Here’s how to have a budget holiday in one of the USA’s most expensive cities

California dreaming: Visit LA without breaking the bank  (Getty/iStock)
California dreaming: Visit LA without breaking the bank (Getty/iStock)

With its sunny streets sprinkled with stardust and famed hillsides dripping in million-dollar mansions, celebrity-favourite Los Angeles isn’t an obvious choice as a budget holiday destination. In fact, it’s famously expensive. But if you’re careful, do your research and plan ahead, there are plenty of ways to experience the magic of a trip to glamorous Tinseltown while still being thrifty with the dollars.

From low-cost film screenings to free museum days, endless street food options and happy hours galore, here are some tips on having an economical trip to California’s City of Angels.

Where to stay

Room rates vary depending on the time of year you visit and which area of Los Angeles you choose to stay in. You’ll find the best deals if you’re able to travel in shoulder season, which falls between January and March and September to October, avoiding US bank holidays.

Mama Shelter Los Angeles is a stylish, wallet-friendly option with an unbeatable location in the heart of Hollywood, one block from the famed Hollywood Boulevard, the setting for the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The decor is eclectic, and the vibe is youthful. Its 70 rooms are spread across six floors, each with a spacious bathroom and high-tech features, such as iMacs with Apple TV. There’s a cool coffee shop and a rooftop bar-restaurant with epic views of Los Angeles.

Mama Shelter offers design-led bedrooms (Mama Shelter)
Mama Shelter offers design-led bedrooms (Mama Shelter)

If your heart is set on Venice Beach, it’s hard to beat funky Hotel Erwin slap bang on the bohemian Californian neighbourhood’s famous boardwalk. Outside, its colourful murals speak to the local street art culture, while inside, the decor is chic with a southern California beachy vibe. Think striped rugs, cool blues and orange tones. Its rooftop has ocean views and is a popular spot come dusk, with DJs and cocktails.

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Downtown LA (DTLA) is one of the best-value places to stay in Los Angeles, with several good hotels to choose from. The newly renovated The Delphi, set inside an old 1950s office building with an original 1950s diner; the funky Moxy in a glass tower, and the neighbouring AC hotel with its sophisticated, earth-toned design.

How to get around

Save the pennies by swapping car hire for public transport (Getty/iStock)
Save the pennies by swapping car hire for public transport (Getty/iStock)

Many big hotels offer free shuttle buses from LAX airport. Alternatively, the FlyAway bus shuttle service runs between LAX airport and DTLA and costs $9.75 (£7.64) one way.

It’s far cheaper to get around using the LA Metro than hiring a car. The system covers the Metro Rail, which connects key areas of the city like DTLA, Hollywood and Santa Monica and a wide range of bus routes. You need a loadable Tap card to travel and each ride costs $1.75, which is capped at $5 a day and $18 every seven days. That said, not all sights and neighbourhoods are well connected, so in these cases, Uber or Lyft is your friend.

If you’re stay in or visiting the coastal neighbourhoods of Santa Monica, Venice Beach and Marina Del Ray, Circuit, runs a free electric ride-sharing shuttle within each respective neighbourhood’s limits. To make use of it, download the Ride Circuit app, select your locale, enter your pick-up and drop-off location, and wait for your free ride.

If you’re wondering whether it’s possible to get around LA on two wheels, it’s easier than you think to turn your trip to LA into a cycling holiday.

Read more: Forget driving in LA – here’s how to explore the sprawling California city by bike

Where to eat

California is the spiritual home of the farmers’ market and street food truck, which are both great dining options if you’re trying to save cash. Make your first stop Smorgasburg, a Sunday outdoor food market at ROW DTLA, an old industrial area filled with independent shops, galleries and places to eat. For excellent Cambodian barbecue, The Golden Skewer serves tasty dishes like corn on the cob glazed in coconut milk and sprinkled in sea salt, and lemongrass beef sticks and cucumber salad. Head for Correas Mariscos and Cocina for authentic fresh mango and shrimp ceviche drizzled in lime at $8 each. Devour your feast on one of the many picnic tables dotted around, while a DJ in an old VW campervan pumps out tunes.

Away from the city centre, some of the best – and cheapest tacos – are found at Taqueria Vista Hermosa, inside the Mercado La Paloma market, for just $2.99 each.

Old-school American diners are usually a good bet for a hearty breakfast that will fill you up until the late afternoon. A couple of characterful, long-standing options include Nate n Al’s in Beverly Hills, a local favourite since 1945, famous for its Jewish deli food like packed bagels – and turkey sandwiches and The Original Pantry Cafe in DTLA, open since 1924, known for its legendary coleslaw served with everything, all day long.

For elevated dining for less, book a table at a restaurant with a Michelin Bib Gourmand rating. They recognise friendly, local-favourite spots that serve exceptional food at moderate prices. Pay a visit to Pizzeria Mozza in West Hollywood for flavourful Italian food, Father’s Office at Culver City or Santa Monica known for its exceptional burgers and craft beers, and cosy sushi restaurant, Tsubaki, in cool Echo Park for small plates and sake.

Where to drink

Happy hours are a great way to drink on a budget, and there are a surprising number of places that offer it in the city, from bars and restaurants to hotels. Palihouse on West Third Street has a great happy hour option every night of the week. French restaurant, Tesse, in west Hollywood offers one of the rare late-night happy hours when glasses of provence rosé are $5.

Happy hour aside, old-school dive bars often serve the cheapest drinks. Slide into a red leather booth at dimly lit Tiny’s Hi-Dive on Pico Boulevard, where cocktails cost between $10 and $12, and hotdogs $5. There’s a jukebox, pool table, and arcade games, too. At Ye Olde King’s Head English-themed pub in Santa Monica, large glasses of house cabernet are $9 and bottled beers are $7.

Free things to do

It’s easy to soak up Los Angeles entertainment industry history for free. Wander along the Hollywood Walk of Fame on Hollywood Boulevard; pay your respects to film star legends like Judy Garland, Burt Reynolds, and even Toto the dog from The Wizard of Oz, at the free-to-visit Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood where resident peacocks roam around; at the Griffith Observatory in Griffith Park, you’ll find the setting for a scene in Rebel Without a Cause and the Bronson Cave which doubled as the Bat Cave, and great views of the Hollywood sign.

Views over the city behind the Griffith Observatory (Getty)
Views over the city behind the Griffith Observatory (Getty)

To fully appreciate LA’s sprawl, there are lots of spots offering great city views. Baldwin Hills Scenic Overlook and Griffith Park are especially beautiful at sunset. For an elevated view of DTLA and beyond, it’s free to visit the observation deck on the 27th floor of the City Hall building. For a nature fix, LA is home to several hiking trails, like the easy one-mile discovery trail in Franklin Canyon Park with its pine-studded lake, and the three-mile Runyon Canyon loop, for more glimpses of the Hollywood sign and hillside homes.

A free art fix awaits in DTLA at the Museum of Contemporary Art – or MOCA as the locals call it – and The Broad, home to two infinity mirror rooms by Japanese artist, Yayoi Kusama. Most LA museums, such as the Hammer Museum at UCLA, and the family-friendly California Science Center, offer visitors free entry on certain days of the month. Check each museum’s website for details.

The Academy Museum of Motion Pictures hosts wallet-friendly film screenings, with high-quality audio and state-of-the-art screens.

How to get to LA

Flight costs are generally lowest between October and February. Virgin Atlantic flies direct between London Heathrow and Los Angeles with return fares from £498.69pp on selected departures. Flight time is around 10 hours 30 minutes.

For more tips and inspiration, visit Discover Los Angeles.

Read more: The 12 best things to do in Los Angeles