Go Card San Francisco

A Skeptic's Look at the Discount Attraction Card

Golden Gate Bay Cruise®
••• Golden Gate Bay Cruise is one of many attractions included with Go Card. Courtesy of Go Card

The claims seem too good to believe: "Save 55%!", "Over 45 attractions!" Does the Go San Francisco Card actually deliver? I wanted to know - and I'm guessing you do, too.

I clicked over to every single attraction they offer. I got out the calculator, and I used a magnifying glass to check all the fine print. The analysis is over, and I'm here to share what I found out.

How the Go San Francisco Card Works

Go Cards are sometimes called multi-attraction discount cards. The company works with popular San Francisco attractions to get discounts. They package them up in a card-based format and sell them to San Francisco visitors.

It's easy to use the Go Card. Just take your printed or mobile pass to the box office or ticket window at any included San Francisco attraction. That's it.

After you use the card the first time, you can use it for the number of days you chose when you bought it. Those days have to be consecutive. That means if you skip one, you don't get any money back - or an extension.

Unless an attraction offers a multi-day pass as part of the card, you can only visit each attraction once.

Go San Francisco Card Options

Only you can decide which kind of Go San Francisco card will save you the most money. These are the types of cards the offer. After you understand the options, keep reading to find out which one may be best for you.

The basic Go San Francisco card is good for a maximum number of days that you choose: 1, 2, 3, 5 or 7 days. Prices increase with the number of days. You pay a fixed price for the card and can get into all the covered attractions with it. It has the potential to save you the most and os a good choice for people who want to do a lot of the things the card covers.

The Go San Francisco Select card lets you pick just the things you want to do. It's a good way to be selective, prioritize and decide when you've spent enough. Savings (on a percentage basis) go up the more you select - and it's good for 30 days after the first time you use it.

Will the Go San Francisco Card Save You Money?

The short answer: Most likely. However, when they say "up to" a percentage, that's a maximum that most people are unlikely to manage.

The only way to know for sure: Be critical. Compare prices on the things you want to do and be realistic about how many days it will take you to do them. A quick way to get all the prices you need for that is to use the Go Select page, where they show current prices.

A quick answer that's correct most of the time: You'll save by using the Go San Francisco Card if you:

  • Buy a 3-day or 5-day card and do most of the more expensive activities (Academy of Sciences, bay cruise, city tour, cable car ride) OR visit about 3 to 4 of the less-expensive attractions per day.
  • Be realistic about how much you can do. According to the Go Card website: "people tend to visit fewer attractions each day than they expect." Because of San Francisco's small size compared to other California cities, it's easier to fit several activities into a day, but if you overestimate your endurance and do less than you thought, your expected savings could evaporate.
  • Group Go Card activities into the fewest days: If you move fast and eat lunch on the go, you could stuff all the Go Card activities in our list of Top Things to Do in San Francisco into three days and save about 25%. If you choose to do them in five days instead, your savings will be much more modest.
  • Choose the Go Select option. For all the Go Card activities on our Top Things to Do in San Francisco list, we estimate you would save about 20%. Go Select saves money, but also allows a more leisurely pace to see things because it's good for 30 days.

    If you're prone to losing things (or forgetting to take them on a trip), the Go Card may not be for you. They can't replace or give you a refund for a lost card.

    Inside Look at the Included Attractions

    In terms of its geographical size, San Francisco is California's smallest tourist city, and many of its most famous things to do are free. You could easily have a good time just walking around, seeing things and checking out a few attractions with lower entrance fees. In that case, you might not need the card at all.

    These are a few more things to think about when evaluating your purchase. A museum-hating, guided-tour-avoiding vacationer who isn't going to leave San Francisco is left with a little over a dozen attractions to choose from. Here's why:

    Some attractions offered may not interest you. A dozen attractions are museums, which may seem more like punishment than a pleasure to you. Another three or four are guided tours, also not on everyone's list of favorite activities. If the list of things you want to do on the card becomes too small, it could end up costing you more than paying for those few attractions individually. On the flip side, some people say the Go Card introduced them to enjoyable activities they might not have found on their own.

    And once you break even, you'll save on every little thing you do after that.

    Alcatraz is not included in the list of covered attractions. The National Park Service runs it, and no one gets discounts on admission. Go Card offers an Alcatraz option on their website, but it carries so many restrictions that it's probably easier to buy your Alcatraz tickets separately. Find out how to see Alcatraz here.

    Take a closer look at that long list: Some of the attractions are not in San Francisco. Instead, they're in Napa Valley, Sonoma, Santa Cruz or across the Bay in Berkeley and Oakland, places you may or may not plan to visit.

    Some attractions require reservations: After you buy the card, some activities and tours require reservations. Make sure you know if that's true for anything you want to do.

    How to Get a Go San Francisco Card

    Attraction ticket booths don't sell Go Cards, so you'll need to plan ahead. But not too far. Cards expire on December 31 of the year following their purchase, whether they were used or not. You can return unused cards for a full refund for a year after purchase, but it's easier to wait to buy until you're sure about your trip dates.

    When you're ready, you can buy the Go Card online.

    More Ways to Save Money

    A Go Card is only one way to save money in San Francisco. You'll find more multi-attraction passes in San Francisco than you will cable car lines. Before you buy a Go Card, you may also want to read my review of the San Francisco CityPASS and take a look at the  Pier 39 Pass and the Fisherman's Wharf Pass.

    You'll find more ideas for saving money in the guide to San Francisco on a Budget: 8 Things You May Not Know. The Guide to Find the Best Place to Stay also has some tips for keeping your lodging costs in check.