hollywood, california, travel, budget
Humor, Motherhood, Travel

California. On a Kari and Anna Budget

A few years ago, Anna and I discussed going on a girls’ trip after she graduated from high school. I’m not sure when we started talking about it, but it became less talk and more action over the last two years. Because when your teenager requests to vacation alone with you, you take it seriously. We also had free airfare thanks to my husband’s airline miles from business trips, which helped us make our decision even easier.

We chose California for a variety of reasons: the weather, the abundance of fun things to do, and our love of television and film. Anna had gone to California with her father when she was 12 years old, but she didn’t get to do much of the touristy, celebrity Hollywood thing.

To be clear, I wouldn’t do the touristy Hollywood thing the next time I visit, but you really should experience it at least once in your life if that is something that interests you. 

We were on a serious budget AND we only had four days and three nights to spend in California, so we packed as much as we could into it. California is pricey, especially the whole touristy, celebrity, Hollywood things we wanted to do, but there are ways to see it for far less, and if we know how to do anything, it’s doing everything on the cheap.

hollywood, california, travel, budget

Getting there

If you’re afraid of flying, then driving is indeed your only alternative, which may be cheaper than flying. However, driving from the Chicago area wasn’t an option because we only had a limited amount of time to travel. Personally, I’d like to travel Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles, but that wasn’t an option for this trip.

Side note- we had a flight attendant on our flight (both to AND from LAX) who resembled Matthew Broderick (aka Ferris Bueller). So much so that I couldn’t focus on anything else but him during either flight. Then I felt compelled to show all of you what he looked by attempting to photograph him. But getting a picture of your flight attendant without looking like you’re attempting to grab a picture of your flight attendant is a lot more difficult than it appears.

I got to talk to him briefly and tell him how much he looked like Ferris Bueller,er, Matthew Broderick, and he laughed and said he gets it all the time.

I’m sure you do, sweet cheeks.

I’m sure you do.

What was I saying?

Oh yes, we tried to capture a photo of him, but instead got this one:

california, girls trip, airline, airplane, hollywood


We had to stop at the baggage claim once we arrived at LAX to pick up our free checked bag. When we travel, we usually pack a carry-on bag because it is far less expensive than checking a bag. Also, I have anxiety about losing the bag, particularly on the way to the destination, because we will be without underwear, toothpaste, and so on.

But every now and again, the gate attendant will offer to check your bag for free, and I forget about losing my bag because I value a good deal more than I value having my underpants on night one of vacation.

So, after scooping up our free checked bag (never gets old), we headed to the Uber/Lyft location at LAX to hail a ride.

california, lax. LA, hollywood, airport

Getting around 

I don’t mean to be bossy but for the love of God, don’t rent a car in California if you are planning on only seeing Hollywood. For what it would have cost me in gasoline and sanity alone, I could ride in comfort and relaxation in the back of a complete stranger’s car. You do not want to drive in Los Angeles traffic. I had heard it was going to be awful, but I did not know exactly how bad. When I got home, I wanted to French Kiss the drivers in Chicago.

Uber or Lyft it is! Your preference. They’re essentially the same.

To begin with, we had the nicest Uber and Lyft drivers. I enjoy talking to people, but even if you don’t, think of it as a way to get to know the area. I picked our driver’s brains about where to eat, where to go, what to do, and even how in the hell they can afford to live there. Some of the most memorable moments of the trip occurred while in an Uber or Lyft.

The first driver we met on our way to the hotel was friends with an actor in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. If I had sat silently in the back seat, I would never have discovered it. So there is something to be said about being a chatterbox. I also learned the following from all 15 of our collective drivers over a four-day period:

Montreal is stunning this time of year

El Pollo Loco has fantastic deals and delicious chicken

“June Gloom” is when it is cloudy every morning in June, but the sun comes out at 10 a.m. every day

When it’s 60 degrees in February, they think that’s cold

Most celebrities are shorter than you think

In Los Angeles, the cops put on their sirens just to cut through traffic

The greatest doughnuts around can be found at Randy’s near the airport

california, hollywood, travel, budget
Traffic in LA is a “thing”. This was at 11 in the morning.
california, hollywood, travel, budget, girls trip
What kind of tree is this? Beautiful.

We’re Here! 

First impressions of Los Angeles? It’s a little dirtier than I anticipated.

