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How to Stretch Your Family Vacation Dollars in San Diego

by Shelly Rivoli
Published: Last Updated on

San Diego makes for a great family vacation destination virtually any time of year. And while it’s easy to feel the pressure to visit the numerous theme parks and attractions in the area during your stay, there is plenty to see and do for free or little money while you’re in the area and still have a great time with your children.

Here are a few tips for stretching your family’s vacation dollars on a trip to San Diego.

Tip 1: Choose your main event.
You could easily spend a solid week visiting the major parks and attractions in the area, and if you plan to do so, by all means consider getting a multi-park pass. Otherwise, think hard before you commit too many vacation dollars and days to these more costly activities. For children 3 years and older, a mere one-day admission will run you as follows: Legoland $49.95 ages 3 to 12, Seaworld $51 ages 3 to 11, San Diego Zoo $24 ages 3 to 11, Wild Animal Park $24 ages 3 to 11, to name a few. And then there are the adult tickets to buy.
Rather than spending all of your vacation time and dollars in the big parks, I recommend picking ONE of the more expensive attractions in the area and hang your hat on that. There are plenty of other enjoyable activities to fill your vacation in San Diego, especially if you’ll be vacationing with a toddler or preschooler who may grow weary from the long lines and crowds far before you’ve finished you’re day at Legoland, for example.

We chose the San Diego Zoo as our “main event” for this visit, first because it seemed the most age-appropriate for our daughters at this time (2.5 and 4.5 years), and also offered many changes of pace and interesting transportation throughout, including an aerial tram and buses (a.k.a. chances to get me off my feet since I’m pregnant). When I found out all children were free for the month of October, that was even better.

Tip 2: Be frugal about your fish.
If you’re interested in Sea World, but your children are still fairly young, you might consider Birch Aquarium as an alternative. For many toddlers and preschoolers, it may hard to put in the long day it takes to get the $51 dollar value out of the child’s ticket at Sea World (ages 3 to 11), and it may be equally enjoyable, or even more so for some small children, to spend a partial day at Birch Aquarium ($7.50 ages 3 to 17) followed by a picnic and playtime on La Jolla’s beautiful nearby beaches. Or if you’re heading northward or staying on the north side of San Diego, consider a visit to the Aquarium of the Pacific at Long Beach.
Tip 3: Sight-see for free.

Don’t miss your chance to hang out on San Diego’s great free beaches, stroll through its scenic walking districts, and simply soak up that SoCal vibe while you’re in the area. Some of my favorite moments from this trip were absolutely free: watching a mom roll along on a skateboard with her toddler on her hip, watching my family insist on staying in the sand at Mission Beach until well after the sun had set, and of course watching a glorious sun set into the Pacific with my own toes in the sand.
We also surprised ourselves by passing many pleasant hours just meandering through pedestrian-friendly Old Town, where guided tours are free, horse-drawn carriage rides are $3, ice cream is delicious, and anyone who loves great Mexican food is sure to enjoy her lunch.
Tip 4: Get a good hotel, and at a great rate.

A good hotel can also be part of a great San Diego family vacation, but for one with great family amenities and a primo location, you’ll generally have to pay through the nose. Using Hotwire.com, however, we really were able to get a 4 star hotel at the going rate for 2 star hotels in town just as they advertise.

Watch for a “Hotwire Limited Rate” for the best deals. You can also try Priceline.com for exceptional last-minute deals. I overheard another last-minute traveler boast that he got his room for $39 per night — I admit, we didn’t do THAT well, but given our lovely pool-view room for the four of us, I have no complaints.
Instead of having “just a place to sleep” while we were in town, we had a great place to just “be on vacation” and unwind. Most any hotel with a pool would have been a plus for our kids, but the Hyatt Regency Mission Bay took it a couple steps further than that. We took full advantage of the three heated outdoor swimming pools with waterslides—one that even our toddler could slide down and into Daddy’s arms, and a Jacuzzi scene that buzzed with friendly families (see my review for more details). No additional admission fees to be there, no burning extra gas to get there, and thank heaven’s no getting lost along the way. What’s more, I could actually spend part of the “outing” sleeping in the sun on a cushy chaise lounge–just what I wanted from my “new-additionmoon.”
Plus, being right on the Mission Bay Marina made for nice strolls with the children to pick up coffee and bagels in the morning, and just enjoy the nice scenery and atmosphere of being in such a special place—pelicans, sea lions, sailboats and all. Use the Hotwire icons to help determine what special features and amenities a hotel offers (even if they haven’t yet revealed which hotel it is, as in the case of the Hotwire Limited Rates). For San Diego, Hotwire will also tell you which neighborhoods the hotels are in.
Tip 5: Step off the tourist track.
Local mom, Sarah Wyles of Toddler’s Travels (our source for great gear during our stay), also offered these great suggestions for San Diego visitors with small children.
The Balboa Park carousel ($2/ride) and miniature train (also $2/ride) near the Zoo are great for kids 2 to 6 years old.
The Reuben H.Fleet Science Center has really fun, interactive exhibits. For ages 2-6 they also have a Kids’ City and Little Learners Lab where they can build blocks, bang, make things wiggle, jiggle etc. They also have an iMax planetarium theater with daily presentations.. $10 adults, $8.75 kids 3 to 12.
The 15-min ferry ride to Coronado (from San Diego, near the Star of India on Harbor Drive) is fun. There are some nice beaches there and nice casual bayside restaurants. Walk toward the Coronado bridge and you’ll also find a great park for kids. $3.50.
If you’re visiting during the holiday season, don’t overlook How the Grinch Stole Christmas, performed annually at the Old Globe Theater and a tradition for many San Diego families. Ticket prices vary.
Got another great tip for outings with your family in San Diego? Add your suggestions for families below.
Safe journey,
Shelly Rivoli, author of the award-winning guide Travels with Baby
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