San Francisco is a fantastic destination for a City Break. A City filled with Iconic sights, sounds, landmarks, and locations. While it is not one of the most expensive locations in the states it is not particularly cheap either. Anyone looking for a real budget vacation may find San Francisco challenging. That is why we put together our guide to saving money in San Francisco.
We take a look at how to Visit San Francisco On A Budget and where you can save big and where not to. We look at where to stay, how to eat inexpensively while not missing out, and how to get around the City. We also take a look at what you can fill your days with for less, and how to save on San Francisco’s big-ticket items. So if you are planning on coming to the city and want to spend less on your stay, then take a look at our guide below.
Where to Stay in San Diego on a Budget?
San Diego is a very small city and this has the effect of making real estate, and hence hotel prices very expensive. However, some areas are cheaper than others.
The Marina District is the home of many cheap and cheerful motels and inns. These simple hotels are little more than places to lay your head and lack any frills or niceties but good ones will be clean comfortable and welcoming. Most offer free parking a real bonus in the City!
Try the Coventry Inn
$100-$130 a night
Our Favorite Motel up in the Marina District. The Coventry has all the bases covered and while feeling a touch dated it’s still very well maintained and spotlessly clean.
This lively district of San Francisco has a selection of decent yet cheap hotels. Prices here are far more competitive than down on the Fisherman’s Wharf despite most only being a few blocks away so you get most of the advantages of staying down by the waterfront without the expense.
$100-$130 a night
One of our favorite hotels we have visited in any City! While far from luxurious, the quirky little hotel leaves a lasting impression. From its evergreen hallways to its small but quaint rooms and boarding schoolesque shared bathrooms we love the San Remo. If you have a phobia of Shared Baths definitely avoid it!
We tend to book almost all of our hotel stays through booking.com. We find the Hotel Agrrigator is cheapest out the bunch most of the time, and almost always cheaper than booking direct. We also find the interface and booking system simple, easy to use and incredibly accurate. They now show the final price including all taxes and fees so comparing hotels is easy.
However, most of all we like the Free Cancelation. Our plans change ALOT and having the ability to cancel without charge right up until a few days out is priceless. We can also be sure of getting the best price! As cancelation is free. If you do find a better price you can simply cancel and book at the lower rate. EVEN if you find the cheaper price on Booking.com, you can still cancel the original booking and book again at the lowe price. We have done this many times and saved $100’s of dollars on our hotel bookings.
San Francisco boasts one of the best Public Transport systems in the world. It is extensive, efficient, Easy, and cheap. On top of this, the City is really quite small and most places can simply be walked to. It really is one of the few Cities where the top mode of transport is walking (although in most cities you will spend a huge amount of time walking).
While Most places can simply be walked to that is not the case all the time so you will need to utilize transport at one time or another. The cheapest option is the MUNI System. A day pass can be bought for as little as $4 using the MUNIMoblie App and even with unlimited Cable Car rides it is only $13 for a 1-day passport.
This is great value and not only gets you to anywhere in the City but also access to one of the most fun attractions in the City, the Cable Cars!
For the cheapest way to get to and from the airport check out our airport transport guide
San Francisco is a very small city and as such real estate is very expensive, so any land set aside for parking is always going to be expensive! On the whole, we don’t really recommend hiring a car in the City, only if you are heading out of the City. So parking is not a huge issue, but if you are driving in or need a car for later in your vacation Parking can be a BIG cost. Street parking is complicated and risky, Painted curbs are restricted however even if you find an unpainted curb you will still be limited and cannot leave your car there indefinitely due to street cleaning.
Even if you are driving in, leaving your car in a Parking lot and getting around by the MUNI will still probably cost less than constantly moving your car! Most Hotels offer Parking at an extortionate cost but at least that will be a flat day rate, whereas Parking Garages are a per-visit cost and this really adds up if you constantly move the car.
The Hotels and Motor Inns up in the Marina District mostly offer free parking and combined with the low rates and excellent location, with easy access to the MUNI these make a great choice for anyone looking to save costs on Parking.
