Budget Friendly Tips for Visiting San Diego

Heading to America’s Finest City? If so there are several ways to experience what many consider to be the best that Southern California has to offer without breaking the bank. It begins by planning ahead, being flexible and knowing some insider tips from local San Diegans. As someone who lives in San Diego I learned the best spots to share with friends and family members who come for a visit all while providing the great things that the area has to offer without spending a fortune.

A view of San Diego from the Birch Aquarium
A view of San Diego from the Birch Aquarium

Planning Ahead

Getting there:

If you must fly consider the time of year.

Most any time of year is conducive to visiting San Diego so if you are not tied to the peak holidays and summer time you will be able to save some money. The summer months provide the warmest and sunniest time of the year with July and August being the best. During May and June the locals refer to these two months as “May grey” and “June gloom” due to the fact that the fog which visits the area daily doesn’t burn off until later in the day if at all. Most every morning San Diego is greeted with fog but it typically burns off by 9:00 am so if you are bothered by half a day of grey skies, avoid these two months. The prices for airfare and lodging however, are a bit lower during these months so it might be worth considering if you are looking to save some money.

FALL:

If you are able to travel to San Diego during September through Mid November you will be in for a real treat. The number of summer tourists has diminished (as have what locals call “Zonies” which are folks from Arizona who typically invade San Diego during the summer months in order to escape the Arizona desert heat) and the San Diego weather is beautiful with occasional hot days. This time of year can also produce Santa Ana winds which are warm winds from the desert which can blow up to forty miles per hour but are always dry winds. It is also during these months that airfare and lodging have decreased and you can land great deals especially if you combine airfare, hotel and car rental into a package deal.

WINTER:

The winter month in San Diego can be marked with beautiful sunshine and sometime rain, heavy fog and relatively chilly temperature. It still beats snow and ice so it is something worth considering! Travel costs can be lower after the December holidays and prior to the summer season beginning in June so it is worth considering in order to save some money.

AIRFARE TIPS:

When booking your airfare use websites that produce multiple airline fares at a glance. Sites such as Bing Travel or Kayak are two sites that I often use with great success. These sites allow you to compare prices at a glance and see what works best for your pocketbook. They also use the well know discount travel sites such as Priceline, Travelocity and Orbitz in order to get the best deal.

I book a lot of flights and find that airfares fluctuates during the day and I have had the most success booking flights on Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday evenings after 9:00 PM as this is when the cheapest fares are posted. You need to be prepared to buy the lowest flight when you find them because if you wait until the next morning to book you will see a sharp increase in rates. Kayak has a price predictor built into their site telling you if you should buy or wait. I find this to be quite helpful when looking for the lowest deals.

Consider flying from a different city as it might be cheaper to fly from say Chicago rather than Detroit. A drive from your home location to an airport that offers lower airfares may be worth the time and trouble especially if you are paying for airport parking. It doesn’t matter where your car sits while you visit San Diego because you will be paying the parking rates at either airport right? If you can realize a savings by flying out of another city you will be able to spend what you save on airfare in San Diego!

A TRICK TO CONSIDER:

It also may be a considerable savings to fly into Los Angeles or the areas surrounding L.A. as it is about a two hour drive from the Los Angeles area to San Diego. Often airfares are cheaper heading into LAX rather than into San Diego and many times car rentals are cheaper because of the bigger L.A. market compared to San Diego. So if you are renting a car while visiting So Cal, you may want to check out the price difference of flying in and out of L.A. and renting a car there as well. You may be surprised at the savings and enjoy the drive as well!

Camping and R.V.’s

If you plan to drive and camp you may find campsites in San Diego to be at a premium. There are locations to consider but be prepared for some steep campsite rental fees. You may also be surprised to see what it takes to book a campsite as spaces are limited and waiting lists are common. Plan ahead and book your site. San Diego campsites are typically privately owned thus come with a bigger price tag than municipal, state or federally owned campgrounds.

Where to Stay

Next to airfare, lodging will be among the biggest expense for your stay. Now that you have managed to get yourself to San Diego you and you are trying to save some money you may want to consider staying inland rather than on the waterfront. Obviously hotels can (and will) charge a premium price for an ocean front stay. Unless you are dying to spend a fortune and stay on the water’s edge you will save a bit by heading inland. Not to worry- you can be at the beach in twenty minutes. In fact, it will take you about twenty minutes by car to get just about anywhere in San Diego. It is a crazy little phenomena that really is true-if you ask for directions most often you will learn that it will take twenty minutes to get somewhere. Strange but true!

