When planning a family vacation to Southern California, it’s easy to end up with an itinerary packed solid with theme parks and an admission-heavy vacation budget that quickly exceeds a one-week stay at an all-inclusive resort in Mexico (especially one where your kids would be free). Just one day at Disneyland will cost you $59 per child ages 3 to 9 years, and $69 for everyone 10 and older (unless you go on a family member’s birthday in 2009, when that person can get in free)–and that’s not counting the meals and souvenirs you will buy while you’re there. Sea World is $51 for everyone 3 years and older (and that’s with their eTicket deal where adults pay the child’s price). And the best way to save on the parks is to pay even more for multi-day and multi-park passes where you will likely make up the difference in all of the food and extras you’ll pay for while spending so much time in the parks.
If your children are old enough to put in long days at the parks and long waits in the lines, and you have an appreciation for theme parks yourself that merits spending most of your vacation time inside one or more, it may be worth it. But with children 5 years and younger, a half-day is ample for most big amusement park experiences–an important consideration as you budget for a family vacation.
Fortunately, southern California has much more to offer families than big-name amusement parks, and with miles of glorious free beaches, months on end of sunshine, superb people watching, and countless free attractions (just stroll Hollywood’s walk of fame, drive through Beverly Hills, take a free tour of San Diego’s Old Town) it’s a worthy option for any family planning a vacation on a budget–and just about any time of the year. So how did we end up in Long Beach last week? And why might you want to add it to your list?
Booking the flight:
In my quest to find the cheapest airfare I could from the Bay Area to Southern California, I had to go with JetBlue’s West Coast airfare special which allowed us to fly Oakland to Long Beach at $59 each way (it was actually offered for $49 at the time, but I took too long to commit, so my rate went up. They are offering this rate currently, click here to see their West Coast and other deals). With a free first checked suitcase, family preboarding, diaper changing tables in each airplane, TVs at every seat, and animal crackers in-flight, what parent doesn’t like to fly Blue? And since Long Beach is well-situated for day trips to L.A.’s attractions, many beaches it makes a logical flying destination for many family vacationers–particularly when they can score a good deal from Jet Blue.
Renting the car:
Since we’ve been wanting to see San Diego with the girls, and also see more of southern California in general, Long Beach proved to be a great entry point for us. With a rental car, we would hit the Aquarium of the Pacific, the local beach, and cruise the coast to San Diego taking in the sights in between. The problem? I couldn’t find the bargains on car rentals in Long Beach that I see at most larger airports.
I grudgingly went with an Avis rental that would at least give us a great mileage bonus. I was so disappointed, and more than a little disturbed by our rate of $226.25 for a 4 day + 1 hour rental, I just couldn’t let it rest. Good thing, too. I finally gave Hotwire.com a try, and found a “Hotwire Limited Rate” that I could swallow. I had to commit to pay up front, knowing only the size of car and that I was assured it was a major national rental agency with an on-airport location. In doing so, I ended up with a reservation for the same mid-size car from the same company (Avis) for the same dates and times at $97.94. Better still, they gave me a free model upgrade on arrival.
We opted for a 2-star hotel that included a microwave, refrigerator, and coffee maker in our room, and included a continental breakfast with a waffle bar. Not only were these features a great convenience for us, but they helped us cut costs on our dining expenses. (We stocked up on milk and snacks at the local market.)
There are many good hotel options in Long Beach, regardless of your budget, but as with the car, I would encourage you to look for a Hotwire Limited Rate for a better-class hotel than you might normally pay for at a rate you normally would to be closer to the beaches or waterfront (use the Hotwire icons for each hotel listing to see which features and amenities the hotel offers). In many cases, you really can use Hotwire to get a 4-star hotel at a 2-star rate. Even though Hotwire will not tell you the name of the hotel offered at the “limited rate” until you have paid for it, you will see the neighborhood where it’s located, a list of the special features and amenities (e.g. pool, complimentary breakfast, walking distance to beach, on waterfront, etc.).
If you prefer to know the exact hotel before you commit, and to pay upon arrival, try a Kayak.com search for hotel rooms in Long Beach, where you’ll be able to see who offers you the best deal at exactly which hotel. If you click to see your results in the map view, it’s easy to quickly roll over and see your hotel names and rates in your favored areas. Availability is everything, of course, but at the time I did find last-minute rates on Kayak for the historic Queen Mary Hotel (the successor to the Titanic, which your family can tour and also sleep on as overnight guests in your own first class ship cabin) from $139 for four–a unique experience in itself.
Or you may opt, as we did, for less luxury and greater savings with a hotel that may include your breakfast and will let you swim in its pool (on the Mary, you’ll have to settle for admiring it on tour).
The Beach – One of the best things about any trip to southern California is experiencing the beach culture. It can vary from beach to beach, for sure, but one of my favorite moments on this trip was approaching the local “long beach” at dusk and discovering a highway of happy locals strolling, biking, rollerblading, and pushing strollers along a paved sidewalk right in the middle of the beach. Naturally we had to salute Joni Mitchell with a chorus on paving paradise to put in a parking lot, but let’s face it: Who wouldn’t love to roller skate on the beach at sunset–I mean ON the beach (no need to pack yours, you can rent them here)? Though most kids will be thoroughly entertained for hours by the vast expanse of sand and water. Cost: FREE.
The Aquarium – If you have kids in Long Beach, you will have to visit the Aquarium of the Pacific. More than just a collection of pretty tanks of fish and jellyfish, your kids will get their hands on anemones, sea urchins, velvety stingrays, and even small sharks. While you’re there, watch the seal & sea lion show, where you’ll learn how to finally tell the difference between the two as they happily get their lunch (you can take yours afterward in the cafeteria if you like). Cost: Adults $20.95, Children 3 to 11 $11.95, Children 2 years & younger are free. You can save $5 per adult ticket, however, by purchasing your tickets online in advance of your trip (click here). Or on arrival in Long Beach, pick up a copy of the Long Beach Official Guide booklet from the convention & visitors bureau where you’ll find coupons for $3 off adult admission.
You might also:
Ride the ferris wheel or carousel at The Pike at Rainbow Harbor ($2 per ride each), a shopping and entertainment complex next door to the Aquarium of the Pacific.
Tour the Queen Mary and, if you like, its attached Russian submarine. General admission for the self-guided tour is $24.95 adults, Children 5 to 11 $12.95, children under 5 years free. Various tour options and special events are available seasonally. A combination pass is available for the Queen Mary & aquarium, and you may be able to get a family package deal for an overnight stay in a first class family stateroom and tickets to the aquarium (call 1-562-435-3511 to inquire).
Shelly Rivoli, author of the award-winning guide Travels with Baby
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