Whether it’s hiking in a national park, swimming and soaking the sun on a world-famous beach, a romantic weekend tasting wine in Napa Valley, or relaxing poolside in one of its many eclectic cities, California offers an array of choices for those wishing to vacation there. Whatever the reason, sometimes organizing and planning a California trip can feel overwhelming and downright impossible, so we’ve created these six incredibly simple, effective tips to help you find the best California vacation packages.
Coronado Beach, Coronado Island in San Diego
Plan Ahead (Timing is a Big Deal)
One of the most widely known tidbits about booking your travel packages is: the earlier the better. With California vacation packages it is no different. Occasionally, you will get lucky and score a nice deal at the last minute (these are some of the best, but are rare and can be super inconvenient in terms of a quick time crunch). But general travel package wisdom tells you that planning months in advance will not only score you a nice price on the travel package, but it will open up opportunities for other travel package add-ons like activities and interests.
Airfare is the most expensive during that crucial window between 0 to 13 days before a flight. Typically, California airfare can range on average of $100 to $200 more compared to the prime-booking window of 21 to 100 days out. Proper planning of a vacation, especially dealing with a California travel package can save you hundreds of dollars. The best time to book a domestic flight is between one and four months before your planned trip. Saving a couple of hundred dollars on your airfare is one of the easiest and best tips for California vacation packages. That extra cash means you can add a wine tasting session at next to nothing.
“If you plan on traveling the last third of the year or the first six weeks of the new year, watch out for system-wide fare sales. There are only one or two per year and typically occur in July and/or August. They last for three days each, so you have to act fast, but they offer the lowest fares across most destinations.”
@dfwskier Southwest Rapid Rewards Member
Decide On A Vacation Package Theme
Knowing the purpose of your California vacation as well as who is going to be with you can make all the difference. Are you looking for a romantic getaway with that special person? Maybe the perfect, relaxing California beach weekend rife with yoga on the beach? Perhaps you want to take the kids on a family-friendly California national park excursion? Choosing a theme for your California vacation package helps simplify the process.
Southwest Vacations has multiple California vacation package themes to choose from.
Beach Vacation Packages Turn your beach dreams into a vacation where you can soak in the sun, play on the beach, or swim in the ocean’s surf. There are many wonderful sandy destinations up and down California’s beautiful coastline.
Family Vacation Packages California vacation packages include many various options for family travel . Whether it’s beaches, amusement parks, or national parks, California has the vacation theme and amenities designed for optimal family fun. In fact, check out the crazy packages planned for Disneyland.
Romantic Vacation Packages San Francisco, San Diego, or Napa Valley, all of these have romance written all over them. California provides some of the top romantic vacation destinations through scenic coasts, relaxing beaches, and an array of dining choices for your significant other.
Spending a Little Extra to Upgrade to Have a Better Experience Can Be Worth It
With most California vacation packages (and especially through Southwest Vacations – more on that below ), you’ll have the ability to find the cheapest options for the package. You’ll also have the opportunity to select the most expensive and top picks which usually will give you a better hotel, better air travel time, and a better location. They are priced differently for a reason. Pay attention to reviews and travel guides when comparing different packages. In some cases, an extra $50 to $100 can be the difference between an average resort vs one of the top resorts in California. The rule of thumb is this: Upgrades and spending a little more are going to give you a better experience. Don’t let pinching a few pennies be the difference in a vacation package you remember for the wrong reasons.
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
Plan for Inevitable Fees
Except when you fly on Southwest. We’re a fee-free zone. But when it comes to hotels, resorts, car rentals, they are everywhere! They’re a nuisance. Sometimes they’re a lot. Sometimes they aren’t. You used to be able to avoid them (oftentimes negotiate out of paying them) and they used to be tied only to extra amenities, but it seems like they are becoming more prevalent and mandatory. Fees. They come in the form of taxes, hidden surcharges, resort and hotel fees (we’ve even seen fees added to activities) and fees are here to stay. They range from WiFi, parking, fitness center use, pool access, use of pool towels, and a bottle of water. They are everywhere and a lot of them are ridiculous. What makes fees even worse—yes … worse than paying $10 to $60 extra per day on fees (sometimes as much as $100)—is being blind-sided by small print and surprise charges.
