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The actual cost of our California road trip

The actual cost of our California road trip



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Budgeting for family vacations

Ok, I'll admit it.  

Famous we are not when it comes to budgeting out the nitty-gritty for vacations.  

Typically, we'll set a ballpark budget for a vacation, loosely keep track of spending on-the-go, and adjust on the fly.  

Once we've booked lodging and decided on transportation, our past trips historically turned into a go-with-your-gut kind of spending, with fingers crossed, hoping we don't overspend.

Not a great strategy.

But, we treated our dollars on our family's recent California road trip differently.  On purpose.

Upon planning our trip, we decided to create a budget worksheet and project what our 16 day road trip would really cost.  I wrote about it here.

A quick look at our actual itinerary

As much as I'm dying to blurt out everywhere we went and everything we did in California, I'm saving that for future posts.  

Today, we're sticking to money talk.  

For you curious souls, I'll share the elevator version of our itinerary, leaving from Colorado Springs:  

  • Cedar City, Utah (1 night) & Kanarra Creek Waterfall hike

  • Twentynine Palms, CA (1 night) & Joshua Tree National Park

  • Ventura, CA (3 nights) & Channel Islands National Park & exploring the coastline

  • Drove through and explored Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks

  • Yosemite National Park (5 nights tent-camping)

  • Morgan Hill, CA (4 nights with friends) & eating our way through San Francisco & Monterey Bay

  • Return drive through Cedar City, Utah & Cedar Breaks National Monument

So much to say about these fun-filled days!  I'm looking forward to sharing fantastic tips and highlights from each destination in upcoming posts.


Being real about our budget

I'm going to be very transparent about what we actually spent on our California family vacation and if we were successful with staying within budget.  

The nitty-gritty.  Budgeted versus actual spending.  

Here we go...



Budgeted:  $400  

We projected our overall trip mileage to be about 3,200 miles and budgeted for $400 in gasoline bills.  We figured we would pay an average of $2.50 per gallon and average 20 miles per gallon on the road.

Actual:  $532

We drove 3,725 miles round trip (crazy I know!), averaged 21.9 miles per gallon, and paid an average of $2.47 per gallon for gasoline.  

We spent $420 on gas.  But we forgot about tolls and parking and more.

The cost of parking in San Francisco on two separate days was a whopping $35 each time!  Throw in a very fun San Francisco cable car ride to get from the wharf to China Town and you add another $42.  

So add another $112 and we spent $532 total on transportation.  We'll probably also have a few small toll bills popping up in the mail shortly.  Insert eye roll here.



Budgeted:  $960 for 15 nights

We thought we would camp about 7-8 nights (at about $20/night), sleep in hotels ($160/night average) about 4-5 nights, and crash with friends for 3 nights (free).

But plans change.  Even with a plan, we shift gears.  A lot.  We're very flexible travelers.  

Actual:  $1268 for 16 nights

We decided to leave Friday afternoon rather than Saturday morning to get a jump on the driving; this added one more on-the-road hotel night to our itinerary.   

Some of our hotel nights were booked ahead of time.  Others we booked from the road using   We always earch for a hotel with a free cancellation policy, pool, and a free breakfast.  Because kids.

About camping reservations.  Learn from us.  Make reservations for camping anywhere in California through months in advance.  Maybe even a year out if possible.  I know, that means lots of planning and hoping and praying, right? 

We were unsuccessful in securing a campsite at Carpinteria State Beach in California.   Carpinteria is a gorgeous, soft, white-sand beach, thus making it popular (even with foreigners!) and tough to reserve. 

Plan B:  We "camped out" for three nights at a cool, modern, retro Best Western Plus Inn of Ventura.  We loved it.  


Reserving campsites in national parks should also happen months in advance.  Even then, I've heard you're very lucky to get a campsite in Yosemite or Sequoia. 

We decided to focus our efforts on winning a walk-in, first-come, first-serve campsite at  the historical Camp 4 in Yosemite National Park.  It was a near-miracle we won a site.  I'll write about that soon.  It was wild.  And so worth the 4:45 a.m. alarm.  

Camping in breath-taking Yosemite Valley cost us $36/night for 5 nights.  And laundry and showers there cost us an additional $35.

In a nutshell, in addition to 5 nights of camping, we stayed 7 nights in hotels at about $150/night average, and we crashed with close friends for 4 nights outside of San Francisco.  SWEET!  

For the nerds, we averaged $79.25/night for six people lodging for 16 nights.  Not bad at all, if I do say so myself.