Areas to consider:

Hotel Circle- this is where there are a large number of hotels lined up along one of the major East/West Freeways (Interstate 8 A.K.A. “The Eight”). The hotels closest to the beaches will cost more so you may want to think about staying in the East County area. The city of La Mesa has many hotels that are well managed and are budget friendly. La Mesa is about (you guessed it) a twenty minute drive to the downtown area as well as the beaches and area attractions. There are also some budget friendly hotels in the south county with the city of Chula Vista offering some major brand hotels at a budget price yet still offering some amenities. The North County area (the northern suburbs) has a slew of hotels to offer but you may find them to be a bit pricier. Be sure to check out the major travel websites for deals. Again, Kayak and Bing will give you a snapshot of all of the major travel sources and a comparative look. Also be sure to look into vacation rental websites as many times local San Diegans will put their home or condo on the vacation rental market and you may be able to find a great deal and stay in a wonderful home or condo.

America's Finest City

A markerhotel circle -
Hotel Circle South, San Diego, CA, USA
[get directions]

Hotel Circle located along Interstate 8 in the Mission Valley Area of San Diego

Where to Eat:

A great way to save some dough is to stay at a hotel that offers free continental breakfast. For the most important meal of the day it is a good time to load up at a discount rate by having breakfast rolled into the price of your stay. You will be hard pressed to find breakfast cheaper than the free breakfasts at a hotel. You will also be able to have access to fresh fruit that can be used as snacks later in the day. Yet another way to save!

One of my favorite ways to enjoy San Diego is with a picnic lunch. A budget friendly tip is to stop by a local supermarket such as Von’s, Safeway, Ralphs, Sprouts Market or Whole Foods and pick up (or bring your own portable) cooler and an ice pack or two. This way you not only get to control what you eat but you save time and money. Time by not having to wait in a line or for a busy restaurant kitchen but you will save big bucks and you won’t have to pay any tips.

Whether you eat lunch at the beach or the zoo, you will be able to carry a lunch and enjoy. Packing a lunch is typically the way that my family travels as we have a youngster with life threatening food allergies so we “stay safe” by providing our food whenever possible and the bonus is we are saving money as well.

Budget Friendly Restaurants:

MY FAVORITES: Visit Pacific Beach and enjoy the sites and the food. Here are the “must visit” spots:

Cass Street Bar and Grill- If you are in the mood for burgers, salads and taco's coupled with a wide variety of beer choices then you will want to eat here.The prices are good, the pool tables and crowds are fun. This seems like a “hole in the wall” type of place but if you want to experience San Diego like a local and save some bucks then this is your place. It isn’t necessarily child friendly but you can’t beat the food and the prices.

World Famous If you like seafood and love an ocean view you have to visit this place. Everything from the calamari to the seafood linguine is delicious. The crab cakes are outstanding and the prices are reasonable. This is my favorite restaurant to recommend to visitors because it gives you an ocean view, good food at a good price and you can take the kids and the grandparents as well; something for everyone.

Fred’s Mexican Café What’s a visit to San Diego without Mexican food? If you want good food at a great price coupled with some fun then head to Fred’s. The Pacific Beach location is their flagship restaurant, and opened its doors in 1994. Their website says: “With colorful décor, a festive atmosphere and noted as being the Best Mexican Restaurant in San Diego, this venue is a favorite among locals and tourists alike".

The backdrop of the Hotel Del Coronado makes for a great photo anytime of year!
The backdrop of the Hotel Del Coronado makes for a great photo anytime of year!

More Budget Friendly Restaurants

The Hotel Del Coronado: When on Coronado Island the hot spot is the Hotel Del Coronado. This upscale historical location is a must see for any visitor to San Diego, not only does it boast one of San Diego’s (and the world’s) best beaches but it has many fine restaurants. The budget friendly way to take in “the Del” as it is affectionately known is to have lunch on the patio near the pool. The upper deck patio overlooks the beach and ocean and what many tourists don’t know it has a great lunch menu with reasonable prices. I have often visited the patio grill to take in the ocean breeze and enjoy the outdoor experience. It is important to note that the patio grille is different from the Sheerwater grill which is one of the premiere restaurants inside of the Del with “premier” prices. The Sheerwater offers wonderful food but it may break the bank on a budget friendly vacation!

The Brigantine- There are seven locations for this family friendly seafood restaurant so you should be able to bump into a “Brig” as it is known by locals in just about any part of San Diego. The budget highlight includes daily specials. Many locals like to head to a Brigantine on Tuesday’s as they feature fish taco’s typically for one dollar. This is a family friendly budget saving meal. In fact my sister in law and her family head to their local Brig each Tuesday for dinner and the kids love it.

