A Close to Free Family Vacation in Southern California

I just returned, this past weekend, from enjoying another wonderful travel experience for about as close to free as possible — courtesy of the methods and resources that we detail in our book.

IMG_0520On this trip, I spent ten beautiful days in Southern California with my mother, my daughter and her 18-month-old son. We stayed in a wonderful, large 4-bedroom house in the hills of Escondido, which was incredibly peaceful and relaxing. About half an hour north of San Diego, we were able to enjoy fun family activities like Legoland, the San Diego Zoo, and coastal areas such as Oceanside, Laguna Beach, La Jolla and the San Diego Harbor.

Here’s how it all came together, and my detailed itemization of all costs:



Our home exchange in Escondido, CA

Back in November, while I was traveling in India, I received an inquiry through HomeExchange.com. As any of you who have read the book or follow our blog likely know, home exchanging is one of the top ways in which we travel for free. This exchange request was from a couple in Escondido, California who wanted to come to Austin to help their daughter get settled in as she moved to my hometown. They stayed in my place in January (while I was already traveling in El Salvador anyway), and in a non-simultaneous home exchange, we agreed that my family vacation could be scheduled for April, to stay in their home.

Me and my grandson in the backyard of our home exchange.

Me and my grandson in the backyard of our home exchange.

As Keith and I have posted many times on this site, the monetary benefits to home exchanges are numerous. Besides the fact that the accommodations are completely FREE, you also have a true home with a full kitchen to cook in if you wish, which saves a lot of money on eating out (especially for families!). Sometimes, exchangers will even let you use their car or other amenities such as swimming pools, fitness facilities, etc. Besides the significant cost savings, other benefits of home exchange include the fact that by staying in a real neighborhood, as opposed to a hotel among many other tourist hotels, you can often get more of a chance to experience the place like a local.

Accommodation Cost: $0


All three of us used airline mileage points to book our flights. Because the baby is less than two years old, he was able to travel with my daughter without us having to purchase a separate ticket for him. I flew on Delta, using 25,000 mileage points and paying a nominal ticketing fee.

Flight Cost: $10.00


Hanging out with friends at the San Diego Zoo.

Hanging out with friends at the San Diego Zoo.

While the flights and accommodations were pretty much free, of course when you travel you do incur other costs of some sort. The beautiful thing about utilizing our methods to travel for free — to get the bulk of your travel costs covered, which primarily are transportation and accommodations — is that you are then given total freedom to decide how to treat the rest of your travel experience.

Our travel-for-free methods can be used as a way to travel when you really don’t have any extra money at all, creating a bare-bones, incredibly cheap vacation. When we go this route, we eat very simply and cheaply while on the road (which often entails preparing many of our own meals and eating street food or taking advantage of coupons, Groupons and other special deals), and become very resourceful at finding free and very cheap activities to do in our destination. You might be surprised at how many TOTALLY FREE museums, attractions, live music or theater, and other attractions can be found all over the world, with a little research; and many more that are very low cost.

On the other hand, often times people use the advantage of getting the bulk of their travel expenses for free or nearly free, and use the money they would have spent on those things, to really live it up and have a great time on their trip. Freeing up hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars that would have been spent on airfare and hotels can enable travelers to splurge on fancy restaurants, buy more cool things in the places they travel to, or have fun with more expensive excursions like scuba diving, hot air ballooning or skiing.

Fun times at Legoland

Fun times at Legoland

Whether you budget your entire trip or use your savings to splurge a little is up to you. This San Diego trip was a little more on the budget side, although we didn’t scrimp or anything. We cooked a few meals at home, and we used Groupons and other coupon deals for several other meals. I also always figure in the fact that you can’t consider ALL the money you spend when traveling as a travel-only expense. You are still going to eat at home, you are still going to have transportation costs — the only decision is how close you want to stick to your normal at-home budget for these things, or how much you want to splurge on them.

Here is the breakdown for what I spent while in California; I kept a faithful tally while there, and divided the total amounts of our bills by three to arrive at my one-third share.

Dining out: $206
Groceries: $52
Activities/Admissions: $10
Parking: $17
Gasoline: $46
TOTAL: $331 or $33 per day

To arrive at my true travel-only expense, realistically I would have spent about half of this dining-out money in 10 days here at home, using the average of what I typically spend; all of the grocery money (in fact more than that, in 10 days at home), and half of the gasoline money. We did not incur many admission fees for activities we did because we were able to secure free passes to some attractions. So, my total above-what-I-would-spend-at-home costs come to:

Entertainment/Dining Cost: $153

Total out-of-pocket cost for my 10-day trip, above what I would have been spending had I stayed at home:

$163 – or about $16 per day

Pretty damn good, I say! And to be totally realistic, even if I added in the activity expenses that I was able to get free passes for as a member of the media, my average daily travel cost would go up to $28. Still a great deal, for 10 days in San Diego including flights and accommodations!

Travel well!


About Shelley Seale

Shelley is a wanderer and student of the world, yoga chick, voracious reader and dog lover. She pounds the keyboard as a freelance writer, author and publication designer, based in Austin, Texas when she isn't traipsing around the globe. Shelley has written for National Geographic, USA Today, The Guardian, The Week, Fodor's, The Telegraph and Texas Monthly, among others. Shelley has performed a catch on the flying trapeze, boarded down a live volcano, and was once robbed by a monkey in India. But she doesn’t know how to whistle.
This entry was posted in Accommodations, Airfares, Airline Points, Family Travel, Free Attractions, Frequent Flyer Programs, Home Exchange, Travel Resources, USA and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A Close to Free Family Vacation in Southern California

  1. Pingback: Friday Travel Dreaming – 5/3/13 | How To Travel For Free (or pretty damn near it!)

  2. Pingback: Home Exchange Blog A Close to Free Family Vacation in Southern California - Home Exchange

  3. Pingback: Happy Holidays and New Year from Shelley and Keith | How To Travel For Free (or pretty damn near it!)

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