California on a Budget: Have a Fun and Frugal Day at the Fair

I’m not the only Southern California resident working hard at living on a budget. There are a whole lot of us striving to enjoy the Golden State without running in hock. Today’s guest post is from Rachael of Mommy Topics. Rachael shares some great frugal tips for enjoying the San Diego County fair specifically and California fairs in general.

I love kicking off the summer with a family trip to the fair!

My parents first met each other in their twenties, while working concessions at the Del Mar Fair in Southern California. Long after they’d gotten married and moved on to other jobs, the Fair was still very much a part of our family traditions. I have great memories of going with my parents as a child, with friends as a teen, and now I’m getting the chance to make new memories there, with my kids.

But… now I’m also the one to make a trip to the fair fit into a tight family budget. After a few years of practice however, I think I’ve got it down! Here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way that may help you and your family enjoy any California fair in a fun and frugal way.

Objective: enjoy a day of rides, food, and fun at the Fair for a family of five with a budget of $100.00

Discounted Admission

If we had paid full admission for our family of five to go the San Diego County Fair, we would have spent $33.00 just to get in the gate. Instead, by checking the website before the Fair opened, and learning that our local grocery store was selling tickets for $3 per adult admission for one day only, which also happened to be a “Kids get in FREE” day, we were able to get our family of five into the Fair for a total of $6.

Admission Savings: $27.00, Total spent: $6

Many fairs offer

  • low price admission days
  • kids get in FREE days
  • admission discounts to military and seniors
  • discount coupons available at local merchants such as grocery stores and pizza places
  • discounted family packages for four which include admission, ride tickets, and meal coupons
  • special days when one price pays for unlimited rides
  • contests at the Fair you can sign up for ahead of time, for which participants receive FREE entry into the Fair
  • This year I even saw discounted admission and ride packages for my local fair, available at Costco.

Using your local Fair website to Preplan is Key

These days most fairs have their own website where you can get all kinds of great information that will help you spend less and have more fun. Checking your local fair website before the fair comes to town will ensure that you don’t miss special discounted days.

You should also check your fair website for:

  • special one day events, entertainment, and concerts you don’t want to miss
  • hours of operation
  • contests which must be entered prior to your visit
  • parking prices and FREE parking at nearby sites
  • what items may be brought into the fair such as food and drinks
  • discounted ticket purchases to be made ahead of time at town merchants
  • discounts and coupons for admission, rides, and food

Just walking around the fair is half the fun. If you had no more than $6 to spend, you really could have a great day at the fair just strolling and looking at all of the animal exhibits, vendors, art displays, car shows, home and garden demonstrations, contests, stage performances, and crazy thrill rides that light up the night sky.

But… if you can throw together even a small budget like ours, the fair certainly provides a few things worth spending extra on!

Plan Your Meals

Food at the Fair is an expense where it is difficult to escape high prices, but that doesn’t mean you should have to miss out! Fair food is delicious and a big part of why people go the Fair in the first place. These tips can help you enjoy just what you want, and not overspend:

  • Bring snacks and water from home – Granola bars, chips, seedless grapes, fruit rolls, and animal crackers can help to avoid paying high prices every time someone gets hungry or thirsty. (Check fair website to make sure they allow for food from home to be brought in.)
  • Please the picky ones for less – Small children who are picky eaters may be happier eating PB&J or Lunchables than fair food. This will save money to put towards fair food for Mom and Dad.
  • Shop the Fair – You can often find the same foods at several different stands for different prices, so look for one with the best price, for the best portion size before you commit.
  • Sharing is good – Consider splitting a meal or treat between two or more people. Fair food can be pricey, but the portions are often large, and the flavors extremely rich.

It can also help cut food costs if you plan your day so you only need to pay for one meal and one special snack at the Fair.  Since my family includes three small children, arriving in the late afternoon and staying late into the evening is perfect for us, as opposed to trying to be there all day.  We ate breakfast and lunch at home and arrived at the fair around 2pm. We avoided the heat of the day and got to enjoy dinner, dessert, and all of the excitement of nighttime at the fair when everything comes alive with lights and music.

By following all of the tips above, our family of five was able to eat dinner and dessert at the Fair spending a total of $31.50 for the day, on food.

Shopping for Deals at the Fair

Throughout my many years of visiting the Fair I’ve done a ton of shopping and gotten great deals on all kinds of products such as books, shoes, jewelry, flowers for the garden, a curling iron, a steamer, and even a bed.

When it comes to shopping, the Fair is a great place to get deals on a wide range of products, discover new inventions, and purchase items not available in stores. Its true most everything can be purchased online these days, but if you buy it at the fair, you avoid paying shipping and handling costs. Many vendors also offer “Fair Only Specials” on their merchandise.

Our family wasn’t in the market for any new products this year, while at the Fair. When we planned our budget, we planned NOT to spend on shopping, but we still had a blast walking through the vendor halls and checking out everything people were selling.

Games

When it comes to the carnival games, they look like a lot of fun, but boy oh boy, are they expensive! $3 – $5 usually gets you 3 shots at something, and the prize is often a stuffed animal from underneath the counter, that isn’t worth $1. We let each of the kids pick 1 game, so they along with my husband, played two games each. That cost us a total of $18.00.

