The Cheapskate Guide To: San Diego

There are so, SO many cheap things to do in San Diego! Click through for insights from a local, like the best cheap tacos, free museums, and $35 a night beach camping! >>

Did you know that San Diego is on the list for top 10 best weather in the world!? It’s hard to argue with 72 degrees. Today, San Diegan Crosby tells us where to find the best, cheapest tacos, amazing vintage shops, and $55 a night Airbnb rentals. Ca-yute! Let’s all book flights and meet on the beach. Yes? Yes.

Hi! I’m Crosby, the founder of PR Couture – known as the fashion PR bible, and a fashion marketing strategist, mentor, and coach. I didn’t always live in San Diego but after more than ten years here I love it.

These days, touching down at the San Diego airport and then driving past the boats grooving in the harbor and twinkling downtown lights, I roll down the window, smell that salty sea air, and feel glad to call this beachy, mid-sized city home.

It’s important to understand that San Diego is made up of a ton of small neighborhoods and towns, each with their own personality. However, the biggest split is between the more urban San Diego proper and the sleepier, beachy spots in North County. It’s about a 40-minute drive to get from the airport to North County, with La Jolla being a good midway point between.

Since I rarely make it up to the Lululemon-clad North, I’m focusing your journey closer to downtown.

Cheap places to stay in San Diego

Beach Camping – $35/night

If you’re not staying on my couch, the cheapest way to enjoy San Diego is to camp or AirBnb – ideally on the beach (try Fiesta Island and snag a fire pit for an end of day bonfire). Luckily, it’s perpetually 70ish degrees, so this a mostly year-round option.

Bunk up with AirBnb- $40/night

Campsites fill up quickly, however, so if you’re planning a last-minute trip, or just like a door and a shower, Airbnb is your go-to. Stay in the heart of downtown for $38 a night, go to college kid party central and grab a bunk for $40 in Pacific Beach, or come to my neighborhood, where you can stay in an adorable Craftsman house for $55 a night.

If you’ve never used Airbnb before, here’s a $40 credit towards your first booking!

Cheap lodging in San Diego

Cheap places to eat in San Diego

San Diego is home to some of the best Mexican food around, easily acquired at one of the seemingly hundreds of similarly named taco shops. Whether you choose Aliberto’s, Adalberto’s, or simply Berto’s, a burrito is a budget-friendly traveler’s best friend. Our local specialty is the California Burrito (french fries inside), and a trip to San Diego wouldn’t be complete without an order of fish tacos.

Taco Tuesdays – $8

Try Oscar’s 99-cent fish tacos Mon-Thurs starting at 2:30 pm in Pacific Beach. My suggestion: get a little weird with your ingredients at City Tacos in North Park (the Pollo Asado comes with grilled chicken breast topped with arugula, diced tomato, golden raisins and toasted almonds with tamarind aioli on a house-made flour tortilla) on a Tuesday, when all tacos are $3 plus $2 Mexican beers, or reserve the Champs Booth at Lucha Libre just a few doors down for a bright pink, luchador-inspired lunch.

Late Night Happy Hour – $15

The Prado, located in Balboa Park, is the go-to restaurant for prom and grown-up dates alike, and its outdoor patio is romantic as hell. Forgo the regularly steep prices and take advantage of their uniquely timed Happy Hour (Tues – Fri: 4pm – 6pm & 8pm – 10pm, Sat: 8pm – 11pm) and often get a mix of Italian bread sticks on the house.

Cheap places to eat in San Diego

Arcade Bar – $7

Save your quarters and spend them at Coin Op, the North Park bar that’s also an arcade. Happy Hour gets you $3 draft beers and $4 fries.

Sushi Special – $15

A few stores down you’ll find Riki Sushi, where rolls are cheap and the ongoing drink special can’t be beat ($5.25 for a large Japanese Beer and large Sake).

Good cheap food in San Diego

Old School Brunch – $12

San Diego loves its brunch, and you’ll find yourself back in the 70s at Hob Nob Hill, where the waitresses still wear uniforms, and awkward art, chandeliers and subdued lighting make it feel like it’s the middle of the night no matter the time of day. Each order comes with 2-3 extra sides, (say yes to the coffee cake) and unlimited coffee refills.

Cheap things to do in San Diego

Harbor Stroll – Free

The San Diego Airport is right near the San Diego Harbor, filled with boats, strange sculptures, tourists and locals going for a run. Take a picture in front of The Star of India, pop into the nautically-themed Maritime Museum gift shop, and then take the ferry to Coronado for $4.75 each way.

