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Visiting San Diego on a Budget: Is It Possible?

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San Diego, with its beautiful beaches, vibrant culture, and stunning attractions, is a dream destination for many. However, you might be concerned about the cost of visiting this Californian gem, especially if you are travelling from afar like the UK… 

But fear not! With some smart planning and budget-conscious choices, you can enjoy all that San Diego has to offer without breaking the bank. 

In this article, I'll share some of the best tips and advice for visiting San Diego on a budget.

Visiting San Diego on a Budget Is It Possible

1. Plan Your Trip During the Off-Season 

Timing is everything when it comes to saving money on travel. San Diego's peak tourist season is during the summer, but you can score some great deals if you visit during the shoulder season (spring and fall) or even winter. Accommodation prices tend to be lower, and you'll avoid the crowds while still enjoying pleasant weather.

To maximise savings, travel outside of the school holidays for the best deals on flights and accommodation.  I stayed in San Diego for five weeks from the start of September to mid-October, and again in April for a three-week stay, both times missing the school holidays and I was able to get a steal on the price of my flights!

2. Look for Budget-Friendly Accommodation

San Diego offers a wide range of accommodation options, from luxury resorts to budget-friendly motels and hostels. Consider staying in budget hotels, motels, or even Airbnb rentals to save on lodging costs. Research and book in advance to secure the best deals.

Alternatively, you can find accommodation on the road if you are travelling around. This is what I did for both of my trips to San Diego.  A good tip is to ask to look at the rooms of a motel before paying as some are very low-budget and you may not want to stay at them!  When you find one to your satisfaction, if you can stay for a few days then ask for a discount for a longer stay.

I booked a hotel for the first night, so I knew I had somewhere good to stay on arrival, and then found places to stay as I travelled around and there were plenty of choices. 

motel room san diego

Budget-friendly motel in San Diego

3. Explore Free and Low-Cost Attractions

San Diego boasts a variety of free and low-cost attractions that are perfect for budget-conscious travellers. Some must-visit spots include Balboa Park, home to numerous museums and beautiful gardens, and the historic Gaslamp Quarter, known for its vibrant nightlife and charming architecture. 

Remember there are many beautiful beaches like La Jolla Cove and Mission Beach, where you can spend hours enjoying the sun and surf without spending a dime.

4. Take Advantage of Discounts

San Diego offers discounts to military personnel, students, and seniors at many attractions. If you qualify, be sure to bring your ID to take advantage of these special rates. Additionally, consider purchasing a San Diego Tourist Pass, which provides discounted access to multiple attractions.  By purchasing a special pass in advance you will get a discount on the usual entry price or even deals such as 3 entries for the price of 2. 

san diego tortoise

san diego wild animal park

San Diego Wild Animal Park

5. Use Public Transportation

San Diego has an efficient and affordable public transportation system, including buses and trolleys (known as trams to us European folk). Consider using public transport instead of renting a car to save on gas and parking fees. You can also explore the city by bike, as San Diego has bike-friendly lanes and rental services.

However, if you are travelling a lot, then you may find a car hire more convenient, especially in comparison to taxis.  Although widely available, the taxis can be quite expensive especially when adding a tip on top of the fare.

Find out more about tipping in my UK to USA travel tips blog post where you’ll learn why tipping is customary in the USA with a 15%-20% tip being the norm in restaurants, bars and taxis.

6. Pack Snacks and Picnics 

Eating out for every meal can quickly drain your budget. To save money on food, pack snacks, and have a picnic at one of the city's beautiful parks or beaches. You'll enjoy a meal with a view without the high restaurant prices every day of your trip.

7. Visit Farmers Markets 

San Diego's farmers markets offer fresh, locally sourced produce and artisanal products. Visiting these markets can be a budget-friendly way to enjoy delicious food while supporting local vendors. Check the schedule to find one near your location during your stay.

Top tips are to remember your shopping bags, take cash and visit towards the end for bargains on leftover produce at the end of the day.

8. Take Advantage of Happy Hours

Many restaurants and bars in San Diego offer happy hour specials with discounted food and drinks from late afternoon to early evening. Take advantage of these deals to enjoy a night out or early evening meal without breaking the bank. The Gaslamp Quarter is particularly known for its vibrant nightlife and happy hour options.

pizza california 

Pizza, American Style!

9. Embrace the Outdoors

San Diego's natural beauty is one of its biggest attractions and, of course, free to enjoy. Go hiking in Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve or take a stroll along the scenic Pacific Beach boardwalk. Outdoor activities are not only budget-friendly but also provide unforgettable experiences.

california palm trees

10. Plan and Budget Ahead 

Lastly, the key to a successful budget trip to San Diego is planning and budgeting in advance. Create a daily budget, stick to it, and track your expenses. This way, you can enjoy your trip without worrying about overspending.

And, if you spend less than expected one day by getting a motel discount and having a free day out in nature, then you can add that day’s budget to another day for a more luxurious day out or hotel stay one night!  This is how I planned both my trips.  The majority of the time I stayed in cheap motels, allowing me to afford the odd couple of nights at a more luxurious hotel.

sunset california

Sunsets in California are free!

Final thoughts

In conclusion, visiting San Diego or elsewhere in California on a budget is entirely possible with the right planning and choices. By following these tips and advice, you can have a fantastic time exploring this beautiful city without breaking the bank. So, start planning your budget-friendly San Diego adventure today!