With all of that fresh air and sunshine, I never imagined it would look this way. It’s gorgeous in some areas and not so much in others. However, the weather more than makes up for it. No humidity, the brightest sunshine I’ve ever experienced, and plenty of wonderful scenery. Purple flowering trees, the hottest pink blossoms on shrubs, and nothing but green. What amazes me is that all of this exists despite the lack of rain. I can see why people enjoy living here.

california, la. hollywood. budget. travel

The above is what I refer to as my “panic attack lunch.” Once we arrived at our hotel in Hollywood and checked in, we decided to take an Uber to The Grove in Los Angeles. If you’re not familiar with The Grove, it’s an outdoor mall with a variety of restaurants and shops that adjoins the Original Farmers Market.

It also is the location of the television show EXTRA, hosted by Mario Lopez, which was the primary motivator for stopping there.

We arrived at The Grove a little after lunchtime and realized we hadn’t eaten anything. So we went to the first restaurant we saw that looked inviting: Marmalade Cafe.

So back to the “panic attack lunch.” I certainly have no control over when they occur, but this one had to do with the realization that I had just flown cross-country and was far away from Mike and Ella. I had to calm myself internally while eating a very expensive, extremely rubbery calamari/ artichoke dip/quesadilla appetizer platter that Anna and I split.

The meal was disgusting, I was getting a travel headache, the restroom had a massive poop in the toilet, and my phone was at 30% and rapidly draining. I needed some solace and I was not finding it in our mediocre appetizer platter. I mean, who the hell serves calamari without marinara sauce?


I collected myself with a Starbucks coffee to help with the headache and some California sunshine to help the soul. I looked around as I was coming down off of the panic attack and I saw this:

california, la, hollywood, travel

The Writers Guild of America. Where I registered my screenplay.

It’s okay. The signs are there. Everything will be alright.

Plus, I’ve got my girl with me.

We’re in California; we’re healthy; we’re together; and we’re here.

Back to reality, another money-saving tip is to share meals. Anna and I shared practically every meal we ate in California, except for our final night. It saved us so much money, and we never finished the meals because we weren’t that hungry after all the walking, being outside, and the excitement of being in LA.

california, la, hollywood, travel

However, we did not share this meal:

in and out, burger, california, hollywood

Uh-uh. No way.

We ended up at the In and Out Burger on Sunset Boulevard, across from Hollywood High School, which was very cool, but there was no place to sit inside or outdoors. Apparently, everyone else in Hollywood loves In and Out Burger as well.

So we took an Uber back to the hotel with our bags of burgers and fries and ate them in our room. They were cold by the time we arrived, but they were still yummy.

Speaking of my screenplay , being in LA made me to realize I might need to tweak some of it, which is what a good screenwriter does, right? Researching for the craft! Look at me being all Hollywood writerly! Maybe I can write the trip off as “research”. Looking into that…..

california, hollywood, walk of fame, LA

There were signs everywhere.

Not actual SIGN signs, but spiritual signs.

Our flight attendant, the Writers Guild building just popping up, stars on the walk of fame.

california, LA, hollywood, walk of fame

Hollywood Walk of Fame 

The Walk of Fame is smelly, dirty, and gritty, I even wrote that exact review on Trip Advisor. But here’s the thing, IT’S THE HOLLYWOOD WALK OF FAME. Go for the whole touristy experience, soak it up, ignore the scammers dressed up as Superman, don’t take CDs from the “performers”. Be safe, but have fun because you are walking in the steps of your favorite celebrities. Will we do it again? No. Am I glad we did it? You bet.

Also, you don’t need to do a “tour” to see the Walk of Fame. It is relatively self-explanatory, but keep in mind that it winds around for blocks and in some areas, the sidewalk is not highly visible or on some side streets, so be careful of your surroundings because nothing says “tourist” in Hollywood like walking around looking at the ground and taking pictures.*

*It’s fine to appear to be a tourist. This is strictly for your own safety. 🙂  

california, walk of fame, hollywood, travel

Top to bottom left to right- Hollywood Walk of Fame; Scientology Building; Grauman’s Chinese Theater; My “star”; scamming superheroes on Hollywood Blvd.; there will be lots of tourists.

Anna and I could walk to the Walk of Fame from our hotel on our first morning there, but it was essentially the only thing we could walk to. We were also down the street from the Hollywood Bowl, but there is nothing to see from street level. Our neighborhood was a little gritty in places, but nothing was really walkable. If you visit the Walk of Fame, go early in the morning to avoid the crowds.

If you want a more walkable experience, plan to stay on Sunset Boulevard, sometimes known as the strip. Also, downtown Los Angeles is far from any of this, so if you are thinking the downtown is a good place to stay if you are looking to do the touristy things, it isn’t unless you have an unlimited Lyft or Uber budget.

california, la, hollywood, travel
Left to right- Anna and I on the Starline tour bus; the apartment in the last scene of Pretty Woman; church used in Sister Act and Gilmore Girls; Katy Perry’s “assistant”; the Viper Room.

