How to Spend 4 Days and Only $235.75 in San Diego


Listen, for the past ten years I have spent New Year’s Eve the exact same way. Drunk with my friends. Dancing in a club. Counting down seconds. Waiting for confetti to fall. A good time the first 5 or 6 years FOR SURE. But I’m at that ripe old age (29) of realizing that spending hundreds of dollars on a dress and tickets just to wait in an absurdly long line then elbow drunk people for a free glass of champagne might not be my jam anymore.

Blown away by the view from the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner

So to ring in 2020, I decided to Shut Up and Go somewhere new. I know, I know — MONEY. But I live in California now, baby, and this state is freakin’ HUGE. I knew I could make this happen without breaking the bank and you can too! Beyond budgeting smartly, there are organizations like Hostelling International USA (HI USA) that will knock down all the barriers that you think are stopping you from traveling. Low funds? Their Explore America Scholarship (apps open January 1-March 15, 2020) offers a $1000 travel award. Not sure where to stay? They have hostels everywhere and the scholarship includes up to 7 free nights. Worried about being alone? The hostel hosts at least one experience a day that will give you the opportunity to get closer to the community both in your hostel and in the city you’re exploring. So what are you waiting for? Let’s get into it!

You don’t need to fly to Explore America

It was time to plan my trip. I opened Google Maps and zoomed out. Hmm…San Francisco? Yosemite? Maybe the Redwoods? No, my life is not the chorus of “This Land is Your Land” and I’m too old to ever willingly be cold. Ah…there! San Diego! Ever since Anchorman taught me that it was discovered by the Germans in 1904 and is factually the greatest city in the history of mankind, I’ve been wanting to go.

But how do I get there? Luckily for me, there’s this sexy train that’s been calling my name, the Amtrak Pacific Surfliner. Built right along the coast, you can lose hours just staring out at crashing waves. And a roundtrip from LA to San Diego? Just $79.65. Boom, no expensive flight required.

Ron Burgundy was right. San Diego is the best.

Next, where do I lay my head? I wanted a place that would make it easy for me to get out into the city and connect with others and Hostelling International USA (HI USA) had multiple options in San Diego. I decided my vibe would be more urban than beachy, so I picked their Downtown location. (I may have also gotten lost looking at their locations in New Orleans and Miami and Hawaii but the point of this trip was to avoid the flight, so I kept it simple.)

It’s the friends we flirt with along the way.

It’s not just the accommodations and free shampoo HI USA has covered. If you’re willing to join folks at a hot cocoa mixer, take a welcome shot at the weekend bar crawl, or simply just strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to you, an instant community can be yours.

On my first day, Saturday, I grabbed tacos from a local spot recommended by Sonya, who works at the front desk. The recommendation did not disappoint and four tasty tacos were mine for only $8.62. (Full transparency, I also got a drink but it was on the house. Let’s just say ya girl knows how to rock a black sweater and a smile ayyy)

Shamelessly tearing into tacos, because when in Rome...

And critically, the hostel’s free Wi-Fi held me down when my true shut-in self emerged, and I spent the next four hours marathoning “You” on Netflix. (Why am I rooting for you, Joe???) But before then, I struck up a conversation with Hunter, on his way back to his laptop. Living his best life with pajama pants and a cup of hot tea, I ran into him on the third floor pre-tacos and we talked about art and music. He called me an author, which I found very flattering, and when I mentioned that night’s bar crawl, his eyes twinkled as he suggested us having a party right there. (I’m telling y’all, my black sweater game is killin’ em.) I boo him teasingly when I pass him later, still working, on my way to hit the town. 

I love that HI USA makes having a social life easy.

A scary of part of traveling for the first time to somewhere you’ve never been is not knowing what to do and not having anyone to do it with. If you end up with a free stay at a HI USA hostel, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief at how easy it is to make friends and explore with them. And their staff knows it can seem tricky to navigate somewhere new so when it came to time to bar crawl, staff was there for the walk to the first bar. Called American Junkie, you get a welcome shot and the DJ plays all the songs you belt at full volume when the vodka has you convinced that you have range. (Normally $15 but I got in free because I’m a lady.)

