If planning a getaway two people for two days, for $200 or less sounds like a Mission Impossible script, don't despair. We're here to tell you it can be done, and we've compiled a number of California bargain getaway spots to prove it. If you want to go somewhere we haven't been yet, these tips will help keep your budget under control.
One of the best ways to enjoy a getaway for less is to go off-season. We aren't suggesting that you visit Palm Springs in July when temperatures soar more than 100°F in the shade, but if you time your travel, you can save a bundle. Rates might plummet at your dream destination when the calendar turns a page from April to May, but in reality, the weather won't be much different on April 29 than on May 2.
Because lodging is the biggest part of most budgets, check hotel websites to find out what the "season" is in the area you want to visit and time your trip to arrive just before it starts or just after it ends.
- Stay one night: Instead of leaving on Friday night, avoid end-of-week rush hour traffic, get up early the next day and save one night's lodging costs. This may be harder to do in popular areas, where many properties require a two-night minimum stay, but even those places occasionally come up with just one night open, so it's worth a try. If your travel days are flexible, you can also try staying on a Sunday night.
- Try a no-frills camping cabin: Many campground chains are building small, no-frills cabins these days, such as KOA's Kamping Kabins and Kottages. All you have to bring is your bedding. A one-room Kabin in San Diego will run almost half the cost of a hotel room.
- Try a tent: Don't dismiss this idea, even if pitching a tent and sleeping on the ground isn't your idea of fun. Many locations offer upscale camping experiences, such as Evergreen Lodge just outside of Yosemite, where all you have to do is show up.
- Buy smart: You don't have to stay in a shabby hotel to save money, but you do have to know how to find a bargain. Use our strategies for finding a good place to stay for a good price, and you'll sleep in nice place for the same price as you would have paid for the "roach motel" down the road.
- Stay in a business area: This works especially well in cities. For example, the Hilton Garden Inn in El Segundo, just south of LAX is a mile from the beach and right beside a Metro train station. It fills with businessmen during the week and lowers rates by 40% or more on weekends.
- Avoid "tourist" areas: Restaurants in areas where many tourists go tend to be expensive and their service may be poor to boot. Instead, go where the locals go. Ask shopkeepers, policemen and anyone else you meet where they like to eat. Alternatively, look for the place with the most cars parked around it.
- Share a meal: If you're away from home, leftovers may go to waste because you can't refrigerate them. Split a meal if portions are large or you aren't very hungry.
- Big breakfast: This tip will not only help you save money, but it will give you more time for sightseeing, too. Have a big breakfast, skip lunch and have an early dinner.
- Picnic: Especially if you're in a pretty place, pick up picnic foods from a local grocery store or deli and head for a park or vista point.
- Farmers Markets: Many California cities and towns have regular farmers markets. They're a great place to pick up a light lunch, get goodies for your picnic or fruit to eat in your room for breakfast.
- Go for lunch: If you want to enjoy a meal at a more expensive restaurant, go at lunchtime when prices are often lower.
- Look for specials: In San Francisco, many of the city's nicest restaurants participate in the annual Dine About Town promotion, offering fixed-price meals at much lower prices than you'd get off their menus.
Take advantage of free activities as much as you can.
- Concerts: Not every concert is as expensive as the Rolling Stones at Staples Center. Many California cities boast free concerts, and free doesn't mean second-rate. Look for long-standing series such as San Francisco's Stern Grove or Strictly Bluegrass Festival, the San Jose Jazz Festival (almost free at $5 per person) or Friday night jazz concerts at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Check local papers when you arrive, or ask around.
- Free Museum Days: Many museums offer free admission a few days a month, and Los Angeles' Getty Center is always free.
- Films: Many California communities offer free movies in the park during the summer. Bring your blanket and join the locals.