Ever attempted to price out that West Coast road trip you've been dreaming of? Odds are, you gave up midway – oceanfront real estate, you quickly learn, is expensive – if you can even find space. Low season? What's that – even in the dead of winter, California in particular remains popular with travelers from around the world.
The crowds don't know everything, though – it takes a few trips and a lot of trial and error, but even the most popular destinations along the coast hold their secrets. All along the way, modest inns and motels offer extremely affordable rates, particularly at this time of year. Some are diamonds in the rough, some are actual jewels – others are poorly-camo'd dumps you ought to give a wide berth. Which is which? We checked in first, so you can do so with confidence. In most cases, ocean breezes are all but guaranteed.
Dolphin Motel, San Diego, $55
Across from busy Fisherman's Landing and just minutes from the airport in the desirable Point Loma neighborhood, this family-owned (and meticulously-kept) spot is one of San Diego's best budget sleeps, offering free continental breakfast, comped internet and comfy beds.
Why here: Walk to shopping, restaurants and nightlife at Liberty Station, a popular new development on the site of the former Naval Training Center San Diego. Ten minutes by car is the Cabrillo National Monument, offering sweeping views of the city and surrounds and some particularly beautiful coastline, replete with tide pools just begging to be explored. Also? Don't miss a drive along nearby Sunset Cliffs Boulevard at, well, sunset.
Newport Channel Inn, Newport Beach, $99
Consistently one of the best affordable sleeps near the beach in Orange County – even on busy weekends – this modest spot just a crosswalk away from the ocean boasts an address in one of the most desirable towns in Southern California. Great staff, free WiFi and proximity to fun on the Balboa Peninsula make this a fine place to stop for a night.
Why here: Because rushing through Orange County is a huge mistake – some of the state's most memorable beaches are tucked along its crowded coastline, hidden even to those who opt for the more scenic Pacific Coast Highway route through the county. Salt Creek in Dana Point, Crescent Bay in Laguna, the miles of open space begging to be hiked at Crystal Cove – it's all worth stopping for and it's all between here and San Diego. Don't rush – spend the night.
Jerry's Motel, Los Angeles, $89
Experience LA at its most authentic with a stay in working-class Westlake, a diverse and densely-populated district adjacent to the city's rapidly-changing downtown. This simple roadside pit stop has become a secret favorite of budget travelers passing through the city -- rates begin at $89 with their "Welcome to LA Special" – book on their site directly – and include parking, wireless internet and more.
Why here: From the dramatic architecture and impressive collection at the brand-new Broad museum to the best Jewish deli west of the Rockies (Langer's, order the #19), a wealth of LA musts can be found just minutes from your front door.
Castillo Inn at the Beach, Santa Barbara, $100
Paying this little for nicely-furnished rooms in a hotel where management actually cares isn't typical in one of the most overpriced destinations in California (and there's a crowded category for you). But here you are, feeling like you're getting away with something -- particularly during the quieter winter months, which around here are gorgeous.
Why here: You're steps from some of the best fish and chips in the the state (On The Alley, adjacent to the marina, you're welcome), the beach (it's right across the street, beyond the giant public pool) and an easy stroll to the restaurants, microbreweries, boutiques and art galleries of the Funk Zone, an industrial area just off the water that's eclipsed State Street as the place to be among the younger, hipper crowd.
Sundown Inn, Morro Bay, $45
You'd barely expect hostel accommodations at this price in the cities you've just left behind, but little Morro isn't anything like those places. Yes, this is a recently-advertised starting rate and yes, prices can double in summer, but at any time of year, you're still getting one of the better deals along the coast when you check into at this cute, well-maintained spot.
Why here: Famous for the giant rock sitting along its shoreline and the giant (now dormant) power plant nearby, this treat of a coastal town marries New England charm with the rugged appeal of a Northwest fishing village. Affordable restaurants – the breakfast at Dorn's is very good – and the scenery of Morro Bay State Park at the southern end of this pleasantly-walkable town make Morro a standout stopover before tackling the majesty of Big Sur.
