Local Wally's San Diego... On a Budget
EVENT UPDATE: WASTED, A CELEBRATION OF SUSTAINABLE FOOD FESTIVAL COMING OCT. 20, 2019 - INFO HERE!
Planning a Budget Trip to San Diego
Cheap eats, cheap hotels that are not rat traps, cheap or free things to do, it's all right here. Look, just because you're broke doesn't mean you don't deserve a great vacation. While it's true that San Diego isn't the cheapest place to live that doesn't mean you can't have a great time visiting on a tight budget.
In fact, believe it or not, you get the same sunshine and the same sand and waves whether you spend a ton or a little on a San Diego vacation. You think the locals here are all rich? No way, but we're all happy to hang out at the beach chowing down on an epic burrito that costs less than bus fare.
San Diego also has a lots of great free or cheap stuff to do, lots of hole in the wall restaurants with really good food, and plenty of discount options so you'll never pay full price. Let's go to San Diego.... on a budget!
Top Discounted San Diego Attractions
Look, you know you’re going to go to these attractions when you’re here so why not get your tickets ahead of time and get a discount? Why wait and pay full price, McFly?
San Diego Zoo
Pretty much the best zoo in the world. You can’t come to San Diego without visiting the zoo. Are you nuts?
San Diego Zoo safari park
See animals in their own habitat, take the tram around the park to get up close, feed a giraffe on caravan safari.
It seems like a weird concept but everyone from kids to adults comes away amazed!
Seaworld san diego
Get up close to aquatic life at Sea World along with rides, shows, and a water park.
go san diego card
The best discount card, the Go San Diego card gets you deals on all of the major activites.
Star Wars: Galaxy Edge is open summer 2019! Forget the mouse, bring on the wookie!
Best Cheap Beach or Bayside Budget Hotels
There are a lot of hotels in San Diego that have water views but to qualify for Beach or Bay means that you need to be able to actually walk on the sand and into the water, These hotels typically have the lowest rates for Beach and Bay, San Diego.
BEACH HAVEN INN
Location: Pacific Beach
Pro’s: Updated and modern, steps from the beach, excellent choice for a beach vacation with surprisingly good rates. Some of the rooms even have kitchens. Family friendly hotel that won’t break the bank.
Con’s: Pacific Beach can get very busy with traffic and “characters” and while updated the walls are motel thin so noise can be an issue.
OCEAN BEACH HOTEL
Location: Ocean Beach
Pro’s: Rooms in the process of being updated in 2019, location so close to the ocean that you can hear the waves crashing as you go to sleep.
Con’s: Rooms are small and OB has its fair share of home-intolerant people who might give you the creeps. But again, this is a beach town and if you were homeless where would you hang out?
Hilton San Diego Resort and Spa
Location: Misson Bay
Pro’s: Full service resort with fantastic pools, restaurants, service. Located right on the sandy bay so the kids can wade and you can sip a cocktail without worry of a shark attack.
Con’s: Right on the freeway so room selection is key. Rates can fluctuate dramatically based on the season so check as soon as you have dates.
Best Cheap Places to Stay on Shelter & Harbor Island
San Diego’s “islands” are not actually islands at all. Located close to the airport and downtown the location can’t be beat. But there’s no sand to be found and no one goes into the water - think marina and rocky access. Still, the views are nice.
kona kai resort and spa
Location: Shelter Island
Pro’s: Harbor view on one side, bay view on the other. Decent pools and excellent restaurant. Newly updated rooms.
Con’s: Not really a full fledged spa resort so keep your expectations in check. Think of it as a super nice hotel. Some issues in the past with spotty staff and service.
Best Western Plus Palms Hotel
Location: Shelter Island
Pro’s: A true moderately priced hotel with many of the deluxe trimmings you would find in a more pricey hotel. Suites available, great bar, views of Marina and the Bay.
Con’s: Rooms could use an update. In the end it really is still a Best Western so not that fancy.
Holiday inn bayside san diego
Location: Shelter Island
Pro’s: Typically low prices, mostly newly refurbished rooms, airport close but that’s not a bad thing as our airport is in the good section of town.
Con’s: Don’t be fooled by the photos. Busy street location and budget vibe. This is not a resort, it’s a budget hotel but a good one if you need to stretch the budget.
