Travel Deals: San Diego on a Budget – What To Do


Welcome to Part Deux of San Diego on a Budget. If you read Part One on where to stay, you’ve already got your accommodations all taken care of. This week we’ll concentrate on things for the frugal traveler to do in America’s Finest City**.

Honestly, with such a walkable city and miles of scenic beaches at your disposal, you probably don’t even need me for ideas on what to do. But as a frequent traveler to San Diego, I feel it my duty to let you in on some of my favorite places.

** No offense to anyone with intense civic pride. I googled “san diego nickname” and that’s what I got, folks. The World Famous San Diego Zoo

Well, yeah. I mean, of course you’re gonna go to the Zoo. It’s World Famous, after all. It’s also a bargain, compared to other all-day attractions in the San Diego area: Legoland will set you back $89 per adult and $79 per child and SeaWorld is $69.99 per adult and $61.99 per child.

The Zoo, while not as mind-blowingly cheap as it used to be, is a reasonable $40 per adult and $30 per child for a pass that includes unlimited use of the Guided Bus Tour, Express Bus and my personal fave, the Skyfari Aerial tram. Plus, when you go to the Zoo, you know your dollars are helping to support one of the biggest and best conservation powerhouses in the universe. These people brought the California Condor back from the brink, for pity’s sake: we’ve gone from 22 to over 300 birds in less than thirty years! Just one of the many success stories of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation.

The San Diego Zoo has a lot of extras you can tack on to your ticket price, but most of them are pretty pricey. Such as the hour and a half Backstage Pass Tour for (gulp) $99 per person.

I’m gonna let you in on a little secret–and I hesitate to do this as availability is already very limited–the Sunrise Surprise Stroll is the biggest bargain at the Zoo. For a measly extra sixteen bucks, you get to enter the zoo before it opens, enjoy a special animal presentation and get a behind-the-scenes look at one of the exhibits. I spent a very happy birthday a few years ago on a Sunrise Surprise Stroll featuring twin grizzly cubs Scout and Montana. When your stroll is over, you even get some coffee and muffins to fortify you for the rest of your day at the Zoo.

Balboa Park

I’m cheating a little bit here, because the San Diego Zoo is actually part of Balboa Park. But this 12,000 acre landmark definitely deserves its own mention. The museums and performing arts events within Balboa Park have their own admission rates, but enjoying the trails, botanical gardens and whatever gatherings going on on any given day are free. Also free are Sunday organ concerts and a variety of guided tours. If you’ve got the kiddies along, $2 gets you a five minute ride on the gorgeous Balboa Park carousel. The Miniature Railroad ride through four acres of the park is also just $2.

As for those aforementioned museums, February happens to be San Diego Museum Month. This month, stop by any Macy’s in the San Diego area and get a free pass good for half-off admission for up to four people at forty local museums, including fourteen museums at Balboa Park alone. Not bad!

Go For a Short Drive

Now, San Diego is so beautiful and jam-packed with things to do, you may never want to leave. But there are a variety of low priced or free activities in the general area that are well worth a short drive. Twelve miles to the north is picturesque La Jolla by the Sea, filled with shops and galleries and an almost guaranteed incredible sunset at La Jolla Cove. Take a fifteen minute drive East to Chula Vista and check out the U.S. Olympic Training Center. Guided Saturday tours are free, or you can take a free self-guided tour any day of the week. If getting back to nature is your thing, beautiful Torrey Pines State Park and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park are but a short drive as well.

Military Appreciation

Very worth mentioning: San Diego is exceptionally proud of its military heritage and of nearby Camp Pendleton. Active members of the military get discounts at loads of local attractions, including $6 off Padres tickets (or 50% off if you are in uniform) and completely free one-day admission to the Zoo.

Obviously, I’m just scratching the surface here. What are your favorite frugal things to do in San Diego?

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  1. Allegra.Ringo

    4 years ago

    Thanks for the heads up about San Diego Museum month! That’s really good to know. Also, the baby panda photo was a great choice. It’s killing me with its cuteness!

  2. ShoppinHolly

    4 years ago

    These posts have definitely prepared me for our next trip to San Diego!!! We’ve only been once and for a short time…I love La Jolla Coves (I’m pretty sure this is the name), a rocky hill along the shore with the best tidepools ever! We saw live crabs, sea anemones, and even a fish or two there, plus numerous seals and sea lions.

  3. Meghan.S

    4 years ago

    Love these ideas! Especially the idea of getting out to explore the area. San Diego is an outdoor wonderland and has got amazing weather. My last few trips I’ve found there’s so much to do for free, there’s practically no reason to spend money!

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