Ten tips for visiting California on a budget

California is one of America’s most beautiful and popular states for tourism. From wintry ski resorts to dry desert landscapes you can have it all – but all that choice also means California can get expensive quick. Between airfare, big cities like San Francisco and admission to theme parks, a California traveler can spoil a budget in no time. Here are some money-saving tips to keep your California vacation budget in check.

Buy a National Parks pass

California is home to some of the most beautiful National Parks in the country, but each of these parks have admission fees. If you pick up a National Park pass, you can travel to and from any of these parks as many times as you like in a year, all while saving a few bucks in the process. Check out the national parks page for California and schedule your vacation around one of the United States’ most beautiful outdoor areas. Once you’ve purchased your pass, the possibilities are endless. Everything from hiking, boating, exploring and picnics is within reach, all for cheap.

Check out areas around the state’s big cities

It can be very expensive to stay in some of the major cities in California. Consider San Francisco, where the average hotel can set you back $200 or more. Check out nearby cities where you’ll easily find accommodations while still using the city’s public transit. San Francisco has one of the countries best public transit systems, so chances are you won’t even need a car. Great cities not far from San Francisco include Berkeley, Sunnyvale, Palo Alto and San Jose. There are great things to do in these cities as well, and they offer a convenient and cheaper alternative to a money-gouging big city hotel.

Discover California’s less touristy beach locations
California is well-known for beautiful beaches and coastline, but don’t forget to look for the beaches and parts of the coast that don’t see as much tourist activity. Spots like Pismo Beach offer beautiful sand with perfect scenery without the high prices. Located between Los Angeles and San Francisco, this beach town offers fantastic, affordable accommodations, great restaurants and plenty activities for the family. It also is a beautiful honeymoon spot or romantic getaway. From Pismo Beach, if you have a car you can travel to some of the nearby cities for a day trip. San Luis Obispo is a short trip from Pismo Beach, as well as the famous Hearst Castle.

Head to the desert during “shoulder season”
The desert starts heating up in March and April, but is still completely comfortable, beautiful…and affordable. The prices are driven down after February as the “sun birds” begin to skip town. For some great desert travel on the cheap, check out beautiful, sunny Palm Springs. Palm Springs is a short 2-hour drive from Los Angeles and you’ll find great deals there in the spring months.

While in Palm Springs there’s plenty to do, including hiking, golfing, shopping, and plenty of great eating. If you are lucky enough to be in Palm Springs on a Thursday night, you can go to the famous Palm Springs Village Fest, which offers plenty of entertainment, shopping and eating. You can do self-tours for free in Palm Springs of all of the famous 50’s retro modern architecture as well as the famous celebrity houses, like Bob Hope’s house and Frank Sinatra’s house. Also, not far from Palm Springs is the unique and gorgeous Joshua Tree National Park. Take a day trip out to the park and check out the famous Joshua Trees, where the band U2 got their inspiration for the album “Joshua Tree”.

Go to a ski town in the off-season

If you are not big into snow and skiing, finding a ski town in the off-season is the perfect way to spend a vacation, and get some great deals at the same time. Big Bear Lake happens to be one of the most beautiful places in California. And in the off-season, you can spend a fraction of the price on beautiful lodging. There is plenty to do when the snow isn’t falling: hiking, boating, swimming are plentiful and perfect in the spring and summer months. For a relaxing and affordable vacation, Big Bear Lake is a great money-saving choice.

Visit San Diego

Home to some of the country’s most beautiful beaches, San Diego is your one-stop California vacation place for sun, ocean, theme parks, shopping, and nightlife for less. First stop are the beaches at La Jolla and Coronado Beach, both rated as top beaches in the United States. Not satisfied with just the beach? Check out Mission Beach, boasting two miles of boardwalk along the beautiful coast. Then head down to the famous Belmont Park where you can ride the oldest roller coaster in California, catch a ride on the wooden carousel and play glow in the dark mini-golf all while watching surfers for free at the famous Wave House. Head to downtown San Diego for a walk around Little Italy, a walk through the modern Gaslamp Quarter. And be sure to check out San Diego’s Old Towne. This park is completely free, and free to park featuring great shops, entertainment.

Visit California’s top-notch farmers’ markets for inexpensive meals
California is already famous for its bountiful harvests of fruits and vegetables. Why not take advantage of all that deliciousness and save some money while you’re at it? All throughout California you’ll find some of the country’s best farmers’ markets. Chances are whatever city you decide to visit you can find a farmers market on almost any day of the week. These markets offer fresh fruits and vegetables, and most offer inexpensive food stands with delicious local treats.

