Author Topic: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US  (Read 5863 times)


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Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« on: November 12, 2014, 04:01:33 AM »
Hi all,

Weíre going on vacation to the South West of the US and would really like your input on our budget (and of course tips about highlights are very welcome as well!). Weíre planning to make a round including SF (starting point), Yosemite, Death valley, Las Vegas, Zion, Bryce, Grand canyon, LA, and via the coast back to SF. Itís not definite yet, weíre currently reading a lot, and maybe we have to leave some things out due to our time limit. We have 20 days (19 nights), so not unlimited time. We already booked our flights, and are looking into a car and hotels right now. Although weíre not sure if we should pre-book the hotels, as weíre going in February not really peak season.
Ok, here is the budget Iíve created so far (in dollars)


Ticket: This is already booked. I get mine for free, since I have to be there for work.

Car: Iíve seen them very cheap and very expensive. Cheapest Iíve seen so far for 16 days is $340 with Hertz, but I havenít looked into insurances etc. and we may need tire chains for Yosemite.

Gas: I estimate that we will drive about 3000 miles, with a small car (about 30 MPG?) that should cost us $350

Hotels: What Iíve seen so far is we should be able to sleep for around $80 per night if we choose the budget locations (no dorms in hostels, but nothing fancy neither). Is this accurate?

Entrance money: for the national parks, Alcatraz, maybe something in Las Vegas. Is this on the low side?

Food: Iíve estimated $75 per day, because we wonít be able to cook ourselves. Is this too high or low?

I hope you can tell me how realistic this budget is! And any tips on the route are welcome as well. Since we're traveling in February I'm not sure yet about Yosemite as their may be too much snow?

Thank you!


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Re: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« Reply #1 on: November 12, 2014, 04:59:23 AM »
That may be a little low. Rental car companies in the US have a list price, but after taxes and fees the costs go up significantly; I would guess around 1/3 more, but you may want to look more into that.

Looks good. Because it isn't peak season I would look into using Will you only be staying at hotels? Do you plan to stay in lodges at the national parks, or do you plan to camp while you are there? Just be forewarned, lodging at national parks is almost always full way in advance, and it is always expensive.

If you are planning on going to a lot of National Parks (Zion's, Grand Canyon, Bryce, etc.), you may want to go ahead and get this pass:

What else do you plan on doing? Vegas is dirt cheap if you are careful. Many Casino's loose money on their hotels and their restaurants in an effort to lure people in to loose money gambling.

This is probably pretty close, but maybe on the low side. Gas is more expensive in CA and in the middle of nowhere (national parks) than elsewhere in the US.

Also, I wouldn't be up for cramming all of that into 20 days. If I were you I would spend some good time in SF then choose 1 or 2 other places to see. I think you'll have more fun and spend less money. You wouldn't recommend that someone coming to Europe for 20 days see Paris, London, Berlin, Rome, and Amsterdam by car would you? However, I know some Germans now who enjoyed their tour of the US where they saw 40+ states and most of the national parks in 5 weeks. To each his own.


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Re: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« Reply #2 on: November 12, 2014, 07:31:24 AM »
@foundpeace: thanks for your response! Hotwire is a very good tip, didnít know that site yet. I donít think camping is a good idea in the NPs since we will go in February. We would like to stay in the parks, but saw that that can be quite expensive. So maybe we have to compromise a bit.

Iím also afraid that the program is too much at the moment, maybe we shouldnít do Bryce? Or loose LA? Not sure yet. There are so many things to do and see!


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Re: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« Reply #3 on: November 12, 2014, 07:48:14 AM »

Iím also afraid that the program is too much at the moment, maybe we shouldnít do Bryce? Or loose LA? Not sure yet. There are so many things to do and see!

What do you like to do and see?  Hard to make suggestions about itinerary without knowing that.  Personally, I could easily spend 20 days in yosemite, Zion, GC and just hike the whole vacation.  I was just in San Fran with my wife this fall and I thought that three days there was more than enough time to see what I wanted to see. 


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Re: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« Reply #4 on: November 12, 2014, 08:04:25 AM »
I lived out West so I have the following opinions on the potential destinations:

San Francisco - I would spend at least 4 or 5 days here.  There is a lot to explore including Napa, Sausalito, and the East Bay.