Budgeted:  $1220

We figured on 4-5 sit-down restaurant meals and 7 fast food meals.  Our family leans towards Chik-Fil-A, In-n-Out, local pizza joints, Chinese, and Chipotle or local Mexican when we're on the road.  Otherwise, we aim for free breakfasts at hotels, lunches from the cooler, and cooking our own meals while camping. 

Seafood and eating our way through San Francisco was definitely on our bucket list too.

Actual:  $1214

We devoured free breakfast at each of our hotels and ate our fair share of picnic lunches. We spent $509 at 8 sit-down restaurants, $189 at 6 fast-food restaurants, and $516 on groceries and California road-side fruit stands.  We cooked breakfast and dinner at our campsite all 5 days.

Nailed it!  Only 14 meals out of 50 meals were eaten in a restaurant of sorts while traveling.  

Patting myself on the back right now for staying right on target in this area.   



Budgeted:  $1574

A big part of our trip's focus was visiting and exploring 5 national parks.  So it made sense to purchase the America the Beautiful Annual Pass for $85.  You can buy one online here.  

We planned on a day at the Channel Islands National Park and thought we might rent kayaks or wet suits to explore out there, a $432 projected cost.  

Splurging on one day at Universal Studios Hollywood- Harry Potter World for all six of us, sounded super fun if we could afford it.  We budgeted $882 for this (park tickets and food, etc.)  

And we were definitely attending at least one MLB game at AT&T Park in San Francisco, allotting $180 for tickets and ballpark food.   

Actual: $545

As you can see, we reigned in our spending big-time in this category.

We opted not to go to Harry Potter World this time around.  Huge savings here, obvi.

We also chose not to rent kayaks or wet suits for our Channel Islands Day.  Knowing we weren't experienced ocean kayakers, we played it safe hiking the island.  Gorgeous views.  BONUS: we lucked with whale sightings on the Island Packers ferry ride ($318 round trip for six of us).

Wonder Woman in a movie theatre on the fly - 12 thumbs up! Shelled out $72 there.

Sweet friends hooked us up with four free passes to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  Loved the kelp forest aquarium and the jellfish tanks.  We only spent $60 on two $30 child tickets that day.  Wow.  Just wow.


We loved AT&T Park in San Francisco where our beloved Kansas City Royals whipped the Giants 8-1.  Our other friends insisted on buying our MLB tickets as a birthday gift to me.  THANK  YOU!  We only spent money on food at the park.  Again, uber grateful.

Yes, we saved BIG-TIME on adventures and excursions, largely due to generous sweet friends and smart choices.  I'm still in shock.  

A LOT of our fun was spent exploring national parks. 

You can see that our trip zoomed in on national parks.  Your family can spend hours upon hours making free memories and taking in God's handiwork in places like Yosemite.



Budgeted: $310

Let's just say ice cream.  And lots of it.  Like every other day at least.  

Also, we're into souvenirs like stickers, mugs, a cool hat, and a couple of t-shirts or sweatshirts.  But we don't go overboard.  

Our kids have their own spending money for souvenirs.  I wrote about how our kids' summer reading pays off on vacation here.  It's a win-win!

Actual: $450

Okay, maybe we went a little overboard.  

We spent $124 on ice cream alone.  Bribing your kids to get through long day hikes is totally worth this treat.  

We spent $42 on several national park stickers for the kids' national park passports.  That's something we've committed to them. 

Throw in a mug, hat, a couple of sweatshirts, and a gift for our friends who hosted us for four nights, and there you have it.  


Total Budgeted: $4464  

Total Actual:  $4009

Remember, I wrote about how we budgeted and planned for our California vacation here.  

One more thing.  

Knowing our monthly day-to-day living expenses, we knew we would have spent upwards to $800 on groceries and gas over 17 days back home in Colorado Springs.  When we calculate our total vacation cost, we subtract $800 to know our true out-of-pocket final cost.  So in our minds, we really spent just a tad over $3200 on this trip.  Hope that makes sense.


We are so proud of ourselves!  

We did it!  We stayed on track!  

Maybe we didn't do or see everything we initially planned on (call us Gumby), but we had a blast and we didn't overspend!  The goal was to make memories, enjoy beautiful California, and not break the bank.

Need help planning and budgeting your next family trip?  We have a FREE Rad Family Travel Budget Worksheet and other sweet freebies waiting for you!  Sign up here.  We'd love to help.

How do you plan and budget for your family's vacations?  Any tips you would like to share?  What adventure is your family taking next?  We would love to know, so please comment below.  Feel free to pass this post on to a friend!



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