But with the four tacos long behind me, I head over to CVS for provisions. Who do I find but Hunter, PJ’s still on, smirking through the aisles. I seem to make him stutter a bit which I love (BEHOLD MY POWER HAHAHA) and as I look for something to warm me up, he helpfully points out the soups with the least saturated fats. We walk back to the hostel together snacked up ($11.71) and the night is spent sipping lentil soup with strangers in the movie room as the film Moonlight spurs a discussion on race, identity, love, and faith.

Me and Rachel, one of my many awesome roomies over the course of 4 days

No matter where you go, there you are

One of my favorite things about travel is that I get the chance to become myself in a new set of surroundings. And even though the places change, the things I love don’t. For instance, I love pancakes, flirting, and movies and San Diego made sure I left happy. On Sunday, I scootered via Bird over to Little Italy ($5.70) and caught up with a friend over fluffy Japanese-style pancakes at Morning Glory, one of those restaurants that also doubles as an IG backdrop. I happily splurged on sides of fruit, sausage, and a morning bellini ($43.00 with tip). Oh, and while we were waiting to be seated, we parked ourselves at the table of a nearby restaurant. A waiter there approached us and we made ready to leave the customer-only area but nope, he wasn’t there to kick us out. In fact, he just saw two beautiful ladies and wanted to talk (his words!). My friend Chelsey laughed as I secured dinner plans with him for the following evening.


It was a beautiful day. Post-breakfast, I wandered through the pier while I talked on the phone with a friend in Cape Town. Sleepy from the sun and carbs, I spent the day finishing “You,” sipping hot cocoa with other hostel goers at the Hot Cocoa Mixer, and dining on a chicken plate thanks to another great recommendation from the front desk, this time for Doner Mediterannean Grill ($16.15).

Another thank you to the front desk for telling me about the 20% discount at Ciro’s, the pizza joint across the street the following day. They gave me the change I needed for the bus fare up to Balboa Park ($5 roundtrip) and I got to break my fast with a delicious slice of the holiest combination — bread, cheese and pepperoni ($3.10). (To be clear, the hostel literally had free breakfast every morning from 8-10 and I woke up early enough for like 2 of them.)

The ridiculously cool looking California Building at the entrance of Balboa Park.

Balboa Park was freaking amazing. It has both the San Diego Zoo and botanical gardens are on the premises plus free and ticketed museums. There was even a food truck festival happening on the day of the hostel tour, but I opted to save my appetite (and coins) for my date. Plus, I had an appointment that I could barely wait for. I’m sure you can guess it…? CORRECT — seeing the film CATS in theaters (currently 19% on Rotten Tomatoes). I just had to know for myself if it was really hot garbage. Belly full of M&M’s and Nerds, I left the theater with tear-stained cheeks, both from unintentional laughing and then later from ugly crying to Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of Memory ($27.62). 


Dinner followed in Little Italy at a place called Cafe Gratitude with the Brunch rando. (I later learn from Chelsey that this restaurant is name-checked in S2E3 of YOU. I have truly come full circle and my life is complete.) The date itself was trash (he called LA dirty and said girls in California have low standards). (FREE.)

For my final day in San Diego and of the year 2019, I let myself do what I wanted. I slept in late and ate ramen for breakfast ($11.26) and more pizza for lunch ($4.94), I caught up on podcasts related to both scamming (Scam Goddess) and Star Wars (SlashFlimcast). I regained the respect I lost for Hollywood after Cats by watching Greta Gerwig’s Little Women ($19) and as I returned home to my hostel I passed the crowds of revelers, gearing up to celebrate NYE the way I had done so many years before. I smiled as I left them on the street, returning to the comfort of my bunk. I chatted with my latest roomie Rachel, an au pair from Switzerland, about skiing, healthcare, and legal drinking limits. I showed a bunk mate who arrived late where the showers were. And when the time came to say good-bye to 2019, the music wafted in from outside as I pulled the comforters tight around me, warm and safe. 

Total Spent: $235.75

This was a beautiful way to start 2020 and the entire trip was the kind of easy and fun adventure I never would have thought I could do on my own a few years ago. Now I know that all of America is mine to explore, and I hope you apply to HI USA’s Explore America Scholarship by March 15 and join me. If I lived my best life on $235.75, I can’t wait to see what you do with $1000. Happy Exploring!

Where would you travel if you won the HI USA Explore America Scholarship?

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