How To Plan A Cheap San Francisco Trip

 

My recent vacation to San Francisco with my cousin was incredible! 

Of course, I never feel like I get enough time in any city I visit but an affordable weekend in San Francisco was far better than nothing.

And we got to do so many fun things without spending too much.

We went to Alcatraz, visited the Palace of Fine Arts, rode bikes across Golden Gate Bridge, had dinner and explored Chinatown, and visited the Japanese Tea Garden at Golden Gate Park.

With a lot of careful planning, we were able to do all this in two days for just over $400 each including hotel. And that could have been even less if we didn't spend so much on dinners! 

I got lucky and found us cheap flights for $76. So, we were able to make this trip happen for exactly $483.50. 

We had the advantage of short, round-trip flights from Salt Lake City. But that doesn't mean you can't have a great, low cost trip to SF as well.


AVERAGE DAILY COST FOR A VACATION IN SAN FRANCISCO

The average San Francisco vacation costs $286 - $452 per day.

We spent - $203.75 per day and this included the cost of our hotel.


HERE'S THE BREAKDOWN OF MY EXPENSES

Uber from the airport: $30
• Hotel: $135
• Groceries: $10.50
• Alcatraz: $54
• Bus rides around town: $15
• Dinner at House of Nanking: $52
• Bike rental and ferry ticket: $51.41
• Sorbet at Lappert's Ice Cream: $5.95
• Dinner at Han Il Kwan: $46
• Japanese Tea Garden: Free
• Uber to Airport: $18

Grand Total: $407.50  



HOW TO SAVE ON ACCOMMODATION 

We didn't do this, but if you want the absolute cheapest, you can stay in a hostel. Green Tortoise is one of the best rated hostels in the city and costs $42 a night per person for a shared room.

My cousin and I were able to split the cost of a comfortable and private motel room for $67.50 a night per person. 

If you take this route, you'll have to read tons of reviews and dedicate some time to find decent lodging for an affordable price, but it's worth it. 

We stayed at Lombard Plaza Motel in the Marina District for $130 per night. Upon arrival, they charged us a $10 junk fee which was super annoying. 

As of July 2024, junk fees are illegal in the state of California. Don't let any company tack on hidden fees after booking!

Anyway, I chose Lombard Plaza because reviews said it was clean and it was one of the best prices I could I find. The bed was comfortable too and totally worth what we paid for. 

Another up-side to a motel vs a hostel is having a private mini fridge since there is no gaurantee you'll find enough space in the shared refrigerator at a hostel. This helped us save on food, which I will talk about next. 

Also, this motel location was convenient because the bicycle place we rented from was just a three minute walk from us. 

The only downside was that we had a room close to a busy road. If you choose Lombard Plaza, see if you can book a room farthest from the street on the top floor. Maybe call them before booking online. And be sure to do it at least four weeks in advance before all the rooms are full. 



HOW TO SAVE ON FOOD 

Our total cost of food was $114.45. 

We spent an average of $67 for food each day, but we could have eaten well for a lot less. 

We only ate out twice and really splurged on those two meals at $50 for each dinner. 

If you're smart about it, you could get away with spending a little less on food than we did. 

Here is exactly what we did for food:

First, I brought some things I already had at home: a small bag of granola, a couple apples, a few mandarin oranges, some Garden Salsa Sunchips, 3 or 4 snack cheeses, three Fit Crunch protetin bars, and a PB&J sandwich. 

I used these for lunch on the first day and for snacks over the weekend. 

After checking into our motel, we walked to a Safeway grocery store about 10 minutes away to get some refrigerated foods. 

The two of us split the cost of half a gallon of milk, a bag of rolls, lunch meat, and sliced cheese. This cost each of us $10.50.

The milk went with the granola for breakfast. And we made sandwiches for lunch on Sunday which we ate in Sausalito, and Monday while waiting for our flight in the airport. 

We carried our sandwiches and snacks in the large pannier bags on our rental bikes on Sunday. While in Sausalito, we each got a cup of this delicious rainbow sorbet at Lappert's for $5.95. Mango, coconut, and raspberry sorbet. It was soooo good!

Our two splurge meals cost $50 a person. 

On the first night, we went to House of Nanking in Chinatown which was incredible. 

I read somewhere that you can tell the waiter it's your first time and they will choose food for you!

I had never done this before and it was fun to be surprised. Everything was delicious, though it was more expensive than if we had ordered ourselves. 

Dinner on day two was at Han Il Kwan which is considered on of the best authentic Korean restaurants in San Francisco. 

It's expensive but worth it, and it was fun to treat my cousin to Korean barbecue with everything included: panjan (side dishes), soup, and a hot pot of barley tea along with our meat. My only disappointment was the lack of sesame leaves which go perfectly with Korean BBQ lettuce wraps. 

The one-restaurant-meal-per-day plan worked great for us. But you could eat out the entire vacation if you always eat cheap. 

Our average per meal was $16.35 which you can easily do while eating out for every meal.

Below are some affordable places to eat with high ratings. They're in order (roughly) from cheapest to most expensive or... least cheap as none of these restaurants are pricey. 

Golden Boy Pizza: get a slice for $3.75 or less! 
Yamo: noodles, curries, and salads for less than $10
Nick's Crispy Tacos: get 2 tacos for $6
The Bird: for chicken sandwiches, salads, and wings

And for a treat: Hot Cookie which is open until 11 PM

Any of these options will cost $20 or less for one meal. 


HOW TO SAVE ON TRANSPORATION

There are several reasons why you won't want to rent a car. Parking alone often costs the same as a short Uber ride in the city. And rental car break-ins are increasingly common in SF.  

