On the latest episode of the California Now Podcast, three travel-planning experts offer up essential tips for getting the most bang for your vacation buck in the Golden State—whether you're sticking to a tight budget, looking to splurge, or perhaps doing a little bit of both.
1. ‘Lowest cost’ is not the same as ‘best value’
Christine Sarkis of Family Vacationist is first up on the podcast, and she makes an excellent observation about spending smart. That bargain price you scored on a plane ticket may seem great but what if it has two long layovers and takes off at 4 a.m.? As Sarkis says on the podcast, sometimes paying a little more—for a better flight, a hotel suite that can accommodate a big family, or an oceanfront room that provides hours of entertainment—is worth it in the long run.
2. Mix and match
Pick a destination that offers experiences at a range of price points. Maybe you stay at a budget hotel, Sarkis suggests, but splurge on an ultra-fancy dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant. “There are a lot of places in California where you can come up with something that fits your budget in a way that doesn't make you commit to being a budget traveler or a luxury traveler,” she notes.
3. Don't over-schedule
“Part of the magic of vacation and the part that we bring back with us is often that underlying relaxation,” Sarkis says. If you're trying to pack too many activities into your trip, you run the risk of introducing stress, especially with kids in tow. And that defeats the whole purpose of spending money to take a vacation. “Figure out what your itinerary is and then maybe just remove one thing,” Sarkis suggests. Replace it with a low-key activity like lounging in a hammock with a book or taking the kids to the hotel pool.
4. Just add water
Speaking of pools, Sarkis says she swears by this piece of advice on trips with her family: Set aside quality time for chilling by the pool or lying on a beach. California is conveniently loaded with options, whether it's the hotel pool or along beaches that dot hundreds of miles of coastline. “It turns downtime into sort of a highlight,” Sarkis says, especially for the kids.
5. Adapt your eating to the town you’re visiting
Cheap Eats host Ali Khan also joins this episode, and he says the best bites in big cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego are all unique. He marvels at “the quality and level and depth of regionality” of Los Angeles County and often explores different neighborhoods to see what looks good. In San Francisco, however, he shifts gears and spends most of his dining dollars on neighborhood bistros like Zuni Cafe, which he considers delicious and affordable. And in San Diego County, he always heads south to Chula Vista to get authentic tacos that possess an intensely authentic Mexican flavor.
6. Eat like a local
Khan says one of his mantras is to “do what the locals do.” That's a relatively easy lift when dining in California's big cities, where bargain bites can be found around nearly every corner. But, Khan stresses, you need to be adventurous and explore beyond the tourist areas. “So you go to Santa Monica Pier and you go to the Hollywood sign and these are all draws of course,” says Khan, “but the places where folks just work and grab lunch? The place that has a huge line for breakfast burritos? That's where the locals want to eat.” And he suggests travelers follow suit.
7. Embrace Flexibility
GoCity Senior Regional Director Sarah McCann is the third and final guest on the podcast, and she encourages cost-conscious travelers to build flexibility into their trip-planning process. GoCity offers a pass that allows vacationers to pay once to gain access to a wide range of attractions, including Universal Studios Hollywood, the Aquarium of the Bay, and LEGOLAND California. “It has so much flexibility,” McCann says. “You know you want to do some things but you just don't know what the weather is going to be like or you don't know if your kids will be feeling that or you don't know if you're going to enjoy the attraction as much as you thought you would.” With a single pass, she notes, and the ability to come and go as you please, you can build a trip that satisfies the must-see lists of everyone in your traveling party.