Frugal travel tips on the West Coast

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The following is a guest post from Pauline Paquin, a French girl who has recently started to blog over at Reach Financial Independence. Born and raised in Paris, Pauline blogs about how she has been traveling the world for the past 10 years, while trying to build wealth and achieve financial independence, and how you can follow your dreams and reach your goals too. You can follow Pauline on Twitter @RFIndependence. 

We’re guest posting at Reach Financial Independence today, so be sure to stop by and check it out.

Last year I traveled from San Diego to Seattle on a motorcycle with my BF. We were coming from Guatemala and after crossing Mexico, we expected life in the US to be much more expensive. We visited the Grand Canyon, Yosemite and Yellowstone, San Francisco, LA, Portland and Seattle, as well as many little charming town and beautiful coastal places over the course of a month, for a total budget of $80 per day, all included. We were planning on winning a million dollars in Vegas, but that didn’t happen (we won $150 though!), so here are a few tips to make your holiday frugal and enjoyable.



Cheap flights to the West Coast

There are a lot of low cost companies, that will not necessarily appear on travel search engines. JetBlue, Virgin, Spirit are a few of them. Booking your flight in advance or subscribing to their newsletter to enjoy one of their promotion can save you a lot of money. By packing light, your travels will be easier and you can save on the luggage fee which is usually expensive.

Cheap accommodation on the West Coast

We camped a lot. Sometimes in the middle of nowhere and for free, sometimes in national parks for a fee. National Forests and other natural areas managed by the Bureau of Land Management allow you to camp for free, there are a few restrictions such as distance from the road to respect, you can check the list of free camping spots on the BLM website. When we didn’t camp, we tried to use Couchsurfing, which allows you to stay with someone for free, and we would usually make a meal or take our host out for drinks to thank him or her. It was a bit hard to find a host as a couple, because many people want to host only one person, and not knowing our exact arrival date due to the motorcycle travel was not helping. If you have a defined schedule, Couchsurfing is a great way to meet locals and experience the real life of the area. We also used Airbnb and stayed with a lovely guy in San Francisco who was renting his extra bedroom for $20 a night, a rate no hotel would be able to compete with over there. It works like Couchsurfing, you just contact a potential host, you can view pictures of the room before, and all amenities like wifi, parking or washing machine. Some people even rent out their whole apartment, which works great if you travel as a family. Lastly, when we resorted to hotels, we usually looked up online where chain hotels were located, and by getting there, we would often find a cheaper family run motel on the way. Regarding chains we used Motel 6 at the beginning then Super 8 which is a bit more expensive but doesn’t charge for wifi or breakfast, so worked out better in the end.

Cheap eats on the West Coast

We got ourselves a Safeway card. Safeway is a chain of supermarkets, and the loyalty card is easy to get on the spot. It will save you a lot of money on groceries since many products are on special offer for card holders. We would eat a good breakfast at the hotel, and then stock non perishable things such as beef jerky, cereal bars or crackers, and eat that for dinner at the hotel. When hosted by people, we had access to a kitchen which saved us a lot on food. For lunch, we became frequent customers of all you can eat Chinese buffets. We had the best and the worst, but usually for $10 with tips, you could enjoy a sushi buffet, a salad bar, peel and eat shrimps and a fruit and desert bar. We almost never went for all the fried noodles and other greasy mains that would stuff us up on empty calories. In Vegas we would hit the incredible buffets for breakfast or lunch, after getting the loyalty card from the casino. I remember one breakfast for under $5, that was huge, and we even got a free t-shirt.

Cheap visits and sightseeing on the West Coast

We had had our fair share of museums and cultural landmarks in Mexico, so we were happy just walking around in most cities. You can get a tourist card in many of them that includes free or discounted entries to a selection of sites, just make sure that you will use it up, since they are quite expensive. One great deal that we took advantage of is the National Parks Pass, a one year pass that costs $80 and grants you entry for a year to all National Parks and other attractions. Since major parks like Yosemite and the Grand Canyon already cost $25, we got our money back in no time. You can also look out the places you want to visit online before you go, as many have a free day, free entrance after 4pm or some other kind of deal.   Have you ever visited the West Coast? Do you have any frugal tips to add to the list?

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  1. Nice post Pauline! My wife is originally from San Diego and I lived there for two years. There are a good number of things to see and do that are either free or very reasonably priced. Our plans when we go to Vegas is to win millions as well, but usually come out closer to what you won. 🙂

  2. Pauline, you’ve proven you can travel and do a lot of things on a very small budget. It’s pretty neat to see how one can see the world and spend such a small amount! Unfortunately, my wife and I are too lame and probably wouldn’t be willing to camp out. 🙂

    • Pauline says:

      You can always try Couchsurfing or grab the alumni directory and go stay with old college friends! At the beginning we visited lots of friends and did the couchsurfing thing but really we were so happy just in the wild that the organization, emailing, small talk with people, taking them out… just for a free bed and a hot shower wasn’t appealing after a while.

  3. I’ve come to appreciate packing light and the amount of time it saves at the airport. Watching people with huge bags gives me a good laugh now and then. Too bad I don’t like flying local, scares the crap out of me knowing how untrained and underpaid those pilots are.

    • Pauline says:

      I share your belief that the skills of the pilot are proportional to the price of your ticket, and I am a terrible flyer, especially low cost. Every time I think “that is not frugal, that’s cheap, this is the last red eye flight on that crappy company ever!!”, and then money wins again.

  4. Mandy @MoneyMasterMom says:

    What an adventure! Travel is such a life changing experience, thanks for sharing tips how people can do it for less.

  5. Derek @ Freeat33 says:

    Who says you need a fortune to travel. Nice job challenging the status quo!

    • Pauline says:

      I think people who say they would love to travel but can’t afford it do not want it bad enough, or making small sacrifices to reduce the cost of travel would seem insignificant. You don’t have to be as extreme as I was and camp in the wild but with good organization a holiday can be really affordable.

  6. Great tips! My GF and I are going to be traveling along the west coast this coming spring. I’ll definitely keep these in mind to try and cut our costs of the trip!

    • Pauline says:

      Make sure you check the open/closed road in the National Parks, in can still be snowed under in spring in Yosemite or Bryce Canyon, we had to do a few detours.

  7. When I was in fifth grade we took a similar trip to yours, except for Oregon/Washington. We camped in those parks and it was amazing. By camping we were able to take a one month family vacation. It was definitely my favorite vacation as a child.

    • Pauline says:

      It sounds like an amazing memory. I saw plenty of families during the trip, it is really a kids friendly destination with so many cool activities like fishing, camping, hiking… that are almost free.

  8. This sounds wonderful. Neither of us have spent much time out west, aside from stopping in airports. I really want to see the Grand Canyon then all of California, Oregon, and Washington State. It’s on my list!

  9. I was able to go to Vegas for the 21st birthday, but other than that I’ve never been to the West Coast. It’s definitely on my list though! Thanks for this post, hopefully I’ll be able to use some of these tips to save money on my eventualy trip.

  10. eemusings says:

    I do worry that couchsurfing may be hindered by our fluid travel schedule, but we will have to see! Did you bring tents etc?

    • Pauline says:

      Yes I did have a tent and sleeping bag to sleep in the wild and national parks. I found with CS if you contact hosts with plenty of time, they become kind of friends and don’t mind a rough date, or change of plans for arrival. If you ask at the last minute it is more complicated to get a place to stay.

  11. Great tips. If you’re ever in the SF bay area, a free and fun tour (especially for kids) is the Jelly Belly factory in Fairfield. Kids even get some free jelly beans at the end, huge hit with my kids! Did I mention it was free….


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