Instead, take a BART bus from the airport and Muni buses around the city. Be sure to download these apps before your trip. And get a $5 dollar Muni day pass or you'll pay $2.5-$3 per bus ride. 

Taking BART from the airport is cheaper than Uber, but it can take up a lot of your time depending on the time of day and where your place of lodging is located. 

For us, taking BART to our motel on a Saturday afternoon would have taken three times as long as an Uber at more than half the price. When split between us, we paid $30 for an Uber instead of $18 to take the bus and got there much quicker. 

We felt a faster, though more costly, ride to and from the airport was worthwhile since our trip was already so short. If you have more time to see the city, using BART will likely be best for you. 


HOW TO SAVE ON ENTERTAINMENT

Japanese Tea Garden 

You can get free admission every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday when you arrive between 9:00 and 10:00 AM, and stay as long as you like. Otherwise you'll pay $18 for each adult ticket. 

We came here on our last morning in SF and the garden is truly stunning. 

Snacks and tea are sold here, but we brought our own and found a quiet, shaded bench to relax for a bit.

I loved it here. Don't miss out on this beautiful gem. 


Consider Angel Island instead of Alcatraz

Alcatraz was very cool! And expensive. Though, most of the $54 goes to the cost of the ferry to and from the island. 

If you do go to Alcatraz, schedule your tour at least two weeks before because tickets sell out fast. And there is only one company that sells tickets to Alcatraz.

Honestly, I was slightly more interested in Angel Island than Alcatraz. I guess I like the idea of paying homage to the immigrants who built this country rather than people who exploited it. However, I was very excited to visit both islands, we just didn't have the time. 

Ultimately, we chose Alcatraz over Angel Island because the ferry that goes to and from the island doesn't make very many trips in a day. The timing of our flights meant we wouldn't have time to explore before we would need to catch the last ferry. 

The total cost of a visit to Angel Island is between $31-$38 depending on what you want to do. 

It's $15.50 for each ferry ride and you'll have to buy your return trip ticket at the pier since they are not sold on the island. 

Entrance to the museum is just $5 with an extra $2 if you want a guided tour. 

The island is supposed to be perfect for hiking and I imagine it would be a lovely place for a picnic if you get lucky with the weather. 


Forego an E-bike for Golden Gate Bridge

Electric bikes make it easier to get up the hills to the bridge but they rent at $90 and up. If you really want to cycle across the bridge, opt for a city hybrid bike and take your time. 




FREE THINGS TO DO IN SAN FRANCISCO 

1. Free Chocolate Samples at Ghiradelli Chocolate Experience - This is more of a short stop than a planned experience but, hey, if you're in the area. 

2. Japanese Tea Garden - free Entrance Mon, Wed, Fri before 10 AM

3. Walk Down Lombard Street - It's said to be the crookedest street in the world. Somehow I doubt it. 

4. Stroll through the Palace of Fine Arts

5. Explore Golden Gate Park (or ride a bike for $8 an hour)
 
6. Window shop and explore in Chinatown 

7. Walk Golden Gate Bridge - Take Muni 28 bus to the parking lot. The 1.7 mile bridge can be crossed in 35 mins and 1-1.5 hours round trip. 

8. Tour Fort Point - right under the bridge passed Crissy Field. You can go up to the roof and get a unique view of the bridge! 

9. See the Painted Ladies at Alamo Park - Fun fact: I've never seen even a clip of Full House

10. Visit San Francisco Cable Car Museum

11. Checkout Grace Cathedral on California Street

12. Walk up the Hidden Garden Steps on 16th Avenue

13. Hike up to the Land's End lookout for a great view of the bridge


WHAT TO AVOID 

Don't stay in Tenderloin District

You may find cheap motels or Airbnb in this neighborhood, but there's a high crime rate here. This is not where you want to rent a place to stay.

Don't get a rental car

In recent years it's become common for people to break rental car windows even when there is nothing of value inside. Also, you'll have to pay for parking at your hotel, and finding parking around town is a huge waste of time. Once you're in the city, it's easy to get around by bus. Buy a $5 Muni day pass.

Don't ride the cable car

It's only $8 for a single ride, but almost everything I have read about the cable car said that it's overcrowded and not a fun way to see the city. And if you do get a seat, you won't be able to see the city passed all your fellow passengers.  

Don't rent a bike at or near Fisherman's Wharf 

Get a bike at Sports Basement Presidio or Golden Gate Bridge Bike Rental instead. These bikes are slightly cheaper and closer to the bridge.

Don't shop or eat at Fisherman's Wharf 

This is the Times Square of San Francisco. It's noisy, overcrowded and the perfect place to find overpriced food and cheap souvenirs. If you do want to hang out at Fisherman's Wharf, just go to play at Musée Mécanique, the famous old fashioned arcade. 

Don't bother with Airbnb

The only ones that are cheaper than hotels are farther from downtown and the bay. Traveling to and from your Airbnb, especially if you use public transit, will eat up your time. 

Don't expect SoCal weather

San Francisco has it's own microclimate making it chilly, then sunny, then rainy at random. And summer is the foggiest season. 

We were there in May enjoying the best weather we could hope for and we wore our jackets the entire time. On the plus side, it's not below freezing in winter so if you stumble upon cheap flights in January, don't hesitate. 


San Francisco may be one of the most expensive cities in the U.S. but it is possible to have a great time without spending exorbitant amounts of money. 

I hope this article was helpful for you! 

Feel free to share your questions and thoughts in the comments! 


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