Though California is frequently named as one of the most expensive places to live, a family on a budget can enjoy a fun vacation without breaking the bank. There’s plenty of nature, kid-friendly campgrounds, lots of educational opportunities, and even a few theme parks that offer a wallet-friendly alternative to Disney. Here are 10 ideas to inspire you to have an affordable, memorable family vacation.
If Disneyland is out of your price range, consider Knott’s Berry Farm in nearby Buena Park. This theme park has been around since 1920, when it was a berry stand. It blossomed as an amusement park in the 1960s, and has been adding new amenities and attractions ever since. Snoopy characters can be found in the younger kids’ attractions, while other parts of the park have an Old West or ghost town theme. One of their newer rides is Voyage to the Iron Reef, a 4D dark ride that takes passengers down into the briny depths, where they must battle sea monsters with laser guns.
Seasonal events include an annual boysenberry fest, a Christmas celebration known as Knott’s Merry Farm, and Halloween’s Knott’s Scary Farm, during which the park becomes a haunted playground featuring over 10 haunted dark mazes and other spooky attractions. Tickets are as low as $45 if purchased in advance online, or $70 to access both Knott’s Berry Farm and their water park, Soak City. It is also possible to bundle admission, meals and overnights at the adjacent hotel for an even better deal.
Located in San Diego, Campland is a family-friendly campground near the beach with lots of activities for both children and adults, including volleyball, parks, campfires, arts and crafts, an arcade, live entertainment and fitness opportunities. Daily rates in the summer start at $55 (four people, one dog, one car) and scale up to $432 for their premium sites. Their cheapest campsites have no grass or shade, but do provide a picnic table and fire pit. Campground amenities include showers, toilets, wi-fi, a restaurant and convenience store.
There’s quite a bit of land in California where families can camp free in a tent or RV. This is known as dispersed camping, and it means finding a piece of wilderness and setting up your camp, then leaving no trace behind when you return to civilization. This type of camping is typically allowed in national forests as well on land handled by the Bureau of Land Management. No reservations are required and there are no fees, though that also means there are rarely amenities — not even toilets. Sure, it’s roughing it, but if you want to be at one with nature, there’s no truer way to do it. Research potential campsites at BLM’s website or via freecampites.net.
Depending on your definition of affordable, you may want to consider a trip with the Sierra Club. They occasionally offer service/volunteer opportunities that are appropriate for families, with rates typically ranging between $500 and $800 per person. (Adults are generally more expensive than children.) Lodging, meals, snacks and facilities are included in the price, which could end up being cheaper than taking a more traditional vacation and paying for hotels, meals, and other expenses separately. You’ll work outside, to conserve the planet, with plenty of time for socializing and other ‘free time’ activities.
San Bernardino County often offers an affordable alternative to L.A. and Orange county beach vacations, containing both desert and mountain terrains. The Lake Arrowhead region can provide snowy adventures in the winter or water activities in the summer. To enjoy the area on a budget, skip the resort. Instead, check out camping options or one of the homier cabin getaways. Pine Rose, for instance, offers studio cabins beginning at $109/night in the summer. Even the studios have kitchens, meaning you can stop at a grocery store and prepare meals on your own versus eating out constantly, or at the very least, save your leftovers.
Activities abound in the area, including hiking, swimming, skiing and nature walks. During the summer, there are free outdoor concerts. Nearby Lake Gregory offers family-friendly fun, with paddleboats, aqua bike and kayak rentals, in addition to a floating obstacle course. Beach access begins at $10/person, with rental and daily use feels associated for the various activities.
Most people think of Palm Springs as being a chic desert getaway, but that doesn’t mean you can’t entertain a family on a budget in this mid-century mod oasis. Motels and traditional hotels are typically more affordable than resorts, and suitable for families. Travelers often mention the 7 Springs Inn & Suites and the local Best Westerns as a great budget options for families.
Then, you can check out the Palm Desert Aquatic Center, which contains three pools, plus play areas for children of all ages. It’s only $6 for adults, and $3.75 for children. A pricier option is available via Wet ‘n’ Wild, a family water park. Tickets generally cost $24.99 and up, but that’s still a lot cheaper than Disneyland.
If it’s not too hot, you can check out The Living Desert, a nonprofit zoo and garden focusing on desert conservation. It’s home to numerous animals, including giraffes, ostriches, fennec foxes, cheetahs, reptiles and more. You can take a guided tour on the shuttle, or walk the track yourself for maximum animal viewing. Kids will enjoy the petting zoo, and there are numerous educational opportunities scheduled throughout the day.
Temperatures in Palm Springs can exceed 100 degrees on summer days, making this time of year the cheapest season to visit. But if you don’t want to spend your time seeking out air conditioning, the other seasons are also gorgeous.
Located in Redding is the amazing educational playground known as Turtle Bay Exploration Park. It’s 300 acres of nature, with residents including foxes, butterflies, birds and other critters. Guests can walk across the beautiful sundial bridge which connects the north and south sides of the park, spanning 720 feet in length. There’s also the interactive Turtle Bay Museum, which offers exhibits on history and nature, including a spot to view fish as they swim underwater. The largest exhibit is the McConnell Arboretum and Botanical Gardens, which take up two thirds of the park. Admission is typically $16 for adults and $12 for children. However, there are deals at select times and on select dates.
Lodging in Redding tends to be pretty affordable, with chain motels ranging between $55-$75 a night. There are also numerous campgrounds available in the area.
Between Sacramento and San Francisco is Vallejo, where families can enjoy a day at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. A day pass typically hovers around $50 if bought in advance online, making it a significantly cheaper theme park experience than Disney or Universal.
About a 17-mile drive away is Fairfield, where guests can go on a free, self-guided factory tour of the Jelly Belly Candy Company, which includes free samples, games and interactive exhibits. The factory also has a cafe where pizza, burgers and other American food is available. Motels in this area are generally less than $80/night, and various campgrounds are nearby. The area’s many public beaches can round out a solid getaway.
Calico Ghost Town
Located in Yermo and within the San Bernardino County Regional Parks system, Calico Ghost Town offers a host of frontier-inspired activities for kids and adults, plus camping. Back in the 1880s, Calico was a silver mining town, but it was abandoned in the 1890s when silver’s value decreased. In the 1950s, the ghost town was restored by Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm fame, and now offers a glimpse at what life was like way back when.
Attractions include a museum, mining displays, train rides, panning for gold, ghost tours and a mystery house. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for children 4-11, and free for children under three. Campsites start at $30, while cabins can be rented starting at $65/night.