The Budget Traveler's Guide to Northern California

Guest blogger Heather Phelps is a sort-of-recent college grad who loves discovering all the fun and adventures that the world has to offer. She shares her stories and general thoughts on life on her blog, heatherscoffeebreak.blogspot.com.

Traveling on a tight budget usually isn't much of a problem—outside of the U.S. If you've ever studied abroad, backpacked through Europe, or been in any similar travel scenario, you know that finding a cheap (if slightly sketchy) place to stay and a decent meal isn't too difficult. But budget traveling in the U.S.? Not quite the same story. When you're only a year out of college and desperately trying to learn how to budget, you may wonder how you're ever going to get farther than your city limits for a vacation. But I'm here to tell you that it is possible! This past September I explored Northern California with two friends. Our tour included San Francisco, Sonoma, Yosemite, Santa Cruz, and Monterey —and we had a great time while spending less than $900 all week (that's including a round-trip flight from Washington, DC). Here are some tips to help you do it, too:

Travel with friends

Odds are, if you're traveling on a budget and don't have a friend or family member to stay with, you can't afford to travel alone. Find friends that have a sense of adventure and that you can survive traveling with (remember—it might not always be your best friend!). Not only will you have people to share great memories with, but you can split the cost of everything, particularly lodging. By the time we divvied up our funds to pay for the places we stayed, none of us paid more than $38 per night. It also helps when one of the people in your group has a car—that saved us from the cost of renting one.

Who needs a reservation?

You don't always need a reservation to get the best rates. Be spontaneous! Most of the places we stayed at we would just walk into, ask about the rates, and decide if it was worth staying. We stumbled across some great places that we may not have found by browsing the internet, like the Swiss Hotel in Sonoma and the Seaway Inn in Santa Cruz. Interestingly enough, the one hotel where we did have a reservation, a place in San Francisco called the Taylor Hotel, was probably the lowest quality of all the places we stayed, though even that wasn't too bad.

Be flexible and work with what you have

Our San Francisco hotel was similar to a European hostel: a bit rough around the edges, but bearable. Try to stick with it if you find yourself in this position. When you're young and poor and just need a place to sleep, you don't need anything fancy. We also had to get creative when we camped in Yosemite. We were smart enough to pack a tent and sleeping bags, but that's about it. Don't be afraid to ask your camping neighbors for help. Outdoorsy people are super friendly and will usually let you borrow tools you might have forgotten.

Play your cards right

As recent college grads, we didn't have to worry about planning our trip around school breaks. If you're in a similar situation, take advantage and travel off-peak. With the right timing, you can still get the ideal combination of nice weather and lower rates. One of my friends was also active-duty military, so we were often able to use his military discount. Don't have that luxury? Ask about walk-in rates. One of the motels we stayed at didn't have military discounts, but offered us their cheaper walk-in rate instead.

Stick to your budget

Vacations are all about spoiling yourself, but you don't want to come home to an empty bank account. There are plenty of exciting things you can do without spending a ton of money. If you're in Sonoma, for example, go for the less expensive wine tastings. We went to a great family-owned winery called Little Vineyards. We not only got a delicious tasting for a low price, but got to drink outside and had a hilarious server that joked with us the whole time. As a general rule, keep the main tourist traps to a minimum. You don't have to avoid them completely, but they may end up snagging those few extra dollars you'd rather save for dinner. Plus, you're more likely to learn about the true character of a city and find its hidden treasures if you explore on your own. If we hadn't wandered the back streets of Sonoma we may never have discovered a cool champagne shop called Sigh where we got to slash open a bottle of champagne with a small sword.

So there you have it—budget traveling in the U.S. and having a great time is possible. You just have to be open to a bit of spontaneous adventure.

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