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San Francisco to San Diego on a Shoestring

Updated: May 23

In this travel guide for a California road trip, I will explain how we drove the Pacific Coast Highway between San Francisco and San Diego on the lowest budget possible. This is no easy feat, as out of all 45+ countries I have travelled to, California comes second to Norway as the most expensive place to travel in the world.




I am going to be honest, the USA has really never been on my list. However, flying into LAX was the most efficient way to get to Latin America from Japan - where we had just spent the Spring.

So, we figured while we were in that neck of the woods we may as well discover why the Pacific Coast Highway is one of the most iconic road trips in the world. On top of that, Joe has a keen interest in cannabis culture and graffiti art, both of which Los Angeles is famous for.


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We are incredibly lucky to have people in California who offered to put us up in both Los Angeles and San Diego, I like to call this 'offline couch surfing'.

One, Eduardo, is a very good friend of mine from my days in New Zealand, and the other, Crystal, was a guest at our restaurant last year. She was practically a stranger when she welcomed us to her home in LA, as being a traveller herself, she knows the value of paying it forward.

This is one of my favourite things about the travel community, everybody helps each other as they know it will one day be them who’s asking. Whether it’s a piece of golden advice or a couch to sleep on, we all have each other’s back.

If you don't know anyone in California, why don't you try online Couchsurfing - where you can connect with a host and in exchange for a free night's stay, cook them a meal or bring them a small gift.

Accommodation is very expensive in these parts, so Couchsurfing is the first step towards achieving a shoestring budget for a road trip from San Francisco to San Diego.

The Golden Gate Bridge
The Golden Gate Bridge


Our Itinerary

Los Angeles - 4 Nights

Monterey - 1 Night

San Francisco - 2 Nights

Los Angeles - 1 Night

San Diego - 2 Nights

It may look like a funny order going south-north-south, but considering we flew into LAX from Japan, and we were leaving California via footbridge into Mexico, it’s what made the most sense to us.


Los Angeles

We stayed with Crystal in the suburb of Torrance - which is a nice neighbourhood about a 40-minute drive from Hollywood. Luckily Crystal has a car and she was generous enough to ferry us around LA to all of the places we want to see.

My least favourite thing about Los Angeles is that there is no choice but to drive. Public transport sucks, and everything is incredibly spread out, so you really can’t walk anywhere, which is normally my preferred way to get to know a new place.

As I mentioned, Joe is really interested in graffiti, so he was geeking out massively as we drove from place to place looking at all the famous street art - and he even created his own piece at Sunken City.

Painting graffiti at Sunken City
Joe doing his thing at Sunken City

My main mission whilst here was to get a breakfast burrito - and the best one I sampled was at Phannys in Torrance, the egg-avo-hashbrown ratio was on point, made even better by getting them to go, and chomping down whilst sitting on the wall of Redondo Beach, watching dolphins play in the Pacific.

Venice Beach was another highlight, it’s a very colourful place where you can cheer on the skateboarders, grab an ice cream, peruse the art stalls, and people-watch. It’s certainly full of characters!

No trip to LA is complete without a quick snap by the Hollywood sign, and a stroll down Hollywood Boulevard to see the stars on the Walk of Fame.

We also went to a contemporary art museum called The Broad in downtown LA which was pretty cool. I am not really into art galleries but this one had some really interesting stuff. Admission is free but you’ll need to book your spot online.

Just a 5-minute walk away from The Broad is Grand Central Market, where you can get the world-famous buttered lobster roll from the Broad Street Oyster Company.

Joe is really into Googie architecture, so we had to check out Pann’s diner, which is the diner where that iconic opening scene in Pulp Fiction is filmed. If you know, you know!

Pann's diner from Pulp Fiction opening scene
Pann's Diner in Los Angeles

Food is very expensive in California - so we tried to cook at home as much as possible, but we couldn’t resist buying an In-n-Out Burger just once. It was damn good.