Yosemite - Amazing National park.  I would spend at least 3 to 4 days exploring the park, although you might be limited by the weather.

Las Vegas - Unless you really like playing, I would only spend 1 day and 1 night.  It is very expensive, and I don't really like the consumerist money-wasting vibe.

Zion - Probably the warmest place on your list, so you will want to spend some time there.  I suspect that a lot of the canyon will be closed so 2 days should be enough.

Bryce - The opposite of Zion (in canyon lloking up), at Bryce you look down in to the canyon.  Although I have never been in Winter, I am sure it will be beautiful.  Give yourself 2 days. Make sure you check to ensure the park is going to be open.

Grand Canyon - Most of the canyon will be closed.  You can do all of it in one day.

LA - I am not a big LA fan, there is too much suburban sprawl and traffic for me.  However, there are people that love it.  Maybe  3 to 4 days is enough.

Drive LA to SF - Take highway 1.  You can spend the night in Big Sur.  Also, stop in Monteray to taste wine and visit one of the best aquariums in the world (if that's your thing).

Have a great trip!


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Re: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« Reply #5 on: November 12, 2014, 08:20:07 AM »
Yes, I did live in Utah for a few years. There is a chance they could be covered in snow and it could be very cold.

Some places to try:
Redwood national forest
Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks
Columbia River Gorge, Oregon
Mount Hood, Oregon
Yosemite National Park, California
Point Reyes national seashore
Pinnacles national park
Devils Postpile national monument
Tahoe, CA
Crater Lake National Park, Oregon
Lassen Volcanic National Park, Northern California

The list could go on and on. There is a lot of nature to see, and you don't have to travel very far to see it. Personally I think the Grand Canyon is beautiful, but over-rated. Arches, Bryce, and Zion's are all beautiful, but so are the places I listed. It is hard to beat some of the parks in Utah... It is really breathtaking. So, if you have looked at the other options and think it is worth it, then go for it.

Also, if you are interested in Nature, then I would skip LA and Vegas. LA is a traffic nightmare, and you will have trouble getting over the mountains to Nevada. Also, I think Vegas is pretty trashy, but it is fun to see once.


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Re: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« Reply #6 on: November 12, 2014, 11:44:23 AM »
How do you plan to get from Yosemite to Death valley? The pass road is closed in winter due to snow so I think you'll have to go very far north or all the way down to LA to cross the mountains. I'd probably skip parks in Utah for time reasons. LA itself is also not worth spending a lot of time in.


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Re: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« Reply #7 on: November 12, 2014, 01:19:11 PM »
We did a 3 week trip from MA to NM and back last year. One of the most useful advice I got for minimizing food costs was to eat out of a grocery store. The sections of the grocery store that I normally ignore, such as the salad bar and ready made chicken etc, can be good substitutes for restaurants.


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Re: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« Reply #8 on: November 12, 2014, 03:41:36 PM »
The sun only hits the canyon floor of Yosemite for a short time in February. Most of the hikes will be closed or difficult due to snow & ice and the steep climb out of the valley. That said its a great time to avoid crowds. Cross country skiing to Glacier Point or snowshoeing to Dewey Point is a great day trip. you can rent gear from the Badger Pass ski area in the part at the end of the winter road closure. There is also an outdoor ice skating rink at curry village with an amazing view of Half Dome.  The Awahnee Hotel in the valley is very high end and expensive, but it is free to enjoy the sitting rooms and fireplace. A hot chocolate there is cheap way to enjoy the early evenings.Many of the roads between Yosemite and Death Valley are closed for the winter. You will either have to go north to highway 50, or south to Bakersfield to get around the Sierra.

There are some decent and cheap hotels in Lone Pine, CA that would be a good day drive from Yosemite to as close to the west entrance of Death Valley as you can get.

Red Rocks Canyon just west of Las Vegas has some really night desert hiking too. The last 2 times I have been to Vegas have only been to rock climb there. It will be the warmest place on your itinerary once you leave the CA coast.

We just stayed at the la Quinta in Springdale, UT in May when we visited Zion. Really good location and a nice hotel. Due to the high walls of the narrow canyon at Zion you will be dealing with a lot of cold shadey hikes there too. Not as bad as Yosemite though.

