Planning to take a cheap flight to California this year? The Golden State earned its nickname for a good reason, but that doesn’t mean visiting there has to cost you a fortune. People ask me all the time “what are the cheapest airports to fly into California?” To answer that question, I’ve scoured dozens of travel booking sites and used my own personal experience. Keep reading to learn more!
A lot of people dream about someday visiting California. For those on the East Coast, especially, it seems like a paradise of palm trees, sandy beaches, and movie stars. Even with the sheer number of times I’ve visited the Gold State personally, it still retains a certain magic. That’s why San Diego made the list of my top 50 travel destinations.
If you’ve been California dreamin’, it’s time to wake up and go there for real. Though home to some of the wealthiest celebrities in the US, there are actually many cheap airports in California. In fact, some of the biggest cities are among the cheapest places to fly into California. Whether you’ve been there before or you’re planning your very trip, there are countless fun things to do in California, even when you’re on a budget!
Here are the cheapest cities to fly to California in 2023.
#1 tip for finding the cheapest airports to fly into California
How can you find affordable airfare anywhere in the world? As a serial traveler, that’s something I get asked a lot. So, before I break down my list of 7 cities with the cheapest airports to fly into California, first I’d like to share a quick tip on how to save money on airfare.
For the past two years, I’ve been using Going to score cheap plane tickets to California, and it’s saved me a bundle. It’s so easy to use, anyone can do it. Simply type in the name of your departure airport, then choose your destination, and voila! They’ll send mistake fares and other extra cheap flight deals directly to your inbox for FREE!
In 2022, Going’s email alerts helped me save thousands of dollars on airfare– including most recently, a $96 roundtrip flight from Boston to Los Angeles. With Going, I generally save around $300-500 roundtrip on selected flight routes. I saved even more when I became a premium member, an upgrade that costs just $49 a year.
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Considerations for finding the cheapest places to fly into California
For someone like myself, who travels internationally a lot, it’s easy to take for granted how cheap and easy it is to get around the continental US. That said, there are still some things you have to keep in mind. Though cheap flights to California are available, when you travel and where you’re traveling from both play a major role in ticket prices.
To save money, try to avoid traveling during the peak tourist seasons: summer and winter. Spring and autumn usually have less demand, which means the cost of flying to California will be lower. Thankfully, the Golden State’s famously Mediterranean-esque climate means that you can look forward to mild temperatures year-round.
Another consideration is knowing when and where to spend your money. There are tons of cheap places to visit in California, but there are also just as many expensive ones. It’s easy to be dazzled by the chic boutiques and attractive tourist traps. Before you know it, you’ve already blown through your whole vacation budget on the first day!
In the list below, I made it a point to recommend several attractions that cost little to nothing to enjoy. That way you can make the most of your trip. I also recommend staying at one of the many Airbnbs in California. They’re often cheaper than hotels, and they come with better amenities, too!
Cheapest cities to visit in California in 2023: Best places to find cheap flights to California
California might be known for its glitz and glamor, but that doesn’t mean you have to break the bank to vacation there. Below is a list of seven of the cheapest places to fly into California from other parts of the US and other places around the world:
1. Los Angeles
Where better to start our list than one of the most popular cities not to visit, not just in California, but in the world? Los Angeles is popular for a multitude of reasons and is home to many historic monuments. If you’re looking for a vacation destination where you can feel like a celebrity, there’s no better pick than LA.
The Hollywood sign is the most famous of the city’s icons. You can see it from almost everywhere while in LA, but one of the best places to catch a glimpse is Griffith Observatory. Here, tourists with a great view of the Hollywood sign, the spread of Los Angeles, and the night sky. California is truly home to the stars, in more ways than one!
There’s so much to see and do in LA, it’s hard to know where to start. Should you grab a meal at one of the tasty, trendy restaurants that seem to be opening up all the time? How about taking a fossil-finding excursion to the La Brea Tar Pits? If you are interested in cars, the Petersen Automotive Museum is packed wall-to-wall with rare and interesting vehicles, including the original DeLorean used in Back to The Future.
All this is more than enough to make LA a tourist hotspot. But what makes it affordable? That would be the low price of airfare through Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). LAX is the busiest and largest international airport on the West Coast. More importantly for us, it’s also one of the cheapest airports to fly into California!
2. San Francisco
San Francisco is a city that could never be confused with anyplace else. With its steep hills and numerous iconic landmarks and attractions, it sets itself apart from all other vacation destinations in the Golden State. It does this not just in terms of enjoyability, but also in affordability.
Right behind LAX, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is one of the biggest and busiest airports in the region, and also one of the cheapest. That’s appropriate, as San Francisco is itself one of the cheapest places to visit in California. If you really want to save money, you don’t have to pay a dime to see the city’s best sights. Most of them are free!
The most famous free sightseeing destination is the Golden Gate Bridge. This one-mile-wide suspension bridge connects the scenic San Francisco Bay with the vast blue beauty that is the Pacific Ocean. Not far away is another free attraction, the aptly named Golden Gate Park, widely considered to be the “Central Park of San Francisco.” It’s actually 20% larger than its East Coast cousin. Take that, NYC!