We tried to do free activities as much as possible, and we drank very little alcohol.

Budget for 4 Nights in LA

Accommodation: FREE

Transport: FREE

Food + Coffees: $200 (for 2 people)


Car Rental

We rented a car from Budget at Long Beach airport for 3 nights - for which we were charged a whopping $488, which was quite a punch in the gut.

Luckily the car they gave us was a hybrid, so we did save a lot of money on fuel, and petrol is much cheaper than in the UK anyway.



The next part of our journey through California on a shoestring was to take a road trip along the famous Route 1, known as the Pacific Coast Highway.

Again with the price of food being our main weakness, we decided to stock up on groceries and save money where we could. Armed with a cool box and a knife lent to us by Crystal, we could only buy food to 'assemble'. This meant wraps, cheese, hummus, cucumber, fruits, nuts, cereal bars and drinking water.

We drove from Torrance to the start of the Pacific Coast Highway at Santa Monica, alongside Malibu.

For our first stop, we took a short break at Neptune’s Net, another famous diner, this time featured in The Fast and the Furious. They are famous for their seafood baskets and clam chowder, but being on a budget we opted for filter coffee.

Neptune's Net roadside diner in Malibu
Neptune's Net in Malibu

Next, we drove through Santa Barbara, where if we had time I would have loved to stop at Au Bon Climat, one of my favourite wine producers. You can book tastings online here.

Our next driving break was at Morro, where we had a coffee and a slice of sweet raspberry pie whilst watching the sea otters in the bay. They were so cute, bobbing around on their backs, and definitely my spirit animal!

The sea otters bobbing in the bay at Morro
The sea otters bobbing in the bay at Morro

The next stop on our road trip should have been Big Sur, but due to a landslide Route 1 was closed (it is now reopened.)

This was a little disappointing as I had heard this 100-mile stretch was the prettiest part. We were forced to go inland for two hours, all the way up to our home for the night, Monterey.

I chose Monterey because it is home to Monterey Bay Whale Watching, where a friend of Crystal’s works, who hooked us up with a discount. We booked a cute motel for the night and ate cheese sandwiches in bed, excited for our boat trip the next morning.

It turned out to be one of the best things I have ever done - and more than made up for us being jilted on the rental car fee. We saw sea lions, dolphins, humpback whales, and a family of killer whales. We watched the orcas play and hunt for almost two hours, they were incredibly close to the boat and unfazed by our unanimous squeals of delight. What a day!

A family of orcas gliding through the water in Monterey Bay
Bumper and his family in Monterey Bay

Budget for 1 night in Monterey

Accommodation: $70

Whale watching (for 2): $130

Road trip groceries: $50

Coffee and snacks: $50


San Francisco

After a whale of a time in Monterey (I know), we drove up to SF, with a quick stop in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. There is a short 30-minute walking trail around the old-growth redwoods for those in a hurry, which was just enough time for us to marvel at these trees that predate the birth of JC himself.

The old-growth redwoods of Henry Cowell State Park
The old-growth redwoods of Henry Cowell State Park

When we eventually reached SF we chose to stay in Muir Wood which is actually on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge, about a 15-minute drive from central San Francisco and a much safer location.

Crime in SF is a huge problem, there are an inordinate amount of homeless people here, and some parts of the city are referred to as ‘traumatised’.

We spent one whole two days pounding the streets of SF. We parked up in Union Street Garage ($20) and walked over 20km altogether.

We started by heading down Powell Street, along to the Civic Centre (which did feel sketchy, I could understand why the guys from Urban Alchemy were there) and then Joe wanted to check out the graffiti in the Mission District. While we were there we grabbed some pastries from Tartine, a famous bakery featured on The Chef Show on Netflix. Damn, those croissants were the best of my life!

We then walked towards Haight-Ashbury, not before taking in the views at Buena Vista Park. Haight-Ashbury is the psychedelic centre of the universe and we really loved walking around all the cool galleries and shops.

