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. If you use all of them, you could cut your cost in half,

Go When Prices are Lowest

Hotel room rates are highest from August through October. If you go in December or January (avoiding the Christmas holiday week), rates will be 15 percent less.

The high season for airfares is from June through August. The cheapest month to fly to San Francisco is January.

For the best combination of low prices and good weather, plan your visit in the spring.

If you notice that every hotel in town is full and all the remaining rooms might cost a month's wages for a one-night stay, there's probably a big convention in the city. Check the convention calendar to find out more.

Find an Affordable Place to Stay

San Francisco hotel prices are among the highest in the U.S., according to Fodors.com. Expect to pay more than $200 a night at the best San Francisco hotels. To make matters worse, many of them pile on exorbitant parking and resort fees. You can pay less without staying in a dirty place with a surly staff. Here's how:

  • 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.
  • Always check the hotel website for parking fees and other added charges not included in their daily rate.
  • Use the map when you're comparing prices and look for places on Lombard and Geary Streets west of Market, or other areas on the west side of town. The Marina Motel and Geary Parkway Motel are reliable, clean, and well-rated options in those areas. But beware of seemingly low rates around Union Square where reviews often include words like “below basic,” “musty,” and “uncomfortable.” 

Renting a house, bungalow, or apartment through Airbnb can save you money while giving you a chance to experience San Francisco like a local. Keep an eye on the bottom line: Superhosts with near-perfect ratings may charge as little as $75 to $100 per night, but fees and taxes can increase the total bill significantly. Before you reserve, read reviews in detail, checking for information about parking and comments about the neighborhood. And keep an eye on the map to be sure you don't accidentally pick something that's miles away.

Lower Your Airfare

Many San Francisco visitors arrive by automobile, but you're thinking about flying, these are some things to know:

Business travelers tend to fly to San Francisco on Mondays and Fridays, making midweek a less expensive time to travel.

Oakland Airport (OAK), is almost as close to downtown San Francisco as SFO. Flights to Oakland are sometimes less expensive than to SFO, and Oakland has a better on-time arrival record.

Shop around for low fares using your favorite airfare comparison sites but also know 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. Also, keep in mind 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).

Do Fun Things for Free

Almost three-fourths of the 20 top things to do in San Francisco are absolutely free. That's more than any other city in California. You can also get into Golden Gate Park for free, but some of the attractions charge admission. And if you run out of things to keep you entertained, try this list of more things to do in San Francisco for free

You can also find free events to attend at FunCheapSF.

Get Discounts on Admission Fees

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.

For deep discounts on bay cruises, guided tours, and lots of entertainment and performances, see how we use Goldstar to save money.

The Tix ticket booth in Union Square offers same-day discounts to many kinds of performances.

Get Around Cheap

Forget about renting a car for your stay in San Francisco. It's a surprisingly small city (just seven miles across), and most of the tourist attractions are located in a much smaller area. Skipping the rental also helps you avoid hotel parking fees that can top $50 per night.

Explore other ways of getting around that include cable cars, trolleys, and other public transit. And call a ridesharing service if you must. If you want to go on a day trip, rent a car for just that one day, using a car rental company that has a city office (most of the major ones do).

A Muni Passport costs about the same as two cable car rides, and 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 the passport at these locations.

Eat in San Francisco for Less

If you want to try an expensive restaurant, but you're on a strict budget, lunch prices are often lower than dinner. Or get a cheap lunch and spend most of your meal budget for dinner.

San Francisco is known for its food and high-end, star-rated restaurants, but you can enjoy great meals without spending so much, too. Think about grazing your way through the Ferry Building Marketplace, look for an old-school Italian restaurant in North Beach, or go to the Mission District for Mexican fare.

The list of places to feast on casual eats changes quickly. To find the best currently available, search online for the best cheap food in San Francisco and make sure the list is new or current. Two excellent resources are Eater San Francisco and SFist.com.

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 An Early Bird Planner

You may not care whether being an early bird will help you catch the proverbial worm, but if you care about saving money on your San Francisco trip, don't wait until the last minute.

Airfares will be lower if you buy your tickets two weeks to a month ahead of time. Car rental rates also tend to be higher when reserved close to your travel date.

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