Sure, it costs nothing except the gas to drive stunning Highway 1 between San Simeon and Carmel, but hold on to your wallet if you want to stay in Big Sur. Accommodations aren’t plentiful — and they can be pricey. Post Ranch Inn, for instance, can set you back $800 for a double. Want to make the Big Sur romance last without cashing out the college fund or the 401(k)? Here are a few economical approaches:
Commute from Monterey: There are budget motel options aplenty in Monterey, especially on Munras Avenue, including the Comfort Inn Monterey by the Sea (bit.ly/1ohDIpW), the Quality Inn Munras Avenue (bit.ly/1i70zyM) and Americas Best Value Presidents Inn (bit.ly/1hCux3g). Rates for doubles are usually about $100. It’s just 30 to 45 minutes to Big Sur, and the drive alone will blow you away.
Get cozy. My favorite room in Big Sur — bar none — is the $90 Petite Cuisine at historic Deetjen’s Big Sur Inn (www.deetjens.com). It’s the size of a walk-in closet, shares a bath and has just one single bed, but it oozes pioneer-era charm, boasts a 100% linen duvet and is tucked next door to Deetjen’s candlelighted restaurant. Traveling with a friend? Try the Van Gogh or the Little Room, two share-bath doubles in the same building for $105 each. But book early; I’m not the only one who knows how heavenly this place is.
Pitch a tent. You can do so in one of Big Sur’s glorious state parks or U.S. Forest Service campgrounds. I’m partial to Bottchers Gap on a 2,100-foot ridge overlooking the Ventana Wilderness backcountry (12 sites, $15 a night, first come, first served; www.campone.com).
Take a step up from a tent. Who me, camp, you say? Camping Big Sur doesn’t necessarily mean going without clean sheets and hot water. Fernwood Resort has luxury adventure tents with queen beds and linen in the redwoods ($120 a night, bit.ly/1jXnPPD); similar high-end camping cabins with wood walls and Plexiglas roofs are available at Big Sur Campgrounds & Cabins ($120-$165, www.bigsurcamp.com/tent-cabins.html). At family-run Treebones Resort, on the southern side of Big Sur, you can stay in a round canvas tent with a wood platform floor and an ocean view; you’ll need to bring your own bedding ($130 with breakfast, www.treebonesresort.com/campsites).
Rent a cottage and live like a local. Rates for houses and rustic cabins from VRBO (bit.ly/Sp5u7L) vary, and a two-night minimum is often required. Some properties are easily accessible from Highway 1; others are tucked along dirt roads in the back of beyond, such as the dreamy eco-style cabins at Country Flat Farm, built of recycled materials and solar-powered ($185-$205, www.countryflatfarm.com/rental-cottages).
Fun for less money. Once you have a roof over your head, you can start having Big Sur-style fun, which doesn’t have to be expensive. Hikes up to Soberanes Point, to the beach at Andrew Molera or through the giant redwoods at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park will set you back only $10 for day use and parking (www.parks.ca.gov). Have a beer while sitting in an Adirondack chair with your feet in the water at the Big Sur River Inn & Restaurant (for just the price of the brew, www.bigsurriverinn.com); take a tour ($12-$20) of the crag-top Point Sur Lightstation (www.bigsurcalifornia.org/pointsur.html); or stay up late for bathing under the stars at the Esalen Hot Springs ($25, 1-3 a.m., reservations required;  667-3047, bit.ly/1kFjKo6).