The best tip when it comes to fees related to vacation packages is: Plan for them. This does two things. First, when you plan for fees they’re not a shock to you when you have to pay them. And secondly, planning for the eventual fee prevents you from having to play musical chairs down the road on activities or dining schedules during your vacation. How much should you plan on paying? A really good rule of thumb is to plan on paying 10 percent of your vacation package budget on fees.
The one place you can count on not having fees is on your Southwest flight!
Be Flexible With Time and Money
There are two ways to really squeeze the most out of your California vacation package: Time and Money. When it comes to time, vacation packages usually have the dates and the number of days locked down. For example, a weekend package to San Diego which includes a trip to SeaWorld and another day planned for the beach will have you flying on Friday and coming home on a Monday. However, you don’t have to feel obligated to a Friday to Monday travel arrangement. Many California vacation packages will allow you to extend the dates for only a handful of dollars. When it comes to Southwest Vacations, you can plan on having an extended weekend in California by flying home on a Tuesday and most likely will save money on that extra day and by flying home on a Tuesday.
Most of the time, vacation packages are going to include a hotel and flights. But many of them (almost all) will have the option to include a rental car, passes to attractions, and all-inclusive amenities like meals and dining. Your goal with a vacation package is to get the best experience for the best value. Sometimes travelers confuse cheap vacations with memorable ones. Be flexible with your cash. A lot of times it is worth it. Don’t be afraid to opt-in to these amenities, especially when it can enhance the overall enjoyment of your vacation.
“A flexible travel schedule may save serious money! With Southwest, it's easy to use the Low Fare Calendar to find the least expensive day to travel to your destination.”
@SWDigits Southwest Rapid Rewards Member
Use Southwest Vacations to Find the Best California Vacation Packages
Finding the best vacation package deal using Southwest Vacations is more than easy. We’ve provided some simple, yet effective tips for getting everything you need to begin planning your California Vacation. Through a simple process of plugging in your departure and arrival locations and dates, then select the hotel or resort, you can begin to plan and prepare for that ultimate California vacation .
One of the best features of the vacation package tool is the search filters. Users can drill down by hotel, price, rating, hotel amenities, the type of experience, and geographically-centered points of interest which means you can select intriguing points of interest in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or San Diego. Inside each of these filters are a plethora of options. Simply put, you can create one of the most customized California vacation packages without all the hassles or complex organizing. And even if you don’t have your theme selected or know what you want to do, experiment with plugging in a California location and discover all the entertaining and enlightening things there are to do in this diverse haven.
Where is your favorite place to stay in California? Leave a comment below!
You can also visit our Discussion Forum for other advice and answers from travelers like you—start with the Travel section if you’re looking for more great ideas for your next great vacation.
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Even though California is a large state and typically has the tendency to be more expensive to travel than most states around the country, there are still plenty of incredible places to see and plenty of things to do even if you are pinching pennies and have a tight budget. Finding or creating an affordable California vacation is easier than ever if you have the right tools and right approach. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind when getting ready for that California vacation.
Planning an Affordable California Vacation
Properly and effectively planning a vacation by far will have the most impact on your budget. Follow the old travel adage for booking flights, hotels, and reservations: The earlier the better. Airfare and hotels are going to give you the best opportunity for an affordable California vacation. Planning months in advance (even weeks) can save you around $100 to $200 on just California airfare alone. You can expect similar savings when booking hotels and resorts. The best time to plan your trip is between one and four months. Not only will planning ahead of time give you the convenience of being flexible with what you do, but it’s going to impact your budget which in effect will give you more options.
Sometimes we only think about “affordable” in terms of money. When on vacation in California (especially the cheap, budget-friendly type where minutes are valuable), you have to think about the importance and cost of your time . You don’t want to spend hours in a long layover flight or worse caught up in that famous California freeway traffic. Planning where to go and when to do it are vital components of traveling to California on a budget.
Where Can I Go On a Budget In California?
We’ve seen it all too often: people missing the ferry to an island, paying way too much at a hotel or resort, getting trapped in the California traffic, or being that person stuck standing in line ride after a ride at Disneyland. What’s worse, most of the time people are over-spending to do all those fun California-y things. One key to going to California on a budget is to get an insider’s opinion on fun things to do in California, yet still readily affordable. Some very popular cheap California destinations include Carlsbad, Joshua Tree National Park, Big Bear Lake, Eureka, Pismo Beach, and Big Sur. All of these feature relatively low hotel prices and are close to major airports.
