San Francisco on a Budget: Money-Saving Tips

7 Ways to Save on a San Francisco Vacation

San Francisco city tram climbs up Hyde Street with Alcatraz beyond, San Francisco, California, United States of America, North America
Garry Ridsdale / Getty Images

You may leave your heart in San Francisco, but you don't have to leave your life savings, too. These tips can help you visit San Francisco, have fun and keep your spending in check.

Finding San Francisco Hotels on a Budget

San Francisco hotel prices are on the rise. But that doesn't mean you have to go for the lowest list price or stay in a dirty place with surly staff just to keep lodging costs under control.

This San Francisco Hotel Guide will help you find the best hotels and learn how to get them for the best possible rates.

Even better: Use a few simple tricks to find a place to stay in San Francisco, never pay as much as the "average" cost - and always stay in pleasant places with no hidden parking charges. Use the simple guide to finding the best hotel rates in San Francisco to find out how to get yourself a nice room for the same price as a "cheap" one.

Golden Gate Bridge Over San Francisco Bay Against Cloudy Sky
Marni Moore / EyeEm / Getty Images

Sightseeing Deals

  • Free Stuff: You can't get much cheaper than this. Some of the things you can see for free ​itop attractions like Chinatown, Fisherman's Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge and Golden Gate Park (some of the park's attractions charge admission, but getting into the park is free). Try our list of 9 things to do in San Francisco for free
  • Multi-Attraction Passes: San Francisco CityPASS includes a seven-day Muni Pass good for unlimited rides on the cable car, historic trolley and other public transport, along with admission to various attractions and a San Francisco Bay Cruise. The Go San Francisco Card also includes several attractions and offers more options.
  • Great Discounts in San Francisco - and at Home: For deep discounts on bay cruises, guided tours and lots of entertainment and performances, see how we use Goldstar to save money.
  • Cheap Tix: The half price ticket booth in Union Square offers same-day discounts to many kinds of performances.

Car Rental

San Francisco has a big reputation, but it's a surprisingly small city (49 square miles) and most of the tourist attractions are located in about one-third of that. Parking is hard to find and city traffic can ruin the best of moods. To make matters worse, most of the centrally located hotels charge $40 or more per day for parking, a rate that might be higher than your rental cost and a definite budget-buster.

Explore other ways of getting around instead. If you want to go out of the city for a day, rent a car for just that one day, using a car rental company that has a city office (most of the major ones do).

Buy a Muni Passport

Many folks don't think about transportation costs when planning to visit San Francisco on a budget, but they can add up. Every ride on the cable car alone will set you back $5 per person. A Muni Passport costs about the same as two cable car rides, but it's also good for unlimited travel on the cable cars, historic streetcars and buses. Some of the discount admission cards mentioned above include it, or you can buy them at these locations.

Eating in San Francisco

If you want to try an expensive restaurant, but you're on a strict budget, lunch prices are often lower than dinner. Or try one of my favorite strategies: get a really cheap lunch and spend most of your meal budget for dinner. Every January and June, many of San Francisco's top restaurants participate in San Francisco Restaurant Week, offering special, fixed price meals for discounted prices.

Be Smart About Getting to Downtown from SFO

The best way to go depends on where you're headed in the city and how many people are in your group. To find out all the options check the guide to getting to San Francisco.

Little-Known About Airfare

An admonition to shop around for airfare is trite - but true.

What you may not know is that Southwest Airlines and Jet Blue don't participate in any of the fare-comparison sites. Check their prices separately by going directly to their websites.

You may have read that Google Flights promises to find the lowest fares, and they’ll even tell you when to buy to get the best deal. Here’s the dirty little secret: they don't check Southwest Airlines. I made a random check on a round trip flight from San Jose to Burbank, about a month in advance, traveling from Sunday through Thursday. The best Google Flights fare was $350, which included a stop in Phoenix or Portland and took five hours or more — for a trip you could drive in that amount of time.

Going direct to Southwest’s website, The lowest fare was $158, with a travel time of an hour. What to do is already a no-brainer decision, but add to that the fact that your first checked bag flies free on Southwest. And in case your plans change, Southwest doesn’t charge change fees (although the base fare may go up).

For even more bargain-shopping, try the Oakland Airport (OAK), which is almost as close to downtown San Francisco as SFO - and it has a better on-time arrival record.

Buy your airline ticket to San Francisco at least a month in advance to get a lower price. The cheapest month to fly to San Francisco is October (which is coincidentally one of the nicest months to be there, weather-wise). The most expensive is July. 

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