How to Travel to San Diego with Kids on a Dime (and a Credit Card)

Last year, we flew to sunny San Diego, California for our spring break. It was my big idea for a really frugal vacation because we could use frequent flyer miles. But like many of my big budgeting ideas, they don’t always work out. Frugality’s not my strong suit. However, my youngest brother Matt and his family live there, and we hardly ever get to see them. So, we were going. Here are my tested (not proven) strategies for vacationing for less.

Tip #1 – Go Where the Dollar is Strong

Yup, stay in the U.S. The dollar works pretty well here, despite seeming to lose value daily. We turned in a lifetime accumulation of frequent flyer miles, and $500 later, we had four tickets. Sadly, it felt remarkably like Chuck-e-Cheese tickets where it takes a whole lot of spending to get a tiny little prize.

For accommodations, we checked out prices at the world famous 1880s Hotel Del Coronado, site of the Marilyn Monroe movie “Some Like it Hot.” After I picked myself up off the floor, I found an affordable little bungalow on VRBO instead. There wasn’t a trace of Marilyn era glamour, but my kids and glamour wouldn’t mix well anyway. Best part of all, I could walk to a Starbucks every morning (not recommended for budget travel). We could have stayed with my brother who lives near downtown, but putting up with us for a week was too much to ask – even for the sake of budget travel.

Tip #2 – Eat In

On our first night on Coronado, we grilled out by the little house with my brother and his fiancĂ©e Dawn. We planned our week while our children played in the courtyard with their cousins, Travis, 3, and Milaina, 1. It was more relaxing than eating out and way more fun. During the week, we ate most breakfast and lunches at our bungalow or packed picnics when we could. (Dawn’s Insider Secret: Lego Land let’s you bring in food.)

Tip #3 – Do One Big Thing a Day or Less

Matt, Dawn and the kids accompanied us on Sunday to the famous Flower Fields. This working ranunculus flower farm opened for tourists in the 1950s. So many motorists on the famed Pacific Coast Highway stopped to admire the fields that they decided it was a good idea to charge them admission — plus, sell them hot dogs, lemonade and family photo services.

Today, it’s a must-see hot spot and a San Diego tradition to take your kids’ pictures there. But having all the camera equipment and props can be rough with young children. While Matt was on his second trip to the car for a forgotten item, Dawn called him on his cell from inside the gates. “Matt, get Milaina’s white headband.” Matt was already heading back toward the gate so he asked if he could skip it. “She won’t have her headband for her flower-field pictures then,” Dawn said. “Do you really want that?”

“No honey,” Matt replied. “I guess I don’t.” And he trekked back across the acres of parking for the headband. After the pictures and tour, it was time for naps back at the house (and wine for parents).

Tip #4 – Use Coupons and Find Free Activities

There were coupons in the local parenting magazine for the San Diego Zoo and Sea World, both a treat. Years ago when my husband’s boss was at Sea World, he wanted to do something nice for the kids. So he paid the extra charge for his oldest to swim with the dolphins. But his second didn’t meet the age requirement. So, what began as a nice gesture became a crying fiasco that they’re still talking about.Learning from their experience and being budget-wise people, we skipped any extra up charges — and any mention of them. The kids were blissfully ignorant and quite a bit happier.

We also splurged on Lego Land. The Miniland was a must-see. Lego Master Model Designers and Engineers (real job titles) create miniature replicas of cities around the world. I hit myself in the head for getting an accounting and English degree. Who knew these jobs were out there?

We also looked for free things to do. We saw the wild sea lions of La Jolla, free, and lounged on the beach, free too. (Free is very good for the budget, plus I think it’s my husband’s favorite word.)

Tip #5 – Make It Memorable

The best part of all was time with family. We had dinner at Matt and Dawn’s house one night and got to know their lives. And, they came out to the island several evenings after their workdays. We played in the courtyard and on the beach and made memories. One night as they drove up, my three-year-old nephew Travis spotted the house before the car stopped, “There’s Everybody’s House!” he exclaimed. The tiny place symbolized family to him. Though the trip was not as inexpensive as I had hoped, in many ways it was priceless.

Want more? Margee Moore’s hot new collection is available on an iPhone near you. Take a break and enjoy a laugh with “Sleeping With the Laundry: Notes from the Mommy Track” today!

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