7 Affordable California Vacation Ideas for the Whole Family

Kickstart your planning with these cheap California vacation ideas.
California Beach
(Photo: Simon Hurry via Unsplash)
  • I’m a lifelong resident of the Golden State who’s always planning affordable California vacations for my own family.
  • These are my picks for the best budget-friendly California family vacations based on my personal vacation experiences and the rave reviews of my kids.

California has so much to offer vacationers. It’s home to endless vacation backdrops: redwood forests, snow-capped mountains, vast deserts, picture-perfect beaches, rolling farmland, and big cities all rolled into one road trip-friendly package. And while there are plenty of ways to splash out on a luxury California vacation, there’s no shortage of cheap California vacation ideas that are still full of fun, beauty, and good food.

Affordable California Vacation Ideas for Families

Whether you’re looking for that just-right and ultra-affordable family vacation spot with toddlers or younger kids or want California vacation ideas for a group of traveling adults, these Golden State favorites are sure to please.

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1. San Diego Vacations

San Diego Zoo
go a la carte and buy individual admissions at can’t-miss spots like the San Diego Zoo, or bundle them into a Go San Diego Pass for up to 50 percent off the cost of individual admission for attractions and adventures (Photo: Troy Spoelma via Unsplash)

Sunny San Diego has earned its laidback reputation, and it’s easy to tap into that vibe as a visitor. Let your family’s preferences determine your perfect hotel. On the affordable front, some of my favorites include the retro-cool Kings Inn San Diego and the breakfast-included Surestay Hotel by Best Western San Diego/Pacific Beach. If you’re willing to spend a bit more, you might consider the 44-acre island of Paradise Point Resort and Spa, with its kid-friendly lagoons, pools, and sandy beach; or the best-of-the-bay, best-of-the-city InterContinental San Diego.

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The great news about a San Diego vacation is that it’s easy to find great food on the cheap, and the attractions are sure to please the whole family. Cheap eats abound, and you can feast on some of San Diego’s best food for a fraction of the price of typical tourist-town eats. As you’re exploring, go a la carte and buy individual admissions at can’t-miss spots like the San Diego Zoo, or bundle them into a Go San Diego Pass for up to 50 percent off the cost of individual admission for attractions and adventures. 

2. San Francisco Vacations

San Francisco Bay
Families love the Bay Area, and there are plenty of ways to keep costs in check (Photo: Davide Ragusa via Unsplash)

Families love the Bay Area, and there are plenty of ways to keep costs in check. If you’re looking to save on a San Francisco vacation, consider a bundled vacation package deal from a site like Hotwire or Travelocity. And though you’ll need to research a bit to find them, San Francisco has plenty of kid-friendly hotels, including the fun and playful Argonaut Hotel. Be aware that hotels not close to San Francisco still sometimes have San Francisco in their name, so be sure to check the address before you commit.

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If you’re not attached to staying in the city San Francisco, you can find affordable lodging in nearby cities like Oakland (home to Children’s Fairyland, the Oakland Zoo, and other family favorites) and Berkeley. If you want to add a Wine Country jaunt (Napa and Sonoma both have plenty of kid-friendly attractions, and many Napa Valley hotels welcome kids), you might divide your stay so you’re not worrying about getting back and forth. 

3. Disneyland California Vacation Ideas

Teacups at Fantasyland in Disneyland (Photo: Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland)
Disneyland is ringed by inexpensive hotels that help keep your California vacation costs down (Photo: Paul Hiffmeyer/Disneyland)

No list of family-friendly California vacations is complete without a mention of Disneyland Resort in California. Disneyland can get expensive fast, but the range of what you can expect to spend varies wildly, and can certainly be done on a budget. Disneyland has three on-property hotels, which get you perks like early admission hours and the ease of not needing to drive and park, plus a host on unaffiliated hotels near Disneyland for families on a budget.

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In fact, Disneyland is ringed by less expensive hotels that are within walking distance (or shuttle, as many of the properties run shuttles to both Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure Park), which can reduce the need to pay the daily parking rate at the park. When it comes to tickets, if you can opt for Value dates (often mid-week and in months when the crowds are smaller), you’ll spend less on a per-ticket basis. You’ll also reduce the per-day price of tickets if you buy multi-day passes.

