5 Tips to Take a Trip Up the Pacific Coast Highway on a Budget

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Here's how to hit the road on one of the most scenic stretches of roadway in America without emptying your bank account.

The pandemic finally appears to be tapering off. Vaccinations are up across the nation, infections are down, and the travel bug is rampant.

After a year and some-odd months of being sheltered at home with minimal interaction, it makes sense that we're craving fresh air and new experiences. But as people get set to travel, prices are soaring. Demand for hotels, rental cars, and plane tickets mean post-pandemic travel plans may come with additional costs.

Fortunately, there are still ways that you can travel on a budget. I was recently able to take one of my bucket-list trips -- a road trip up the Pacific Coast Highway in sunny California.

If you're thinking of exploring California's coastline, here are some tips on how to do it without completely disrupting your personal finances.

1. Plan your trip as far in advance as possible

If you're looking to take a trip in the next few weeks, you'll likely pay top dollar for your flights and hotels. But by planning now for an escape several months in the future, you'll find that prices are much easier to stomach.

Keep in mind, for a trip like this, you may be planning flights and accommodations in multiple cities. For example, we chose to fly in to San Diego and spend five nights in various cities as we headed up the coast. We then flew home from San Francisco.

Your travel plans may also involve flying into one airport and out of another. And you'll probably have to secure lodging in multiple cities along the way. Having this all mapped out well in advance will bring you peace of mind as you travel.

2. Cash in credit card rewards for flights and hotels

If you have rewards credit cards, now is the time to splurge. Redeem your airline miles for a couple of coach tickets. With the right rewards program, you may find that the air-travel portion of your trip ends up costing you almost nothing!

And don't forget to use up all those points and miles you've racked up on your travel credit card. Similarly, if you have a hotel credit card with a lot of points stashed away, you may find eligible hotels along your route where you can exchange those points for free nights.

Or, in lieu of hotels, check out Airbnb. Because of the wealth of affordable options -- including private apartments, whole homes, or simply just a bedroom in an otherwise-occupied house -- Airbnb can be a huge money saver no matter where your travels take you.

3. Travel weekdays rather than weekends for cheaper bookings

You've probably noticed that pricing schedules for airlines and hotels dip during the week and soar on weekends. Use this knowledge to your advantage and plan to do the bulk of your traveling during the week.

There are a couple of perks here: First, you get to take advantage of cheaper prices. You'll also find that attractions are far less crowded during the week, what with adults working and children in school (depending on the time of the year).

You could plan to depart on a Sunday and head home on a Friday night, for example. This type of schedule saves you from having to pay the bloated Friday and Saturday accommodation and travel charges.

4. Browse for the best deal on a rental car

To travel up the Pacific Coast Highway, you're going to need a vehicle. This is another time when booking well in advance -- and traveling during weekdays -- is going to be your friend.

Due to rising costs, plan to budget more for a rental car. To help keep your spending under control:

  • Use a website that compares prices from multiple rental companies to quickly determine what your most affordable options are.
  • Try a car-sharing service like Turo.

My advice? You don't need anything quite so extravagant as a convertible or sports car. The drive itself will offer bountiful scenery, and you'll only be distracted if you can't see from the wind whipping your hair.

Another thing: Don't be afraid of car rental companies that aren't one of the big names. Sometimes these companies only operate regionally. But just because they aren't around in your part of the country doesn't mean they're not a good option for your travels. If they look legit and the price is the best one around, give it a go!

And if you've got a credit card that rewards spending on gas, make sure to take it along. You might as well reap the rewards from any necessary spending.

5. Don't spend a bundle on activities

There's no getting around spending money on flights, hotels, and gas. But where you can choose to go cheap is with your activities.

The Pacific Coast Highway has a lot to offer anyone traveling on a budget. You'll find many great cities and landmarks to check out, including La Jolla Cove in San Diego, which is a must.

The many famous beaches and tourist areas near L.A., like Santa Monica and Venice Beach, allow you to explore at your leisure. And there are plenty of cheap souvenir shops and tasty street foods to try!

And if you have a golf aficionado in your life, I definitely recommend a tour of Pebble Beach.

You can even get by on a budget in famously expensive cities like San Francisco:

  • Visit Baker Beach -- the view of the Golden Gate bridge is breathtaking.
  • Explore Fisherman's Wharf.
  • Drive down Lombard Street.
  • Check out the city and bay views from Coit Tower.

You might just be surprised by how much you can see and do without emptying your wallet. So forgo the day passes to Disneyland and focus on all the gorgeous sights that the Pacific Coast Highway has to offer. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but it doesn't have to leave you with a load of debt.

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