Home > Travel > Saving and Wasting Money in San Diego

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?

Today is the last day for the Southwest Airlines gift card giveaway. Don’t forget to enter, you could win!

About Kim Parr

Kim Parr is a private practice optometrist, freelance writer, and personal financial blogger. You can follow her journey to 20/20 financial vision at Eyes on the Dollar.


  1. Awww, sorry about the sea sickness. That really sucks; I love ferries.

    I hear you on not being the biggest fan of expensive restaurants. In Australia we went to what’s considered the best restaurant in the country and my meal really sucked. Mr PoP raved about his beef, but they really didn’t do my vegetarian meal very well at all. And with the portions so small we were still starving at the end of the night, so had to eat some apples when we got back to the hotel. Ah well. =)

  2. Whale watching is pretty cool, especially when you see whales. I have done some in MA, and also Hawaii. Dolphins are even more cool, they come right to the boat sometimes.

    Too bad about the sea sickness. I do some deep sea fishing once in a while, or even the great lakes, and I get that too. I am not sure how the folks on “Deadliest Catch” can do it.

    • We were talking about that on the boat. It was light chop at best. I can’t imagine being in a storm. If I ever do that again, I’ll load up on Dramamine!

  3. The seasick thing really sucks. Pretty much any motion is bound to make me sick (boat, car, train). The boyfriend’s ideal vacation is sitting in a boat out on a lake, drinking beer and fishing. I foresee a lot of Dramamine in my future!

  4. Oh no! Being seasick really sucks, especially doing something as cool as whale-watching! I have never had a problem with this, but The Big guy does, and I am super afraid that if we do something like that he will get sick and the money will be wasted. Maybe I’ll just go by myself….ha!

    • I think if you take Dramamine 30 minutes before you go, it’s supposed to fix getting sick. I don’t know if it makes you sleepy, though.

  5. That reminds me of the time we went whale watching off of Santa Barbara. It was 4 hours and everyone was super excited…until 20 minutes in when half of the boat was sea sick, and they were stuck for four hours on the open ocean. One of my fave cities is san francisco. I could eat my way though that city! As far as the splurge, New Zealand was probably one of my most expensive trips every. I just went all out doing every adventure I could think of.

    • It goes from good to bad real quick when you turn green! I would love to go to New Zealand, but that’s a huge trip. Maybe someday.

  6. With the exception of your sea sickness, it sounds like you had a nice trip!
    Chicago is my favorite US city. Put me near the lake and I’m good to go. I’m excited to spend a few days there this summer. My biggest waste of money while traveling is always the food. Any time I splurge on food, it is never worth it. Someone always ends up not liking what they order or gets sick later. I’ve learned to stay away and stick to places like Subway or Chipotle!

    • Subway is always a good bet. We try our hardest to try a few local places to branch out, but it really doesn’t work lots of the time.

  7. I’m sorry you got seasick! I’m a little iffy with boats, but I went on a little dolphin cruise once, and it was pretty fun to see them. That was in Myrtle Beach, though, and the water around there is pretty calm. I am not one for fancy restaurants, either. I hate that feeling of wanting to leave, but feeling kind of bad about it, so you stay. I really need to get over to the West Coast, I’ve never been, and it looks so beautiful! Sounds like you got a pretty good deal for the week there.

    • Luckily the west coast is only a day’s drive from where we live, so we try to take advantage. Someday, I’d love to take a long time and drive up the coast. We did a sailboat trip outside of Hilton Head a few years ago, and I wasn’t sick at all, but the water was much more calm than this one.

  8. Sorry that you got seasick Kim, that’s never fun. You’ll have to let us know the next time you go to San Diego since Nicole lived there she has all sorts of tips of places to go and things to see. We’re going this summer and definitely looking forward to it. We’re staying in a condo on Coronado Island we’re getting through a family member as the Del just is too rich for our blood.

    • If we went to the Del, we’d probably spill something on the table cloth anyway. I forget you lived there for a while. Insider tips are always the best.

  9. Hotel Del Coronado is a beautiful hotel. I love its rich history but it’s definitely not cheap, especially if you’re staying for a week! Sorry to hear about the sea-sickness – that is always rough, especially when you’re on a tour. It’s not like they can turn back for you. 🙁 Many years ago, before we had kids, my husband and I went on an African safari and it was incredible. I definitely want to give the girls that experience too, maybe in a few years. Have a great weekend!

    • I don’t ever get sick, so that was a really surprise. If we did an Africa trip, it would have to be a long time in the future. For that kind of travel, I’d want our daughter to remember it well and know it was a special experience.

  10. I went to San Diego for the first time in December and now I want to live there! We stayed at the Best Western after finding a deal on hotwire. It was $50 a night so that was great. We too did La Jolla and Torrey Pines, which was glorious. We went to see a show at La Jolla Playhouse, which I would definitely recommend on your next trip- either that or the Old Globe. Both theatres are renowned and produce work that often goes to Broadway.

    I had found a super cheap whale watching cruise on Groupon, but it got cancelled due to weather conditions, so that was a bummer. As for Sea World, I don’t think I can go there after seeing the documentary “Blackfish”.

    • I was going to watch Blackfish before we went but decided against. You can’t pull the plug after promising a 7 year old!

  11. 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 😉

    • 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.

  12. 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.

    • 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.

  13. 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.

    • 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.

  14. 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.

    • 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.

  15. 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!

  16. 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.

    • 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.