OK, right, Paradise Point is a top notch resort and clearly doesn’t fall into the budget category but you might be surprised how good the rates are. Staying there feels like you are on your own tropical island so it’s always worth it to check the rates just in case!
Best Cheap Places to Stay in Coronado
Coronado Island is the land of money and high rent but there are a few places you can stay that won’t break the bank - definitely worth checking out. Check out and check into one of these places for the beach vacation of a lifetime.
Best western coronado
Location: Not near the Del
Pro’s: Location near the Coronado Bridge makes access super easy and keeps prices low. Great location even if it’s not on the beach. Nice updated rooms, you won’t write home about this place but you won’t complain.
Con’s: Goofy New England lighthouse with red tiles constantly reminds you that you could not afford the Del.
El Codova Hotel
Location: Across from the Del
Pro’s: Photos make it seem away from it all but in reality is right across the street from the Hotel Del Coronado. Hang at the Del, use the pristine public beach, then head back to your money saving room.
Con’s: With Miguel’s Restaurant right outside it can be a little noisy - or festive, depending on your mood.
Glorietta Bay Inn
Location: Near the Del
Pro’s: This is budget? It can be depending on the season. It was previously the mansion of sugar “Baron” John Spreckles. Down the street from the famous and expensive Hotel Del Coronado.
Con’s: Might be hard to leave and go back to your Ikea furniture once you stay here.
Best Cheap Hotels Near Gaslamp District and Convention Center
You’re coming here for a convention, Comic-Con, or just want to stay in the livelier section of town. Welcome to San Diego Gaslamp District and the Convention Center area. Here are the best cheap places to stay.
kimpton solamar hotel
Location: Smack in the action
Pro’s: Young and hip hotel with hip hop vibe and trendy pool. Rooms are modern and hip, this is not your parents sort of place.
Con’s: You will need to work out and go on a serious diet before you hang out at the pool. I’m not judging, I’m just tell you how it is. Sleeping can be a problem with rooms facing the pool.
horton grand hotel
Location: Close to Convention Ctr
Pro’s: Super cheap rates and a great location makes this an excellent pick if you’re on a tight budget or if your company’s IPO just failed. Historic old building is cool and the location is great for Gaslamp fun.
Con’s: Can be a bit like sleeping at grandma’s old house with the old school Victorian decorating.
courtyard by marriott
Location: Downtown San Diego
Pro’s: Marriott Courtyard San Diego Downtown takes over the old San Diego Bank building and turns it into a cool, boutique hotel. Great lobby, cool bank stuff, and rooms are nice and updated.
Con’s: Business people in suits can spoil the vacation vibe. Bank theme is a reminder that you are on a budget.
Best Cheap La Jolla Hotels (Seriously!)
Can you really stay in La Jolla, the jewel of San Diego with the most beautiful coastline, for cheap? Yes! I mean it, there are some good deals here and here are my top picks.
La Jolla shores hotel
Location: Right on the beach
Pro’s: One of the only San Diego hotels that’s literally right on the beach - and a great beach at that. You cannot go wrong with this location if you want a beach vacation to remember.
Con’s: Three star hotel on a five star location, don’t expect top end anything but the view and beach.
La Jolla Cove Suites
Location: Across from La Jolla Cove
Pro’s: One of the best locations in La Jolla, the cove is literally right across the street. Breathtaking views from the rooftop patio. Suites for the kids! Seals down the beach! Great spot!
Con’s: Definitely could use some updating here and there - ask for a refreshed room. Traffic in this area can be a real pain getting in and out.
The shoal at la jolla
Location: 5 min walk to the beach
Pro’s: This is Budget La Jolla that doesn’t make you wish you spent a bit more. Newly updated, a modernized motel made up to today’s aesthetics. They’ve done a good job bringing it up to date and while not on the beach it’s close enough for budget La Jolla.
Con’s: It was once a Travelodge so don’t get too excited.
Best Cheap Eats in San Diego
Of course you can dine at Happy Hours and get great bargains but that's too restricting for me, especially when I'm on vacation. Dine at any of these local favorites and get a great meal for a bargain price. Heck, San Diego's would love these places even if they weren't inexpensive.
