San Fransisco, California, goes way beyond iconic. With its zigzagging Lombard Street, Painted Ladies and Golden Gate Bridge, "The City by the Bay" hosts well over 150,000 visitors each day. That's nearly 55 million over the course of a year.
Meanwhile, it ranks among the most expensive cities in the world, with costs for just about everything nearly triple the national US average. For those of us who haven't struck gold, that means spending carefully and wisely.
This San Francisco travel guide from GET.com shows you how to enjoy Frisco without spending heaps of cash or Bay Bucks.
Image source: San Francisco International Airport
We started checking for flights about 6 weeks or so in advance, avoiding holiday travel but looking for the least expensive nonstop round-trip fares that would allow a solid week in "Fog City." For first-timers, fog often delays flights at San Francisco International and can test even generous itineraries.
Flying from the Windy City, your choice of travel days could double or halve fares. Our best option was a $224 set of Tuesday morning nonstop Frontier flights using Chicago's O'Hare. Most baseline fares averaged $300, but Monday departures sent prices well over $400, as did Friday returns. After Frontier's $224 fare, our next-best options were United red-eyes in the low $300s and American Airlines' $350 morning-evening combination. On American's site, we quickly found the $350 Choice deals, with more convenient times, too; Choice Essential fares averaged $425, Choice Plus $525 and first class $800 to $850.
If you plan far enough ahead of time, you can apply for an airline credit card to enjoy the welcome offer. Just make sure you're credit score is excellent before you apply.
For Red Sox fans bound for Oakland, Sundays are the one day to avoid for departure, with baseline fares well over $600. Departures Monday through Friday and returns Monday through Wednesday all kept baseline fares around $400. Our cheapest deal – a $355 Delta fare – spanned Wednesdays, with a morning departure, a red-eye return and a layover each way. Nonstop flights started at $524, spanning Tuesdays or Wednesdays. While most other combinations ran only a few dollars more, incorporating a Sunday raised fares by $100. Our $524 deal on United had a morning departure and a red-eye return, but our basic economy seat could have easily cost $700; flexible economy and first class fares were closer to $1,600.
On the West Coast, from Los Angeles' LAX, we could travel round trip using any day of the week in any combination for a mere $137 total on American. From Portland, yet again, we could fly any day of the week for just $207 on Virgin America or Alaska Airlines. Seattle followed suit, with any combination of days totaling $195 on Virgin America, except for a 6-day Monday-Sunday combination totaling $210. For our bargain, if you're flying out of Sin City, we found round-trip flights out of Las Vegas' McCarran International for less than $100 on Frontier, Virgin America and JetBlue.
Image source: 1906 Hotel
If you have a big stack of points saved up on your Marriot, Hilton or IHG hotel credit cards, you can opt to redeem those for stays. Otherwise you're better off heading to more affordable accommodations.
Average apartment rent runs $3,500 and up per month, so hotel rooms are pricey, too. While many rooms start near $400 a night, especially at 3- and 4-star hotels by Fisherman's Wharf, the Comfort Inn by the Bay had rooms with 2 twin beds for $208 a night ($1,709 a week) with taxes and fees. A room with 1 queen bed was $1,737 total for the week while a queen room with a sofa bed was $1,802. Making the reservation refundable added about $200 to the bill. While ratings were good and breakfast and Wi-Fi were included, parking was another $200 for the week.
Nearby, however, the Super 8 at the Marina had a better deal. We could book a king room with breakfast, Wi-Fi and parking included for $198 a night ($1,591 for the week). At that price, room keys were flying off the hooks, especially considering similar deals at Howard Johnson and Days Inn started around $250.
While looking for a hotel room, we came across 1906 Mission, a bed and breakfast where we could book a room with a double bed for $152 a night (about $1,230 for the week). Breakfast was included, and so was in-room Wi-Fi; however, street parking was an issue, and bathrooms were shared. However, guests repeatedly gave it excellent ratings for staff helpfulness, amenities, breakfast options and cleanliness.
San Franciscans are renting out rooms, apartments and entire homes on Airbnb, too. When we took a look in North Beach, for example, rooms tended to average about $130 a night while 1-bedroom apartments were $250 or so but sometimes slept 4. A 2-bedroom, 1-bath apartment "on Mission's best block" was $418 a night, $3,650 for a week. It was quite luxurious, but even with all the perks, parking was still an issue.
If you go the home sharing route, pay attention to exactly what you'll be sleeping on, as some listings used futons or mattresses on the floor. If you use an American Express card, you may be interested in knowing that you can redeem your Membership Rewards points for Airbnb stays directly at the Airbnb checkout.
Image source: RotiSystems, Inc.
San Francisco is a melting pot and creative lab for chefs and food lovers from all parts of the world. Although many restaurants are expensive, there is plenty of delicious food to be had for a couple bucks if you know where to look for it. Make sure to pack a restaurant credit card to earn rewards on your gourmet adventures, and carry some cash too.