Starline Tours

The biggest investment in our trip (aside from hotel), was going on a celebrity homes tour. Yes, it’s kitschy, yes it’s a touristy trap, and it’s an invasion of privacy, but if you are in Hollywood, try one of these tours. It’s fun, it’s more than just celebrity homes, and it’s kind of rite of passage, like popping your Hollywood cherry.

Definitely book your tour before you even arrive in Hollywood. I booked it three days before we left Illinois and saved $50. I feel like when you get into vacation mode, you end up spending way a lot more than you would at home.

I chose Starline Tours because they have been in business for a long time. I initially wanted to do the TMZ Tour because I wrote them into my screenplay, but it was way more expensive. Essentially, these buses go to the same destinations (celebrity “homes”, movie sites, etc), but I wanted one that went to Beverly Hills and the Hollywood Sign.

There were a few disappointments.

We only got one glimpse of the Hollywood sign. I guess I expected us to get closer than this:

hollywood, hollywood sign, la, california, travel starline

As you can tell from the clarity, that picture is zoomed in. We pulled over on the side of Mulholland Drive to take this photo. To give you an idea, we were in a small tour bus on a very curvy mountainside road very far from the actual sign.

I’m sure this is the closest we could get without being a billionaire or a mountain goat, but it was a little underwhelming and made me wonder how in the hell all those kids from Beverly Hills 90210 got up there after graduation.

Yes, I realize they made it for television.

california, hollywood, travel

But we did get to see Drew Carey’s trash cans!

Our tour guide genuinely loved his job, which translated into him being an excellent tour guide. He told us anecdotes to fill gaps of time at stoplights, he told us know how he loved old Holywood glam (me too), and gave us backstories on certain parts of the towns we were passing through.

It was when he didn’t consult his binder of required information that the tour became much more than the usual celebrity homes tour.

california, beverly hills, hollywood
Left to right; top to bottom- The Beverly Hills Hotel; Wilshire Blvd./Beverly Wilshire Hotel (where the movie Pretty Woman was filmed); palm trees lining the streets of Beverly Hills (also known as the intro to Beverly Hillbillies); street signs in BH; Gwen Stefani’s house when it wasn’t JLO’s house.

But here’s my takeaway from this leg of the tour- our celebrities and music artists are paid way too much money.

beverly hills, california, la. hollywood. travel

I had no regrets spending the money on this tour, but I would spend more time researching tours to see if there were more things I could see. Next time, I’d look for a tour that focuses on movie and television locations rather than celebrity homes. Because honestly, I don’t care where Justin Bieber lives, I just want to see where they filmed Chico and The Man.

california, santa monica pier, hollywood, travel
My feet at Santa Monica Pier.

Santa Monica Pier

I’ve said it before and I will say it again, don’t listen to people when they tell you not to go somewhere on vacation.

When we visited Salt Lake City for the first time a few years ago, someone advised us not to visit the Great Salt Lake, but I ignored them. I had read about the Great Salt Lake since I was a child, both my girls learned about it in school, and it’s a national treasure, so why wouldn’t I stop there?

Because not everything means something to everybody, which is why when people ask me what not to see when they visit areas, I don’t tell them. What I might like, you might dislike, and vice versa.

Case in point- Santa Monica Pier.

A friend of ours told us it was dirty, touristy, and not worth our time.

How do they know what our time looks like?

BUT I almost listened and didn’t go.

After a 45 minute Uber ride in traffic, we finally got to the pier and saw the sign in front of us and both of us got ridiculously giddy.

We walked along the pier, which was indeed dirty and touristy, but we loved it.


My Three’s Company-loving self-was in heaven.


Of course, Anna had no clue of Three’s Company, but she fell in love with the dirty touristy pier all the same.

I’d never seen the Pacific Ocean before, and I honestly didn’t think I’d ever get here. This part of the trip was really emotional for me. I was photographing the pier, the ocean, and I became utterly engrossed in the moment.

santa monica pier, california, la, hollywood, travel
Left to right. Top to bottom- Anna and I in Santa Monica; Santa Monica Pier sign; the Pacific Ocean; Zoltar!; the end of Route 66.

I began crying.

Anna looked at me and wrapped her arms around me. I told her I was crying because I couldn’t believe I was there. That I was crying for all the people in my life who would never be able to come because of various reasons.

I wiped my tears as we walked along the pier, arm in arm, taking it all in, looking for souvenirs, and smelling the salty sea air.

This was one of my favorite moments of the trip, and I would not have had it if I had listened to others.

I lost those amazing four dollar Forever 21 earrings on our last night. Worth it.

