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San Diego travel guide for budget travelers

skyline San Diego travel guide

As one of the most beautiful beach cities in the US, San Diego offers visitors sun, sand, food, a family friendly destination for families, and plenty of ways to explore this California coastal town.  Enjoy these travel tips from Mary Solio in this San Diego travel guide.  This guide is one of many in the Budget Travel Guides series sharing travel tips to help you save money and enrich your travel experiences.  

San Diego is a very attractive and popular tourist destination. Its proximity to the ocean, variety of attractions and mild climate year round makes it very appealing for singles, couples and families. It’s not the most budget-friendly city but there are many low-cost and free things to do in what has become known as America’s Finest City. This is your San Diego travel guide for transportation, lodging, food, attractions and connecting with the locals.

San Diego Travel Guide to Getting Here

There are many flight options into San Diego’s International Airport. It’s not a major airline hub so prices tend to be a bit higher than some of the Southern California airports. If you’re flying in from an international location, check the difference in costs with flying into Los Angeles (LAX) and renting a car and making the over two-hour drive down. There may be major savings with this option especially if you’re traveling as a family. As a family of four, we often fly out of LAX for more non-stop flight options and cheaper international flight prices. San Diego can also be reached by a Greyhound bus or Amtrak train from Los Angeles.

San Diego Travel Guide to Getting Around

trolley San Diego travel guide

San Diego, like much of Southern California, is very car-centric. The best way to get around the city and its outlying areas is to rent a car. Check sites like kayak, hotwire or even membership warehouse clubs like Costco to get the best discounts on rental cars. Most of the rental car offices are located in the downtown area near the airport.

There is also public transportation but it’s not as extensive system compared to other major cities. The buses have many routes and buying the $5 day pass is the best budget option. The San Diego trolley covers some of the tourist attractions including routes to the Mexican border. The $5 trolley day pass is the best way to save money. If you’re staying in the northern part of San Diego, the Coaster trains offer a scenic ride along the Pacific Coast to downtown San Diego with a $12 day pass that’s also good on trolleys and buses.

San Diego Travel Guide to Lodging Options

DayTrip_Temecula Wine Valley San Diego travel guide

As a big city, there are plenty of lodging options that fit every traveler’s budget. Couch surfing, camping and hostels are the cheapest options. Some of the best places to camp are along the beach shorelines like San Elijo State Beach or Strand Beach. If you’re going to go camping, it might as well be someplace with some great ocean views.

Hostelling International – San Diego Downtown and International Travelers House are located close to many attractions and in a central location. For something near the water, try Ocean Beach International Hostel. Many of these hostels offer free breakfast and wi-fi. Check sites like hostels.com or hostelworld for other options.

For families or those in big groups, house swapping through HomeExchange or HomeLink or apartment rentals using FlipKey is a great budget option. Having kitchens available make it easy to cook and prepare your own meals. There are many diverse grocery stores around with popular ones like Ralphs, Albertson’s or Vons. Be sure to ask for the free membership card to get discounts. You don’t even need to fill it out on the spot. Superstores like Wal-mart and Target can also be found throughout the area.

There are many chain hotels in the city with a concentration in the Hotel Circle area in Mission Valley and downtown San Diego. Choose hotels with complimentary breakfast to save money like Hampton Inn, Holiday Inn, La Quinta or Embassy Suites. A family favorite is Homewood Suites- Liberty Station for its amenities and great central location.

If you’d like to indulge in a bit of luxury but save over 50% off the rack rate, you can also try Priceline. Check the betterbidding website first to see which hotels other bidders have gotten. We’ve won the Grand Manchester Hyatt, a 4-star hotel in downtown San Diego, for less than $100 on a Saturday night.

San Diego Travel Guide to Food and Drinks

food San Diego travel guide

While there is an eclectic mix of restaurants around San Diego, Mexican food is prevalent around the city. Check the many taco shops for the best value. You’ll be sure to pass by one as you drive around. Many of them named after someone ending in “berto” (e.g. Roberto’s, Alberto’s, Eriberto’s, etc.). With a variety of street tacos, it’s not hard to find a meal for less than $5. Tacos El Gordo in Chula Vista is also a popular hangout for the locals in the South Bay area. A favorite after-hour treat is carne asada(marinated grilled steak) fries. Picture shoestring fries topped with carne asada, guacamole, cheese and sour cream to indulge and share.

Another San Diego signature dish is the fish taco using a variety of fish, cabbage and sauces. Visit South Beach Bar & Grille in Ocean Beach with many endorsements of having the best fish tacos around. It has ocean front views and serves $2.75 tacos all day during Taco Tuesdays. For the fast food option, visit one of the Rubio’s chains (Home of the fish taco) or any Wahoo’s Fish Taco locations with fish tacos for about $2-$3.

There are plenty of seafood options here too. Try Anthony’s Fish Grotto or Anthony’s Fishette in the downtown locations. Check out locations of Tin Fish or our family favorite – Point Loma Seafoods. Their crab sandwich can be pricey depending on the season but every delicious bite is worth it. Their location. along the water, also offers a great view of downtown.