CHEAP MEXICAN FOOD AND TACOS
Just order their fried fish taco
You can't leave San Diego without having our fish tacos and the best classic fried taco is found at the bar at the numerous Brigantine restaurants. Plump, crispy, piping hot, splash some line and hot sauce on it and experience San Diego's most famous food. Don’t waste your time trying their other food and for God’s sake do not go into the restaurant but stay in the bar where the tacos are cheap and the house beer is excellent. Head to Del Mar for the best experience.
Fresh fish in taco format for $6
High quality seafood stuffed into a massive taco for under $6? That’s what Fish Shop PB (and their second place in Encinitas) is all about. Pick your fish, always fresh, pick your seasonings, add a craft beer and some ceviche and you have a great, cheap authentic San Diego meal. Family friendly, great fish and chips though dang it if they went frozen fries after I told everyone how excellent their original hand cut fries were. Sandwiches and plates as well.
LOCATION: PACIFIC BEACH
Best Overall Cheap Mexican Food
A San Diego institution, El Indio has been around so long that every kid raised here remembers coming with Mom and Dad to get a plate of rolled tacos and a tamale smothered in chili beans. Food is authentic and priced to sell and while there's a good indoor dining area the outdoor sidewalk patio, lodged between two streets, is the place to be. Fish tacos, giant burritos, and a salsa bar with plenty of options. These guys invented the taquito and still make the best in town.
LOCATION: NEAR AIRPORT
Sketchy location, Great Tacos
The new trend is gourmet tacos in fancy pants settings where people look like they've just come from a cocktail party. This isn't it. Las Cuatro Milpas is in a sketchy part of town and the restaurant is even sketchier. But the long lines of locals from every socioeconomic class is due to their incredible, and authentic, tacos, tamales, rice and beans. Yes, their menu is limited and yes, there's always a line (lunch only) but it's so dang delicious you must go. Very cheap!
LOCATION: NEAR DOWNTOWN
San Diego’s culinary contribution
All over San Diego you will see taco shops, many with variations on the name “Roberto’s”. That’s because at one time Roberto’s ruled, only to be copied and mutated into any name with “…berto” in it - Filiberto’s, Aliberto’s, Royberto’s, Wallybertos?? It doesn’t matter, this is authentic San Diego Mexican food. Get some rolled tacos with guacamole, a California Burrito filled with carne asada and fries, and you’re living large on a tiny budget.
Unbelievable! Wrestling meets Tacos!
I hate it that Diner’s, Dive’s and Drive In’s loves this place. For me it sort of tarnishes its image because FoodTV gets so many things wrong. But then I remember the first time I went to Lucha Libre when it first opened and cracked up at their Mexican wrestling theme while eating up some of the best tacos I’ve ever had. You have to love a place that has a TJ Hotdog (bacon wrapped dog previously only found in Tijuana) and seriously great tacos and burritos. Still cheap, still excellent.
LOCATION: NEAR AIRPORT
BEST SAN DIEGO LOCAL BURGERS
San Diego Based Mini-Chain
With its first location in La Jolla, Burger Lounge has grown to 25 locations, 9 right here in San Diego. Featuring grass fed beef and sustainable seafood and being called out by Forbe’s as one of the Top 10 burgers in America, if you love high quality burgers and fries (and shakes!) for fast food prices then you can do no better. Veggie, GF, salads, onion rings, all in a nice, trendy setting the belies the reasonable costs. Beer and wine make mom and dad happy.
Crazee Burgers offers gourmet burgers in a very casual neighborhood setting. A local favorite, this chef driven burger joint offers up more than your organic beef - how about an ostrich burger? No? Then go with the gator burger, or perhaps a camel burger? OK, don’t freak out, the bulk of the reason why locals love this place is for the standard BURGER, made with great ingredients and extensive craft beers on tap. Great fries and salads, but why?
LOCATION: LITTLE ITALY
Ocean Beach Favorite
You see the long lines and you might turn around but don’t! Hodad’s is a San Diego institution, making big, fat, messy burgers served up in a California beach vibe, complete with a VW bus turned into a dining table. The open air Ocean Beach setting is the best, come here and walk the funky hippie beach town, check out the pier, then check your wallet for a ten spot which will get you a burger, fries, and change. Great vacation dining, even if you’re not on a budget.
LOCATION: OCEAN BEACH
Iconic Southern California
I KNOW that In-N-Out Burger is not from San Diego but it’s a SoCal thing, the first drive through burger that’s still family owned and still making one of the best burgers - and best deals - in the world? Cut that Shake Shack comparison, this is a fast food burger that kills anything near its price point. Double Double, Animal Fries, done.
