Photos and words by Erin Wilson

Ever wondered how to travel up the California coast on a college student’s budget? All this trip requires is a few flexible travel buddies, a working vehicle, and some innovative thinking. Over the span of five days, my two friends and I drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back again with plenty of time along the way to pause and enjoy the beautiful places and bustling cities our golden state has to offer. Below are several tips that worked in our favor to give us a great spring break vacation.

Eat responsibly

One aspect of the trip that helped us save some extra cash was the choice to grocery shop for most of our food ahead of time. We brought a cooler along with us in the car to keep our food fresh, and we saved money on plenty of meals by eating what we brought along. It was important for us to store our ice packs in the freezer at each place we stayed so our food would last, although we did make a mistake once by not storing the ice packs which cost us some delicious cheese. Learn from our mistake! Store your ice packs in the freezer every night, and be sure to put your food in the fridge overnight as well.

Sleep in familiar places

Another helpful way to save on a road trip like this is by staying with friends and family members who live near the places you want to visit. This saved our small group hundreds of dollars, even though it sometimes meant that our drives were a bit longer than we originally planned. It was completely worth it to invest the extra time and miles. Not only was it wonderful to see good friends again, but their families were kind enough to feed us dinner, allow us to shower, and offer us free wi-fi!  

If you do need to stay at a hotel or a campsite, it’s important to research well before leaving. We stayed in San Simeon for one night and initially thought our best bet would be to stay in an Airbnb somewhere near Big Sur so we would have a chance to explore. However, it actually turned out to be much cheaper to stay in a local hotel. Our hotel conveniently ended up being across the street from the beach, giving us a chance to collect neat rocks and see a beautiful, chilly sunset.


Splurge on worthwhile experiences

While it is important to take measures to keep costs low, it’s also wise to save your pennies for unforgettable experiences. For instance, after driving out of Solvang, my friends and I passed a giant plot of land with a sign that read “Ostrichland.” This seemed too good to be true. After parking and walking into the gift shop, we were told that for a mere $6 apiece, we would have the opportunity to feed dozens of ostriches and emus. This hilarious experience was completely worth the cost of an overpriced coffee.

Likewise, buying delicious burritos in San Francisco’s Mission District was also worth the money. Not only were our meals gigantic, but they were voted some of the best burritos we had ever tasted.


While it might seem difficult to travel up the west coast while staying budget-conscious, it is actually entirely possible. Many of the best parts of our trip involved spontaneous pit stops to places that yielded stunning photos and even better memories. Often, these little stops were completely free and only required a free-spirited sense of adventure.