But beware false economy: You’re still spending more overall, so make sure to only buy a multi-day pass if you’re actually going to use it. Food in the park (and outside the park in the Downtown Disney District) adds up quickly, so consider packing an easy-to-transport meal for breakfast or lunch to cut down on costs. 

4. Los Angeles Vacations

Santa Monica pier aerial view
Many of the best Los Angeles area attractions are free (Photo: Matthew Lejune via Unsplash)

Glitzy Los Angeles presents a quandary for bargain-seeking vacationers: You’ll need to balance savings with location. In LA, shaving off a few dollars on your hotel might add hours to the time it will take to get to the places you actually want to visit. That’s why it’s vital, as you’re doing your Los Angeles hotel search, that you pay extra close attention to the map, and that you have a clear idea of what sights and attractions you most want to visit.

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If sightseeing is at the top of your agenda, price out a bundled-admission package like a Southern California CityPass, which could save your family money (and will definitely save you time in line, since you won’t have to buy tickets at each attraction). And remember that in LA, many of the best attractions are free. You’ll only pay the price of parking for a trip to Venice Beach, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, the Griffith Observatory, the Getty Center, and more. 

5. California National Park Vacation Ideas

Joshua Tree National Park
California is home to six national parks and dozens of national monuments (Photo: Jed Villejo via Unsplash)

It may be California’s best-known national park, but Yosemite is certainly not the only one in California worth a visit. Six national parks plus dozens of national monuments, seashores, sites, historic trails, and more make California a wonderland for outdoor vacations.

Staying in a national park can be affordable if you stay at a campground or pricier if you opt for an iconic national park lodge, but it generally requires some serious advance planning either way, especially at the more popular national parks. If you want to stay in a California national park—whether you’re looking to camp, glamp, or stay at a lodge or hotel—you’ll find the best options, dates, and rates by booking your vacation about a year in advance. 

6. California Camping Vacations

Tent and hammock (Photo: Laura Pluth on Unsplash)
California has some of the nation’s prettiest and most kid-friendly campgrounds (Photo: Laura Pluth on Unsplash)

California has the world’s second largest park system in the world, so when it comes to family camping and hiking, you’ll have plenty of beautiful landscapes ready to wow. There are so many options, in fact, that you’ll make it easier on yourself if you settle on a region or type of family campground early in your search for California vacation ideas. That way, you can really dig into, say, the best coastal campgrounds (here) or best family campgrounds (here).

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Choosing a price range can also help. You can even find some free campsites around the state. Reserve camping spots at state parks via the state’s ReserveCalifornia system. Or check out HipCamp for options both within the parks system and more off-the-beaten path options. 

7. California Glamping Destinations

Interior of glamping tent at AutoCamp (Photo: Taylor Davis/AutoCamp)
AutoCamp is one of California’s most impressing glamping resorts (Photo: Taylor Davis/AutoCamp)

So you’d like an outdoorsy vacation but aren’t up for the sleeping-on-the-ground, lugging-your-own-camping-gear life of traditional camping. You’re hoping your a bed not on the ground, comfortable blankets, and maybe some running water. Good news: California has you covered.

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From full-on glamping resorts like AutoCamp to single-site yurts on private property, California is studded with excellent (and oftentimes affordable) glamping options. If you’re looking to browse, try GlampingHub, Glamping.com, and HipCamp.

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Christine Sarkis
A traveling parent and longtime travel writer and editor, Christine Sarkis is the co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of FamilyVacationist. She is the former Executive Editor for TripAdvisor travel magazine SmarterTravel.com, she has spent nearly two decades finding and sharing the best places to go with an audience of enthusiastic travelers. Her stories have appeared on USA Today, Conde Nast Traveler, Huffington Post, and Business Insider. Her expert advice has been quoted in dozens of print and online publications including The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, and People magazine. She has also shared travel tips on television and radio shows including Good Morning America, Marketplace, and Here & Now. Her stories have been published in the anthologies Spain from a Backpack and The Best Women's Travel Writing 2008, and she is working on a travel memoir.