California PCH Road trip: how to do it on a budget
A road trip down the Pacific Coast Highway is an amazing getaway. A California coast road trip is a must for every ambitious traveler. The open road, the rocky coastline, beautiful beaches and perfect little seaside towns situated along the Pacific Coast Highway may sound like a dream until you start seeing the dollar signs that can go along with such a trip.
If you’re flying in, check surrounding airports. We generally fly Southwest Airlines and found that flying into Oakland vs. San Francisco was a LOT cheaper because Southwest has a hub there. Flying into Oakland rather than SFO saved me about $100 for each ticket and they’re only a half an hour apart. And since we were driving north to Point Reyes National Seashore anyway, they were about the same distance from either location.
On the other hand, we met my mom and three sisters in Los Angeles near the end of the trip and by them flying into Santa Ana vs Los Angeles, they were able to save a considerable amount of money as well. This trick doesn’t always work, but its always worth checking neighboring airports, especially in places like California that have a few airports within closer proximity to one another.
Fly in and out of the same airport. While we are on the topic of flying, keep in mind that the Pacific Coast Highway road trip in California is a pretty common one. People come from all over the world to see the beauty of California’s coast. So if you’re planning to fly into San Francisco and fly out of LA for convenience, keep in mind that car rental companies will charge you a pretty penny to “drop” the car.
Occasionally you will find discounts or waivers for this fee, but at $200 or more to leave the car in a different location than you picked it up, you can easily save your budget and just drive back to the original location you rented it from.
Forget the convertible. I know, I know…..driving down the coast, with the top down and wind your in hair, not a care in the world….sounds perfect right? Well ok, yea it kinda does. But here’s the thing. It’s going to cost you. I was able to find an economy car rental for about $10/day. If I had sprung for the convertible, it was closer to $50/day. For 10 days, that’s a lot of money for a car. The other thing? Well, depending when you go, weather on the California Coast might not even be in your favor to have the top down.
While we were there in May, it was too windy and too cold for the top down on a convertible, even in Southern California. I have heard other people say the same thing about going in August. If the convertible is an absolute must, be sure the weather is going to be in your favor so you don’t blow your budget on something that you won’t be able to use in the first place.
Travel during the off season or the shoulder season. If you live in U.S., you know that summer is basically high season for most places. Kids are out of school, the weather is generally better and this is when most families decide to take their trips. By planning to travel in the off season, not only will you save a lot of money, you won’t be battling the crowds. Its a road trip, how can it get crowded?! Trust me, we were there in May, which is considered the shoulder season, and all of the popular stops, McWay Falls, Muir Woods, Marin Headlands, they were all crowded if you didn’t go early in the day.
Most importantly though, when traveling in the off season, you can also get better deals on hotels and accommodations which is going to be one of your biggest expenses on a California coast road trip. Everything will be cheaper, from your flight to car rental, hotel, etc.
Shop around for your accommodations. I love Hotels.com because you can book any hotel on their site while earning towards reward nights. You’re not limited to just one brand of hotel and sometimes they even offer really unique lodging depending on the area you’re booking. And you can even earn cash back through Ebates when booking a hotel through Hotels.com. Be sure to check Groupon as well, as you can find pretty good deals through their getaways section, especially when traveling in the off season.
And as always, check AirBNB! We didn’t book through AirBNB for our trip solely due to the fact that we generally only stayed in a location for one night at a time, but we always find it to be a great resource when traveling. *Sign up through this link and get $40 off your first stay!
Camp! We did not take advantage of this while on our trip, but next time we go, we definitely will! California has some of the most amazing state and national parks, especially along the Pacific Coast Highway, that choosing to camp can really help decrease costs if you’re looking to stay on a budget. I found this website helpful for planning a camping trip on California’s coast.
Stay in an outlier town. If possible, try to stay outside of the major areas and your budget will thank you. I found that sometimes just by staying 10 minutes from a city, you could save significantly. For example, rather than staying in Santa Cruz, we stayed 10 minutes down the coast in Aptos and it saved me about $100 for one night! You don’t generally hear about Aptos, however we were happy to find an amazing Mexican restaurant there two minutes from our hotel that was within walking distance to the beach. And its literally right off of the Pacific Coast Highway, so it just got us even closer to our next destination the following day!
We found this true for our stay right outside of San Francisco as well, which offered a free shuttle to the ferry and a savings of about $200/night. Decide where you must stay and be willing to compromise on the rest.
Get gas when its cheap! If you read my post with tips for driving the California Coast, then you already know how I feel about this. Gas in California can vary a LOT from town to town. Get it when its cheap, even if you don’t necessarily need it. And forget about filling up in Big Sur. AT ALL. Unless you like being robbed.
Avoid spending money in Big Sur. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE Big Sur. But everything is much more expensive once you enter its territory. As previously stated, gas is horrendously expensive and everything else kind of falls in line with that. If you’re not on a budget, go ahead and splurge! This is your opportunity!
However if you’re just dying to dine at Nepenthe, but your budget is a little on the slim side, I recommend opting for Cafe Kevah, which is directly below it. You’ll get those same mesmerizing views for a little bit less. And if you’re on a budget, forget staying here at all. Unless you’re camping and even that is a little more expensive than you’re probably used to for a campsite.
Find the free fun! If you’re on a budget while driving the Pacific Coast Highway, you will be happy to know that there are all kinds of FREE things you can do right off of Highway 1. While some state parks will cost you an entrance fee, others will only charge during high season and others don’t start charging until a certain time after they’ve opened. Along with that, there are TONS of pulls off along the road that are free and that offer beautiful beaches and some hiking opportunities.
One of our favorite places during our entire trip was Point Reyes National Seashore and it didn’t cost us anything. In Monterey, you can visit Fisherman’s Wharf, Fort Ord Dunes State Park and Cannery Row for free and they even offer a free trolley during certain parts of the year to help you get around. In many places we visited, access to the beaches were free too!
Planning a road trip down the California coast doesn’t have to be expensive! I hope these tips have helped you figure out how you can stay within a budget while on your dream Pacific Coast Highway vacation. Looking for recommendations of places to see? Be sure to check out our post of places we loved on our California Coast road trip! Driving with the family? Check out our family road trip survival guide! And as always…..Happy road tripping!