San Diego is a multi-cultural city with its share of ethnic enclaves. Little Italy is a quaint neighborhood in the downtown area with many pubs, restaurants and shops. There’s a Farmer’s Market every Saturday from 8AM – 2PM for cheaper fresh fruits and vegetables. Landini’s Pizzeria offers 2 pizza slices and a drink for $6 that can satisfy many pizza lovers.

For some Japanese, Vietnamese and Korean food, the Kearney Mesa/Convoy area has some of the best Asian restaurants you’ll find around the city. Neighborhoods filled with Filipino restaurants are Mira Mesa and National City. They offer plenty of cheap meals including fast food favorite, Jollibee.

You can’t leave Southern California without eating at one of its food institutions – In-N-Out Burger. Don’t let its limited menu fool you. It offers some of the best burgers around for less than $3. But, there’s a whole secret menu that requires its own guide. Animal Style is by far the most popular option not on the menu and worth a try.

Many of the restaurants, bars and clubs are located at San Diego’s Historic Gaslamp Quarter in downtown. This is the hub of San Diego nightlife. You’ll be sure to find a variety of restaurants for every budget within the 16-block neighborhood. It is especially crowded during weekend nights and after baseball games. Check the Gaslamp website for a dining guide on everything the Gaslamp Quarter has to offer.

One of the best times to come to San Diego, especially if you’re a foodie, is during Restaurant Week held twice a year. Fixed menus from over 180 of San Diego’s best restaurants are priced from as low as a two-course lunch for $10 to a three-course dinner for $40. It’s a great time for fine dining on a budget. Check the restaurant week website for more details and exact dates.

San Diego is becoming a hotspot of craft beers with over 50 microbreweries including favorites like Karl Strauss and Stone Brewing Company. There’s even San Diego Beer Week in early November for those who want to experience the thriving beer culture here. Stone Brewing offers a 45-minute guided tour of its microbrewery for $3 with a souvenir glass and four 4 oz samples. For more information on the local microbrewery scene, check out the Drink Up San Diego website.

The gourmet food truck sweeping the nation by storm has also made its way to San Diego. Many of their menus change on a daily basis but everything is made fresh. Some of these trucks also do gatherings so you can get a taste of what each one has to offer. There are too many delicious ones to try and many serve a great meal for under $10. Visit the San Diego Food Trucks website for their locations and specials.

Many locals’ go-to dessert place is Extraordinary Desserts with two locations (Little Italy, Hillcrest area). For years, I’ve taken many visitors here to indulge in cookies, cakes and other sweets decorated with flowers and rose petals. Their menu is constantly changing so you never know what delicious treats await you. The multi-layered cake slices are over $5 but the portions are huge and great for sharing.

San Diego Travel Guide to Activities

Attractions_Balboa Park San Diego travel guide

San Diego’s must-see attractions like the zoo, the Safari Park, Sea World and Legoland can be quite pricey especially for traveling families. Fortunately, the Go San Diego Card helps ease the cost a bit. The pass includes admission to 48 local attractions including the popular ones above and many museums for one price with 20-30% savings. Compare individual ticket prices with this card, available for multiple days, to see how much you’ll save.

Art/Cultural/History

Balboa Park is the largest urban cultural park in the country. It’s free to stroll through the park’s small gardens, exhibitions and admire its Spanish colonial architecture. Visit the Spanish Village Art Center to see over 200 sculptors and artists working in their studios. Explore the Botanical Building for free with more than 2,100 permanent plants. You never know what’s in bloom inside this beautiful building.

The park has 14 museums and you can get some big savings by buying the Day Pass ($39) for admission to any of the five museums on the same day or the Passport ($49) to visit all 14 museums valid for seven consecutive days. Local favorites include the Museum of Man, Natural History Musuem and the Fleet Science Center.
Old Town San Diego’s state historic park, with its reconstructed museums and buildings, is the most visited California state park. It’s free to walk around here and experience this living museum. There are plenty of shops and a variety of restaurants too. Watch salt-water taffies being made at Cousin’s Candy Shop or get made homemade fresh tortilla.

The USS Midway Museum is an impressive and retired US Navy aircraft carrier showcasing 50 years of military and aviation history with 25 restored aircraft and 60 exhibits. It’s a very interesting walk-through to this once floating city. Don’t forget the free audio guides. Kids can participate in activities to be Junior Pilots and earn wings.

Outdoors

The county of San Diego has over 70 miles of beaches stretching from Oceanside to Imperial Beach. There is no shortage of water activities from harbor excursions to whale watching. Many of them are easy on the wallet including biking, kayaking or paddleboarding. Be sure to check out sites like Groupon or Spreebird Deals for specials and discounts on any of these water activities.

San Diego’s only National Park, Cabrillo National Monument, is a bargain destination at $5 per car good for 7 days. See the Old Point Loma Lighthouse, one of the West Coast original lighthouse, or learn about the Spanish sailors from exhibits and movies at the visitor’s center. Whales can also be spotted here during migration season in the winter months. Hike its two-mile trails or explore the tide pools during the low tides to see what’s lurking underneath.
Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve is a day-use park and home to the nation’s rarest pine tree. Admission is $10 Mon-Thurs and $12 on weekends. There are eight miles of trails for every type of hiker with some trails offering panoramic views of the ocean. Free, docent tours and nature walks are available on the weekends.