Over 21 Bar with Killer Burgers
A basic burger done right in a hole in the way bar you might find in your own hometown. Cheese or not, 1/3 of 1/4 pound, those are your options. But they must be doing something right with people waiting 30 minutes at the bar for their burgers. Not for kids, cash only, noisy, but totally worth it if you are in Pacific Beach and want a local dive.
LOCATION: PACIFIC BEACH
Beautiful views and fast food prices
It's like stepping into a time machine when you go to Toby's at the Balboa Golf Course. It feels like it's 1950 inside with food prices to match. Burgers, chicken fried steak, breakfast, it's unpretentious diner food. Views of the golf course with the city behind it are as good as it gets. Closes around sunset.
LOCATION: NEAR BALBOA PARK
Best “only in san diego” sandwiches
It’s Not a Tourist Trap!
The location on the Embaradero near the USS Midway and the San Diego Pier normally means tourist trap food but not here. Carnitas Shack Shack is a foodie favorite, once tucked away in a non-descript part of town but now relocated right into the heart of the action. Carnitas to die for, tons of creative sandwich options.
LOCATION: CLOSE TO AIRPORT
Top Chef Richard Blais
This is Chick-Fil-A on steroids. But wait, there are no steroids or anything else in their chicken which is all the upmost top quality and prepared as if Padma herself was going to judge it and send you home if she doesn’t like it. Fun vibe, kid friendly, bocce ball and lots of beer make this a great afternoon destination.
LOCATION: LITTLE ITALY AREA
Ultra Casual, Ultra Fresh
There’s something about fresh crab between two slices of San Francisco worthy sourdough bread. Point Loma Seafoods is an “order at the counter” place with most sandwiches under ten bucks. Plates of seafood, oysters, sushi, and a family friendly setting right on the harbor. Everything is freshly caught and top notch quality.
LOCATION: POINT LOMA, AIRPORT
Best Free or Cheap Things to Do in San Diego
There is so much to do in San Diego and not all of it has to cost a fortune. Check out a Farmers Market, stroll through Old Town or Seaport Village, or do some of my favorite activities below, all for cheap or free in San Diego.
SAN DIEGO BEACHES
Visit them all!
The beach doesn't care if you're short on cash. You could spend your entire vacation week visiting the beaches of San Diego, from youthful Mission Beach with one of the last ocean side wooden roller coasters to beautiful La Jolla and up into the North County where surfers rule the waves and tourists are fewer.
Bring a picnic
Balboa Park is more than museums. Spend the day riding bike through the park, stop in at the gift shops or free exhibits. Stunning architecture, street performers, Sundays there's a free concert at the Organ Pavilion and cheap ethnic eats at the International cottages. Museums charge fees but you can hang out all day for free.
Go Take a Hike
Short hikes along the coast through striking natural scenery of scrub brush and pine trees and ending up with views of the ocean. Torrey Pines State Park's many trails will keep you busy all day and the original lodge along the old highway is a blast from the past museum.
A SeaWorld alternative
If seeing our aquatic life is on your agenda but paying for SeaWorld not your budget, go to Scripps Aquarium instead where you'll see everything from jellyfish to sharks. Incredible view from the patio where there's an interactive tidepool exhibit.
Beach towns along the coast
One of the best day trips is to visit the beach towns in north San Diego, from Del Mar to Carlsbad. Cruise the old highway and stop along the way at eclectic shops and cool local beaches. Wear your swimming suit and flip flops.
LA JOLLA SEALS
See seals in their natural habitat
Ignore the nutty people protesting the seals on the beach. I like them there and you will too. During winter to spring there are baby seals and while the swimmers usually scare them off in summer you'll still find plenty of seals looking for a place to lay in the sand.
WINE TASTING IN TEMECULA
Get a two for one pass
About an hour’s drive north is Temecula where you can spend a day tasting some of the local wines and check out their Old Town. Get a 2 for 1 Pass here, one per couple, before you go to make sure you keep the prices down to Earth.
CRAFT BEER TASTING
Locations all over San Diego
San Diego has 100's of breweries, some huge with restaurants and some so tiny that the brew master is your server. In North County you can hit up lots of small local breweries - set your GPS to Iron Fist, Belching Beaver, and Lost Abbey to get you started.