Los Angeles was admittedly never at the top of my travel bucket list, but when the opportunity arose to travel to LAX, I knew I couldn’t miss the chance to explore a new place.

Beverly Hills... on the cheap?

California, and Los Angeles in particular, is known to be pretty expensive. But you’d be surprised how much you can do for free! In three days (two nights) of “fun” time, I spent probably a little more than $200. That amount could easily be less if I had not rented a car (or had someone to split the cost with).

So how do you do Los Angeles on the cheap? Here’s the breakdown. 

1) It’s all about where you stay

I saved a significant amount of money because of the hostel I stayed in. For one, my first night at Banana Bungalow Hollywood Hostel (~$25/night) there was a free BBQ, so I didn’t have to buy dinner. They also had free drinks and karaoke — a nice way to meet and bond with fellow travelers without going out and spending money at a bar. There’s also free breakfast and coffee every morning. Ka-ching!

The hostel, located on Hollywood Boulevard a relatively short walk from all the touristy goodness of Hollywood, is in a pretty good location for getting around. It’s not a far walk to the subway station and bus stops at Hollywood and Vine. If you stay at the hostel a certain amount of nights, they will reimburse your for your shuttle from the airport. Paired with the fact they have discounted tours and shuttles, it may be worth forgoing the cost of a car.

For those with cars (like myself) there’s free parking inside the courtyard (the hostel is a converted motel). The amount of parking is limited, though, so it’s better to get back to the hostel a little bit early in the evenings if you’re out driving.

If you’re not interested in staying in Hollywood, Banana Bungalow has another location in West Hollywood (closer to the TV studios and such).

2) Embrace the free things to do

Fishing at Santa Monica Pier

Believe it or not, Los Angeles is chock full of free things to do. Indeed, most of the things that are probably on your to-do list — from beaches to Hollywood encounters and the top tourist sites — are completely free! You can easily fill a number of days with these activities and still leave Los Angeles feeling like you did the place justice. Check out my list of 7 Free Things to Do in Los Angeles for some ideas.

3) Explore different food options

Los Angeles has a huge variety of food to offer, and you just because you’re on a budget doesn’t mean you have to miss out. With huge Asian and Hispanic influences, you’re in luck that the two best cuisines to try can be found very inexpensively. I feasted on empanadas and Thai food while parting with very little money. Yelp was a huge help in finding the best cheap eats around. Even the top recommended place in tourist-heavy Hollywood was yummy and relatively inexpensive (the infamous Juicy Burger).

4) Research transportation

Your best bet is to figure out what you want to do and whether or not you will need a car to do it. Many places can be reached with public transportation, but in some cases (say, if you want to hit the beach and you’re staying in Hollywood or downtown LA) it will take a long, long time to get where you want to go.

Bike riders ending their trip at the end of the trail on Santa Monica Pier

If you decide that you want to rent a car, make sure you do a lot of research and start looking early. The best rate (by far) that I could find was $35/day for a three-day rental through Advantage Car Rental. (This was on weekdays, weekends are actually cheaper in most cases.) The big names will always be more expensive, and picking up from the airport is usually more expensive. Be nice to the person helping you when you’re picking up the car – you won’t regret it. Also don’t forget you’ll also have to pay for gas, which is pricier in California than other parts of the States.

5) Celebrate your thriftiness with a “splurge” activity

Surfing at Venice Beach

You’ve saved a lot of money by now… While you’re in LA, you might as well pick one fun activity that isn’t free. Get the most out of your trip! There are so many things to choose from, so pick what appeals most to you. Maybe it’s the cheesy celebrity homes tours. Or a studio tour. Or a museum. Or maybe a beach activity, like a surf rental or parasailing. (I personally chose the tour of the Dolby Theater – interesting, but on the fence if it was worth $17.) For a number of international travelers in my hostel, going to the shooting range was strangely popular, as were visits to amusement parks like Universal Studios and Disneyland. Whatever is a must-experience thing during your LA (or US!) trip, don’t regret missing out on it because of money!

Now pat yourself on the back for being a marevelously thrifty traveler and making it through one expensive city on a thin wallet! Los Angeles is a interesting place — some love it, some hate it. But when you save yourself from useless spending, you won’t regret your visit either way. (As for me, next time I hit that part of the West Coast, I’ll probably be road tripping down to San Diego. Once was enough for me and dear LA!)

Views of Los Angeles from Loyola College

Any cheap Los Angeles travel tips to add? Comment it up!