Photos: How to visit California on a budget

betty ming liu Travel 6 Comments

Now I know why my friends who move to California never come back. The sights, the scenes, the food! Of course, the Golden State is also quite expensive. But good buddies who live there made the trip both affordable and memorable.

In September, my bf and I spent five days in the San Francisco Bay Area. Proud to say we stuck to budget and still had fun. Our go-to roadway was California State Route 1, better known as Pacific Coast Highway. It meanders along some of the prettiest ocean views.

We rented a car and drove north to Point Reyes:

Point Reyes

Then we went as far south as Santa Cruz:

Santa Cuz

The vacation cost $200 per person per day — including food, lodging, entertainment, airfare and the car. We started off with a $400 airline voucher my bf had gotten a while back. (He received it months ago in exchange for giving up his seat on an overbooked flight.)

From here, we crashed with friends who had lovely spare bedrooms and guest bathrooms. Plus, they all offered terrific tips for where to go and what to do. We are especially grateful to the tourist tips from Lia and Helen. Thank you, love you!

After we landed San Francisco, we drove straight up through some hippie towns to the gorgeous zen gardens of Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone. Here, we got naked together for a hot cedar “soak.”

The soak was weird because it didn’t involve water. Instead, we found ourselves up to our necks in a huge tub of glorified cedar mulch. The shredded bark was toasty warm because it was composting. We sat buried together in the tub for half an hour. Then, to our relief, it was onto the more conventional pleasures of a good deep tissue massage. (Cost for the package: $249 per person with an Osmosis coupon.)

That evening, we stayed at the recently renovated Cottages at Point Reyes, a cozy place between the Tomales Bay and the seashore. While it can sell out on weekends, the weekdays are quiet. We were able to grab a Wednesday overnight for $179, including a quick soak in the hot tub — the kind with real water in it!

From here, we wandered along the coast. At the Tomales Bay Oyster Company, we learned to shuck oysters. They’re locally-farmed and sold for $20 per dozen.

Shucking oystersIn Oakland, we went to a Diana Ross concert at the beautifully restored Paramount Theater. What a gem. I would’ve paid to just sit and look at the stage. By the way, until we bought the $99-a-seat tickets, I didn’t realize DR was still alive. But she still sounds pretty strong.

Paramount Theater

I had to check out Chinatown. It’s bigger, grittier and more touristy than my New York City Chinatown. San Francisco’s C-town also has more older buildings that feel connected to the past. I like that.


While I wanted to compare the Asian cuisine to what we get in New York, we didn’t have a single meal in Chinatown. The traffic and parking were such a pain. Besides, we simply had too many other choices for eats.

We found incredible food everywhere. Our friends took us to Great China in Berkeley, which is said to be the best northern Chinese restaurant in the Bay area. I won’t argue with them. Yum.

If you want to read more about the restaurants we sampled, check out my Yelp reviews.

I hated to leave because I don’t know when I’ll visit California again. Exploring new places and ideas with good friends was such a treat.

I even found one last entertainment moment at the airport.

Airport water fountainThe water refill fountain at the airport was cute. Just had to use it.

And then, it was time to board our flight. Back to New York. With a big smile filling my soul.   :)


Comments 6

  1. Wow, thanks for sharing! My best friend moved to the Bay Area last February. I was sad she was leaving, but proud she was following her heart. I joined her in a Thelma and Louise kind of bon voyage and we went straight from Brooklyn to the Bay Area.
    It was my first time in CA and I’ll remember it forever

    Reading your post reminds me of that trip and makes me think about returning and sticking to a well planned budget. Sounds like you did so much in 5 days! I’m happy you caught up with friends:-)

    How did you keep yourself from giving in and splurging? Was it easy to stay disciplined?

    1. Post

      Skye, sometimes it feels like everyone I know has moved to the Bay Area. As you know, it’s a great place to visit. As for staying on budget, it really wasn’t that hard. We spent a lot of time in the car. So much to see that I really wasn’t in the mood to shop!

    1. Post
  2. Way back in my golden youth – 1971 – I hitch-hiked to California from New Jersey. It took 3 months and was a grand adventure. I recall having the most incredible Chinese food in SF Chinatown, the ferry to beautiful Sausalito, Castro Street (of course) and the general atmosphere of that magical city. I also vividly recall going North to see the redwoods – that was truly a religious experience. I returned in ’91 for three weeks – to be with someone who was dying of AIDS and then to clean out his apartment and make final arrangements. The city was different then. A pall of quiet sadness seemed to envelope it like a tangible though invisible fog. Everyone I encountered had lost friends and lovers or was in the process of losing them – or was facing the plague in themselves. The city’s magic had not been destroyed however, though it had changed. Now, I have no doubt, it has changed again as the resilience of the human spirit brings healing

    1. Post

      Toby, I’ve missed your anecdotes. Thanks for this one. I really want to see the redwoods. And AIDS, those were terrible years. Maybe the Bay Area’s worth another visit. I’ve been to California before but this time, felt like I genuinely connected.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *