Traveling in San Francisco can be expensive…exceptionally expensive. In fact, WorldAtlas.com recently ranked the city No. 1 for most expensive places in the US to take a vacation. But you don’t have to let San Francisco’s high price reputation ruin your travel plans. There are plenty of smart ways to save when you’re aching for a little Northern California getaway.
Don’t Drive: Car rentals are pricy, gas is expensive and paying for parking will make a serious dent in your vacation budget. Simply opting out of driving can save you hundreds in a week’s vacation, plus you will avoid frustrating traffic jams and endless hunts for open parking spaces. Lucky for us, most of San Francisco is very walker friendly, and public transit is extremely reasonable. The BART will connect you to a few points in the city, but it’s best for transportation to and from the airports and in and out of the suburbs. Get acquainted with the Muni for hopping from point to point in the city. The SF CityPass gives visitors extremely valuable access to a 7-day Muni and Cable Car Passport.
Shop the markets: Like most cities, the highest priced restaurants are usually concentrated in the areas with the highest tourist traffic. While there are a number of cheap eats, like the cash-only Vietnamese hole in the wall Saigon Sandwich, the city also has a myriad of fresh farmers markets to choose from. Compile your own menu of fresh fruits, veggies, breads, cheeses and snacks for a fraction of what you could pay one of San Francisco’s finest chefs to put together for you. One blogger has compiled a very helpful list of all the markets in the city here.
Take a free walking tour: San Francisco City Guides offers free walking tours of nearly every neighborhood in San Francisco. Whether you’re looking to be educated on architecture, history, art or ghost stories, San Francisco City Guides has you covered. The tours are free, but donations are always appreciated. Group tours can be scheduled ahead of time for a small fee, and the Go San Francisco card can help with that too.
Visit museums on free days: Use your Go Card or San Francisco CityPass to walk through some of the city’s most prestigious museums. Stroll through the four-story rainforest or wander around the Steinhart Aquarium at the California Academy of Sciences. Or stretch your art appreciation muscles at the de Young Museum. After you’ve used up your museum discounts, check out this calendar of free museum admission days. Hint: most of these freebies are offered up at the beginning of each month.
Stay away from hotels: Hotels in the Bay Area can easily run in the $250-$350 range with high-end hotels blowing those numbers out of the water. Prices can also spike around peak times of year or near special events. If you take advantage of San Francisco’s hospitality, you can stay for much less. Rent a great room or apartment on Airbnb for well under $100 a night- many of them have loads of great reviews. There is also a very active couch surfing community in San Francisco that will offer up a bed or room for free. If you’re not into staying on someone else’s couch, at least check out their groups that meet up for social events around the city. It’s a great way to get insider tips from locals. Finally, European style hostels are spread out around the city, offering up prime location for between $20 and $50 per night.
Enjoy the outdoors: San Francisco is chock full of parks, scenic vistas, and rocky beaches. Explore the Japanese Tea Garden or play disc golf at Golden Gate Park. Climb to the top of Twin Peaks for one of the best views in the city. Search for sea lions on the beach or poke around an old Victorian bathhouse. People living here have figured out that life is better when you go outside, you should too.
Find a free festival: People look for excuses to gather in San Francisco. There is almost always a reason to clear a street for a parade or start a dance party. Costumes are often involved, people sometimes get weird, but it’s always a good time. Find a festival that celebrates something you love, Earth Day perhaps, or street art. Or pick a festival based on what it offers, like live Bluegrass music or hundreds of food trucks. Once you’ve arrived there will be plenty to spend your dollars on, but people watching is always free!
Invest in a San Francisco City Pass or Go San Francisco Card:
Hands down, the best way to experience major savings on your trip to San Francisco is to invest upfront in a San Francisco City Pass or Go San Francisco Card. These cards give you discounted access to some of the city’s biggest attractions. The City Pass highlights seven of the city’s most popular sites, while the Go Pass adds attractions out in wine country, plus restaurant and shopping savings. Compare the two cards here to see which one is better tailored to your vacation itinerary.