If you want to be frugal at the fair, I recommend you stay away from the games!!! Just remind your kids how many stuffed animals they already have at home. You can also think together about how you could easily recreate most of the games in your backyard with a few balls, bins, kiddie pools, rubber ducks, balloons, and darts. In your backyard the games are FREE, and you get as many tries at each game, as you want. Make a day of it!

Rides

When you’re bringing kids to the fair, you should plan on spending most of your budget on tickets for the rides.

We paid regular price for our ride tickets spending $50 for 77 tickets. That allowed our 8 year old, and 4 year old, to ride just about everything they wanted in “Kiddieland,” as well as a couple fun houses and one roller coaster, in the big thrill ride area, “Fun Zone.”  Our third child is only 1, so he didn’t ride much. In Kiddieland each ride was worth 2 – 4 tickets, and in the Fun Zone, each ride was worth 5 – 7 tickets.

We had a great time visiting the Fun Zone at night and looking at all of the huge rides lit up. My little ones WERE NOT begging me for more tickets in that area, of crazy high flyin’ rides, but we all loved being there, and seeing the excitement.

Results of the Day

Here’s the run down of expenses for our family of five during a great day at the Fair:

$10.00 -  Parking

$6.00 – Admission

$50.00 – Rides

$18.00 – 2 Games for 3 players

$31.50 – Dinner and Dessert

Total spent:           $105.50

We spent $5.50 over our budget. That’s pretty good… See? We shouldn’t have played those carnival games!

California Fairs

No matter what your budget is or how many are in your family, the Fair is a great place to meander around and discover fun and exciting things. If you have money to spend there are deals to be found, and if your budget is limited, you can still enjoy all the free attractions at the fair for next to nothing if you plan ahead. Check this listing of CA fairs to find out which one is taking place near you this summer.

Rachymommy is the author of MommyTopics.com. She is a Southern California native, wife to a software engineer, and mother of three home schooled children. Visit her site for creative cupcake ideas, reflections on motherhood, and to link your Summer Family Fun posts every Tuesday, in her weekly blog hop.

How do YOU save money at the Fair, wherever you live?

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Comments

  1. It’s great to find a blog with Southern Calif stuff! Especially one that gives great tips on saving money. When we take our kiddos to the fair, we usually tell them no to the rides- we have Disney annual passes and would rather put the money towards our passes/trips there then to riding rides at the fair. We go to see the activities or maybe a free concert. We’ve never been to the San Diego fair, but now I think we may have to check it out sometime!

  2. Rachael-
    Love your blog :) Your doing a great job! I like bring PB&J for picky eaters…I have one…that’s a good idea :)

  3. AllieZirkle says:

    Oh man, I miss me some SD Fair!! Great wrap up on a budget fair trip!!

    PS- What, no detail on the price of a fried Twinkie? just kidding ;)

  4. Colleen says:

    Thanks for the great post – I just got back myself from the Del Mar fair in San Diego and just wanted to add that whenever you go to a fair (in any state) check the website first. My children were able to get into the fair (at Del Mar) for free by filling out a “reading sheet” that kept track of the number of books they read and all it needed was to be signed by their teacher or librarian.

    As a family we saved on ride tickets by going on specific days that offered “pay one price – ride all day”. The price was $30 to ride from 11am-8pm in both “Kiddie Land” and any adult ride. An additional $5 could have been saved per ticket rider if we had stopped at a pizza chain ahead of time. (I think it was Little Caesar) The lines are never really long at the fair (versus an amusment park) and my two kids were able to ride for 9 hours for $60! They didn’t even think about wanting to eat.

    I agree about staying away from the GAMES! This year at the Del Mar fair that had a few $1 games that I have never seen before so for only $4 we all played. Unfortunatley we also were forced to pay the $3 per player so we went way OVER budget because of the games also.

    Eating one main meal at the fair is excellent advice and bringing along snacks is highly recommended. If you can bring your own bottled water that is a huge plus because at $2.50 a bottle, money will go fast! We always carry in a backpack with food and snacks.

    I also agree that with all the vendors, shows, attractions, kiddie crafts, and contests there is no need to even spend much money at all. We usually spend two days at the fair and still wish we had more time. Don’t be afraid to find out about “2nd day” admission, sometimes you have to fill out a short survey or questionnairre but the 2nd day admission is often free or just a few dollars. This year at the Del Mar fair we paid $2 to return the next day, but in previous years it was free.

    We don’t live in California and yet we have made it a family tradition every year for the last four years.

  5. I guess I should consider myself lucky. Our county fair is free to enter, free to park & we can bring in whatever food or drinks we want. I can go there & spend $2 on an ice cream for each person & a little on some rides for the kids. Now, the state fair is another story… we would have to pay to park & pay for tickets.

  6. Lorrie says:

    Thank you for sharing other bloggers that are in our area. I’m not too crazy about the fair here. I am used to the huge Puyallup Fair in Washington and it spoiled me. I can’t eat deep fried food without consequences, so that limits the food options there.
    We do like going to the free concerts after the Friday races at Del Mar. We can just go in after most of the people have left after the last race.

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