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How to plan a trip to California on a budget

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One destination on our family bucket list is California, USA.  I’ve been twice before I met my husband Ben and I’d love to go back as there is still so much I want to see and do.  I also want Ben to experience the USA as he’s never been before.  A trip to America from the UK can seem like a pricey travel experience, but there are definitely ways to make it affordable.  I will explore how to plan a trip to California on a budget in this blog post.

I asked Ben recently where he’d travel to if he could only have one more holiday in his lifetime.  He looked bemused, so I said ‘right, you’re going to die in two weeks, where do we fly to next week?’  That sped him up and his first answer was Las Vegas.  He went on to explain that it’s probably not really top of his ideal travel list, but he doesn’t want to die without seeing it!  It’s one of those must-go locations that’s on most people’s bucket list.  It’s a place that has to be seen to be believed!

I’ve been to Las Vegas four times as I visited there each time I stayed in California.  In total I spent seven weeks in California across two trips.  The first trip was a five week stay with an ex-boyfriend and we mostly stayed in San Diego in various motels, took two trips to Las Vegas and travelled around a lot each day.  He was a professional inline skater and we went out for him to take part in a competition.  We joined his friends out there and so spent a lot of time at skate parks or visiting his friends.  I still saw a lot of tourist places such as Universal Studios and Las Vegas, but I never felt I got to fully explore as he’d been to California so many times, as had his friends.

The relationship with that boyfriend broke down a few months after our trip, but I desperately wanted to go back to America.  There were so many places I hadn’t seen and wanted to visit such as Lake Tahoe, the Grand Canyon, San Francisco, Yosemite National Park, the list goes on.  Oh, and I wanted to return to Vegas to properly check out the hotels and even try the rides on the hotel rooftops! 

I arranged a second trip to California with a friend not long after my first trip there and it was a disaster!  She used to have an American boyfriend years ago when she lived in Los Angeles and arranged to meet up with him.  I thought they’d just meet up for a day or something, but as soon as we got there she called him, he arrived pretty much immediately at our hotel and he ended up tagging along with us for the whole trip and staying in our rooms.  It’s a pretty long story, but we didn’t do anything touristy at all and ended up ferrying him around for most of the holiday, arguing with each other or trying to locate him (he had issues).  It wasn’t at all the return trip to America I had planned, so I need to go back again!

The ultimate return will be with my own little family; my husband Ben and our children.  I have so many ideas such as travelling around in a RV as a family, road tripping Route 101 along the coast from Los Angeles to Dan Francisco, or even Ben and I to go on our own so we can do the whole Las Vegas thing.

Anyway, we’re not rich and famous and so when we go to California it will be on a budget, just like my previous two trips there.  It’s still totally possible to visit on a budget.

Here are three ways you can travel affordably to California:

Use a travel planner

If you like to know exactly what you are doing and have everything planned out for you then us a travel planner.   You can use a travel planning website to book a package holiday to California to make the whole experience stress-free and cost effective. 

On the TravelPlanners website they have trips to California starting at just £599.   I’d never have imagined a price so low!  The one that stands out to me the most is to LA, Palm Springs and San Diego staying in three beautiful hotels starting at just £735 for eight nights.

If you thought that it would be too expensive to visit California then think again.  It can actually be quite comparable to a package holiday closer to home.

The benefits of using a travel planner is they will tailor the holiday to your requirements, you’ll know exactly where you are going so there’s no stress to find accommodation once there.  If you are a planner then a package holiday is the perfect option.

They also negotiate the best value flights, accommodation and car rental so you will get the best price.

Do it yourself

Both times I went to California previously I simply arranged flights and sorted accommodation once there.  I managed to get return flights each time for around £500.  This was 9-10 years ago.  The first lot I booked online probably using Sky Scanner or something similar.  The second lot I booked in a travel agent.  I remember saying our budget was £500 each for return flights and she looked at me like I was crazy.  Then, much to her disbelief, she found some.

There are definitely flight bargains to have if you are prepared to check every day and search around.

On my first trip we stayed in motels nearly the whole time.  They are pretty reasonably priced and we were able to haggle the price down or negotiate a better rate if we stayed several nights in a row.  I managed to spend around £3000 in total for five weeks in California and the southern states which included all my flights, car hire, motels, hotels, food, shopping and entertainment.  For a five week stay I thought that was pretty good.  For my second trip which was around 2.5 weeks long I spent around £2000.

It could definitely be budgeted more as on the second trip we did have some hotel stays, whereas you can just choose motels which are cheaper.  I also drank alcohol and partied back then which I don’t do now, so I’d have no alcohol expenses now!

Hire an RV

A motorhome holiday in California is something that I’d definitely like to experience one day and could also be done on a budget in comparison to staying in swanky hotels every night!  Plus you’ll get a kitchenette so you can cut costs on eating out and choose to make a lot of your own food. 

There is usually a daily rental charge for the motorhome but this can be more cost-effective for long term rentals.  You’ll also need to factor in the price of fuel (which is a lot cheaper than UK prices at just under half the cost) and campsites too.  There might also be a charge for mileage and any extras such as linen and kitchenware.  Make sure you do your research and check what’s included so there are no surprise costs. 

Still, for a family of four this could all work out a lot cheaper than a couple of hotel rooms or family suite each night and it’s an adventure/entertainment in itself so it’s worth doing the comparison.

Final word

There are definitely lots of ways to explore California on a reasonable budget and just writing this is making me get itchy feet!  I think we’ll wait until the kids are a little older so they can really appreciate and remember a trip to the USA, but it absolutely has to happen.