Lake Tahoe on a budget: How to plan a weekend getaway without breaking the bank
Lake Tahoe is a popular destination for weekend escapes, as its location on the California-Nevada border makes it easy to reach from many Northern California cities, including San Francisco and Sacramento. Visitors flock to its shores every summer to enjoy its dazzling blue waters and dramatic mountains, which feature hundreds of miles of hiking and bike trails. Plus, a full roster of seasonal events, including concerts and festivals, brings a fun energy to the lake come summer.
With the high price of gas and rapidly increasing hotel rates, planning even a short trip to a nearby destination can be expensive. Still, I was determined to have a fun weekend getaway on the cheap. So, I decided to put my budget travel skills to the test and leave my home in the San Francisco Bay Area for a couple of days of respite by Lake Tahoe.
By carefully planning my trip, from transportation to accommodations to activities, I was able to enjoy a memorable getaway for $500. How did I do it? Read on to learn my tips for staying on budget and how you can apply them to a future trip to Lake Tahoe.
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Ditch the car and rely on public transportation instead
The first step of my Lake Tahoe trip was figuring out how to get there. While most Bay Area-based weekenders drive to the lake, I wanted to avoid spending a lot on gas, so I left my car at home and opted to get to Lake Tahoe by train.
Because the lake only sits 12 miles southeast of Truckee, a California town that has long been a railroad hub since its 19th-century mining and lumber days, I knew I could easily reach the lake via Amtrak. The California Zephyr route, which travels between Oakland, California, and Chicago, includes a stop in Truckee, so I zeroed in on this train for my Lake Tahoe getaway.
Costing just $110 per person for my trip (though I've seen prices as low as $98 per person on select dates), my round-trip ticket between Oakland and Truckee was reasonably priced given the comfortable seats, plenty of space on board and the overall convenience of traveling by rail. While I spent more on my train ticket than I likely would've put toward gas if I drove — which I conservatively estimate would've been $66 for the 360-mile journey, assuming I got at least 30 mpg and could find gas in California for $5.50 per gallon, a not-so-easy feat — the added cost of parking at places like beaches and hotels would have quickly offset any savings from driving.
The only major downside to using Amtrak to get to Lake Tahoe is how long the trip can take. Although my journey was supposed to be about five hours, it ended up taking an extra hour due to a couple of slow stops and some time spent shunted to a side rail to make way for another train. However, on bad traffic days and popular weekends, the drive to Tahoe can take even longer and is often a lot more stressful, as — unlike on a train — you're unable to pass the time drinking a beer while soaking up the views. So, despite the unexpected hiccup, taking the train was still the way to go for me.
As I made my way from Oakland to Truckee, I got an eyeful of California's diverse landscape. After passing the Bay and the Golden Gate Bridge, I enjoyed a front-row seat to the waterways of the Sacramento-Sao Joaquin River Delta, the farmlands of the Central Valley and the foothills, forests and mountains of the Sierra Nevada range. The scenery was so beautiful that by the time I arrived in Truckee, I found myself feeling incredibly relaxed rather than in my usual state of frustration and exhaustion after battling traffic for hours.
Getting around Lake Tahoe without a car is admittedly challenging if you want to go any significant distance, since the surrounding mountain roads are steep and often full of cars. Fortunately, the region offers its free Tahoe Area Rapid Transit (TART) system, which includes a fleet of buses that takes riders to various areas around the lake in about 30 minutes (roughly the same amount of time as if they drove themselves). While the buses are currently only running hourly from about 7 a.m. to 5 p.m., TART plans to expand hours and routes this summer. The buses I took never had more than a handful of people on them, so I didn't have to worry about jamming myself into a crowded bus with sweaty hikers.
For the return trip to Oakland, I relied on both an Amtrak bus and Amtrak's Capital Corridor train. The journey took nearly six hours, as it included a layover in Sacramento after the initial bus ride from Truckee, but I didn't mind the temporary stop. I used the extra time in Sacramento to grab a bite to eat — food from the train's snack bar was barely edible — and watch a game at a nearby Holiday Inn lounge. Consider packing your own snacks for the trip if you don't want to resort to mediocre fare or worry about finding food away from the train station.
Related: A first look at Amtrak's new Acela trains
Look for smaller, affordable lodging options
Lake Tahoe is home to many luxury lodging options and incredibly pricey residences. Area hotels like the Ritz Carlton, Lake Tahoe next to the Northstar California Resort; the Hyatt Regency in Incline Village; and Marriott's Timber Lodge by Heavenly Mountain Resort are among the higher-end choices available. But with summer rates at as much as $1,000 a night (or 120,000 points per night), these luxe Lake Tahoe options are too expensive to consider for a budget-friendly trip.
So for my weekend visit, I decided to stay one night at the Cedar House Sport Hotel, a woodsy boutique hotel about a mile from the train station. The property was offering a good deal for my dates, with nightly rates at $160. However, summer weekends here are mostly booked, with the few remaining dates showing rooms costing more than $300 per night. For my second night, I booked the cheaper Redlight Historic Bunk Hotel and Speakeasy, a colorful option in Truckee with shared and private rooms costing about $90. Expect to pay a little more this summer, as rates now start at $125 per night.