Bryce is significantly higher in elevation that Zion, so you will probably have snow there. Should be fine for hikes though.

I am pretty sure the road to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon is closed due to snow in the winter.

An annual national parks pass is $80 and will get you into all of the parks on your list.

The other suggestions by FoundPeace are good but I recall that a lot of the access roads are not plowed in the winter: Kings Canyon, Devils Postpile, Lassen and Crater Lake. Its going to be off season for the UT parks so many of the restaurants will be closed. Also most business are shut in Utah on Sunday, so plan ahead.

I lived in SF for 8 years and now live in Utah. Have done lots of trips to the parks. Let me know if you have more questions.


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Re: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« Reply #9 on: November 12, 2014, 06:05:16 PM »
Is this 2 people?  $75 a day for food seems like a lot.  Many chain hotels provide a light breakfast (cereal, sweet rolls, apples, oatmeal, etc).  Consider staying in hostels a couple nights, where you will have access to a kitchen.  I like to make hard boiled eggs which travel well.  Thereís one hostel near death valley thatís $25 a night per bed.  Previous poster mentioned the annual park pass for $80.  Itís a great deal.   
If youíre heading up highway 1, someone mentioned Big Sur.  You will find much cheaper accommodation in Cambria area.  Make sure you see the elephant seals near Hearst Castle.  I do like the Hearst Castle tour if you can fit it in your budget.


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Re: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« Reply #10 on: November 13, 2014, 02:04:09 AM »
I would second the recommendation of Sequoia National Forest, although in Feb you will be limited. We were there in November, and techically, the road to the trail of 100 giants had already been closed.

I personally wouldn't bother with LA. I found it rather lacking in atmosphere, if you know what I mean. 3 days in San Fran was fine for us.

Re Snow chains, we needed them for access into Yosemite in November, but the weather was quite mild, so we knew there was a good chance we wouldn't need them. Hire car companies do not provide them, and I wouldn't mention it to them at all - they are wary (probably rightly) of people who do not know how to put them on properly damaging the car. Our solution was (after much research) to stop at a PepBoys motor supplies shop, where we could buy the chains and return them if we didn't use them for only a  10% restocking fee. We ended up doing just that - and we bought them in one place, and returned them in another. 10% was a very fair rental price for something we might have needed but didn't. In Feb though... I guess you may well need them.

Also, we needed a 4 x 4 to get into Yosemite, I think (this was a couple of years ago. I may have been being over cautious, or I may have read that it was required, I can't remember). That made the hire car (and gas) marginally more expensive, but still unbelievably cheap for us (UK).

We did tents in Curry village in Nov... for one night! Seriously it was so so cold. We could have got a heated tent, but it was the same price as a hotel room, so we moved to a hotel. Amazing place to visit. The advantage of being so cold was being up early to see the sun rise over half dome.

And I definitely second the 'eating out of grocery stores' thing. The added bonus is that you don't want to eat out all the time! Picking off a menu and waiting for food gets old. We had lots of picnic lunches out of the car looking at a nice view. We also chose very cheap hotels for one night in specific places where we knew we wanted to visit a nice restaurant. The nights we knew we'd be eating in the hotel room and making the most of all the facilities we chose somewhere a bit nicer. That said, $30 road side motel chains have always served us very well in the States, so much better than the UK! Comfort Inns and Suites, one called Knights maybe?

If you do want to go to fancy places, we just go for one drink. They often bring snacks and many times we've gone at happy hour and basically been fed for the night for one or two half price drinks (that's the advantage of US portions. At a B & B the lady brought us a 'welcome platter', and then asked where we going to dinner, and we were like... uh, didn't we just eat it?). My tip would be avoid soft-drinks. The glasses are huge, and free refills meant at one meal we each drank nearly 2 litres of sprite (what?!) and then we felt terrible. We decided it was the drinks rather than the food, because it's so easy to 'overdrink' (if that's a thing). Now we always have water. The food is so great you don't need a drink as well!


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Re: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« Reply #11 on: November 13, 2014, 12:13:16 PM »
For San Francisco itself there are great free walking tours:

There is no "catch".  The tours are given by neighborhood volunteers and are quite good.  At the end they collect voluntary tips which are turned in to support the administration of the program.