The colourful streets of Haight-Ashbury
The colourful streets of Haight-Ashbury

Budget for 2 Nights in San Francisco

Accommodation: $140

Food and coffees: $80

Parking: $30


Los Angeles (again!)

After a couple of days of pavement pounding in SF, by late the next afternoon we were on the long road home to LA to stay another night with Crystal, which took us 9 hours on the inland Route 5, including a quick stop in a roadside hotel for some dinner.

A couple in white t-shirts posing by the Hollywood sign
Mandatory Hollywood sign snap

Budget for 1 Night in Los Angeles:

Accommodation: FREE

Dinner: $70

Fuel: $65


San Diego

Feeling very tired from the long drive we had a slow morning in Torrance, eating the last of our 'road groceries' and making the most of Crystal's coffee machine.

We picked Ed up from LAX at 1pm, and with typical LA traffic, we didn't make it to La Jolla until 6pm, which is where Ed's friend Rachael had offered to put us up on her sofa for 2 nights.

After a quick shower, we headed to La Valencia just in time for sunset, a hotel with amazing views of the bay. We had blackberry jalapeño margaritas, crispy albariños (damn I have missed wine) and even a Canadian ice wine to finish, alongside a bunch of sharing plates (which were amazing!)

We got a bit carried away, and the bill should have been several hundred dollars, but it being Rachael's place of work let’s just say we were VERY well looked after.

The next day was our second big splash after the whales (someone stop me) where we went to Tom Ham’s Lighthouse in downtown San Diego for unlimited seafood brunch overlooking the marina. I was a bit hungover and I didn’t really have the energy to crack crab legs and lobster claws, but somehow made it happen.

All you can eat crab leg buffet
Seafood buffet at Tom Ham's

From there we went to Pacific Beach for cocktails and ended up on the sofa by 8pm eating flaming hot Cheetos and watching Super Bowl half-time shows on YouTube.

The next day Eduardo dropped us off to the CBX footbridge that joins San Diego to Tijuana Airport, which was about a 40-minute drive from La Jolla.

To enter Mexico we needed to fill out an FMM, which is a Mexico tourist card, and print it, but we were able to do all of that at CBX where the staff are very helpful.

Et voilà! We crossed by foot into Tijuana Airport in Mexico, where we flew directly to Mexico City to begin our journey east, through Oaxaca, to the Yucatan Peninsula.

Budget for 2 Nights in San Diego & onward travel:

Accommodation: FREE

Car Rental for 4 days (with premium insurance): $500

Fuel: $65

Food and fun: $400

Mexico Tourist Cards: $80

CBX Tickets: $50


Ten Days in California (San Francisco to San Diego) + a road trip, on a shoestring, where people have a weakness for food...


This is almost twice our budget for ONE MONTH in Asia, with the exception of Japan. We did save a lot of money on accommodation by crashing with friends, and we cooked at home as much as possible, with two splurges being whale watching and seafood brunch.

Travel in the USA is expensive.

Even dormitories in California are about $40 USD per night per person, and groceries are very, very highly priced.

The best thing you can do to save money when travelling from San Francisco to San Diego on a shoestring is to couch surf as much as possible.

It would also help to batch-cook low-cost meals like soups and veggie curries.

Lastly, check out a company called Imoova. They are always looking for drivers to relocate camper vans and other vehicles across the USA (and Aus, NZ, and Canada) as and when they need them.

Often you just cover the fuel, so there’s no rental fee, and you can sleep in the car where possible. You’ll just need to be flexible and be available on the days they need relocating, and you could end up saving a huge amount of money.

If I had more time and more cash I would have loved to go to far north California and Yosemite National Park! There’s always next time.

California sunset and palm trees


Thank you for reading San Francisco to San Diego on a shoestring!

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If you're wondering how it's possible to travel so much, check out my post on how to travel for longer.

Happy Travels




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