The Budgeters Pocket-Guide to 1 Week in California

Let’s be honest, almost everyone dreams about visiting the golden state at some point in his or her lifetime. The breath-taking coastal views, famous cities, and delicious food are hard to beat.

But what if you’re low on PTO, can’t afford an expensive flight, and want the freedom to see it all?

Deciding between driving and flying to California can be quite difficult. Ultimately, the most cost (and eco) friendly option for many travelers will be road tripping.

Gas prices will be higher in California than almost any other state. But at the end of the day, you’ll still save more by buying fuel for your car than you will on public transportation or vehicle rental if you fly.

Firstly, you and your co-conspirator(s) need to decide what the biggest places you want to visit are going to be. Then, calculate the distance and time it would take to drive between cities.

Next, you’ll need to weigh your interests against time. Where you’re beginning from will play a big part in this. Will you need a day or more to drive from your starting point and back home? You’ll probably want at least 24 hours in each destination to experience the hot spots.

Beginning in Southern Cali, this route will take you up the coast before heading inland and home. This tested guide will show you how to sightsee through San Diego, Los Angeles, Big Sur, Santa Cruz, San Francisco, and Yosemite.

A quick overview of commute times:

San Diego to Los Angeles - About 2 hours

Los Angeles to Big Sur - About 6 hours

Big Sur to Santa Cruz - About 1.5 hours

Santa Cruz to San Francisco - About 1.5 hours

San Francisco to Yosemite - About 3.5 hours

Many travelers might opt for a spontaneous night-by-night sleeping arrangement. Some like the freedom of staying longer, or leaving a place sooner, depending on how they enjoy it. But it will be more cost, stress, and time friendly to book your hotels ahead of time. This also means a cap on frivolous spending for fancier accommodation.

Most of the week, Motel 6’s will your best friend, (don’t worry, they are nice!). The only detour you may want to take on budget hotels would be in LA. Opt for a nicer stay here. Many places will advertise cheap nightly rates because they are in unsafe neighborhoods and conduct shady business.

Check out these top highlights Vacation Countdown has handpicked for you to get the best experience!

San Diego

First, head over to La Jolla cove for snorkeling with sea lions and leopard sharks (don’t worry-they’re harmless!). Once you’ve worked up an appetite, grab a giant baked pancake at Richard Walker’s Pancake House.

For extra ocean time, make your way over to fun filled Mission Beach. You’ll find a plethora of activities along this stretch of sand, which includes an amusement park! While there, be sure to ride the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster at Belmont Park. After experiencing the gorgeous ocean view sunset, sip on drinks at the vibrant Gaslamp Quarter.

Los Angeles

Your City of Angels checklist begins at the Griffith Observatory, where panoramic views of LA and the Hollywood sign await. Next, make your way through the traffic to Hollywood Blvd for a stroll down the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Along the way, you’ll find Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the perfect stop for a photo opp with your favorite celebrity’s handprints! Lastly, take in the strange performances, muscle-heads, and skate park performers at Venice Beach.

Big Sur

As you cruise along Highway 1, be sure to check out the beautiful stretch of coastline at Sand Dollar Beach. About an hour North, you’ll find Pfeiffer Beach where you can squish your toes in the purple sand! Right up the road, snag a cheap camping spot for the night at Big Sur Campground & Cabins. Don’t forget to drive across the dreamlike Bixby Creek Bridge on your way to Santa Cruz.

Santa Cruz

Go SURFING! Early morning will be the best time to catch waves. Pro tip – download an app like Surfline and save your preferred beaches for daily wave forecasts. When you’re all surfed out, enjoy some delicious French toast at the Santa Cruz Diner. About five minutes north is the elusive Mystery Spot. They recommend buying your tour tickets online to avoid long wait times and extra fees. End the day with a seaside walk along the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

San Francisco

Enjoy a little throwback when you arrive by visiting the “Full House” house (bonus points if you blast the show’s theme song as you drive past). When you’re finished reminiscing, experience the iconic Golden Gate Bridge! Head back over the bridge to appreciate San Fran’s quirkiest avenue, Lombard Street. Finally, savor a wonderful dinner in the North Beach Little Italy neighborhood.


Etched on countless bucket lists, Yosemite National Park is a beauty that can’t be missed. Get a reservation pass to hike up Half Dome (more info on their permit process can be found here). Bask in the gorgeous trails, streams, meadows, and mountains. And if you’re lucky, snatch a coveted campsite pass to experience the park after dark.

In total, a pair of budget travelers can do this entire list in one week on roughly $1,000. This includes expenses like gas, accommodation, food, activities, and souvenirs.

Vacation Countdown hopes that with this travel guide, you will be able to take the leap, and say yes to your dream California vacation!

What is JUST as exciting as planning that next budget-friendly vacation you've been waiting for this 2021? The days leading up to it! Start your travel countdown with the Vacation Countdown App!

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