Overvew- Ranking as the third largest state in the US, California brings hundreds of thousands of travelers each year, whether they are in search for beaches, mountains, sports, cities, the country, fantastic food or shopping, California truly does have it all. There are three general regions, North, Central and South. The north is known for its rivers, lakes, mountains, and liberal, laid back, vibe. Central California is famous for its agriculture, art, wine, and the amazingness that is San Francisco. Southern California, although infamous for its pop cultural LA scene, is much loved by locals for the endless outdoor activities and stunning beaches in the Orange County and San Diego areas. The climate in the south remains at a consistent 65-78 degrees f, where as the north has 4 distinct seasons making for colder winters and very hot summers.
Food- California is home to a very diverse population, including large Mexican, Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean, and Pilipino communities, gifting California some of the best, most authentic multicultural cuisine. If your on a budget, I suggest grocery shopping, my favorite store is Trader Joes, where you can get organic food at extremely reasonable prices even a budget backpacker could swing, not to mention the amazing (and cheap) wine selection. Eating out can also be done on the cheap with sandwich shops, tacos, pizza and fast food for $4-$10. Eating at a nicer restaurant will run you on average $15-$25 per meal.
Drinking- If you are on a budget, buying drinks at the grocery store will save you tons of money. Beers will cost approximately $1 per beer and liquor for $15 for a 750 ml, or $28 for a 1.75L. There are also many “happy hour” promotions; typically running from 3pm-7pm on weekdays featuring discounted drinks. Drinking at restaurants and bars ranges depending on where you are geographically. In Northern California, drinks often cost about 30% less then in the big cities in the South. Expect to pay $10+ for a cocktail in LA or at any higher end restaurant. For drinking water, skip the bottled water and just refill at any sink, the tap water is safe and clean, not to mention free, helping save you a lot of money on pricey water bottles.
Accommodation- Although Hostels are a newer concept in California, you can still find some in the larger cities with dorm rooms for about $25 per person and private rooms for $70 and up. Banana Bungalow Hostels and The Green Tourtise have great reputations for being fun, helpful, and a great value for travelers. Budget accommodations such as motels, average $75 per night where as nicer hotels are about $140. Of course there are great deals to be had on booking sites such as Travelocity, Expedia, Booking.com etc, so always shop around before booking to save an extra buck. Airbnb.com rentals have always gained in popularity of the last year with great affordable accommodation options as well. Another popular option, and one of the best in my opinion, is to rent a car and buy a tent to camp your way through California. Campsites typically range in cost from $20-$35 per night for up to 8 people, depending on time of year, proximity to the ocean or lakefront, and popularity of the campsite. Spots can be booked ahead of time at reserveamerica.com.
Stay on Main Hostel, LA
Activities – There are many parks, hiking trails, beaches, lakes, and rivers you can enjoy or little to no cost, making California a great budget traveler, (or balanced backpacker) destination. Splurging for Disneyland will cost $150 a person with ticket and food, but most people find it is worth the cost. If in San Francisco, a boat cruise of the bay costs $20-$30 per person and is one of my favorite things to do in the area with epic views of the golden gate bridge and the cityscape. Basically, there are endless activities to do in California, the sky is the limit, it is really up to you want and how much you want to spend. I would budget $50-70 per week to spend on activities.
Yuba River, Nevada City CA
Transportation- Public transportation is not very good in California. Although there are train systems, there is no connecting route from the South to the North without taking a couple bus transfers in between. In the south, Metrolink is a budget train system mostly in the LA area. A little nicer option is the Amtrak trains, which run along the coast from rom Sand Deigo-LA-Santa Barbara-San Luis Obispo. Then another line in the north can take you from the Sacramento area, to as far as Seattle, you will just be taking a couple buses in between to make up for the lack of route in connecting rails Central California. If you are visiting the bay area there is wonderful public transportation called the MUNI which is over ground and the BART which is a subway system connecting the whole inner city, as well as neighboring areas on the other side of the bay. You can always use taxis or for cheaper option, take one of the new and innovative taxi cab systems such as Lyft, Uber, or Sidecar. With these companies, local people, driving their own cars, will pick you up for a cheaper rate than traditional cabs. Just download their corresponding apps onto your smart phone and enjoy your first $20 worth of rides for free. You can also easily rent a car for about $20-$30 per day. I recommend Enterprise Car Rental as they will pick you up from where ever you are at, eliminating any cab coasts you might have accrued getting to the companies office.
A typical train car for Amtrak Trains