Editor's note: This post was originally published in May 2013 and has been updated as of December 2019. All prices were correct at the time of the original posting.
Welcome to Los Angeles! This sprawling, laid-back, perpetually sunny metropolis is the most diverse city in the US, in more ways than one. Each neighborhood has its own topography and vibe, and it's almost all worth exploring. Here are some tips for staying, eating, shopping, and playing cheaply in LA, while still soaking in the best that the city has to offer.
BASIC CHEAPSKATE RULES:
- Don't fall for the tourist trap of Hollywood Blvd/Walk of Fame. It's overwhelming, constantly jammed with traffic, and you will be accosted by people trying to scam you into star tours and club visits. There are much lovelier spots in LA to visit.
- Carry a refillable water bottle. It's always pretty warm here. (This is our favorite water bottle because it keeps ice cold.)
- If you have a car with you, ALWAYS pay attention to where you park. Certain streets are marked (with signs) for permit-only parking. Others have certain hours designated for street sweeping. Watch for the moment your meter expires. You will never get a free pass for parking illegally, and tickets are expensive. If you park in a lot, make sure to get any tickets validated you can. Insider tip: on Sundays, yellow curbs are free legal parking.
- When parking, save space like it's money. It's good street parking etiquette to park as close as you can to the car in front or behind you (really), so that as many cars as possible will have space on the curb. Trust me, Angelenos are used to 5-point turning out of spaces.
- If you don't have a car, consider exploring a single neighborhood in depth. Due to the awesome weather, many are extraordinarily walkable. Venice, Silver Lake, Downtown, and West Hollywood are good places to camp out more permanently, and public transit will get you to farther big destinations.
- Seeing a movie is a very LA thing to do, but you will find ticket prices are higher here than anywhere else. Try a matinee at charming older theater like Los Feliz 3 or a New Beverly Cinema double feature for cheaper showings.
WHERE TO STAY IN LA FOR CHEAP
Accommodations can be tricky, because this is a pretty pricey destination. Try not to travel when there's a big event in town, like a marathon, awards ceremony, or parade, because room rates tend to skyrocket when it's packed. In general, you can't go wrong with a hostel that has a great reputation or a refurbished motel, which feels very Californian to me. Look for extra built-in savings like parking if you have a vehicle, easy access to public transit if you don't, or complimentary breakfast. And don't forget to search voucher deals! If you're staying more than a few days, you can usually find a great deal on an apartment rental, which will provide a kitchen to help you save on meals, too!
Here are a handful on non-chain spots to investigate. Hotels in Los Angeles:
Stay On Main Hotel (Downtown, hostel) // Little Tokyo Hotel (Little Tokyo, hostel) // Vibe Hotel (Hollywood) // Seaview Hotel (Santa Monica) // Jerry's Motel (Westlake/Silver Lake) // Apartment Rentals (pictured)
Now, as you find out quickly when scrolling tons of hotel reviews of where to stay in Los Angeles, I know many travelers aren't thrilled at the idea of staying in a motel, hostel, or anywhere rowdy college crowds or shared bathrooms may be. Some will book a Hilton or Holiday Inn or Best Western just for the the familiarity of it, but if you're upping your price point, still consider the boutique options. Many of these centrally located Los Angeles hotels have free wifi, outdoor pools, and many offer hotel deals.
Los Angeles hotel rooms under $140 good enough for your parents:
CHEAP EATS IN LA
Brace yourself, because you are going to see some insane prices on food. This is likely because you are commonly paying for the organic, humanely-raised, locally sourced ingredients and the high salary of the amazing chef who selected them. Vegetarian, vegan, paleo, gluten-free, generally healthy–any diet restriction is easily accommodated here. The thing is, Los Angeles does food really, really well, and if you only shop and cook for yourself on a trip there–a trick I normally consider brilliant–you're really missing out. So here's what I suggest:
- Allocate your meals out wisely. Some very-LA food groups to try are: sushi, Mexican, deli, and anything with avocado. Take advantage of any inherently cheap foods in these categories (i.e. tacos, matzo ball soup). There are also tons of ethic neighborhoods with country-specific food you might not find anywhere else. Little Ethiopia, anyone?
- If you can, make your own snacks and breakfasts. I promise, that Pinkberry cup and that Sprinkles cupcake aren't worth it. And eggs are uncharged everywhere.
- An exception: brunch. If you can milk two meals out of one relatively low priced-menu item, you have my blessing. After all, brunch is its own important LA food group.
- For groceries, I recommend Trader Joe's, which I recently learned does not exist everywhere, or a farmer's market. Since the weather is so good, farmer's markets are easy to find any day of the week.
- Try these LA cheap eats, pictured above: Chego // Rosalind's Ethiopian Cuisine // Bay Cities // India Sweets and Spices (or other hole-in-the-wall Indian spots) // Tacos Por Favor (or street tacos) // Poke-Poke // The Counter (many locations) // Forage // Echi.
- Food trucks can vary wildly from cheap to pricy, but combo deals are usually a good value.
- Drink out only during happy hour. If you find a drink for $5-7, that's pretty good for the area, but you can usually do better than that during off-times.
