[Updated September 2016]
Big Sur isn't typically synonymous with "budget travel," but if you're heading to the dramatic bluffs and funky beach towns in the area, you don't necessarily have to worry about breaking the bank to do it. By getting a bit creative with where you stay and how you book, you can enjoy the stunning views, rocky beaches, pristine natural parks, and eclectic cuisine for less than you might expect, and without sacrificing any of the glamor or luxury of a more highly priced itinerary. Here's how to get the best of Big Sur on a budget.
Instead of staying in Big Sur, drive 45 minutes up the coast and get a much more affordable room at a cozy bed and breakfast in the quiet beach community of Carmel-by-the-Sea. As a comparison, a B&B in Carmel-by-the-Sea will run about $150-$300 in the summer months while a B&B of comparable quality in Big Sur will likely cost double. Try one of the independently owned properties like the recently renovated Carmel Garden Inn or the Victorian-style Gosby House Inn. If they're not full when you inquire, they might even be willing to negotiate on the price if they're looking to fill up their vacancies.
First things first: A yurt is basically a tent-like cabin. So, if you're willing to get a bit adventurous on your trip, one of the best ways you can see Big Sur is to plan early and book a yurt at Big Sur's famous Treebones Resort (they fill up fast!). While not truly a "resort" per se, this place is so unique it won't matter that you're sleeping in a yurt or one of their famed human nests (in a hollowed-out tree). You'll still have access to all the amazing amenities of a resort (a sushi bar, wine bar, and a cool lodge for relaxing in the evenings) at a much lower price. A human nest runs for $150 per night, oceanview yurts -- which, depending on whether you rent a king bed or two queens, can sleep up to four people -- start at $263 per night, and mountainview yurts start at $295 per night.
A trip to Big Sur wouldn't be complete without an afternoon exploring at least one of its 10 gorgeous state parks and beaches. From Point Lobos (which is considered one of Big Sur's must-see destinations) to some of the lesser-known parks and state beaches, you can enjoy an entire day in the park for just $10 with a day-use visitor pass. If you're up for a marathon of parks, you can use the same day pass for entrance to Point Lobos State Reserve, Andrew Molera State Park, Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park -- if you visit them all in the same day. If you're planning on visiting multiple areas in California, you should also consider getting a California State Parks visitor pass. Annual passes are $195 and cover your car's admission to all California parks all year. If you're over 62 years old, you qualify for the Golden Bear Pass, which is only $5 per calendar year and entitles you to entry in most of California's state parks.
While Groupon and LivingSocial are no big secret, you might not have considered using them while on vacation. Trust us though, you'll want to check out the deals at Big Sur's best resorts. With a little planning, you can save hundreds of dollars by searching for the services and activities you'd like to do before you actually get there. For instance, at the time of publishing, we found a two-night backpacking trip through Big Sur (equipment and meals included) with Bay Area Expeditions for $145 or a massage at a number of spas and salons in the area for under $50.
Day trips don't have to break the bank. These activities will fill up your day for less than the cost of a tank of gas: Walk around the Bixby Creek Bridge (it won't cost you anything but the gas to get there); take a dip in Ventana Wilderness' Sykes Hot Springs (you can park there for only $5 per day); try horseback riding (you can do a one-hour Beach Bonanza ride for $58 with Molera Horseback Tours); if you're a bibliophile, don't miss the Henry Miller Memorial Library, a nonprofit bookstore and arts center (they have an impressive lineup of musicians, performers, film screenings, theatre, open mic nights, and readings throughout the year, and their events are donation-only).