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Re: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« Reply #12 on: November 13, 2014, 02:20:18 PM »
SF part -- if you're going on be in the actual city itself, save your money and take public transportation -- Bart from the airport (SFO) to downtown and probably muni around the city.  Parking in the city when you can find it can be very expensive.  But if you're going to drive and park in the San Francisco itself, as a public service to those of us who live here a couple of suggestions:

1. get an automatic
2. CURB YOUR WHEEL.   if you can't remember which way the tire goes, just ask yourself if the car were to roll, which way do you want the car to roll?  and remember you want the car to roll towards the curb.  that's what i do.  the parking people really do give parking tickets if you don't curb your wheel.  and that would be a budget buster.
3. use the park break.  no, it's not optional.

If you're starting in SF and doing your grocery shopping there, bring bags to put your stuff in.  If you need a bag from any store they'll charge you $0.10 per bag.  not a huge budget killer, but just so you know.  The bag charge also is in place in LA County.  So depending on where you are in LA, possible grocery bag charges. 

Grand Canyon, I would suggest topping off the gas tank before you enter the park.  The only gas station in the park is on the East side as you exit.  However you might want to let your credit card company know about your travels, so your credit card doesn't have a hold put on it for too many gas station transactions in a day.  (yep, that would me, be.)

Looking over your 20 day time frame, unless you're really interested in SF and Yosemite, consider dropping those if you're tight for time.  If you end up doing the drive from LA to Vegas, I consider stopping at Barstow to pick up gas and hit the McDonald's there for a bathroom break.  I've only done the SF to Vegas thing, so for me I know the gas stop was really important.  But I wouldn't want to worry about needing gas in the desert.  It may cost you a little bit more, but the peace of mind was worth it. Not a lot out there.

The hotels may have winter rates, so check those out.  Sometimes you can score a free breakfast.  See if your hotels have a frig or microwave.  That would really help get that $75 food budget down.  If none of them do, consider a hot water immersion heater -- oatmeal and soup.  It would about a $10/$15 investment for the hot water immersion heater, but that combined with a box of instant oatmeal, and you would get several breakfasts out of that investment, not to mention the hot tea, coffee, and hot chocolate possibilities.

ITA with mary w and the SF free walking tours.  They are quite good, and they pass an envelop around after for you to put $ in.  I've done 2 of those at the Japanese tea garden, which does have free times.

One last money saving gas tip, if you end up driving back to CA from AZ, fill your gas tank before you leave AZ.  On 10 going westbound, if I remember correctly there is a sign that reminds you.  Yes, the gas is more expensive in CA.

ITA with FreedomFound -- Arches is beautiful.  And if you're going to add Arches, consider staying in Moab and also going to Canyonlands.  Arches and Canyonlands are very close to each other. 

Sounds like a wonderful trip.  Have a great time. 

Fell free to PM me if you have any additional questions.


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Re: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« Reply #13 on: November 13, 2014, 03:17:05 PM »
Sounds like a great trip.

I've been to about half the places you mentioned, so just wanted to throw out a few opinions.

1) Highway 101 down the coast through Big Sur is definitely worth doing and I second stopping in Monterrey.  If you're going south, your lane is next to the ocean, so you may find it better or worse.  South is not for those who are afraid of heights.  It's also very twisty-turny, so give yourself a lot of time to do it.  I once camped in Big Sur in March and it was warm enough (and we were the only people in the campground).

2) While I would skip LA too, Santa Barbara is very charming and surrounded by great hiking in the Los Padres National Forest.  It will give you the southern California experience without the traffic of LA.  And it won't be cold.  There is also the Channel Islands National Park off the coast--you have to take a boat obviously, but it's a great experience and if you're at all into seeing marine mammals, a great trip.

3) I don't find Los Vegas at all appealing, but it can be a good stopover for a cheap hotel if you do make it out to Grand Canyon or Utah.

Makes me want to plan a trip now.  :)


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Re: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« Reply #14 on: November 13, 2014, 03:27:49 PM »
You wonít need a rental car while you are staying in San Francisco. Pick it up when you are ready to leave, or if you want to go over the Golden Gate and check out Muir Woods (also on the Natl Parks pass).