Moo Time Creamery- A family favorite. There are a few Moo Time’s in San Diego but my all time favorite is at the Hotel Del Cornado. Moo Time provides a tasty treat to enjoy while exploring the Del and the beach but know that the prices reflect an upscale business. You may spend a bit more but it is worth it!

Top of the Hyatt: If you are in the downtown area you will want to head to the top of the Hyatt hotel in order to enjoy the spectacular view 40 stories above San Diego Bay. The Hyatt is the tallest waterfront hotel on the West Coast and although it isn’t a budget friendly location to stay at it while in San Diego, does offer a budget friendly experience for appetizers. The top of the Hyatt has floor-to-ceiling windows offering dramatic panoramic views not only of the city below, but Coronado Island and beyond. It a beautiful way to see the city and the bar offers delicious appetizers that can actually be considered a meal by some and at a reasonable price. Think about heading to the top of the Hyatt any time after 3:00 PM and catch a bite to eat and a beautiful view.

Torrey Pines State Reserve offers trails and beaches to explore
Torrey Pines State Reserve offers trails and beaches to explore

Where to Play:

Beaches: San Diego has some world famous beaches and they are budget friendly.

Here are my top picks:

Torrey Pines- this beach is located in the northern part of San Diego and offers not only a great beach but beautiful hiking trails that sit high above the water. Torrey Pines is a state reserve with day use fees ($10.00 parking-but well worth it). Torrey Pines is a place that I visit often to hike, swim, run and enjoy the beauty that nature provides. This is also a budget friendly site that will create memories and great photo’s that will last well into the future.

Coronado- this island that shares the San Diego Bay and the ocean is my favorite for lots of reasons. It is family friendly, has free parking and it has the Hotel Del Coronado as a backdrop! This is the beach to head to if you are with your family or even with your honey as it has sparkling sand and the ocean breeze.

Mission Beach- This family friendly beach offers long piers, opportunities to surf and a small amusement park known as Belmont park which features a small roller coaster. Fun for everyone and not too far from Pacific Beach (see information in the food section above)

Seahorses and more at Birch Aquarium
Seahorses and more at Birch Aquarium

Other Great Spots to Play

Birch Aquarium at Scripps-This is among the hidden gems of San Diego. A part of the University of San Diego, the Birch Aquarium offers visitors the chance to learn about all things ocean. Among its features are interactive tide pools, a chance to see exotic sea creatures and a great view of the city. This budget friendly location will offer a look at sea life without having to spend big bucks at nearby Sea World. Adult admission is $12.00 and children ages 3-17 pay just $8.50. There are also senior, military and student discounts. So if you can do without some thrill rides and petting a killer whale like what is offered at Sea World and you want to learn about the ocean then this is a great place to visit.

San Diego Zoo: This is a must see spot and the only spot that I recommend that isn’t the most “budget friendly” but worth the price of admission. As of this writing adult (ages 12+) admission price is $50.00 and children’s (ages 3-11) rates are $40. Ouch! There are discount coupons to be had so check with your hotel or watch for online deals. This world class zoo is not to be missed. You can also save on souvenirs by purchasing them online either before or after your trip. This way you do not need to pack them and you will save in baggage fees.

Balboa Park – Located in the downtown area /zoo area it prides itself on being the nation's largest urban cultural park. Home to 15 major museums, renowned performing arts venues, beautiful gardens and the San Diego Zoo, the Park has an ever-changing calendar of museum exhibitions, plays, musicals, concerts, and classes—all in the beautiful and timeless setting of this must-see San Diego attraction. There is no fee to the park grounds, Botanical building and outdoor gardens as well as some attractions. There is a wide variety of ticket prices and one “value ticket” featuring a one day pass to visit five of the fourteen museums for $35.00. This is a good deal if you are into visiting several museums in a short time span. Again, it behooves the budget minded traveler to inquire about discount coupons at area hotels.

Other Nuggets

  • San Diego has wonderful climate most of the year with temperatures averaging 70.5 degrees Fahrenheit (21.4 degrees Celsius) each day. There is a wide variation in temperature surrounding the city due to the area’s topography with a range of coastal, mountain and desert climate creating a micro climate atmosphere. So depending on where you will be spending your time you most likely will not need to pack a wide variety of clothing.   San Diego is an excellent year round destination as casual sportswear is ideal for the weather and available activities.  A jacket or sweater will be enough no matter what time of year you travel as evenings are cooler both in winter and summer.  Shorts and swimwear are recommended for summer and fall.
  • Depending on the length of your stay pack clothes that are easily paired with each other and can provide multiple outfit combinations.  Not only will you save money in preparing for your trip by reducing the number of clothes that you pack but you will find that the laid back casual atmosphere that prevails in San Diego will serve you well.  Wearing casual shirts or blouses and jeans (or shorts) and sandals is the norm and very few restaurants have a dress code requiring jackets for men.  By planning ahead and packing wisely, you should be able to get by with one carry on bag thus avoiding the baggage fees that many airlines are imposing.

