Local Wally's San Diego... On a Budget
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!
Where to Stay in San Diego for Cheap
Best 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.
Con’s: Pacific Beach can get very busy with traffic and “characters”. It’s a beach town so just go with the flow.
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.
Cheap Places to Stay on Shelter and 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 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. When you want a very convenient room that’s clean and don’t want to pay a lot, this is it.
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.
STAY IN SAN DIEGO.... ON A BUDGET!
Another budget-friendly option is to find a timeshare from VacationOwnership.com. While they specialize in timeshare ownership they also offer affordable rentals in San Diego within resorts like Wyndham Harbour Lights, meaning you’ll get an entire multi-bedroom suite for the price of a hotel room. All prices are weekly, so this is a great choice for those looking for a longer stay.
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.
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.
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.
Best Pizza and Traditional Italian Food
Forget about trendy gourmet pizza at Filippi's, an Italian restaurant that's so authentic you have to walk through the little market in front past the dried cod to get to the restaurant in the rear. Big gooey pizzas with a thick layer of cheese, just like the old days. Plastic red checkered table cloths, chianti bottles hanging from the ceiling, it looks like a theme restaurant but it's not - it's the real deal. Come hungry as the servings are huge and the prices so cheap they look like misprints.
THE BRIGANTINE BAR
Just order their 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. Del Mar location near beach has the best ambiance.
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.
CARNITAS SNACK SHACK
Pork and Foodie Focused
This is what happens when an accomplished chef breaks out on his own to open a fast food restaurant focused on top ingredients and lots of pork. Order from the sidewalk but walk to the back dining area where it gets modern. Beer and wine, locals love this award winning restaurant for both ambiance and food.
San Diego has a lot of taco shops and if you pay attention you might notice that a lot of them end in "...berto's". I mean, there's Abierto's, Alberto's, Filberto's, Filiberto's, Jilberto's, Ramberto's, there might even be a Wallyberto's somewhere. The original was Roberto's, a local chain that did massive expansion in the 80's and then backed down just as fast, selling off locations which spawned the *berto's name craze - change a few letters in the name and no one knows the difference!
Today there are two Roberto chains, confusing even for locals, but nearly every taco shop that ends in "berto's" means there will be good cheap eats ahead. Get a carne asada burrito or better yet, a California burrito which is carne asada with french fries and cheese, and find out why San Diegan's love our Roberto's taco shop and all of it's similar sounding named cousins.
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.
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 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.
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.
Beautiful drive to the point
The scenic drive is reason enough to visit Cabrillo Monument at the tip of Point Loma. But once there you'll find an old lighthouse you can tour, exhibits, and hiking trails down to beach where there are tidepools to explore. Watch for whales!
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.
Cheap bicycle rentals
All around downtown, Balboa Park and surrounding areas are Decobike stations where you can rent a bike by the hour or the day. Pedal around downtown, visit a brewery, hop on a ferry to Coronado, then drop off the bike whey you're done at any of their stations.
Locations all over San Diego
San Diego has 100's of breweries, some huge with restaurants and some so tiny that the brewmaster is your server. Make sure you stop in at Stone Farm in Escondido, an actual farm where you can taste under an oak tree while listening to live acoustic music.