Lone Oak Lodge, Monterey, $66
The dirty little secret of driving through Big Sur is that you really don't need to spend the night – not with the prices most hotels are charging, anyway. A leisurely and lengthy day with as many stops as you feel like making is plenty, particularly when your Big Sur visit is just one stop of many along an extended route. That said, few people emerge out either end energized for a long drive elsewhere – if you're heading north, best to flop at one of the Monterey Peninsula's affordable motels, for instance this one. Like the Sundown in Morro, the rooms here seem far nicer than you'd expect for the price. (Rates do climb at peak times, but once again, not as high as you'd think.)
Why here: Crashing after a long day exploring Big Sur is a must – you need the energy (and the daylight, if it's the dead of winter) to make the most of the Monterey Peninsula, a destination in its own right that too many coastal road-trippers rocket past on their way to San Francisco or wherever else they think is more important. Pressed for time? Skip the pricey and slow 17 Mile Drive and head straight for beautiful Asilomar Beach. Just before you get there, at the top of the adjacent Spanish Bay golf course, west of the intersection of Sunset Drive and Asilomar Avenue, note the trailhead leading between the links and the beach for one of the most gorgeous short coastal walks in this part of the state.
Ocean Park Motel, San Francisco, $115
This handsome, deco moderne jewel dating back to 1937 at the end of the MUNI L-Taraval rail line makes a great seaside base from which to explore San Francisco at very reasonable prices. Rooms are basic but clean, those facing the street will hear train noise (ask for earplugs!) but lush landscaping out your window and an unlimited supply of sea breezes make this so much nicer than the cramped Lombard Street motor inns that many budget road-trippers opt for.
Why here: Yes, you can hop that train and be at Embarcadero faster than you'd expect, but don't overlook this side of town – the hotel is steps from the dunes of Ocean Beach and the San Francisco Zoo, for starters. A short walk up the beach and you're in the suddenly cool Outer Sunset area, home to of-the-minute hangouts such as Outerlands and Andytown Coffee. Don't leave town without exploring nearby Land's End, secluded China Beach and other gems located inside the vast Golden Gate National Recreation Area.
Metro Hotel & Café, Petaluma, $99
A restored 1800s-era building at the heart of a pedestrian-friendly downtown is the setting for this cheap and cheerful inn offering a French Country (by way of Pier 1) vibe just a short drive through lovely Sonoma County farmland from the coast. Luxurious, not really, but this makes a nice change after a string of nights in coastal motels. Complimentary coffee and pastries are available mornings.
Why here: Ditch the car for the evening and walk to Petaluma's impressive selection of restaurants, bars, interesting shops and open spaces found along the Petaluma River. This is Sonoma, where beer is just as important as wine – Lagunitas Brewing may now be a national brand, but their original tap room still packs in the locals at the northern end of town.
Surf Motel & Gardens, Fort Bragg, $69
The blue collar "big city" of Mendocino County has in recent years become almost fashionable – much to the amusement / chagrin of those who knew it way back when – but that doesn't mean you have to give an arm and a leg for a comfortable stay after a day of exploring the Sonoma and Mendocino coasts. Lovely gardens conceal the property's inherent motel-ness, décor is decidedly standard-issue but stays are comfortable and the staff is pleasant.
Why here: You need to rest up for the long trip to the far north, particularly if you plan to make and crazy detours (and who are we to judge) along the Lost Coast on your way to the redwoods. Plus, Fort Bragg is quite agreeable – do dinner and drinks at North Coast Brewing Company and stop in Cowlicks afterwards for the best ice cream around for miles.
View Crest Lodge, Trinidad, $95
Located above the ocean near scenic Patrick's Point, this simple, old-timey motel painted all in red could probably use a little more competition to help it realize its true potential, but for a one-night stay, it's worth eschewing crowded Eureka and its boring chain properties for a chance to experience one of the most charming settlements anywhere along California's coastline.
Why here: Easily the most picturesque coastal town between Mendocino and the Oregon border, tiny, historic Trinidad punches above its weight with great oceanfront, some cute places to stay and eat, including one of the best burgers on the Pacific at The Lighthouse Grill. Some people breeze right by Trinidad on the highway and never know what they've missed. Don't be like some people.
Ocean Suites, Brookings, $89
This modest but clean (and well-staffed) motel isn't on the ocean, but you're generally paying nearly half of what they're asking for a couple of blocks away at the town's better-known beachfront hotel. Larger rooms and suites feature fully-equipped kitchenettes, making a strong case for slowing down and spending a couple of nights in what you'll discover is one of the most scenic spots along your route.