A number of other affordable options are still available, depending on when you visit. For example, the Marriott-affiliated SpringHill Suites Truckee near the train station has rates below $200 on select summer nights. I had initially tried staying there when I found a room for $155 per night, but it was snapped up right before I had a chance to book it.
Rental properties are another option, running the gamut from cheap to expensive. Depending on the weekend, you may be able to find a good budget option, especially if you're traveling with a group.
Lake Tahoe's southern shore is also cluttered with dive motels and campsites. Keep in mind, though, that summer reservations for recreational vehicle sites and nearby campgrounds often fill up months (or even a year) in advance, so start your search as soon as possible if you're keen on camping.
Related: Sky-high Airbnb rates make deals hard to find
Balance pricey sit-down fare with budget-friendly alternatives
When it came time to eat, there were several options to choose from.
The Stella restaurant at the Cedar House Sport Hotel has great food but is quite pricey, with dinner entrees topping $50. I was happy with how my budgeting was going, though, so I decided to treat myself to the eatery's $14 French toast the morning of my stay. It was more than worth the splurge.
I'm also a fan of Jax at the Tracks, an old-school diner that serves milkshakes, meatloaf and other American classics. It isn't exactly super cheap, as burgers start at $13.99, but its setting right on the railway fits well with a train-themed weekend. Just about every item on the menu is tasty.
To offset splurging on a meal or two, visit the Safeway or Raley's supermarket by Truckee to stock up on food you can prepare yourself. Both locations are easy to reach by public transit. Or, head to Casa Baeza Mexican Restaurant, which is just around the corner from Truckee's train station. The restaurant serves up delicious, filling burritos for as little as $8.50.
Related: 9 things people misunderstand about traveling on a budget
Focus on free (and cheap) activities
The best part about Lake Tahoe is the near-infinite amount of free outdoor activity options available. Whether you want to splash in the lake or hike or bike in the surrounding mountains, the region offers all kinds of opportunities for exploring the natural scenery for which it is known.
Had the aerial tram at Palisades Tahoe been open during my trip — it's closed for maintenance until June 18 — I would've made a point to ride a TART bus to the mountain resort, hike to the High Camp station and ride the tram back down for free, one of the great sightseeing deals in Tahoe. Instead, I took a walk along the Sawtooth Trail (a hiking path by the Cedar House Sport Hotel that's reachable through a nearby subdivision) to soak up phenomenal Truckee River and mountain vistas. If I had more time, I would've trekked the Brockway Summit trail, too; it's close to a TART stop in nearby Tahoe City and features a spectacular view of Lake Tahoe.
Biking is also an inexpensive way to explore the Lake Tahoe area. Like many local hotels, the Cedar House Sport Hotel provides free bikes for guests, so I borrowed one to cruise along the wide Truckee River Legacy Trail. The paved path winds about 5 miles, offering stunning views of wildflowers and rushing river rapids along the way. Odds are you'll catch a glimpse of some folks fly-fishing in the adjacent river's knee-deep waters as well.
Since I had some money left in my budget, I opted to rent a kayak at the lake one day. The one-hour rental from North Tahoe Watersports probably cost a bit more than the ones available on the main street away from the lake, but I appreciated the convenience of having lakefront service. The experience was by far worth the $40 price tag, as paddling along the shores and into the deep blue waters really allows you to truly appreciate Lake Tahoe's beauty, particularly in the early morning when the waters reflect the surrounding mountains like a mirror. You may even find fun surprises like the remnants of an old hot spring during your paddle.
Related: TPG's favorite national parks: A month-by-month guide
Visiting Lake Tahoe on the cheap and without a car may seem impossible at first, but as my experience shows, there are several ways to cut down on costs so you can enjoy a quick trip to the area without blowing past your budget.
For my weekend getaway to Lake Tahoe, I came in right on budget at $500. Here's how I spent my money:
- Amtrak transportation to and from Lake Tahoe: $110.
- Local bus service around Lake Tahoe: $0.
- Two nights of lodging: $250.
- Food (and beer) throughout the trip: $100.
- Hiking and biking around Lake Tahoe: $0.
- One-hour kayak rental: $40.
While the timing and logistics for my trip were challenging at first, as there were bus routes and train schedules to consider, once I got the hang of everything it was easy to map out my vacation. Despite the prevalence of high prices for accommodations this summer, deals are still available — you just have to dig a little and be flexible with your dates to find them.
After tackling transportation and lodging, sticking to a tight budget is a cinch thanks to Lake Tahoe's abundance of free activities. Whether you pass the time hiking, biking or simply gazing at one of the world's most beautiful lakes, you'll have ample opportunities to immerse yourself in Lake Tahoe's breathtaking scenery — all without spending a dime.