Enjoy!

San Diego is America’s Finest City and visiting it doesn’t have to break your bank. Decide what type of experience that you wish to have and be sure to take in the natural beauty of the area as it is priceless!

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Comments 21 comments

aesta1 profile image

aesta1 10 months ago from Ontario, Canada

We are in San Diego right now and were just in the Maritime Museum which we thoroughly enjoyed. We ate in Sevilla in Gaslamp and the tapas were superb, the best we've had in North America. Tomorrow will be Coronado and lunch at the hotel. Maybe, at the Deli as you've suggested. Thanks for the tips.


sandiegoseoexpert profile image

sandiegoseoexpert 4 years ago

Balboa Park is my favorite. I moved to my new place in San Diego just to be closer to it.


Judy HBerg profile image

Judy HBerg 5 years ago Author

Glad to know that you love San Diego Oceansnsunsets as there is lots to love about it! Thanks for your kind comments.


oceansnsunsets profile image

oceansnsunsets 5 years ago from The Midwest, USA

I love San Diego, and I loved your beach pictures! Great tips for when visiting there, thank you for sharing. Congratulations Judy on winning in the finance contest with this hub!


Judy HBerg profile image

Judy HBerg 5 years ago Author

Gordon, thanks for the comment and recognizing that I truly love San Diego! I hope that you will be able to visit the U.S. and get to San Diego as I sure you would enjoy all that it has to offer.


Gordon Hamilton profile image

Gordon Hamilton 5 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

I have read a great deal about San Diego. It is always great to hear information about a place, however, which was written by someone who knows and loves it, rather than an anonymous, paid writer. Sounds wonderful and I really hope to visit the USA and San Diego some day.


Judy HBerg profile image

Judy HBerg 5 years ago Author

Johnny I hope that you will one day visit San Diego. Thanks for reading and commenting!

Purple Perl: Thanks for reading and your well wishes.


Purple Perl profile image

Purple Perl 5 years ago from Bangalore,India

Judy, very well put info, and excellent tips. Congrats too!


Johnny Parker profile image

Johnny Parker 5 years ago from Birkenhead, Wirral, North West England

great tips, would love to visit.


Judy HBerg profile image

Judy HBerg 5 years ago Author

akirchner: Thanks for the accolades especially from a native San Diegan!

Steph: I hope that you get to San Diego with your kids as it is wonderful through the eyes of kids! Thanks for your comments.

Melbel: Thanks for reading and commenting.


melbel profile image

melbel 5 years ago from New Buffalo, Michigan

Wow! This is an incredibly detailed hub! Great job!


stephhicks68 profile image

stephhicks68 5 years ago from Bend, Oregon

Love the San Diego tips - I haven't been there for about 10 years. My kids would love it... even better on a budget.

Congrats on the win! Well deserved! Steph


akirchner profile image

akirchner 5 years ago from Central Oregon

I grew up in San Diego so great tips! Congrats on the win!


Judy HBerg profile image

Judy HBerg 5 years ago Author

Thanks Madurai-I am surprised by the win!


Madurai profile image

Madurai 5 years ago from Online

Congrats Hberg for achieving this feet within 2 weeks of joining here..


Judy HBerg profile image

Judy HBerg 5 years ago Author

Thank you for the warm welcome and support Om!

Pamela: Glad you like the "L.A.trick/tip" and thanks for your comments.

Les Trois Chenes: Thanks for your comments and I hope that you get to visit San Diego someday as you won't be disappointed in what it has to offer!


Les Trois Chenes profile image

Les Trois Chenes 5 years ago from Videix, Limousin, South West France

Lots of good information. I've never been to America but there are some great place to visit and you make San Diego sound very tempting. Congrats on your win.


Pamela99 profile image

Pamela99 5 years ago from United States

Excellent tips on travel to LA. Congratulations on your win.


Om Paramapoonya profile image

Om Paramapoonya 5 years ago

Welcome to HP, Judy. This is a great hub. Voted up and bookmarked it for future reference.


Judy HBerg profile image

Judy HBerg 5 years ago Author

Thanks for the kind comments Simone!


Simone Smith profile image

Simone Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

These are some really fabulous tips! You've laid out quite the fabulous vacation - that money is being saved along the way is only an added bonus! Thanks so much for writing the Hub :D

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