If you’re anything like me and my sister, winter gets old about the second week of January. We are ready for sunshine and suntans WAY earlier than most of the U.S. is, so winter always feels like it drags on FOREVER.
Since BYU (my alma mater of a few months now) only sets aside one weekday for spring break (yes, it's true) we usually don’t bother trying to squeeze in a vacation, but this year my sister, Rose, and I decided we would do anything to get away from Utah’s on again-off again relationship with snow and head to the nearest beach town we could get to: San Diego.
Of course, being college students didn’t exactly give us the means to jet off on a luxury vacation, so we knew this trip could only happen if we stayed on a tight budget. With little splurging and a lot of planning we were able to take a three-day trip to sunny San Diego without needing to live off ramen for the next week. Here’s how we did it.
Right away our flights to San Diego were going to be the deal-breaker for this trip. Airfare can easily rise into the hundreds, and airlines have spent years making sure customers pay the highest price for their seat. However, as a budget travel enthusiast, I knew price comparison and patience were all we needed to make sure we got the best deal. I knew we couldn’t expect a $50 round trip ticket, but I was confident the initial $300 ticket I found online wasn’t set in stone.
The first rule in finding a cheap flight is to always compare websites. Different airlines pay to be on different sites, so one search is never going to show you all your options. Prices for the same flight can differ between sites as well. A couple of times a day I would do a search for the flight we wanted on sites like SkyScanner, Momondo, Kayak, Priceline, and Travelocity.
Since Rose and I didn’t have class or work on Thursdays, we decided to leave on Thursday morning. We wanted to stay in San Diego through Sunday, but after some research I quickly realized flying on Sunday is much more expensive than flying on Saturday. Right away we saved about $70 each by deciding to fly back to Salt Lake on Saturday night instead of Sunday afternoon.
When I had the exact dates figured out, I set up price alerts for our flights on Hopper and AirFareWatchdog. These free programs sent me an alert every time my flight went up or down in price. Hopper also let me know when the best time to buy my flight was, so I was able to confidently be patient for the price to drop.
About six weeks before our vacation, Alaska Airlines ran a sale for a $150 round-trip ticket to San Diego. I got price alerts for it, and Hopper said these prices weren’t likely to drop any lower, so I bought our plane tickets.
We would have loved to rent a car in San Diego. However, almost all car rental companies in the U.S. tack on young driver fees for drivers under 25, and these can add an additional $25-$40 per day to your rental. Renting a car with the fee would have been a little over $300 not including parking costs, which was just too much for our low-budget trip.
The next best option was public transportation. San Diego’s bus system isn’t perfect, but it seemed pretty easy to navigate and was by far the cheapest option (besides walking) to get around the city.
Since each bus trip costs $2.25 and the buses require exact change, we decided we would order bus passes (called Compass Cards in San Diego) ahead of time with the total amount of money we would need for the entire trip.
Using Google Maps I calculated how many bus rides we would take throughout the trip, and found it would cost about $25 per person total. (On a side note, when purchasing the Compass Card online in advance, you can only add specific amounts of money. We had to choose between $20 or $40, and decided to go with $40. Even though we had to spend $15 more than we needed, it saved us the hassle of having exact change for those last few trips.)
I ordered our Compass Cards online about three weeks before our trip, and we received them in the mail already activated a week later.
Besides flights, hotels tend to be the biggest cost on any vacation. We were a little limited on where to stay since we needed a room close to a bus stop, and as two girls traveling alone we needed a relatively safe neighborhood. After researching hotel prices, we decided to stay in a hostel instead of a hotel. Hostels offer dorm-style rooms and bathrooms which does mean less privacy, but costs tend to be significantly lower than standard hotels. Hostels typically attract young travelers in their twenties and thirties and are geared for budget travel. Many offer discount tickets and tours, free shuttles, and daily activities.
We booked a two-night stay at USA Hostels Ocean Beach, which was highly rated and two blocks from the beach. The price was $35 a night, or $70 total per person.
There wasn’t a lot of preparation we could do in this area, but we wanted to find a good balance of eating plenty of local food and not spending too much money. A quick search on Travelocity for the best “Cheap Eats” helped us find great restaurants and bakeries that wouldn’t break the bank.
On Thursday morning Rose and I got up early for our 7:00 am flight and arrived in San Diego by 9:00 am. From there we got on the bus and rode it downtown to Donut Bar to get some world-famous donuts for breakfast.
We were going to the San Diego Zoo next and decided to walk from where we were instead of taking the bus because it wasn’t too far. The zoo was our one splurge because it’s a famous location and we are both animal lovers, so it was too hard to pass up. However, we were able to save 10% on the entry price by showing our student IDs!
We left the zoo around 4:00 pm and got an early dinner at Pokez Mexican Restaurant, which was about a 5-minute bus ride away. After dinner we took the bus across town to our hostel, checked in, and fell asleep around 7:00 because we were both so tired.
Our hostel offered a free breakfast, so on Friday morning we took advantage of that before we walked to Ocean Beach a couple of blocks away. After a quick exploration of the pier we took the bus up to Mission Beach and took a leisurely walk up Mission Boulevard. This is one of the most touristy parts of San Diego, so there was plenty of people-watching to do as we strolled along the boardwalk.
Around noon we made it to Pacific Beach and stopped for lunch at Oscar’s Mexican Seafood for some fish tacos. The food was a little pricier here, but the fish is fresh and it’s easy to keep a meal under $15. When we were finished we jumped to the next block to have custom ice cream sandwiches at The Baked Bear, which are guaranteed to give you a sugar high you won’t regret.
The last beach we stopped at was La Jolla Cove, where we spent a couple of hours relaxing on a park bench and watching sea lions sunbathe on the rocks. La Jolla is a clean, nice area but most restaurants and shops are expensive, so we opted to head back to Ocean Beach for dinner.
Near our hostel we found a little café stand that served smoothie bowls and bagels, so we each bought our own and enjoyed them in the last few minutes of sunshine before falling asleep early again.
Our flight left Saturday night, so that morning we checked out of our hostel and took our things with us into the city.
We spent the morning exploring Old Town, which is a (free) historic section of San Diego full of museums, shops, and restaurants. After poking around for a while we had lunch at Café Coyote, one of the highest rated Mexican restaurants in the city. Plates were $15-20 a person, but the portions are so big that my sister and I decided to split a meal and we still couldn’t finish it all!
Trying to walk off our food coma, we spent the rest of the day exploring the city, hitting spots like Seaport Village, Waterfront Park, and Little Italy (all free). Just before we had to head to the airport we grabbed a quick snack at a bakery in Little Italy, then took the bus up to the airport.
At 8:00 pm that night we waved goodbye to San Diego and flew back to Salt Lake.
Budget Doesn’t Mean Boring
I have to admit, I was unsure how much fun Rose and I could have on such a tight budget. But it ended up being an incredible trip, and the cost made it even better. :)
Cost Per Person:
Public Transportation: $40
Attractions (Zoo): $50