For many, a holiday to the beautiful state of California is the trip of a lifetime. There are very few states in the USA that encompass so much diversity than this one, where you can spend the morning hitting the waves in some of the best surf in the world and the afternoon hitting the slopes on snow-covered mountains. The California lifestyle is an iconic one, and those seeking it have made it the most visited state in the US. However, this west-coast state also has a reputation for being expensive and unattainable to visit for budget travellers, which begs the question: How much will a California trip cost?
Of course, the cost of a trip to California can be quite expensive if you’re not smart about where you spend your money, however, it is also possible to visit this great state on a shoestring budget. Especially if you’re interested in outdoor activities (of which California has many) and are willing to cut costs in your food and accommodation costs, a trip to California can end up being a surprisingly affordable affair.
There are five main categories of any California travel budget that you need to keep an eye on. These include the costs of accommodation, transportation, food, activities, and entertainment. The best way to make sure that your trip to California cost doesn’t leave you in debt for the rest of your life is to find the best balance between these five aspects to suit your travel style.
On average, you can expect your trip to California to cost $85-135 per person per day if you’re sticking to a budget but still want the occasional splurge. However, your trip cost can vary significantly depending on how you plan to allocate your spending across the below categories.
Accommodation Prices in California
The first thing you need to consider when trying to figure out the total cost of your trip to California is how much your accommodation costs will be. Accommodation is likely to take the biggest dent out of your total California vacation cost, so it can help to get a good idea on how much you’re willing to spend.
If you’re planning a coastal road trip and plan to stay in hotels, expect to pay, at a minimum, about $80-100 per night. Hotels in California, even traditionally “budget” hotels, can be incredibly expensive. However, if you don’t have $100+ in your budget to throw toward a bed every single night, there are numerous alternative options available.
The first option would be to get a private room on Airbnb. While this is something we recommend on virtually every other cost guide we have written, it stands as true in California as it does elsewhere in the world: Airbnb is consistently the cheapest form of private accommodation available.
Not only does a private room through Airbnb give you a comfortable bed in a room all to yourself, but you also get the added benefit of staying with a friendly local who will help you out with all the best tips and tricks for where you’re staying.
Depending on where you are, private rooms on Airbnb typically start at around $50 per night. If you want to cut costs even further, try and find accommodation a little bit outside the main tourist centre. This will inevitably save you some money in the long run.
If you want to try and cut costs even further, look for a room that allows you access to the kitchen so you can prepare your own meals. I will get into the cost of food in California later on in this article, but it’s worth finding accommodation with self-catering facilities if you want to try and cut costs on your eating habits.
Another way to try and save on accommodation during your trip to California is to camp. While wild camping is definitely illegal in the state, there are a number of campsites throughout the state that are infinitely more affordable than a hotel stay. It is worth noting, however, that if you’re used to European prices of campsites, you still might be surprised at how much a tent plot will cost in California. Through our research, it will cost about $20 per night to pitch a tent in California.
If you want to go the traditional backpacker route, you will be pleased to know that, while not so commonplace in the entirety of the USA, there are a few hostel options in most major California cities. There are numerous hostels to choose from in cities like San Francisco, Los Angeles or San Diego.
While a dorm bed in a California hostel will typically start at around $30-40 per night, private rooms can come in at over $100. So, if you’re travelling as a couple and value your privacy, Airbnb might still be the best choice for you.
All in all, if you’re travelling on a budget while in California, expect to pay about $30 per person per night.
Transportation Prices in California
One of the other constant and most expensive factors that needs to be considered when trying to figure out the total cost of a trip to California is the cost of transportation. With the possible exception of San Francisco, California is a state where visitors very much need a car in order to see everything and get everywhere you might want to go.
Very few places in the US have adequately invested in public transportation which makes it extremely difficult to get around if you don’t have your own personal vehicle. So, if you want to get around everywhere and not lose precious time and sanity by trying to rely on public transport, you’re going to need to rent a car.
Fortunately, car rental doesn’t have to be exceedingly expensive, especially if you opt for a weekly rather than a daily rate. In the USA, there is little to no difference in price between a manual or automatic transmission, either. All in, if you know where to find the best car rental deals (we recommend RentalCars.com!), then you only need to pay about $20 per day on a basic hire-car.
Another way to reduce your overall trip cost by saving on accommodation is to hire an RV or campervan through Outdoorsy. This gives you more freedom on the road and is a great way to save significant money in the expensive Golden State.
If you are renting a car while visiting California, you also need to factor in the cost of fuel and this is where the state might cut you a break, budget-wise. While California might have some of the highest fuel prices in the country, the cost is a fraction of what you might expect to pay for petrol in Europe. With average petrol/gas prices coming in at about $3.70 per gallon (about $0.97 per litre) and cars being more fuel-efficient than ever, you probably won’t need to spend too much money on fuel while on a California road trip.
If you want to cut down on your fuel costs, it can be worth renting a manual transmission. They tend to be a fair bit more fuel-efficient than an automatic transmission car so you won’t need to fill up your tank as much, saving both money and the environment!
All in all, expect to pay about $15-20 per person per day on transportation while visiting California.
Food Prices in California
The third constant in your California trip budget that you’re going to need to factor in is the cost of food. You need to eat and, unfortunately, that costs money. Especially in the trendy California restaurants where such things as tax and a customary 15-20% tip are not factored in.
