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Tightwad Travelers: A Guide to Saving Money on Your California Road Trip

Sure, I love spending money. But I also love saving it wherever possible! Here are 3 ways we saved big money while in sunny Southern California.

Surf City Days in Huntington Beach, CA
Surf City Days in Huntington Beach, CA

The challenge: discover and explore famous California beaches and beach towns all down the coast... on a budget!

Yes I've lived on the west coast for decades and I've still only spent limited time in the state of California! There are many well-known towns I've never been to that I've always wanted to explore, and who better than with my two daughters. So we carved out 6 days and 5 nights and planned to do just that.

I also knew that I wanted to work really hard to maintain a strict budget. As I began my planning the projected costs added up quickly. I realized we would need to keep a really close eye on expense. With the three of us together our costs could skyrocket! To their great credit, I knew both of my girls would be up for the challenge too and that we could make it fun.

I simply searched for deals in Los Angeles, and then honed in on the neighborhoods we'd be spending most of our time. Sure enough - immediately I see a great deal on beach cruiser rentals. $10 for the whole day!

Gimme deals

I don't use Groupon much these days. Ok, maybe for the occasional spa treatment, or a new opportunity for a night out like an escape room or spirits tasting. But when I'm traveling I always, ALWAYS check Groupon before we leave. This allows me to learn about some things to do in the area, and it also helps me plan our days ahead of time. It also allows me to save potentially tons of money on the things we would be doing while there anyway!

Sun, sand, sisters, and cycles... all is right in the world.

For our recent trip to the Los Angeles area, I simply searched for deals in Los Angeles, and then honed in on the neighborhoods we'd be spending most of our time. Sure enough - immediately I see a great deal on beach cruiser rentals. Approximately $10 for the whole day for each of us! Added bonus was that we didn't have to commit to a specific day at the time of purchase, so that gave us some flexibility over the three days we would be in the area. I also liked this deal because the rental time was from 9am to 6pm. There was NO way we'd use them for this whole time, but at $10 each, who cares. Totally worth it! They had two options available; one bike all day at one price and two bikes all day at another price. I got one of each and our total was $31. The guys we rented them from were super nice and they weren't busy at all when we walked in. Also? Our bikes looked different than all the others we passed, and were the prettiest of anyone on the boardwalk!

Cruisin' on our cruisers! Riding free in Newport Beach, CA.

We rode SO many miles! We found our way to Huntington Beach and stumbled into a wonderful and large crowd of people celebrating Surf City Days, an annual pier festival with Hawaiian dancers, live music, and dozens of tricked out VW vans on display. After just four hours of tooling through beach towns we knew we'd gotten our money's worth, had lots of laughs wobbling back and forth along the way, and also got ourselves plenty of exercise for the day!

Our other great deal was found on Catalina Island. I've been fortunate enough to snorkel and scuba dive in some of the most beautiful waters in the world, and so when I saw a Groupon for a guided snorkeling trip off Catalina I jumped at it. $30 each! That's almost 50% off their regular price. At only 90 minutes long I knew it would work easily into our schedule for the day, and that it wouldn't require much added energy or travel time to get to the snorkeling spot itself. And they provided all of the equipment we would need too. Perfect!

Happier out of the water. Snorkeling on Catalina Island, CA.

As it turns out, not everyone loves snorkeling. Neither of my daughters enjoyed the experience (this is putting it mildly), and I do understand their perspective here. While the team that hosted us were very nice, organized, and worked hard to make sure we all had a great time, there were also a whole lot of people in the water at the same time, kicking and splashing everywhere. The water was breaking roughly up against the rocky shoreline, and the visibility under water (past all the legs, that is) wasn't too great. Lastly, our guide had brought a large pouch of fish food with him to entice the fish to come near us. This brought hundreds... and hundreds... of them around, very close, scrambling to get that food. Not cool.

So hey - ya win some and ya lose some, right? The takeaway here is that we got to try both of these things and decide if they were things we like to do. The fact that the snorkeling was a bust was actually ok - in part because I wasn't stressed about how much we paid for it in the first place! Such an excellent way to try new things, and a great way to save money while having fun.

Post-shorkeling walk back into Avalon. Catalina Island, CA.

Those Costco Bennies

Shopping in Costco tends to cause me anxiety. It does that to you too, right? So many people, so many options, that huge parking lot that never has a spot close to the building, such BIG quantities of everything and often big price tags. Because you can't buy a year's worth of mayonnaise without paying a bigger sticker price, never mind that you paid pennies for each serving. Of course we all know that Costco has its huge benefits as well, and one that some people overlook is their travel prices.

For years my girls and I have talked about how fun it would be to have a convertible car. Unfortunately, where we live it's not really practical. Actually, I think for day to day use they're not very practical no matter where you live... especially if you have to go over 40 miles an hour and you care at all about what your hair looks like.

Born to ride! Really messy hair and big smiles in our rental car.

But for this trip our big splurge was our car: finally, a snazzy convertible! We were SO EXCITED for this, because we knew we'd be driving a significant amount and we'd be in Southern California and the whole idea just conjured up so many movies, TV shows, and songs that fit the scene. The only thing was that when I priced out renting a convertible the cost can be pretty steep. I searched using all kinds of discount rates that I have access to: airline mileage plans, credit cards, vacation and travel websites. With those deals they all came in around the same price. Then I went to Costco Travel, and their rate for a convertible through Avis was $65 less, another 15% off. For the exact same rental. Sold!

A terrific benefit to booking your rental car through Costco is that you don't have to pay until you pick up your vehicle. You also do not get charged if for any reasons your plans change, which can totally happen. Right down to the day of travel I knew I could change my plans, my chosen car, or simply cancel without paying a fee. Because of this, while I still may compare pricing between companies every time I need one, I always end up back at Costco.

Culinary Creativity

Any parent knows that going out to eat as a family can seriously eat into the vacation budget. Luckily, my girls are old enough to have some good real life experience pinching pennies themselves (college kids pick these skills up fast), so this fact was also in their minds as we launched into our vacation.

Another creative breakfast: leftovers gone wild.

Even with this shared plan of attack, on Day One we had a rude awakening after our fantastic lunch of margaritas and fresh fish tacos in Huntington Beach. Our tab was $93! Gulp. Ok its already time to reign it in and we've barely gotten started. At first I was annoyed at my lack of attention; after absent-mindedly spending that large sum for a 'light lunch' we also now had leftovers to contend with. But then my girl said, "let's make sure to get an avocado and a carton of eggs later at the grocery store and we can make a great breakfast with this tomorrow." Bravo! Flash forward to next morning on the patio, with our delicious hearty breakfast (complete with leftover tortillas) that somewhat resembled huevos rancheros. It actually tasted even better knowing how smart we'd been with our resources!

By using those leftovers wisely and buying other necessities at the grocery store, we were able to avoid eating out for at least two-thirds of our meals. This also made those meals we did eat out become more intentional, and special. Granola bars, dried fruit, prepacked salami, cheeses, a bag of spinach, a bottle of Cholula (I've since discovered Cholula packets and it's changed my life), a big container of cold brew, and yes, a bottle of cheap vino kept us satisfied and happy. The other great part of planning our meals this way? It gave us more opportunity to relax and enjoy each other's company in the home we were staying, which was absolutely worthy of the attention. I mean really... views don't get much better than this, even at the best restaurants!

A room with a stunning view. Laguna Beach, CA

What penny pinching techniques do you use? I'd love to know them! Please share yours by commenting here. Thank you, and happy travels to you and yours.



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