Find a vacation rental

You can save a lot of money on a California vacation by renting a vacation home rather than staying in a hotel. Check out AOL’s travel page of vacation rental listings, or head to one of the many web-based rental sites like VRBO. Staying in a vacation rental is great for everyone from families to individuals and couples. You can save a lot by not eating out, and most are below what hotels charge, and offer every thing you need for your vacation.

Enjoy a free
/cheap California festival
There are numerous festivals around California throughout the year. Most are free to get into, or have a very low admission. How about the Patterson, California’s famous Apricot Fiesta? Or maybe Big Hat Day in Old Towne Clovis, CA . There are festivals each month of the year, and offer a unique view of each city and daily life. There are tons of deals to be had, and a lot of free activities. For more information check out the California Fairs and Festivals page.

Theme parks
California is home to some of the best (and most expensive) theme parks in the country. Disneyland, Sea World, Legoland, Knots Berry Farms are some of the best, though a visit can add up quick. Save some money by staying outside the parks. Cities like Anaheim, CA have plenty of accommodations and will save you a few dollars over staying in the park itself.

Top ten U.S. spots for photography

As full-time traveling photographers, my husband and I have traveled all over the U.S. in search of the most beautiful cities and sites to photograph. From the vast open desert to towering urban skylines and raging river canyons, we’ve compiled the top 10 best places to visit for photographers. You’ll find a few well-known favorites along with some unique photography hot spots where you’ll find new inspiration. Grab your camera and let’s get clicking!

10. Seattle, WA
From gorgeous harbor views to the dramatic Mount Rainier, Seattle is city with plenty of photographic appeal. Wake up early and head down to Pike Place Market as the vendors stand claim their booths for the day. From photos of vibrant street life to stunning views of the waterway, Pike Place Market is the place to start your photo adventure in Seattle. If you are lucky enough to be in Seattle during the month of June, the Freemont Summer Solstice Parade is a photographer’s dream come true! Watch as thousands of people parade down one of Seattle’s most eclectic streets, leaving little to the imagination with colorful painted bodies and wild parade floats. It’s a blizzard of color and activity not to be missed.

Of course no trip to Seattle is complete without a trip to the Space Needle. We highly recommend shooting this famous structure at night. Behind the Space Needle is a museum designed by Frank Gehry, another beautiful structure to photograph. If you’re into architecture, continue on to Seattle’s Public Library for a few more shots. Walk along the waterfront for more camera opportunities, visit the Sculpture Gardens and if you have time, and be sure to venture out on one of the giant Ferry Boats to enjoy a ride to one of the Port cities, taking in Seattle’s majestic harbor along the way.
9. Outer Banks, NC
Sand dunes and peaceful shores await you on a photographing adventure to North Carolina’s Outer Banks. Travel north past Whale Head Bay and walk along the oceanfront, if you’re lucky, you can photograph wild horses as they run through the sand and splash in the water.

Travel along Corolla Blvd. to the Currtick Beach Lighthouse for the most beautiful sunset over the still waterways. Photograph pelicans landing on the gazebo and the lighthouse just as the sun drops below the horizon. Travel south and take a ferry to Ocracoke, a quaint town offering a diverse photographing experience and beautiful views of the ocean.

8. Las Vegas, NV and Red Rock Canyon, NV
The lights! The glitz! The shine! From the bizarre to the beautiful, Las Vegas has it all for photo hunters. Schedule a trip to the Neon Graveyard to photograph the old neon signs of Las Vegas. Then head down the strip to the New York, NY hotel, The Venetian, Caesars Palace and Paris for some impressive neon-lit hotel shots. Every night starting at 8:00 pm make your way to the famous Bellagio water fountain show. The lights, the water and the amazing formations will have you clicking a mile-a-minute to keep up with this amazing display.

When the neon of Vegas is too much, head out to Red Rock Canyon Park. The park is about 15 minutes away from the strip, and boasts a 10-mile loop through some of Nevada’s most beautiful landscapes. Be sure to get there for sunset and watch the mountains change colors as the sun goes down. Beautiful rock formations, wildlife and scenic overlooks will delight any shutterbug.