Looking for a taste of true-crime adventure? In San Francisco, travelers can take a guided tour of Alcatraz, the historic island prison. This maximum-security penitentiary housed some of America’s most notorious gangsters, including Al Capone and George “Machine Gun” Kelly, and was famous for being inescapable. There’s also the Palace of Fine Arts, an architectural marvel styled after ancient Rome, and the USS Pampanito, a decommissioned WWII submarine. Whatever your interest, San Francisco has something to capture the imagination.
3. San Diego
Even in a state renowned for its beautiful beaches and sunny weather, San Diego is especially idyllic. Perched on the very edge of the US-Mexico border, it offers stunning waterfront views of the Pacific Ocean and serves as a diverse melting pot of unique cultural heritages. For these reasons and more, San Diego is one of my personal favorite cheap places to visit in California.
When you arrive via San Diego International Airport (SAN), one of the first things you’ll want to do is head to San Diego Bay. Considered one of the best natural deep harbors on the West Coast, is a place where natural beauty and human ingenuity commingle.
Next to crystal blue waters, the Port of San Diego is a hive of activity. It’s also a great place to catch a cruise if you’re looking to travel by sea. Make sure to stop by USS Midway Museum before you leave. This decommissioned aircraft carrier exhibits many unique aircraft both on its flight deck and below decks, making it a can’t-miss for naval history buffs.
For a jaw-dropping view of the entire bay, travel to Point Loma, the southern tip of the Loma Peninsula and home to the Cabrillo National Monument. During whale migration season, visitors can sometimes spy Humpback and Gray whales from the cliffs. Otherwise, get your wildlife-watching fix at the world-famous San Diego Zoo, at Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve, or at SeaWorld San Diego. From giant pandas to bottlenose dolphins, San Diego is a paradise for animal lovers.
4. Sacramento is among the cheapest cities to fly to in CA
Pop quiz: what is the capital city of California? If you said Los Angeles or San Francisco, guess again. While those two cities tend to be the most famous, it’s Sacramento that serves as the Golden State’s heart and soul. The capitol building itself is tribute to the state’s storied history, doubling as the California State Capitol Museum. Where better to start your vacation?
Other historic attractions include the Crocker Art Museum, the California State Railroad Museum, the California Automobile Museum, and Sutter’s Fort, a structure so old it predates the 1848 Gold Rush. If you really want to journey back in time, don’t skip Old Sacramento. This blast-from-the-past neighborhood is full of buildings dating back to the 1800s!
In addition to being a hotbed for history, Sacramento is perhaps the cheapest city to visit in California. This is thanks in part to Sacramento International Airport (SMF) being an ideal place to book cheap flights to California. The fact that so many of Sacramento’s biggest attractions can be enjoyed for little to no cost doesn’t hurt either.
If you’re looking for fun things to do in Sacramento on a budget, I recommend spending a day at McKinley Park. Built by the Sacramento Street Railway Company in 1871, the park is 32 acres in size. Across those acres, you’ll find tennis courts, soccer and baseball fields, a lovingly manicured rose garden, and more. One of my favorite things to do in Sacramento is walk around the park. It’s a great place to soak up some sun, breathe in the fresh air, and enjoy the sights and sounds of the city.
5. San José
From haunted houses to Silicon Valley innovations, San José is one of the Golden State’s most eclectic places to visit. It makes a good impression right off the bat, with San José Mineta International Airport (SJC) being one of the best airports in California. SAJ offers low fees while also serving as an international point of entry.
Once you’ve got yourself situated, you’re spoiled for choice when it comes to fun attractions. One of the most famous is the Winchester Mystery House. This early 20th-century Victorian Gothic-style manor was once the home of Sarah Winchester, widow of firearms manufacturer William Winchester. Believing that she was haunted by the ghosts of those slain by Winchester rifles, Sarah turned the property into an enormous maze of dead-ends and doors to nowhere.
What if you’re more interested in the future than the past? In that case, The Tech Initiative is just the thing. A huge science center, The Tech Initiative offers hands-on activities and interactive exhibits showcasing state-of-the-art advancements in computer technology. Alternatively, if you want to explore the local culture, Santana Row’s cluster of family-owned businesses offers plenty of charm.
Meanwhile, the Rose Garden District in the downtown area is home to 189 different varieties of roses. This makes it an incredible draw for both plant lovers and hopeless romantics. You can also check out the Japanese Friendship Gardens in Kelley Park. There, among beautiful displays of traditional Japanese architecture, you’ll find a pond of koi fish originally brought here in 1966. They liked San José enough to stick around. I predict you will, too!
Although the entirety of the Golden State is beloved for its natural landscapes, one city has an edge over all the rest. Fresno is home to not one, not two, but three of the most famous national parks in America. If you like to go hiking or are thinking about dabbling in landscape photography, make sure a ticket to Fresno Yosemite National Airport (FAT) is in your cards.
