surprise!) on Spirit. Even with the cost to check two bags (Did you know Spirit charges less to check a bag than to carry on?), it came out significantly under all the other options at $119 per ticket plus $30 per bag. Despite Spirit’s reputation, we actually had a very smooth and pleasant experience. I would definitely fly Spirit again if the price was right.
Takeaway tip: Always, always, always read the fine print. Spirit tries to sneak in a ton of charges at every step. You get charged more for paying for your bags during online check-in than during booking, and even more if you pay for your bags at the airport. During the booking process, there is a step to select your seat. Skip this step. The language of the website is tricky, and it says something like “Your seat isn’t saved yet!” All that means is that you’ll be assigned a random seat when you get to the airport. You are still booked for the flight. It’s okay.
Total cost (for 2 people): $298
We booked with Enterprise at the same time we booked our airfare and got some kind of deal. It wasn’t much, but every bit helps. We selected the lowest tier and no insurance (that backfired, though). Fortunately, when we got to the rental car location, they were out of economy cars and they upgraded us for free to the mid-sized sedan class. Unfortunately, an uninsured driver rear-ended us in one of the many infamous LA traffic jams we got stuck in. Our car insurance covered the damage, but initially we were told that we’d still need to pay our $500 deductible. This was eventually resolved and we ended up not having to pay it, but the whole process was quite a headache.
Takeaway tip: Check your own car insurance policy for rentals before you drive away. Unless you really like to live on the edge (or you have $0-deductible car insurance), get the basic level of insurance coverage on the car. And always file a police report, even for a minor accident.
Total cost (for 8 days): $256 + $100 in gas
This took up the bulk of our planning time. Almost every night before the trip, we would sit in bed and scour hotel-booking sites on our computers, nudging the other person when one of us found a deal. We compiled spreadsheets to compare costs and amenities. We needed to stay in three different hotels (LA, Yosemite, and San Francisco) so there was a lot of planning to do here. We considered Airbnb, but since we’d be moving from place to place, it wasn’t worth it to pay the cleaning fees multiple times. Again, reading the fine print saved us many headaches. For example, in LA and SF many hotels charge exorbitant fees to park each night—sometimes as much as $50. We made sure to find hotels that had parking included, and ideally, breakfast as well.
We also considered location and drive times in our hotel search. In LA, we knew we’d spend the bulk of our time in Santa Monica and Malibu, so we didn’t want to stay in Hollywood. We saved money by staying at the Travelodge near the outskirts of Culver City, which is near Santa Monica. The room came with a $10 breakfast voucher for the cafe next door, so breakfast was almost free each day. And, this cafe turned out to be adorable and served delicious food—and we never would have found it otherwise. Cost per night: $118
For our stay in Yosemite, we opted to stay in a little town outside the park rather than in the Valley. It cost us in time (it was an hour drive from the hotel into the Valley), but saved us about $150 a night. We chose the Yosemite Westgate Lodge. The owners were so friendly and accommodated us even when we arrived late into the night. We will absolutely stay there again next time we visit Yosemite (you know, unless we’re backpacking!). Cost per night: $121
In San Francisco, we wanted to be as close to the Bay as possible without breaking the bank. We only had one day there, so being within walking distance was critical. We chose the Buena Vista Motor Inn, which looked cute and vintage in the pictures but turned out to be a bit dirty and semi-seedy. We just pretended we were at the Ritz while drinking wine out of Dixie cups. To be fair, I think they’ve done some renovations since then. Either way, we’d totally stay there again because the location was perfect and they had chocolate croissants for breakfast. Cost per night: $135
Takeaway tip: Book through multiple sites to get every discount you can! Dan and I each created new accounts with Hotels.com and took advantage of $25 off our first bookings, saving us $50 total. Dan also had some Orbucks to use, which saved us $20 on our third hotel.
Bonus hotel takeaway tip: If you book the non-refundable option, you can often score an additional $10-25 off your stay per night. Be careful with this and read the fine print, of course. Some hotels will allow you to cancel at least 24 hours in advance, and some are non-refundable entirely. It’s worth it if you’re certain your plans won’t change.
Total cost (7 nights): $745
Total cost for airfare, rental car, and hotels: $1399
This left us with about $600 to spend on food and adventures. We saved much more money along the way by shopping for non-perishable groceries and snacks, sharing meals, and doing free activities. I’ll share more about the adventure side of things in my upcoming posts! Next up is my first taste of hiking, Malibu sunsets, and Greece (what?!).
What’s your best-kept travel secret or money-saving tip for booking airfare and hotels? I’d love to hear from you in the comments section!
PS—You can follow me on Twitter and Instagram at @NestedNomad.