7. Asheville, NC
Asheville, NC offers a wealth of options for camera-toting visitors, from historic sights and natural wonders. Start with a drive on the Blue Ridge Mountain Parkway and stop at amazing vista points. Travel the nearby hiking paths to see wildlife, waterfalls, and beautiful pines. Visit Chimney Rock Park and the Carolina Mountain trail for more leisurely hikes and photo experiences. For the more rigorous hikes, try the Dupont State Forrest and an unforgettable photography experience. Of course, no trip to Asheville is complete with out a trip to the Biltmore Estate. The luxurious gardens and historic mansion offer an abundance of great scenes to be snapped.

6. New York, NY

New York City is an urban photographer’s dream come true. From the lights of Broadway to the Bakeries of Little Italy, the “picture perfect” photo opportunities are everywhere. Our favorite spot to shoot in New York City is Central Park. Nestled amongst thousands of skyscrapers, this urban sanctuary offers countless photography opportunities. Head to the Central Park Zoo in the Northern end of the park, or photograph the beautiful lake as boaters enjoy the city skyline. Then move to the famous historic carousel, and hop on! The views are beautiful as you take your camera and steady it on a the ride’s colorful circus animals.

In the winter visit Central Park’s ice skating rink, where hundreds of children stumble on the slippery ice with their parents. Take a stroll in the fall through tree lined paths, and in the spring enjoy the blooming spring flowers. Central Park can be enjoyed during any season, and offers the perfect picture taking experience.

5. San Francisco, CA

For photography lovers, San Francisco is the perfect mix of natural and urban. Start your day below the Golden Gate bridge to capture this amazing structure in the early morning light. Then head for Fisherman’s Wharf for the street life and views of Alcatraz. The Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park is another photographic must, with beautiful gardens surrounded by the dramatic city views. End your day by heading across the Golden Gate Bridge for the Marin Headlands. Head to the water surrounded by rocks and grassy hills and if you are lucky enough, see wildlife grazing in open fields.

4. Joshua Tree, CA
This extraordinary National Park in Southern California is one of the most spectacular natural wonders in the United States. Located about an hour East of Palm Springs, Joshua Tree has no shortage of amazing wildlife, scenery and fascinating rock formations to photograph. Of course, the park’s Joshua Trees are the main attraction, their odd silhouettes outlining the skyline at dusk.. Be sure to head to the vista point over the San Andreas Fault to stand this amazing geological oddity. Make sure to stick around for the picture-perfect sunset.

3. San Diego, CA
There is not a bad time of year to photograph sunny San Diego! One of the most beautiful spots in San Diego is Torrey Pines State Park. Dramatic cliffs lead to the spectacular ocean and shore line. Between January and March head to the park’s cliffs, overlooking the ocean. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch a glimpse of the whale migration from Alaska to Baja, Mexico, perfect for some dramatic photos.

Next head to Balboa Park for beautiful photography opportunities of gorgeous buildings, and complex landscapes. Then make your way North to La Jolla to check out seal beach, where hundreds of seals bask in the sunny shores. And of course no photography trip to San Diego is complete without going to Mission Beach. Walk the two mile boardwalk for spectacular views and a gorgeous sunset, and of course Belmont Amusement park, at the end of the boardwalk.

2. Grand Canyon, AZ
The Grand Canyon, one of the natural wonders of the world, lives up to its reputation in every way. There’s no shortage of photographic experiences in the Grand Canyon either. A photo-taker could spend days in one single spot and never get the same image twice. Wake up early to see the brilliant sunrises or stay late for sunset and watch as the mountains change colors. Stop at all the scenic overlooks as you drive from one end of the park to the other. Be sure to find a hike that is comfortable for you to really get into the depths of the canyon.

1. Jerome, AZ

A hidden gem located between Sedona and Cottonwood, Jerome, Arizona is a town of 500 people embedded into the surrounding mountains. Situated on the beautiful switchbacks, Jerome offers photographers an amazing view of the valley and mountains below.

Once a fading mining town, Jerome has been revived in recent years by a growing community of artists. Every thing about Jerome is an artistic photograph waiting to happen, from the old doors to quirky light fixtures. The beauty of Jerome can be seen any time of day, but sunset is an experience you won’t soon forget. Jerome might be small, but its beauty is big, making it our favorite spot to take our cameras.

From coast to coast, America is packed with great photos waiting to happen. So, head out with your camera, find a new place, and be sure to snap a few shots along the way!

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Before you go, be sure to check out Travel Talk, in which the guys visit a highly photogenic spot: the top of Manhattan.