As the airport’s name implies, one of the biggest draws here is Yosemite National Park. One of the largest national parks in the US, Yosemite is so popular that guests sometimes have to make reservations due to high demand. Keep that in mind if you plan to be in Fresno during peak tourist season.
Then again, you could always spend the day at Sequoia National Park, home to General Sherman, the world’s largest tree. After that, visit Sherman’s little brother, General Grant, the second largest tree, at Kings Canyon National Park. The fact that these two record-setting goliaths are located just a short drive from each other is a testament to Fresno’s natural wonder.
Depending on what time of year you visit, you might be lucky enough to catch Fresno in the midst of one of its many annual events. Highlights include the Tower District Mardi Gras Parade, the Reel Pride film festival, and the Rogue Festival, a six-day extravaganza of live music, comedy, dance, theater, and more.
7. Palm Springs is one of the cheapest places to fly into CA
Sandwiched between San Diego and Los Angeles, Palm Springs is sometimes overlooked by travelers who flock to those other two metropolises. However, this resort city is second to none. If what you really want is to get away from the hustle and bustle and unwind in a lap of luxury, there’s no better place to do it.
Fortunately, Palm Springs International Airport (PSP) is the perfect place to turn when you need a cheap flight to Southern California. Step outside the terminal, and you’re just a stone’s throw away from fun in the sun. For that reason, Palm Springs isn’t just a booming retirement destination. It’s also popular stop for snowbirds looking to escape the chilly winter. Boasting streets lined with palm trees, it truly is a tropical getaway year-round.
There are more than enough golf courses, shopping districts, and fine-dining restaurants here to fill your time. That said, if you’re in the mood for something a bit more unique, seek out the Cabazon Dinosaurs. Famous for their appearance in the movie Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, these enormous steel-and-concrete dinosaurs are one of America’s most cherished roadside attractions. They’re kitschy, they’re cool, and they make a perfect backdrop for selfies.
Having said all this, it’s important to remember that Palm Springs’ population actually triples during the winter. This means that prices on everything go up, including flights, attractions, and hotel rooms. If Palm Springs is a bucket list destination for you, consider going during spring, summer, or fall instead.
Frequently asked questions (FAQ) about the cheapest airports to fly into California
Before booking a cheap flight to California, it helps to do your research. Here are some common questions and answers regarding cheap airports in California:
When is the cheapest time to fly to California?
As I noted earlier in this blog, when you travel is just as important as where you travel. The peak tourist seasons for even the most inexpensive cities in California tend to be summer and winter. This means that the best time to fly to California if you want to save money is spring and fall.
Let’s get more specific. What month is the cheapest to fly to California? That depends on your destination. Typically, if you’re planning a trip to San Francisco, Los Angeles, or San Diego, the cheapest time to go to California is in April. For many other airports in California, however, the cheapest month is March.
What are the cheapest airlines in California offering direct flights?
The following airlines currently offer direct flights to California:
- Southwest Airlines
- American Airlines
- SkyWest Airlines
- Alaska Airlines
- Qatar Airways
- LATAM Airlines
- Air New Zealand
Is it always cheaper to fly to California non-stop?
While taking a non-stop flight is often the fastest and most convenient option, it’s not always the cheapest way to get to California. If you’re more concerned with your budget than anything, there’s nothing wrong with taking a connecting flight.
That said, flights that require layovers are not automatically cheaper either. There is no hard and fast rule for picking one over the other. I recommend researching both whenever you start planning any trip. Then you can compare and contrast ticket prices, and find the one that best meets your needs of cost vs. convenience.
How far in advance should I book to get cheap airfare to California?
When planning any trip, whether it’s domestic or international, I recommend booking as far in advance as possible. While it’s true that last-minute cancellations can help you land incredible discounts, there’s no guarantee that will happen every time.
Usually, if you book in advance, you’re able to get a better price because you’re “beating the rush.” As the departure date gets closer, more and more people will try to book the same flight. This increases demand, thus raising the price.
Why you should fly to California in 2023
With its sunny climate, gorgeous scenery, and quirky attractions, California often feels more like another country than just another American state. For East Coasters used to cold temperatures and cramped urban cities, it’s a breath of fresh air. Even at their busiest, California’s cities seem less claustrophobic and a lot more colorful.
A big reason for that is because of how diverse California is. Thanks to its proximity both to Mexico and Asia, the population of California today is incredibly unique. Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other cheap cities to visit in California offer travelers a chance to explore a wide range of culinary, artistic, and historical legacies.
What’s more, California is a major center for both the entertainment and tech industries. This gives it a freshness and vitality that you won’t find anywhere else. No matter what you like to do for fun, there are attractions perfectly suited to your tastes. Music venues, fine dining restaurants, fashionable boutiques, amusement parks, historical sites: the list goes on and on.
I hope this blog about the cheapest airports to fly into California has inspired you. Get out there and give the Golden State a closer look. Traveling the world is a great privilege that we should all get to enjoy. Even if you’re on a budget, you can do it, too!
For more travel tips (and inspiration), follow my adventures on Instagram: @Global.Viewpoint. Happy Travels! -Jon