It's hard to believe that there was a time when a trip to Napa didn't include a stop first at the ATM.  Twenty years or so ago you could drive up and down Highway 29 and sample wines for free.  Today you'd better have a fistfull of dollars before hitting the road.  From hotels to restaurants to winery tours, Napa is expensive!  But with a little pre-planning and a few compromises, there are ways to make a trip to Napa a little less frightening to your wallet. 

Where is the FREE wine?

Sadly most of the freebies are gone in Napa but do a bit of homework and you'll find deals and offers on the internet.  The bulk of the deals are at these sites:

 Visit Napa in off-season

The cheapest times to visit Napa are Winter and Spring.  From October to May you'll find plenty of hotel bargains with many dropping their rates by over half.  A hotel you couldn't touch during Summer in popular Yountville  becomes almost affordable, and downtown Napa gets downright cheap.  But don't worry that coming off season means missing the good stuff.  Sure, you won't see grapes on the vines and you won't see wineries crushing grapes, but who can argue with fields of bright yellow mustard plants blanketing the hillsides and more manageable crowds at the wineries?  November through February is the rainy season, so plan accordingly. But really, cozying to a fireplace on a chilly Napa evening doesn't sound that bad, does it? And guess what?  You can actually afford a room with a fireplace if you come during off season!

If You Visit Napa in Summer

From June to October, Napa offers a produce stand in south Napa.  It is D&S Produce, located on the corner of Stanly Lane and hwy 121/12.  They are inexpensive with delicious, fresh produce, better than a farmers market.  Stanly Lane Olive Mill, also on the property a store that offers speciality coffees, olive oil tasting bar (no cost), deli sandwiches and a picnic area.    October there is a big pumpkin patch that is free to enter, with tons of exotic pumpkins, Stanly Lane Pumpkin Patch. 

 Napa has some very nice thrift shops, Community Projects, which is located in downtown Napa, Goodwill on Imola.

Alston Dog park, huge off leash area, leashed area & fenced areas for dogs to play.  It is great for hiking even without your doggie!  It is located off Dry Creek Road, Napa, in the rolling beautiful hills. They have kid pools for the dogs to cool off in aswell.  This is an outstanding park & at NO COST! 

Napa River, Kennedy Park, launch your boat for free!  Then float your way to the San Francisco area.

Chefs Market on Thursday Nights, NO COST, with bands and crafts a street full of venders. 

Stay in Downtown Napa

If you have the bucks, Yountville is the place.  But for budget Napa travelers, head a bit further south to downtown Napa for more reasonable rates.  In the past, downtown wasn't the place to be but that has all changed.  It's now hipper, trendier, and has a cool small town feel to it with its historic buildings and tree lined streets.  Here's a guide with lots of hotel photos, but the top picks for downtown are:

  • Napa River Inn at the Historic Napa Mill:  A fun and fresh downtown hotel within walking distance to everything and has it's own walk along the river through downtown.  This hotel is part of a large complex that features great restaurants, wonderful day spa, shopping, artwork and features its own jazz club!   They have music four nights a week in this swanky club and the prices are really reasonable.  Breakfast is included and delivered to your room at no charge.  You may pay a little more money, but it's worth it.
  • River Terrace Inn:   A large hotel that manages to retain a small boutique feel.  Excellent complimentary breakfast, upscale rooms with flat screen TV's and trendy furnishings.  BEST BUY
  • Napa Inn: A bed and breakfast inn famous for it's scrumptious homemade breakfasts. 
  • Best Western Elm House:  Not to be confused with other Best Westerns in the area, this one has the look and feel of a small boutique hotel.
  • Embassy Suites:  Probably the nicest Embassy Suites you'll find.  This one feels like a real resort with the pond, large lobby, and excellent pool.  And like all Embassy Suites, free breakfast.