Things to do for FREE or Cheap
San Francisco has a ton of fun and iconic things to do that cost relatively little or nothing at all. In fact, there are so many Free Things To Do In San Francisco, we created a whole article about them! but here are just a few:
Golden Gate Bridge
Naturally, the Star of the show is the stunning Golden Gate Bridge. One of the world’s most beautiful bridges and the most photographed bridge in the world, a visit to the bridge is a must for any San Francisco Trip. Whether you just want to see the bridge, walk across it, Drive it or just get that perfect Insta-Photo. We have a full guide to the Golden Gate Bridge Here
Fishermans Wharf is the Cities Tourist hotspot, views out over the bay of Alcatraz Island and the Golden Gate, Iconic food Stands and Reatraunts, Historic ships and locations, and the incredible Pier 39 and its indigenous Sealion population.
The Heart of the City and the entertainment district, filled with Shops, Restaurants, Theatres, and Boutiques. The central square is an open space where people can relax and take in the city. While Union Square is a must-see it is also a transient point of the City and most people end up here at one time or another simply while getting around the Cty.
The Largest Chinatown outside of Asia and a bustling, thriving center of activity, a few hours should be spent just exploring the weird and wonderful shops and a visit to San San Francisco is not complete without grabbing some Chinese Food! While some restaurants a fairly pricey there are loads of cheap eats in the Enclave where you can get lunch for a few Dollars!
San Francisco Hills
The unique geography of San Francisco, with the City Being built on 7 major hills, 44 in total, makes for some really beautiful and unique city vistas. One of the most enjoyable things to do in the City is simply exploring these hills and taking in the views. Nob Hill, Russian Hill, The Coit Tower on Telegraph hill, all make for great places to hike up and explore. The stunning views, the staggeringly steep streets, and the cable cars clambering their way to the tops make for a unique and unmissable way to see the City.
Don’t Miss Lombard Street on Russian hill with its quirky switchbacks and beautiful Gardens.
Riding the Trams
A ride on the Cable cars is only $8 a trip or $13 (Using MUNIMobile or Clipper) for a full day’s transport on the MUNI system including unlimited Cable Car Rides. Making riding the trams a completely unmissable experience, whatever your budget! Read more about the Cables Cars of San Francisco here.
While there is so much to see and do in the City for very little, certain attractions carry more significant entry fees. These are still worth checking out and if you just visit a few attractions and supplement your trip with the low cost of free attractions, you can see the majority of what San Francisco Offers for very little outlay.
You could take a Bay Cruise and see the City, Bridge, and Alcatraz from the water or head out to a tour of the old prison, there are a huge array of Museums, Aquariums, and the San Francisco Zoo to explore. There are also a number of top Themparks in the surrounding area such as Six Flags Discovery Kingdon or California’s Great America.
You also might want to check out some of the more touristy options such as madame Tuasuds or the San Francisco Dungeon. Maybe even a Hop On Hop Off Bus tour that takes in most of the Cities top locations.
While the paid attractions are great they do not really belong on a Money Saving Page, however, we have several ways you can visit these and save money while doing it!
The best way to save money on Paid attractions, if you are planning on visiting several, is with an Attractions pass. These passes allow you to visit a number of attractions all for a set price usually far lower than the combined entry price of the attractions. There are several available for San Francisco and we have in-depth reviews:
San Francisco CityPASS – $94 – 6 Top attractions
Go San Francisco – All-Inclusive – $78-$184 – 1-5 Days unlimited attractions out of 25+
Go San Francisco Explorer Pass – $72 – $110 – 3-5 attractions from a choice of 25+
San Francisco Sightseeing Pass – $64 – $169 – Flexi option with limited attractions
That is a lot of choices and we break it down for you, so you can find the best pass for your trip in Our San Francisco Pass Comparison.
