How to Plan a Nice, Affordable Vacation in Orange County
To state the obvious, taking steps to save money and create an affordable Orange County vacation is silly if they prevent you from doing the things that draw you here in the first place. So if your primary attraction is to visit the great theme parks, it does not make sense to save money by cutting out the trip to Disneyland. So the first step is to think clearly about what is truly essential. Frankly, it is easier to save money if you really want to focus on the beach. Why? Because there are lots of free (or virtually free) beaches in O.C.
Let’s talk about the easier scenario first, assuming you don’t need to spend much, or any, time at Disneyland or Knott’s. A camping vacation is a good option, if you like camping and can get a reservation at a good beach-oriented campsite.
Actually, if you like to camp, you could stay at any campground in the county and drive to the beach or wherever you wish for the day. The savings in overnight lodging and food will add up to hundreds of dollars over the course of a week. Check out our Orange County Fun page for information and links to camping opportunities. Don’t forget about RV campgrounds that might accept tent trailers.
You could visit a different beach every day for a week, returning at night to your campground. Evenings could be spent walking through some of the entertainment malls; maybe you splurge on a movie and ice cream at The Block in Orange or Fashion Island in Newport Beach for a treat. You could walk around Seal Beach or Balboa and get dinner at Ruby’s Diner out at the end of those piers. There are lots of free and inexpensive galleries in Laguna Beach for evening diversions.
If you will be staying in a hotel, you’ll find cheaper lodging away from the beaches and the theme parks. The hotels along Harbor Boulevard in Anaheim and Beach Boulevard in Buena Park are nicer and more expensive because of their proximity to Disneyland and Knott’s.
However, there are hotels in the periphery of these parks. Go a mile or two further away and the popularity and rates drop off noticeably. You might find lower rates in smaller cites in north O.C. like La Habra and Stanton. As always, be careful in choosing a hotel, but with web site photos and rating web sites, you can find a decent place in advance.
You might also consider staying in western Riverside or San Bernardino county cities. You’ll spend more on gas driving in to O.C. every day but if you have a larger family and need a suite or two rooms, it might be worth staying a bit further inland. Important advice if you do this: commuter traffic going into Orange County from Riverside and San Bernardino counties is bad in the morning until 9 am or so. Outgoing traffic is bad in the afternoons starting as early as 2:15 or 2:30, until perhaps 6 pm or later on some unfortunate days. Plan your travel accordingly.
OK, what if your whole reason for coming to Orange County is to visit Mickey Mouse or Snoopy? Can you still achieve a relatively affordable Orange County vacation? Well, you’ve got to look for your best deal on discount Disneyland tickets (not easy), save money wherever you can elsewhere and decide on the shortest amount of time you can spend in the parks to make it worthwhile. Some of the Disneyland vacation websites we recommend provide ways to save money on tickets, but it is likely to involve staying at a Disney hotel, which won’t be cheap. But check out those sites, and the Disney web site, for possible savings opportunities on Disneyland vacation packages.
It could be that you’ll decide to spend one night at a Disney hotel, get into the park early and have one terrific (but expensive) day at the Resort. The tickets are usually ParkHopper passes that permit entry to both Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure. So you’ll want to take your vitamins, get up early and make the most of that day. Check out or pages on tips for the Disneyland Resort (like saving money by eating in the picnic area outside the main gate or getting your food from the restaurants on Harbor Boulevard). Stay ‘till Mickey throws you out personally at closing time.
Then on another day you can spend several hours at Downtown Disney, which has no admission fee but offers lots of entertainment, shops and dining with a strong Disney theme. That’s a way to stretch the experience to a second day while only paying for the first day. (In a severe pinch, you might be able to get away by just going to Downtown Disney but it is certainly not a replacement for going in the park.) You do get some exposure to the 9:30 firework show at Downtown Disney.
Regarding Knott’s Berry Farm, they do sometimes offer discount tickets and there is usually a reduced rate for admission after around 4 pm. You can see a lot of the park between 4 and 10 or 11pm, or whenever it closes. Even if you’re there in the off-season when it closes earlier, the smaller crowds will permit you to see a lot more of the place in 4-5 hours.
You can do something else during the first half of the day and then get over to Knott’s. Eat before you go into the park or take a break and walk up Beach Boulevard a couple blocks to the McDonald’s (same for Disneyland; walk over to Harbor Boulevard for less-costly eating options).
Fill in the rest of your affordable Orange County vacation with time at and near the beach, including city walks (Laguna, Balboa) or nature hikes (Newport Back Bay; formally known as the Upper Newport Bay Ecological Preserve, supports a very wide diversity of wildlife. Get there from the 73 freeway by going southwest on Irvine Boulevard and left on University Avenue to the parking lot.).
There are some great tide pools at Laguna Beach that every school kid in Orange County sees on a field trip at some time or another. A number of the regional parks offer hiking trails. Check our comments on outdoor activities back on the Let’s Play WHAT If page.
Check out bleacher seat tickets at Angel stadium for a ballgame. They offer a limited number of pretty inexpensive tickets.
If you can spend one day at Disneyland/DCA, a partial-day at Downtown Disney and an after-4 pm session at Knott’s, you’ll feel pretty satisfied. For maximum savings, go to Knott’s after 4 pm one day, and then go to Downtown Disney the next day; forget Disneyland and focus on how fun it was to see Snoopy and Gang at Knott’s Berry Farm. Then spend a couple of days at the various beaches and you’ve made a strong attempt at an affordable Orange County vacation.