With that said, you don’t have to travel outside San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to have an affordable, budget-friendly California vacation. Each of these California hallmarks features plenty to do without breaking the bank.
First things first, visit the San Diego Visitors Bureau website for some of the best deals to explore, plan, and stay in San Diego. Don’t be surprised if you find every entertaining need for your vacation in just this one spot. This site is a very valuable tool if you want to visit San Diego.
San Diego is known for its beaches and luckily for budget-friendly travel goers, most of its beaches are free with no admission fees and many have free parking. Other free (or inexpensive) things to do in San Diego include:
Mission Beach Most of the activities at Mission Beach center around Belmont Park where you can enjoy roller coasters, bike rides, or engage in some beach games. A walk down the Mission Bay jetty will give you that traditional California vibe you might be striving for. Swimming (don’t worry, there are plenty of lifeguards), walking the beach, fishing, or biking … Mission Beach is somewhere you can easily spend a little cash and have a lot of fun.
La Jolla This small seaside town offers the nostalgic sunset beach views for a small parking fee. Explore the tidepools, walk to the cove, or visit the small shops in town. You can easily spend a wholesome afternoon in this small San Diego jewel.
Balboa Park Home to nearly 30 attractions and museums ranging from art to astronomical. There are a handful of free things to do such as visit the Timken Museum of Art or take part in a free guided tour.
“The San Diego Airport is located at the edge of downtown San Diego—it’s a smaller airport that is easy to navigate through. Within minutes after you get off the plane, you are on the curb. Lots of transportation choices (rental cars, hotel shuttles, Uber, etc.) If you go directly to downtown, it’s a quick 10-minute trip. The San Diego Zoo (which is also on the edge of downtown, but on the opposite side of the airport) is about a 15-20 minute Uber. If your hotel is north of downtown, the nearby attractions are Old Town San Diego and SeaWorld. If you head even further north, you hit Carlsbad which is where LEGOLAND is located.”
@Passenger1C Southwest Rapid Rewards Member
Let’s start with the free stuff. At the top of that list is a stroll across the Golden Gate Bridge. Aside from transportation to get there, walking along one of the most iconic spots in California (and the U.S. for that matter) is a no brainer. Other free options include visiting Chinatown, the Cable Car Museum, Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, or take a walk down Lombard street (the most crooked street in the world).
San Francisco may be a small town in area in relation to Los Angeles and San Diego, but don’t let that fool you. There is plenty to do here and at reasonable prices.
Rose Garden at Golden Gate Bridge Park We put this near the top because it is free. This garden features over 50 rose beds and can be the perfect way to capitalize your walk across the Golden Gate Bridge. This garden is part of the Golden Gate Park which has more attractions than you’ll have time for.
The San Francisco CityPASS Essentially this is a San Francisco discount card on popular attractions. Depending on what attractions and museums you want to see, the CityPASS can save you money and is good for up to 9 consecutive days. The admission includes Aquarium of the Bay, Blue and Gold Fleet Bay Cruise Adventure, 3 Day Cable Car and Muni Bus Passport, California Academy of Sciences, and either the Exploratorium or the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The CityPASS is definitely not free, but if you take advantage of everything you have admissions to, you will save quite a bit and stay within your budget.
Another tip with airfare travel to San Francisco: Check out Southwest’s low fare calendar when you’re planning your trip to get the best prices on airfare. If you use airfare comparison sites you will not see fares from Southwest in the comparison matrix because Southwest doesn’t make flights available through those websites. And you may want to consider flying into Oakland airport because aside from their arrival record (better than SFO’s) it is just as close to downtown San Francisco.
This bears repeating: You do not have to give up fun and entertainment to travel to California on a budget. Los Angeles is no different. There are ample free things to do in Los Angeles: a walk down Hollywood Boulevard, a visit to the Griffith Observatory, or a walk through one of Los Angeles’ relaxing beaches are just a few of the more notable cheap (free) traditions in Southern California.