Cheap things to do in San Diego

Coronado – Free + $8

Coronado Island is not actually an island, but a quick trip across the bridge will transport you to an idyllic, well-manicured, vacation-ready oasis. Start at dog beach and walk along the water toward the huge, rust-turreted hotel in the near distance. Watch for dolphins – they can often be spotted at Coronado Beach. Once you’ve reached the famous Hotel del Coronado, take a wander through.

If you’re visiting during the holiday season, you might find the outdoor lawn converted into an ice skating rink. An $8 beer at the hotel’s Sun Deck & Grill (cheapest thing on the menu) grants you a spot on the outdoor patio and a front row seat to the sunset.

PS: If you’re in the mood for a movie, the Vintage Village Theatre is a 1940s masterpiece and matinee tickets shouldn’t cost more than $10 (grab your own snacks from the convenience store around the corner).

Balboa Park – Free

While some might argue that downtown’s Gaslamp district is the city’s centerpiece, for me it’s Balboa Park. Home to the aforementioned Prado restaurant as well as 15 museums (the Timken Museum of Art is always free), the Zoo, trails, a carousel, water fountain and so much more, weekends at the park are packed with a mix of tourists, locals, and vendors offering everything from free hugs to the redemption of your soul.

Weekdays are much more chill and a great place to bring a blanket, read a book or explore and take pictures of the statues, arboretum, and large-scale mosaic dragon, as you explore 1200 acres of awesome.

Neighborhood Tour

To get a sense of San Diego beyond the beach, spend a day investigating its neighborhoods. Two of my favorite neighborhoods, local business-friendly South Park and newly gentrified North Park border Balboa Park, with lively gay-friendly Hillcrest nearby.

South Park Booty – $10

In South Park, grab a coffee or Kombucha on tap at Rebecca’s where you might catch an impromptu poetry reading or folk duo. Then pop into Bag Madge to find yourself an inexpensive treasure among the handpicked vintage housewares, books, photographs and clothes.

On Sundays, there’s a good chance owner Tanya will be on hand with free mimosas to help release those shopping inhibitions.

In the evening, prepare to dance your ass off at Booty Basement, the local watering hole Whistle Stop’s homage to funk, R&B and soul. Get there early and sip your drink while playing board games with your besties to avoid the lines and eventual cover charge.

Cheap places to go in San Diego

Torrey Pines – Free

When I mentioned keeping most of the suggestions nearby downtown, I forgot about one very good reason to head up the 5 freeway to La Jolla; hiking Torrey Pines. Get there early and park for free along the beach or along Carmel Valley Road, or park at the top near the Torrey Pines Golf Course and choose a downhill trajectory.

Walk along the cliffs and peer down to the ocean below while the sun glitters along the water is heaven itself. Once you get to the bottom, play around in the ocean before making the trek back to your car.

In terms of transportation, you might have some luck with the Trolley (especially if you choose to explore Old Town or to get the real deal by crossing the border into to Tijuana).

Otherwise, we have all manner of ride-share apps at your disposal. DecoBikes are popping up everywhere, and pedicabs will take you through the Gaslamp (barter but be kind – these kids have a rough gig).

And there you have it, a few insider secrets to help you explore America’s Finest City on the cheap(er).

Thanks so much for all the awesome insights, Crosby! I know there are plenty of Yes & Yes readers living in San Diego – what would you add to this list?

P.S. How to live out of a suitcase – glamorously

photo credits: ian schneider // oleg // aunt chris // t.tseng // peyri herrera // m.m // hob knob hill // slack12 // thomas hart // photos by clark // bill gracey

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  1. Katasha

    San Diegan, here! And, I approve of this message 🙂

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yay! Always glad to hear we’re doing it right! 😉

  2. Rose

    Love this guide! This is everything I used to do when I live there. I left San Diego (after 10 years living there) 3 months ago for Georgia. Not by choice. My husband got a better job there. This guide makes me miss it!!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Thanks for reading, Rose!

  3. Charles Griffiths

    My Wife and I visited San Diego in July 2016 we stayed at a AirBNB in Ocean Beach that was reasonably priced The most expensive tourist thing we did was Balboa park it cost $90. To tour the museums and a majority were closed . I would definitely visit again as I fell in love with city .


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