By Teresa Bitler
Even if you aren't planning to visit Disneyland, a trip to Orange County can be unbelievably expensive. But it doesn't have to be - with a little planning, you can enjoy the beaches, attractions, and culture without spending a small fortune.
Where to Stay
If you want to save money, start by booking a hotel inland. Rooms at the Wyndham Anaheim Garden Grove Hotel start at $99 per night (plus a $14 hospitality fee that includes parking, high speed Internet access, and shuttle service to and from nearby Disneyland) and are within walking distance of several chain restaurants. The Hyatt Regency Orange County, from $129, across the street is another option.
Modern and hip Hotel Irvine, from $154, offers its guests complimentary WiFi, breakfast, and transportation to and from Orange County's John Wayne Airport. Take advantage of the marketplace that offers pizzas, street tacos, and salads to go as well as toiletries and other travel necessities.
When a beach hotel is a must, try Laguna Beach House, formerly the Laguna Cliffs Inn. This small, 36-room hotel close to the ocean features surf décor and is one of the area's more reasonable options at $215 and up.
Where to Eat
Food trucks are always a good option when you want cheap eats, considering dishes are usually under $10. Orange County has a formidable line-up, but check out Roaming Hunger to see where other popular trucks like Bacon Mania, Piaggio on Wheels, Dos Chinos, and The Lime Truck are stationed today.
If you're in the mood for a sit-down experience, head to Little Saigon in Garden Grove. There, you'll find hundreds of Vietnamese restaurants serving pho, a popular beef noodle soup, and other traditional dishes for under $10. We especially like Pho 79, where a large pho will only set you back by $7.25.
Some local Mexican restaurants host Taco Tuesdays, to the benefit of both your stomach and your wallet. At The Original Taco Factory in Tustin, for example, tacos filled with asada and other meats are $1.50 each on Tuesdays. At Great Mex Grill on Balboa Peninsula in Newport Beach, tacos are just $1.25 each.
Finally, for a classic Orange County experience, head to Ruby's Diner, where burgers, shakes, and other diner fare are served with 1940s nostalgia. The original diner is located at the end of Balboa Pier in Newport Beach, but you'll also find Ruby's outposts at the end of Huntington Beach Pier, near the train depot in San Juan Capistrano, and throughout Southern California.
Where to Shop
Orange County isn't a budget shopping destination, but selective shoppers can still score great deals on high-end fashions and boutique items. Start at South Coast Plaza, Orange County's answer to Rodeo Drive, for designs by Chanel, Gucci, Barbara Bui, Celine, John Varvatos, and more.
If you're not into the mall scene, try The Lab instead. Billed as an anti-mall, the Costa Mesa shopping destination is a collection of eclectic shops and restaurants. Like the concept? Carve out some time to also check out its sister property, The Camp, across the street.
For an alternative to traditional high-end shopping, Orange County Market Place is essentially an upscale swap meet for everything from furniture and electronics to fresh produce and meat. It's open every Saturday and Sunday at the county fairgrounds (except during July and August when the fair is in full swing).
What to Do
It should go without saying: The beach is a must when you visit Orange County. We recommend the coast along Huntington Beach for its wide, sandy stretches and for the more than 500 fire rings available on the beach for free on a first-come, first-serve basis. The pier is one of the longest on the West Coast, and fishing doesn't require a license here. Traveling with Fido - or just love dogs? You can watch them frolic in the waves, before taking to the surf yourself, at Huntington Dog Beach.
To mix it up, consider renting an electric bike. Pedego offers them from $20 for the day in Huntington Beach and Corona Del Mar, an easy pedal from Newport Beach. We like riding out from the Irvine store, though - it's quite a ways from the beach, but you can access 54 miles of paved off-street bike trails from here and avoid most other tourists.
And now for something unexpected: Visit Independence Hall while you're in Orange County. A brick-by-brick replica of where the Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence is located next to Knott's Berry Farm. Admission and parking (Knott's MarketPlace Shopping and Dining Lot) are free.