Los Angeles has so much to offer all types of travelers. But if you’re hitting up Southern California on a budget, you’re going to want to check out a few of these budget-friendly recommendations.
Free Museums There are over 20 free museums in Los Angeles. Some of these will charge you for parking and some of them still require a ticket (plan in advance…but it’s still free), but there are copious museums to satiate your taste of Southern California. Here are some of the top free museums: The Broad Museum, Getty Museum and Getty Villa, the California Science Center, the California African American Museum, and the UCLA Hammer Museum in Westwood.
Southern California CityPASS Just like the San Francisco CityPASS, the Southern California CityPASS is a multi-attraction. It’s best to plan ahead and buy the pass online , so you can avoid having to buy it in person. Essentially the pass allows you entry into each attraction, so you can buy one pass for several attractions at a discounted price. Once you initially use it, you’ll then have up to 14 days to enjoy the other attractions before the CityPASS expires. Just like the San Francisco CityPASS, you will save money if you plan on using the pass at multiple attractions. The attractions include Universal Studios, LEGOLAND, Disneyland, Sea World, and San Diego and the option for a ticket upgrade to the San Diego Zoo. But check the website for more information and potential deals depending on the season. Those who get the deepest discounts are those who have children (ages 3 to 9) and are planning on visiting at least two of these attractions listed above.
Go Los Angeles Go LA is much like the Southern California CityPASS and claims it can save you up to 60 percent vs. buying tickets separately. It’s like the popular “bundle and save” options we see, but with attractions in the Los Angeles area. With this pass, you can gain access to over 35 Los Angeles attractions. Go Los Angeles’ website has a full list of attractions: Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott’s Berry Farm, Warner Bros. Studio Tour, Aquarium of the Pacific, and Six Flags Magic Mountain are just a few of the top-notch Southern California destinations you can expect to visit should you opt-in for the Go LA pass. For even deeper discounts, the service also allows you to “Build Your Own” pass which saves you up to 20 percent on pass vs. buying them separately. The best part of the Go LA option is their Free Guidebook they offer to the public to help plan a trip. Take advantage of this! Don’t be surprised if you use this to plan your whole vacation to Los Angeles.
Want even better airfare rates if you plan on visiting Los Angeles? Try booking your flight through Southwest to Southern California through Orange County (SNA), Burbank (BUR), or Long Beach (LGB) airports.
Use Southwest Vacations Search Engine To Find the Best Deals For Affordable California Vacations
Finding the best affordable California vacation is simple using Southwest Vacations . We’ve provided some simple, yet effective tips for getting everything you need to begin planning your affordable California vacation. Through a simple process of plugging in your departure and arrival locations and dates (remember what we mentioned above about alternative airports), then selecting the hotel or resort, you can begin to plan and prepare for that budget-friendly California vacation.
One of the best budget-friendly features of this vacation tool is the search filters. Users can drill down by hotel, price, rating, hotel amenities, the type of experience, and geographically-centered points of interest which means you can select intriguing points of interest in Los Angeles, San Francisco, or San Diego. Inside each of these filters is a plethora of options. To really make your California vacation super affordable yet still packed with fun and entertaining activities, when choosing “Things To Do” (either by selecting “Activities” on the tool on the homepage or after selecting your flight and/or hotel), try sorting your options by “Price – Lowest to Highest”. There are intriguing things to do in California ranging from as high as $400 (not so affordable) to as low as $4!
Just to give you an idea of what kind of affordable Californian activities you could engage in, we put together a shortlist (they are in no particular order). Here are a handful of things we found for under $30!
Electric Bike Ride on the Gold Coast
An Art Tour in Los Angeles
A Street Art Tour
Hollywood Walking and Hiking Tour
$5 Golden Gate Bridge Walking Tour
San Francisco Scavenger Hunt
Ferry to Angel Island (San Francisco)
San Diego Harbor Cruise and Sea Lion Adventure
An Axe Throwing Adventure
With minimal effort, you can create a customized, affordable California vacation without the hassle of organizing your trip by puzzling together separate (and oftentimes confusing) itineraries.
What’s your favorite vacation spot in California? Tell us in the comments! (We’re always looking for our next favorite place!)
You can also visit our Discussion Forums and get advice and answers on all things travel related. Check out our sections on visiting Los Angeles and San Diego for more California travel information.
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