Saving and Wasting Money in San Diego

San Diego Bay
San Diego City View

San Diego is maybe my favorite city. I love the weather, the activities, and the atmosphere in general. Because we do want to retire early, it makes no sense to move there. The cost of living is way more than where we live now. We do try to go as often as we can. I believe this was my 6th trip to San Diego in the past 8 years, so we’ve gotten pretty familiar with ways to get around and how to save money. We still sometimes hit a few stumbles on vacation. This year we saved and wasted money in San Diego.

How We Saved Money on Vacation

My Favorite Hotel Doesn’t Take Points!

You all know I love earning free travel with credit card rewards points and miles. We try to never pay full price for hotels, but our favorite place to stay in San Diego is on Coronado Island, where there aren’t that many places to use hotel points.

We also love the location of the Hotel Del Coronado. It’s a landmark hotel where all the famous people used to hang out in the 20’s and 30’s. It’s right on the beach and within walking distance to everything.  It also costs over $400 a night for a tiny room. No thanks!

Across the road from the Hotel Del is the El, actually the El Cordova Hotel. It’s a vintage hotel with only a few rooms. The furniture is a little dated. There is a Mexican restaurant downstairs that can be loud until about 9PM, and the amenities are not grand, although they do have a small pool, offer a free continental breakfast, and a laundry room. Our room also had a kitchenette. That’s pretty much all we require anyway. They don’t have a parking lot, which turned out great because there was plenty of street parking for free. If we had been downtown, it might have been cheaper for the hotel, but we would have had resort fees and valet parking, which I despise.

affordable Coronado hotel
Stay at the El Cordova to save money!

I am on the email list for El Cordova, so when they offered 20% off in January for stays up until May, I booked our favorite room. The total cost was still $676 for the week. However, this year we used our Barclay Arrival World Master card. We had already received the bonus of 40,000 points after spending $3000 on the card within the first 3 months of opening it. We actually had 45,000 points waiting for us that I redeemed for $450 off the hotel bill. That’s a sweet deal and brought our hotel cost down to $226, which was a great price for the location.

Did We Eat Out?

Absolutely! Eating out on vacation is one of my favorite things to do, but we only ate out for dinner, except for one day when we broke tradition for Subway sandwiches. I had $200 worth of gift cards that I received from the optical lab company that supplied my optometry practice. I used to get several a year, and now that perk is gone with the sale of the business, but we enjoyed using these last few for lunch food from the grocery and dinners out.

We spent $137.69 out of pocket for food on this trip. Every meal was awesome except for the most expensive one. Ironically, we decided to try a nicer restaurant for a splurge, but I guess we are very unsophisticated. When I have to Google the definition of things on the menu, it usually doesn’t turn out well. We should have just left after being seated and realizing it wasn’t our style. I guess we are more suited to Red Robin than Chez Whatever.

Vacation Activities

San Diego Hiking
Torrey Pines State Preserve

We spent some time walking around Coronado and visiting the harbor seals in La Jollla, which is free. We spend a day hiking and having a picnic in Torrey Pines State Preserve, which was well worth the admission price of $10.

We spent a day at Sea World, which was not free, but Jim and I got Bogo tickets for buying online and the daughter got 20% off because I have a Southwest Airlines frequent flier number. Sign up for one even if you never fly. It’s worth it for the discounts. We spent $188.40 for admission, which is expensive, but we didn’t eat lunch or buy snacks there aside from a $4 bag of popcorn. I’m kind of meh about the whole Sea World experience, but we did have a great day and the kiddo was in heaven.

bring lunch to Sea World
Gourmet Lunch at Sea World

The other sort of expensive thing we did was a whale watching cruise. It was 4 hours long and cost $77 for the three of us (after finding $5 off coupons online). We got to go 10 miles out into the open ocean, almost to Mexico. We saw one giant whale and about a hundred dolphins and sea lions. It would have been the perfect day, except for the fact that I got sea sick and could have cared less. When we saw the whale, my thought was “Thank God. Now we can go back!” I guess I am a true landlubber and will keep that in mind for future reference.