This may have changed in the 6 years since I left SF, but we used to always rent cars from the Hertz rental in Daly City/Colma. It is between the SF airport and downtown a short and safe walk from the Bart station. The daily rate is similar to what you get quoted from the airport or SF locations, but you avoid the $10-$30 tourist/airport tax that gets charged in SF or the airport. You could pick up the car in Daly City and drop it off at any Hertz location within 50 miles without extra fees. This probably would add an extra hour to picking up the rental car, but you can drop it off at the airport or back downtown SF no charge.

El Portal is a good entrance point for Yosemite. Itís a tiny town, so pick up groceries in Merced before you get there. It should be cold enough for most of your trip to keep groceries in a cheap cooler for a long time. Add a plastic bag of snow before you head to Death Valley. I always camped, so I canít comment on the quality of the Cedar Lodge. Wawona is a historic hotel in the park that would be close to Glacier Point access and the Mariposa Grove of sequoias (good place for a snowshoe or hike). The Yosemite Lodge is in the valley. No idea about them pricewise. Curry Village tents will be cold in February. The Yosemite Lodge has a cafeteria if you are looking for breakfast in the park. The Badger pass ski area is where they close the road to Glacier point in the winter has some cheap burger & fries style food too.

The road through El Portal follows the river at the bottom of the valley, so it is the least likely place to have chains required.  Unless there is a storm hitting when you are there, you will not need chains or a 4x4 for your trip. When they do have chain restrictions, usually they clear the road to El Portal first, so you can get out that way. I never put chains on my car over probably 20 winter trips. If its snowing when you are heading from Yosemite to Death Valley/Vegas you will not need chains by heading through Barstow. You will need them if you take the north route by Lake Tahoe if it is snowing when you are heading though the mountains.

Red Rocks is about 20 minutes west of the Vegas strip. Lots of good options for short hikes and a half day trip or more if you have time.

The La Quinta in Springdale was expensive, but now I have little kids and it had a nice pool and free breakfast. That is the only place I have personal experience with near Zion.  St George or Hurricane arenít too far away and should have cheaper options if you canít find anything in your budget in Springdale.


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Re: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« Reply #15 on: November 13, 2014, 09:53:36 PM »
I live in LA - it is nice to visit in Feb just because of the weather/greenery (it's still chilly, though), but not necessary unless you're really interested in seeing Hollywood, beach towns, etc. And you'll be in the car a lot.

If you do decide to do Grand Canyon, it's 4 hours to Vegas, then 4 hours to LA. So easily could work it into the route. If you do decide to go near Vegas, I'd suggest checking out Oatman, Arizona (off Route 66 near I-40). I've driven that area many times and never knew about Oatman - it's up there with the most bizarre places I've ever been in the US.

I was also going to suggest Monterrey/Carmel if you're doing San Francisco. Big Sur is amazing, but it's a day commitment at least. If you do that, Paso Robles to Santa Barbara has a lot of great wineries. There's an otter viewing place near Cambria, I think. I love Solvang and Los Olivos, just north of Santa Barbara (even if you aren't into wine). San Francisco you have to keep in mind the cost of parking (not included in hotels).

Some driving tips - LA to Vegas is boring. LA to Flagstaff is pretty boring. LA to Fresno (until you hit Yosemite) is farmland - boring. Big Sur is AMAZING. The whole drive from San Francisco to LA (on the 101 or PCH) is very nice. San Fran to LA by I-5 - very boring.
« Last Edit: November 13, 2014, 09:59:43 PM by act01 »


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Re: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« Reply #16 on: November 14, 2014, 12:10:05 AM »
Highway1 is the coast highway going to Big Sur, not 101.  I echo the recommendation to visit Monterey.  Read Steinbeck's Cannery Row before you visit. My NorCal bias suggests you skip LA, can't count on beach time in February and I'n not really sure you can do it justice in a day or two.


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Re: Travel budget 3 weeks South West US
« Reply #17 on: November 14, 2014, 07:36:22 AM »
Highway1 is the coast highway going to Big Sur, not 101. 

Whoops!  You're right.  It's clearly been too long since I've been to CA.  Sigh.