Cheap Eats in Napa

Napa is known for its restaurants nearly as well as its wines.  With famous chefs like Thomas Keller (The French Laundry, Bouchon, Ad Hoc) and Cindy Pawlcyn (Mustards Grill, Cindy's Backstreet Kitchen) and others calling Napa home, it's no wonder.  You might think with all of these gourmet restaurants that the average guy with a below average budget doesn't have a chance and will be relegated to Burger King or KFC, but you can find cheap food in Napa - if you look hard enough!  Here's the best of the cheap eats.

  • Gott's Roadside (formerly Taylor's Refresher):   Even people NOT on a budget eat here, so you know it's good.  Now with two locations, the original in St. Helena and the new location in downtown.  If you're on a budget, sorry, no ahi burger for you ($13.00) but you'll stop feeling sorry for yourself the second you bite into a juicy cheeseburger cooked to perfection, still with a bit of pink in the middle ($6.99).  Killer fries and shakes, and even wine and beer. 
  • Clemente's:   Lots of history in this little place.  The locals used to be able to get Clemente's delicious Malfatti (a Napa original!) from the back door at the Depot.  Now he has a little kiosk at Val's Liquor on 3rd Street . Italian Take Out - who'd a-thought!  Lunch or dinner for two for around $10! (Malfatti or ravioli is $4.50 a dozen with meat sauce) But you'll want to buy a bottle of wine while you're there!
  • Rutherford Grill:  Not exactly budget, but not too expensive either.  No corkage fee here either so you can try out that nice bottle of cab you've been saving with a top notch burger.  The cheese enchilada and steak is awesome, and you can't miss with the grilled artichoke appetizer. To really stretch the dollar, split an appetizer, split an entree, share a bottle of your own wine and you got yourself a budget busting dining experience.  OK, it might not be enough food for big eaters, but do you really need the calories anyway?  
  • Oxbow Public Market: - Its s sister market to Ferry Building Market in San Francisco.  You will find tons of choice to satify your apetite from various budget options.  Its an all in one stop. 
  • Addendum: Wow, Thomas Keller's fried chicken is legendary but you used to have to wait for it to show up on the menu at Ad Hoc.  Now you can get it at Addendum, his food shack behind the restaurant in Yountville.  Sit at picnic tables and enjoy a pleasant ambiance with great cheap eats.
  • Redd Wood: Not just another gourmet pizza restaurant, Redd Wood does Napa right with its chef driven menu, high quality, and fair prices. From pastas to steaks, the food quality is as good as it gets but the prices are down to earth.
  • Bounty Hunter:  Beer.  Can.  Chicken.  Do you need to know anything else?  Fantastic food, casual BBQ, terrific wine list.  Downtown.

The Search for the Perfect Tour

Visiting Napa Valley is more than running from winery to winery to sample wines.  Slow down a bit and take a tour to see how wines are made.  Tours are not only fun but they're a great way to get to know a bit more about the history of Napa and the winery, plus you get a bit of special attention at the end when you taste.  The days when every winery seemed to have some sort of free tour are over but there are some bargain tous worth checking out.

  • Mondavi:  First timers will love the basic tour, no reservations required and priced around the $25 range.  A good introduction to wineries and wine making.
  • Frog's Leap:  Limited to only 2 tours per day, their once free tour is not included with their wine tasting fee. But tours fill up fast so book way ahead.
  • Bell Cellars:  Their Grape to Glass tour is one of the best and a bargain at around $50 per person.  See the vineyards and production area then taste inside the winery next to the barrels. 
  • Dutch Henry:  Taste in a cave? Most wineries charge a hefty premium for this but check out Dutch Henry who often runs specials where cave tastings are included.

More Money Saving Napa Tips

  • Like their Wine?  Join their Wine Club as they will most likely comp you the tasting
  • Visit Wineries that comp you a tasting if you buy a bottle.  It might seem expensive to buy a $60 botle to save on tasting fees but if they charge $25 per person like most do then why not add a few bucks and get a bottle - and then open it at a restaurant with no corkage fee such as Rutherford Grill.
  • Do a picnic to save on lunch:  You will LOVE a Napa picnic and it's are a great way to stretch your budget without sacrificing experience.  Not every winery allows picnics so plan ahead.  A complete list of the wineries that allow picnics (with photos) is right here.