If your idea of great travel food demands it be quick, tasty, satisfying and cheap, here are half a dozen places to try:
- You'll find The Codmother Fish and Chips food truck on Beach Street on Fisherman's Wharf. Try the Brit specialty featuring generous portions of lightly battered fish and filling chips. Add some shrimp for a combo platter, or opt for the Baja fish tacos and Crazy Fries. You can finish with fried Oreos.
- Saigon Sandwich on Larkin Street is a Vietnamese takeout sandwich place intent on satisfying your yen for a grilled or roasted pork banh mi with pate. Order one with tofu or roasted chicken, plain or with all the frills. It's all well under $5.
- Golden Boy Pizza on North Beach's Green Street is the place to get an amazing square or sheet – that's slice or pie – of focaccia, Sicilian-style pizza. Choose from options like clam garlic, veggie pesto, a more traditional sausage, just plain cheese or other combinations. You'll see them right in the window.
Image source: Golden Boy Pizza
- Roli Roti Gourmet Rotisserie in the Farmers Market Ferry Building is known for its organic and sustainable specialties like rich, slow-roasted porchetta sandwiches topped with caramelized onion marmalade and arugula; rotisserie chicken; and fingerling rosemary potatoes.
- Rosamunde Sausage Grill has locations on both Haight and Mission Streets, with more than 15 different types of sausages and a slew of craft beers. Pick your brat plus toppings, and don't forget a side of fries, German potato salad, baked beans or garden salad.
- HRD on 3rd Street in South Beach offers Asian fusion at its best. Choose from fresh entrée salads, burritos, tacos, rice bowls, curry platters, cheese-steaks and po' boys. From shrimp, oysters and tuna to spicy pork, crispy chicken, eggplant or organic tofu, the variety of selections has something for everyone.
Go San Francisco Card
One way to get the most value from multiple attractions you'd like to enjoy is to purchase a Go San Francisco Card through Smart Destinations, using a cash back credit card to maximize your savings (you may be required to use a credit card to make reservations at some attractions). You have several options to choose from. The All-Inclusive Pass covers up to 5 days of unlimited participating tours and attractions. Explorer Passes are good for either 3 or 4 attractions while the Build Your Own Pass lets you do just that.
Free Things To Do
Image source: Irvin Lin, eatthelove.com
A useful resource to bookmark is the San Francisco City Guides website and companion Guidelines newsletter. You can enjoy any number of no less than 100 different free walking tours – from "1850s San Francisco: Paris of the Pacific" or "Nob Hill" to "Downtown Deco" or "Golden Gate Park."
San Francisco is known for its street art. We found 7 City Guides tours mentioning murals, among them the "Coit Tower Murals," "Diego Rivera Mural at City College," "Golden Gate Park: West End," "Mission Murals," "Murals and the Multi-Ethnic Mission," "Scandalous Murals of Rincon Center" and "Tastes and Tales of North Beach." SF Mural Arts maintains a mapped listing of artwork by neighborhood on its website.
Of course, much of life in the City by the Bay revolves around the Golden Gate Bridge. You can walk and tour the bridge, but the Presidio and Golden Gate Park are also major tourist areas:
- Once a military base, the Presidio is now a recreational park on the San Francisco peninsula's northern tip. Streetscapes featuring hundreds of historical buildings make this an intact ghost base. Enjoy miles of bicycle paths, even more hiking trails and 8 scenic outlooks featuring the bay. You can kite-surf, sail, go fishing or do some crabbing.
- Slightly southwest, Golden Gate Park has a number of paid-admission attractions like the Conservatory of Flowers, Japanese Tea Garden and California Academy of Sciences. However, the grounds also hold some free treasures like 2 working windmills and their accompanying tulip gardens; Strawberry Hill, an island with a waterfall in Stow Lake accessible by bridges; a bison paddock complete with a grazing herd: and Koret Playground, where the carousel is only $1 per child.
If you're interested in museums in the San Francisco Bay area, FreeMuseumDay.org provides lists of attractions and their free days. Some, like the Cable Car Museum, are always free. Direct links to museum websites let you check directions and hours.
Fisherman's Wharf is also a popular area for strolling, browsing and people-watching as well as enjoying lots of food, small shops and entertainment venues. Near the east edge, Pier 39 is a favorite stop to visit the new Sea Lion Center and watch the center's namesakes at rest and play.
Bicyclists often enjoy San Francisco for the variety of rides and routes. The League of American Bicyclists regularly ranks San Fran among its top gold-rated bicycle-friendly cities. The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has an extensive website detailing walking and biking routes and maps, the rules of the road, how to keep your bike secure, parking your wheels and traveling with a bike on mass transit.
Temptation is everywhere in the city. Even when enjoying something free, you'll be surrounded by opportunities to buy. Fisherman's Wharf is a fun area, but visiting it involves confronting countless and endless harmless ways to empty your pockets little by little.
Golden Gate Park is also "free," but you'll want to decide well in advance which (if any) of the attractions within it you'll want to see so that you can buy tickets at a discount. Whatever you decide, if you're going to spend, be sure to choose a truly San Francisco type of treat which you can't pick up for half the price back home.