While eating out in restaurants can be expensive, as it is most everywhere in the western world, supermarket prices can be surprisingly affordable and getting a good portion of your meal at local grocery shops can save a significant amount of your total trip to California cost.
California is one of the most ethnically diverse states in the USA, meaning that there are numerous culinary influences and one of the best food scenes in the country. Though eating out in high-end restaurants every single night can certainly add up, you also would be missing out if you didn’t sample some of the fantastic gastronomic offerings in this beautiful state.
If you avoid super expensive restaurants in California and maybe only eat at lunch, which is frequently more affordable than dinner, you can expect to pay around $30-40 for a meal for two, given you don’t order booze, which is expensive in a restaurant setting.
If you stay at an accommodation with self-catering facilities (like a hostel or Airbnb), you can end up saving a significant amount of money on your food costs if you prepare a number of your own meals.
Head to an affordable grocery shop, we like Trader Joe’s, and pick up some easy breakfast and lunch foods and only eat dinner out. Or better yet, pick up enough for all three of your daily meals and you need only spend a fraction of what you would if you ate every meal out.
If you alternate when you eat out and when you cook for yourself, you can save a lot of money on food, giving you more room for other things in your California travel budget.
On average, expect to spend around $20-30 per person per day on food while visiting California. If you plan to eat out more, multiply that by two.
Activity Prices in California
Now that we’ve covered the three most basic constant costs of your trip to California, let’s talk about how much your day-to-day activities are going to cost you.
This is a section where you could either spend a small fortune every single day or nothing at all, and it really just depends on your habits.
If you’re interested in visiting museums while visiting some of California’s historic cities, for instance, don’t expect that to be an affordable experience. If you’re like us and you’re used to the free museums of the UK or otherwise affordable museums on the European continent, then the price of entry to museums in California is going to come as quite a shock. Expect to pay no less than $15-20 for an adult ticket at a state-run museum in the state.
If you’re keen to go hiking and enjoy some of California’s excellent natural scenery, many of the best hiking trails and routes are in state parks, which costs about $10 (total, not per person) to park and enter. If you don’t go into a state park, however, you needn’t spend a dime on a hike. The same goes if you’re able to find free parking outside of the park.
Another iconic California activity is wine tasting, as the state has some of what is considered to be the best wine country in the world. If you want to save money on a wine tour to the vineyards themselves, which can really add up in cost, a great idea is to head to some tasting rooms. Cities like Santa Barbara, Carmel, and San Francisco are packed with wine tasting rooms where you can get a flight for roughly $15. To save money further, share one flight between two people.
If you’re able to prioritise which activities you think are worth spending money, you only need to average about $15 per person per day on this when visiting California.
Entertainment Prices in California
Now that we’ve covered the cost of accommodation, transportation, food, and activities in California, it’s time to tackle the least constant and necessary of budgeting categories: entertainment.
However much you decide to allot to your entertainment costs in California really depends on your own habits and tendencies. That is to say, if you love to go out and check out the bars and nightlife of wherever you’re visiting, your entertainment budget is going to need to be higher than if you like to be in bed with a cup of tea by 9 PM.
To give you an idea on how much to budget for entertainment when figuring your total cost of a trip to California, I’ll break down a few prices for you. A local, non-craft beer at a bar (think Budweiser or Coors) will set you back about $4-5. If you venture to one of the many, many craft beer bars (and you should!), expect the price of a pint to be closer to $7-8.
A glass of wine, whether local or imported, runs somewhere around $10-12 in most restaurants and bars and a basic cocktail will often cost about the same, depending on how fancy the establishment you happen to be drinking in is.
If you like to have a few drinks but don’t particularly like the steep price tag that comes along with it, you can cut a significant amount off of your total California trip cost if you take advantage of some happy hour deals. Most bars and restaurants have some sort of happy hour (usually lasting from 4-6 PM) that have great deals on drinks and food.
Of course, you can save a lot of money on booze if you buy from a supermarket. A 6-pack of beer will cost somewhere around $8 depending on the quality and where it comes from and you can get a bottle of wine from Trader Joe’s for as little as $2 (plus tax)!
In summation, depending on your habits, it is easy enough to save money on your entertainment costs. Try not to drink every night, purchase alcohol from the shop rather than a bar, or don’t drink at all. All in, I would say to budget about $5-10 per day for entertainment.
California Trip Cost Calculator
With the above categories of a California travel budget taken into consideration, this is how much you can expect to spend per person per day when you are visiting the Golden State:
In total, expect your average California trip cost to be about $85-135 per person per day if you want to visit on a budget. While there are certainly ways that you can cut down on costs and not spend that much, this is the budget to stick to if you want to cut costs in some ways and splurge in others.
This doesn’t include any pre-trip expenses such as anything on your California packing list or travel insurance. We personally used World Nomads for travel insurance to ensure we’re covered for any unfortunate events. Click here to get a quote from World Nomads.
The total cost of a California trip doesn’t have to break the bank, especially if you’re smart about where and how you spend your money. Keep track of your expenses and how much you’re spending, and you can make California a budget-friendly destination!
Are you planning a trip to California? Are you wondering how much does a trip to California cost? Let us know in the comments!