Livin’ It Up in The City 

On our last night, we planned to dine at Pump, a hip restaurant owned by one of our favorite Real Housewives of Beverly Hills, Lisa Vanderpump.

We dressed up, Anna did my makeup and I ended up looking the best I’d ever looked in my life (see photo above).

I wish she could make me appear like this every day of my life, but then no one would recognize me so……

beverly hills. california, boys town, santa monica boulevard, travel
Left to right, top to bottom- the interior of Pump; exterior of Pump; the Pumptini; Anna and I after dinner; the bar we got into.

We had an amazing dinner, ordered the least expensive options on the menu (grilled chicken caesar salads for both of us), had a pumptini (or three) that I let take a few Anna sips (don’t judge), and sat in the open-air restaurant, talking and holding hands.

It was the perfect way to cap off an amazing girls’ trip.

The vibe of the neighborhood this restaurant was in was infectious; we didn’t want to leave and in fact, stayed at the restaurant for nearly two hours without feeling rushed.

We spilled out of the restaurant and into the streets of Santa Monica Boulevard at 10 p.m. on a Thursday night (Friday eve in our neck of the woods) and partied a little on our last night in Los Angeles.

Boys Town is a primarily LGBTQ neighborhood, and describing the aura (California is rubbing off on me) is difficult to put into words, but the only phrase I can think of is acceptance.

And so much love.

As I walked down the street, two different gay men told me I was GORGEOUS HONEY. Honestly, that was the best compliment I have ever heard.

This mother of two, with bags under my eyes, cellulite on my thighs, and anxiety-like no other, I left LA feeling better about myself.

We went to a gay bar, danced with a group of fun men who never questioned our presence, met three guys with whom I am now friends on Instagram, and left hugging like we’d known each other forever.

This was my favorite trip I’d ever taken.

california, girls trip, budget, travel

I would travel to the ends of the earth, or at the very least to the opposite side of the United States, for my girls.

The entire trip was magical. Even on the plane, when she would simply lay her head on my shoulder, or on Santa Monica Pier, where instead of being embarrassed by her mother’s perimenopausal breakdown, she comforted me by putting her arm around me, sitting at Pump holding hands and talking about the experiences we had just made.

Oh sure, we could have built memories doing versions of the above in Illinois, but there is something about going on an adventure with your child, going places neither of us had been before, doing things we’d never done before, that elevates a connection to a new level.

I hope that someday, when Anna is older, she will remember our trip with fondness. Perhaps she will tell her children about the time their grandmother ran down Santa Monica Boulevard barefoot alongside their mother, laughing, hugging strangers, living in the moment.

I hope she won’t ever forget it.

I know I won’t.

17 thoughts on “California. On a Kari and Anna Budget”

  1. I’m so glad you had that quality time with your daughter and the fact she asked you to do it is a testament to your good parenting. A lot of kids her age are giving the “I’m too old for that” line when, in fact, they aren’t. But you have brought back many good memories for me. I spent my summers in LA by court mandate once my pops moved out there for work and it was far different then. I learned to drive traffic there (which was still awful even then, I can’t imagine it now), I was able to walk the Walk of Fame before people started scamming as faux superheroes and the strip was where the hair bands were hustling just before grunge killed it all. LOL And girl, OWN the “touristy” thing. I don’t know when it became a dirty word but somewhere in there locals in any town but especially places like LA and NYC started muttering “tourist” loud and judgy enough to make people feel self conscious for trying to be a part of what the city is known for or part of it’s rich history. Pssht, sip on your craft beer and shut it.

    I would much rather walk in the footsteps of the great John Ritter, take pics of the Hollywood sign and all of the history behind it including when it was falling apart and almost got torn down and seeing Gwen’s house (my future best friend) than hanging out somewhere someone deems “trendy.” Le barf. We have LA on our radar because the hubby’s never been there but we’re likely driving and making a month long adventure out of seeing movie locations since that’s our thang. Of course, we’ll drive the strip and see where our teen bands got their starts and we’ll do the touristy thing proudly because I’m never seeing those people again and hope to make as many wonderful memories as you did!


    1. It was SO cool and now I think you are cool that you spent summers in LA, even if they were court mandated. 🙂
      You’re totally right about the touristy thing although when I mentioned it, I meant it as a safety precaution lol.
      But being a tourist in a new city is soo good, and meeting new people is even better.
      I am missing California now and cannot wait to someday get back, AND I WILL GET BACK!


  2. Kari, this is beautiful. I’m glad you two did it! You are like my friend when it comes to travel. She takes care of the research, itinerary, plans while I stress.

    No humidity. Oh, I want some of that.


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