CHEAP SHOPPING IN LA
My cheap LA shopping advice is very simple. Skip the Grove and Beverly Center, because they're miserable with crowds anyway. Go to this one little section of Melrose Ave, focus on vintage, and go on Sunday. (Free street parking is easy to find in the residential neighborhoods north of Melrose.)
The Melrose Trading Post flea market ($2 entry) has an awesome array of haggle-able goods varied from home decor to records to clothing to art.
If you head west on Melrose, the shops tend to get more designer-y and more expensive, but the east side is home to tons of cheap-o clothing stores any day of the week. If you need sustenance, grab a huge slice of Tomato Pie pizza for a few bucks. I know this is not New York, but as far as “LA” pizzas go, this has got to be one of the best. Check out American Vintage, Wasteland, Slow, and Crossroads, and try to find my favorite shop, which has no name.
Up a block on La Brea Ave, you can find the famous vintage shop Jet Rag, which hosts a $1 “Yard Sale” on Sundays.
FREE THINGS TO DO IN LA
For the rest of your cheapskate trip, try to put yourself on a spending fast. There is so much free stuff to do, and this is by no means a comprehensive list. But it's a good start.
FIDM Museum & Galleries // Fashion exhibits // Open: Tues-Sat, free to the public.
The Getty Center // European + American art, Middle Ages – present // Open: Tues-Sun, free to the public. $15 parking.
Annenberg Space for Photography // Rotating photo exhibits // Open: Wed-Sun, free to the public. $1-$3.50 parking, depending on day/time.
LACMA // Modern Art // Regular exhibits free to public on Holiday Mondays + 2nd Tuesdays. $10 parking, free with validation from restaurant/bar (so you may as well spend that $10 on a drink).
Griffith Observatory // Free to walk around the outside and you can get a good view of the famous Beverly Hills Hollywood sign (just a heads-up, it looks very tiny and far away from the observation deck at Griffith Observatory but it's still definitely worth seeing!)
Griffith Park // Get up close to the Hollywood sign. (But not too close, or the choppers will yell at you).
Eaton Canyon // Hike back into a more secluded space that ends in a gorgeous rocky waterfall.
Santa Monica Beach // It's much prettier to camp out on the beach near the Annenberg Community Beach House than the more popular spot near the Santa Monica Pier. Parking is about $10/day during the summer.
HOW TO SAVE MONEY IF YOU LIVE IN LA
Having lived in LA about 3 years, here are a few tips I've picked up…
- Get a Brita. Or Brita knockoff.
It's illegal for landlords to charge for water in California, so embrace the tap. [EDIT: This is not true in all areas of LA. Sorry!]
- Join a CSA/produce delivery service. I was skeptical about this, thinking I'd be spending more than usual, but it allows me to successfully budget most of my meals. It forces me to cook for myself more, reducing the eating out costs, and I'm eating healthier than ever. I know it's always local, organic, and seasonal produce, and the costs are ultimately less than what I would spend at the grocery store. It also helps to share meals and costs with friends and roomies. Try a rotating dinner night at different places. (PS. Sign up for Summerland Produce with the promo code PEACH50 and give my name for 1/2 off your first delivery.)
- Los Angeles Public transport. Make an adventure out of it! It's not that bad, it's inexpensive, and you get to see a lot of Los Angeles out of the windows! Also, being stuck in traffic is less terrible when you can read a book, listen to your favorite podcast, or look at your phone.
- Have roommates as long as you can bare it. The costs of an apartment go down considerably the more bedrooms there are to divide, and utility bills are worth dividing, too, if you can. In this city, it's certainly not weird at all to live with roommates as an adult.
- Think beyond cable. Chances are if you live in LA, staying in tune with the industry is one of your “needs.” Consider a wireless Blu-Ray player or Roku box (approx $100 one-time cost) with apps/channels that allow you to stream TV and movies. A subscription to Netflix, Hulu Plus, Amazon Prime, etc will be much less than a monthly Time Warner cable bill.
- Go ahead and just join the Arclight Membership already. It only takes a minute. It's free. They won't spam you. And you get a few bucks off every time you inevitably buy those expensive movie tickets.
- Get some fans. Most apartments in LA are older, and few affordable ones are outfitted with effective air conditioning. Even if yours is, fans can help cut down on your energy bill.
- Go to LACMA after 3pm, M,T, Th, F. It's free for LA residents.
- Furnish via flea markets. Unique, classically-Californian pieces can be scouted for amazing prices. Be patient and persistant.
- Drive a hybrid, if you can. I realize that this is hard to help sometimes, but driving is such a huge part of living in LA. If you're considering buying a new car, at least compare the price to a slightly used hybrid. My 2008 Civic, bought used, will withstand many of the miles I put on it, and helps me save immensely on gas.
Los Angeles is a city too big in scope for one post or even one trip but we hope you've found this guide helpful! I've barely scratched the surface of all the things to do in town! What are your favorite cheap and free LA things?
Lauren Johnson is a filmmaker/producer living in West Hollywood who enjoys a great foreign thriller, leisure beers, and non-primary colors. Lauren also writes the blog LOCONCEPTS.Pro Tip: I LOVE Airbnb because it lets me feel like a local while also helping me save money on food costs (since I can use the kitchen!) CLICK HERE to get $55 for you to use on your 1st trip!