Why here: Barely thirty minutes from some of the best features of vast Redwood National Park, agreeable little Brookings is a far more pleasant place to hang your hat than park-adjacent Crescent City. As if the redwoods weren't enough, Brookings sits at the the southern entrance to the wow-a-minute Boardman Scenic Corridor. Stretching north toward Gold Beach, this is one of the most stunning pieces of Oregon's vast coastline – plan at least a few hours (and lots of stops) to really take it all in.
Deane's Oceanfront Lodge, Yachats, $65
It's gone for less online and rates almost double in July and August, but for most of the year, this simple but well-kept motor inn located roughly midway up the Oregon coast and minutes from magnificent Cape Perpetua is a reliable go-to for a cheap and cheerful night's sleep.
Why here: You could take the Oregon Coast in a day, but you'd miss out on so much – better to stop off along the way. Many travelers unfamiliar with Oregon aren't prepared for the beauty of Cape Perpetua, not to mention the hiking opportunities in the immediate area – staying in tiny but pleasant Yachats allows you more exploration time the following morning, should you arrive here later in the day.
Norblad Hotel & Hostel, Astoria, $69
Smart, modern décor, comfortable beds, clean shared (but one-at-a-time) bathrooms and exceedingly attractive rates make this former workingman's flop a couple of blocks off the water preferable to other options closer to it. Feeling friendly? Hostel beds are available for just $29.
Why here: Astoria's cool quotient has upped considerably in recent years – with Portland just a short jaunt up the Columbia River, that's not surprising. One of Oregon's many buzzed-about breweries, Fort George, is just across the street (you'll hear their music when they open in the morning, hope you weren't planning on sleeping late!) while two of the best cups of coffee in town (Street 14 Café and Blue Scorcher Bakery) are a block away. Downtown Astoria is more blue-collar than some might like, but it provides an excellent change of pace after a week of tourist-centric coastal towns.
Three Rivers Resort, Forks, $73
It can be tough to figure out where to base yourself when visiting the Olympic Peninsula – ideally, you'll stay in a couple of different places – but for those just passing through, it's hard to beat tiny Forks, where the old-school Northwest still lives, thanks to insane annual rainfall and a remoteness from, well, pretty much everything. Some of the best beaches in the Northwest are moments from your front door when you check into this cabin resort, popular with fishermen but welcoming to all. It's like a summer trip to the lake in the upper Midwest – you check in at the gas station / mini-mart, grab a burger and a shake from the attached grill and mellow out in your retro-cool cabins, which come complete with kitchenette. The Peninsula is a minefield of miserable lodgings run by ambivalent owners. Three Rivers is not one of them.
Why here: So you can begin (and end) your day at Second Beach, a moment's drive down the hill (followed by a pleasant walk through the woods) from your cabin. Also, if you forgot to detour up into the Hoh Rainforest on your way here, you're close enough to double back. Of course, there's the rest of Olympic National Park to consider as well, from coastal rainforest hikes at Ozette to the high-altitude alpine landscapes of Hurricane Ridge. Got a week or two to spare?
Hotel Zed, Victoria, $50
There are so many directions you can take once you’ve conquered the Olympic Peninsula – to really complete your mission to cover the entire Pacific Coast, however, drive aboard the ferry in Port Angeles for at least a quick glimpse of Vancouver Island. Just an hour and a half later, you'll drift into the appealing Inner Harbour of the provincial capital, Victoria. This is a wholly civilized and remarkably energetic little city, completely unlike anything you'll have seen elsewhere along the coast. And that's the point of coming here. With the American dollar stronger than it has been in years, you'll find great rates in winter and early spring pretty much anywhere in town. (If you were going to splurge anywhere, do it here.) Even in the busy season, however, the cool, colorful Zed can be had at rates below $100 a night. You've driven enough – ditch your car and hop on the hotel's '67 VW van that shuttles guests around downtown.
Why here: After taking in the entire coastline, you're here to preview your next epic vacation – the entire West Coast is stunning, but Vancouver Island truly takes things to the next level. Try to build in as much time here as possible. If you can stand being in the car for a few more hours, the remote surfer's paradise of Tofino is one of the most special small towns in North America. Just in case you're not completely overwhelmed by now.