Group-On is another place you can find some discounts on certain attractions in the City such as Cruises and Tourist attractions such as Ripleys believe it or not or the San Francisco Dungeon. On the whole, the savings are not as good as using a Pass but if you are only looking for one or two attractions it can be a good choice to save a few $$
Cheap Eats and Happy Hours
San Francisco is a Foodies Delight, our favorite food destination in California. There are 7 restaurants holding the coveted 3-Michelin Stars and a myriad of other exceptional fine dining establishments. However, We are talking about restaurants that charge $80 to open a bottle of wine you bought from them so those on a budget will find little to rejoice here.
However, San Francisco’s high-end dining grew out of the area’s incredible local cuisine. Huge amounts of immigration built the city and this melting pot has created a range of fantastic cuisines and dishes synonymous with the area and usually available as street eats at low prices. On top of this, the usual suspects of cheap eats in America are noticeably absent. Mc Donalds and other fast food outlets have a much-reduced presence in the city compared to other locations in the country.
The City’s most famous dish is simply a hearty soup severed best in a large hollowed-out sourdough bread bowl down by the seafront at Fishermans Wharf. You can pick one up for under $10 and it will satisfy even the heartiest appetites with bread left over to feed the Giant Seagulls.
Chinese food is huge in San Francisco and heading into Chinatown you can grab some great value a seriously delicious food. The Hong Kong clay pot on Grant Avenue offers great meals at bargain prices. The Narrow stairs lead above the shops where you will have more food than you can possibly eat for well under $30 for two people! Try the spicy Jellyfish or Soy Sauce Ducktonges if you are brave! Fortunately, the menu has some more western friendly dishes too.
Dim Sum is a Chinatown specialty and you can easily find a great-tasting lunchtime meal for only a few dollars if you hunt around. The Good Mong Kok Bakery offers great Dim Sum for a few Dollars a portion.
The San Franciscan is an industrious type and budding restaurateurs who can’t run to affording the rent on a property have long taken to running their food business from food trucks. You will find these touring the City offering a huge array of different cuisines. Their prices are always competitive as they pass their savings on to you. However, Quality is sky-high as these passionate innovators try to make their mark!
The food truck scene in San Fran is so big they have even started ganging up on the restaurants, check out SOMA Streat Food Park or SPARK Social SF for a collection of food trucks all in one spot or see where the Off the Grid events are when you are in town! Or just keep your eyes peeled. Any food truck parked up with a giant queue will be a great sign
Happy Hours are a fantastic way to get great food and drinks at higher-end restaurants at prices that are a bit more down-to-earth. We always make full use of Happy Hours and dine when others may not be to sample as much of the City as possible without running up huge food bills.
Group-On always has some great offers on Local Eats and you can get some great discounts on meals and food experiences. Wine, Beer, and Whiskey Tastings are particularly discounted via Group-On
When to Stay in San Francisco?
San Francisco is quite a small city and hotel occupancy rates can be quite high during the summer months which naturally pushed up prices. During the winter visitor numbers drop and prices follow suit, however, winter is not the most pleasant time to visit the city, it can get quite cold and rain and drizzle are frequent. However, it is rarely bitterly cold and the draw of low crowds and low prices can make winter tempting.
Things slowly warm up in the spring but as May/June arrive so do the crowds and also the May Gray and June Gloom, Prices soar yet the weather is only marginally better, although the rain all but vanishes for the summer. Through July and August, the temps soar and so do the crowds and Prices.
Through September and October, the crowds diminish and the prices lower however the Summer weather can run right through October and even November is mostly warm and dry. This makes autumn the sweet spot, not only for budgeting but just enjoying the city in general. It is our favorite time of year and the cheapest!
Naturally from a budgeting point of view, you will want to avoid holidays. Also, add the Lunar Festivals of New Year and August Moon the city can get rammed and prices soar!
Have Your Say
Let us know your San Francisco Money Saving tips and tricks? Have you got a favorite Bargain Restaurant? a super happy hour to recommend or a fantastic activity that is inexpensive? Just let us know below and we can share it with our readers. If you have any questions about money-saving in the City Again just fire away in the comments, we would love to hear from you.