California’s beautiful beach towns can definitely be tough to experience on a budget. Between oceanside seafood restaurants, five star resorts and high-priced amenities, it’s easy to spend a fortune. The good news is, it’s entirely possible to have a wonderful vacation without breaking the bank. This sample road trip covers plenty of coastline and lists some of our favorite budget hotels—if you prefer to camp, you’ll cut your costs by almost 50%.
Start your journey in the charming city of Santa Cruz. While it’s true that this is a very touristy area, you’ll also friend some great deals for the budget-friendly traveler, especially in the off season.
Book a room at the Torch Lite Inn, a hidden gem that rents for as low as $71 per night (February weekend rate). You’ll have a clean, comfortable room five minutes away from the boardwalk with free onsite parking and a free breakfast.
Enjoy lunch at The Picnic Basket, a casual beachfront cafe that serves nutritious food at affordable prices. Two people can easily eat for $25 here, including non-alcoholic beverages and the tip.
Strolling the Santa Cruz Boardwalk is not only free, but fun. You could easily spend an afternoon people-watching and enjoying the beach without spending a time. Should you decide to indulge in some attractions, activities like the Boardwalk Bowl Bowling and the Lazer Maze are just $5, while a round of mini golf or laser tag will cost you $6.
When hunger strikes, head to the West End Tap & Kitchen before 6 PM (Monday-Friday only). Their happy hour specials include $4 pints, $5 house wine and food specials as low as $3. Monterey Bay Calamari is just $6. Even if you can’t make it during happy hour, they have daily specials and their regular menu items are quite affordable.
The next day, enjoy your free breakfast and drive south to Monterey, an underrated coastal gem. You’ll have your choice of reasonably priced hotels here, and it’s possible to stay right on the ocean for under $100 per night. We recommend the Lover’s Point Inn or the Sea Breeze Inn in Pacific Grove.
The big draw of the area is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, but at a $49.95 adult admission price, it’s not exactly affordable. Some cheaper alternatives include hiking at Point Lobos (the cost is just a small park fee), people watching at the Cannery Row, and just walking down the beach or driving down the coast. This is such a stunning area that you won’t have to spend money to be entertained.
If you enjoy wine, visit Pierce Ranch Vineyards, where tastings are just $5 and bottle prices average $16-$20. Buy a souvenir bottle, then get one to enjoy in your room later.
For dinner, head to the delightful Paprika Cafe. Their classic Mediterranean food includes plenty of entrees for vegetarians and carnivores alike, and the entree prices average well under $15. Then go back to your hotel room and watch the sunset over your new bottle of wine.
On Day Three, cruise down the scenic Highway 1 until you reach Avila Beach. Located in San Luis Obispo County, it’s a beautiful place to go whale watching, kayaking or canoeing. The Point San Luis Lighthouse is a must-see, and it costs a mere $5 to enter.
No trip to the California Coast is complete without a hot bowl of clam chowder, which the Splash Cafe in downtown San Luis Obispo will serve you for just $4.50 ($7.75 if you’d like a big bread bowl).
Relax and unwind at the Avila Hot Springs. Their standard rate for an adult soak and swim is $12, but if you wait until after 5 PM, you’ll only pay $8. Then drive south for seven miles and relax in your room at the Vagabond Inn, with rooms available for around $79 per night.
On your final day, you’ll head back to Santa Cruz (or wherever your home base is). Factoring in around $60 for fuel, this entire trip for two will cost you around $550, including your wine purchase and all activities. Considering that’s what you’d pay for a nice waterfront hotel in some of our beach towns, that’s a great deal.