San Diego Travel Guide Day Trips

Southern California’s wine country, Temecula Valley, is an inviting area to spend the day and is only within an hour’s drive from San Diego. With 35 wineries ready to welcome you for wine tastings and winery tours, this is one of our favorite places to spend a weekend afternoon. Many of the wineries are along Rancho California Road but don’t miss the smaller ones along De Portola Road too.

Some wineries offer $10 for 6 tastes including a logo glass but do sign up for coupons. Print these winery coupons for some 2-for-1 wine tastings during weekdays. Here are some self-guided winery tour suggestions. Look into weekday wine tours if you’re traveling with big groups that can cut the costs of the transportation rates.

Anza Borrego Desert State Park is America’s largest desert state park. It isn’t too far of a drive from San Diego. This park offers many activities and trails but the best time to visit is during spring when the wildflowers are in bloom.
Julian is a gold mining town in San Diego’s mountains. It is a wonderful day trip no matter what time of the year. Walk down Main Street where the enticing scent of its famous apple pies beckons you to come inside the bakeries for a slice or a box to take with you.

San Diego travel guide to connecting with the locals

ConnectWithLocals_OceansideBeach San Diego travel guide

San Diego is a pretty laid back city with friendly locals who love the outdoors and the water. It is a large military town with many transplants so chances are you may bump into someone from your home state. The best way to connect with the locals is by hanging out at the beach. From surfing to biking, running or strolling along the piers and boardwalks, locals love to be near the water throughout the year. You may even get invited for a game of volleyball or Frisbee while hanging out at the beach. Locals love picnics and bonfires by the beach on weekends. So, pick a beach and make some friends.

You will find a lot of the locals at the Gaslamp Quarter during the weekend nights too. Many locals also love Balboa Park for many outdoor activities and for cultural visits to museums. It’s a wonderful place for families to visit with street entertainers and plenty of open spaces for the kids.
San Diego isn’t a major sports fanatic town like other cities, but the locals do love the San Diego Chargers football team and the San Diego Padres baseball team. If you’re in town during these sports seasons, you can connect with the locals at the stadiums, tailgate parties or the bars.

San Diego is a wonderful destination year-round. Visiting the city and its neighboring areas doesn’t have to break your travel budget. There are plenty of free and low-cost attractions for a fun and relaxing visit. I hope this San Diego travel guide will help with your plans for an enjoyable and unforgettable trip to America’s Finest City.

Have you visited San Diego?  What are your travel tips and recommendations for the city?

If you enjoyed this Budget Travel Guide, check out more travel guides to cities like Chicago, Austin, Columbus, and other beach destinations like Australia and Costa Rica.

Whether it’s exploring our San Diego neighborhoods or a National Park, cruising or a vacation to a foreign country, Mary Solio loves to travel. Follow her travel journeys on The World is a Book. Connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, and Google + as she shares her love of travel.

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  1. Thanks for the opportunity to showcase San Diego as a budget travel destination in your Budget Travel Guide series, Jeremy.
    Mary {The World Is A Book} recently posted..Miraculous Stairway of Loretto Chapel Santa FeMy Profile

    • Thanks for writing the guide Mary. This is a very comprehensive, detailed guide. Lots of great information for anyone who wants to visit San Diego! Really enjoyed reading this one.

  2. Stefen Fin says:

    Nice pictures.Great info for new traveler.

  3. Apple says:

    Wow these are some really great ideas! We have only been to San Diego once and we kept hearing from everyone we knew, “Book your meals, or buy your food there because it’s expensive!” So we really didn’t bother to stop at fast food places other than lunch at Sea World or a snack at the Zoo… We stopped at the Old Town Market and did a grocery shop, then prepared all our meals in our suite! Good to know you can find meals that cheap! We love Mexican Food!!! :)
    Apple recently posted..5 National Parks to Visit this SpringMy Profile

    • That’s one of my favorite things to do – grocery shop for a picnic of making your own meals. You can get a bit of the local flavor as well as save some money and enjoy the scenery with a picnic or a great home cooked meal! I’ll have to try this the next time I am in San Diego.

  4. christina says:

    Sometimes in life, we walk into the storm knowing that it’s coming and are ready to face it head on determined to get to the other side. We know that once we flight the wind, rain, and crashing waves, we will be able to see the storm from a different perspective once we get through it.

    • Storms are always different on the other side. When I was living through Hurricane Hugo in 1989, it was really scary. Looking back, it was really exciting. I can’t say I feel that way about all the storms in my life but we always have a different perspective on the other side. And no matter what we go through, there is something there to learn.

  5. Janette says:

    This is a great guide! Sometimes people think that taking a trip to somewhere like San Diego is going to be expensive, but it doesn’t need to be. These are great tips! Thanks for sharing!

    • California is generally more expensive than other places in the US. However, there are always free things to do and great ways to connect with a place without spending a lot of money. This is definitely a great guide with tips on how to do that. San Diego is very beautiful!

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