Since this was a long road trip, we also decided to go with a rental car, which was a newer version of my Altima without the transmission issues. It added an extra $259, but helped with peace of mind. It was kind of fun to drive a new car for a week.

How We Wasted Money

The only money we truly wasted was for the Coronado Island Ferry. We thought it would be a cheap alternative to driving down town and paying to park while we were whale watching. I thought the tickets were $4.25 round trip, but that was one way, so it was $25.50 for the three of us and probably cost more than driving. I also did not want to get back on a boat after the whale adventure, but I guess the city views were pretty great to see from the ferry!

You might not enjoy the things we do on vacation and that’s OK. We all have our concept of what is fun. Vacations are something we value, save for, and cut back in other areas so we don’t have to feel guilty or like we spent too much when we take one. Here’s to San Diego and hopefully many more visits in the future!

What’s your favorite city? What’s the worst waste of money you’ve ever spent on vacation?

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Written By
Sydney White is a Texas-born stay at home mom who enjoys spending time with her family, bargain hunting and, of course, writing. She is currently the editor-in-chief of Snipon.com.

31 Comments

  1. I love San Diego! My wife and I make the drive once or twice per year to see family there.

    We don’t usually do much other than spend time with them, but sometimes we go out and end up spending a lot.

    One of my favorite places to eat there is Roberto’s, so I’m cheap!

    My bro-in-law works at Eddy V’s in La Holla, so when we eat there it’s usually a few hundred dollars, after the discount! It’s worth it though for fresh seafood.

    1. That’s after the discount! Wow, it better be awesome good food for that price. I’ve only paid over $100 for a meal a couple of times in my life and they were almost diving experiences. Hard to believe some people do that all the time.

  2. Hey Kim, sounds like you had a blast! I would love to go whale watching one day! My favorite city is Portland. My fiance and I took a vacation here 3 years ago. We moved here literally a month after we got home. I love it!

  3. I adore SD! Found. La Jolla grossly overcrowded but we saw seals earlier around San Simeon in a much nicer environment.

    I also tend to get seasick so from now on am avoiding maritime activities.

    1. We have always been on a weekday morning, so it wasn’t too bad, but I can see how it could get really crowded. I’ll have to check out San Simeon next time.

  4. Ah, San Diego. Yet another California locale I haven’t spent enough time in… maybe I’ll rectify that soon.

    Getting on hotels’ mailing lists sounds like a pretty solid idea to catch wind of forthcoming deals. Maybe I’ll try that… I also do the points/miles game but am more likely to get reimbursed for cash when it’s really close. Oh, I also do AirBnB, but it’s certainly not for everyone.

    1. I’ve never done Air BnB, but have had great luck with VRBO. Sign up for every mailing list for restaurants or hotels. I get coupons all the time, especially around your birthday.

  5. I love San Diego too. I’ve been there twice and actually seriously considered moving there but it’s just too darn expensive plus I really don’t like being on pacific time. It’s one of my pet peeves! Anyway, we stayed at the Holiday in on the bay which has now changed to the Wyndham San Diego Bayside. We loved it there because it had great views of the bay at very good prices. We just loved sitting on the balcony and watching the sunset every day. It was really great. I also loved Old Town. The food, the drinks were delish! Last year I went to London with a friend and the first place we had dinner at was a fancy shamcy place that wasn’t really our style and was too expensive but we were sooo tired from the flight that we just went with it. It happens sometimes.

    1. I don’t care for Eastern or Pacific time. I guess I’ll just have to stay in the middle! Although, if i didn’t have to work, time really wouldn’t matter that much I guess.

  6. Sounds like you guys had a great vacation! Both Victoria and I still have our Barclaycard credits to be used so we’ll probably take a trip to Vegas sometime this Fall and maybe one other weekend trip (this is assuming we win that Hawaii trip haha – which might be a bad thing to assume). We also are going to Des Moines for my cousin’s first communion so we will get a hotel. Des Moines isn’t exactly a tourist destination, but it works 😉

    1. Hey, I’ve never been to Des Moines, but I always have fun whenever we go to a city that isn’t know as a tourist hot spot. We actually really like Oklahoma City, Louisville, Albuquerque, and I had a great time in St. Louis for Fincon.

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