San Francisco on a budget

San Francisco has a well-deserved reputation for being an expensive city, and the entire Bay Area regularly tops the charts for the most expensive places in the United States.

While it’s possible to spend unlimited amounts of money when visiting SF, there are ways to make your trip more affordable. Discount flights aren’t hard to come by, thanks to plentiful competition, and California’s support for public transit keeps fares reasonable and service convenient (at least by American standards). San Francisco is best explored on foot, and the views, neighborhoods, and park — some of the city’s greatest attributes — are all free.

San Francisco also has a well-deserved reputation for excellent, inexpensive meals. While no one will ever call SF a budget destination, there are ways to tame its costs – while still having an amazing visit.

Presentation of San Francisco

Be airport independent

San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is served by dozens of domestic and international airlines. As such, the competition keeps the rates reasonable, but it’s always worth checking the cost of flights to Oakland International Airport (OAK) across the bay. It just takes a little longer to get to town from OAK, and especially for domestic travel, you can find a cheaper flight there.


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Ride the BART to and from the airport

The Powell St station on the BART rapid train network is close to many hotels around Union Square. Trains are frequent and often faster than driving on congested highways. Fares average $10-$15 depending on distance, which is a significant savings over taxi or ride-sharing fare.

The same advice applies to Oakland Airport. BART makes it easy to get to SF from OAK, with only one or at most two simple transfers needed.

Take the train or the bus

San Francisco has good access to Amtrak trains, although they stop across the bay near Oakland and are connected to the city by bus. If you’re willing to take the bus for longer distances, Greyhound serves SF.

know when to leave

Unlike more weather-centric destinations like tropical resorts, San Francisco’s peak season spans the entire year. Casual tourists are most prolific in the summer and during holidays, but at other times hundreds of conventions and meetings large and small fill hotel rooms and restaurant seats.

Since January in San Francisco can be as expensive as August (or any other month), you’ll need to take the time to compare flights and accommodation on many dates to find great deals. Look for booking sites and apps that display prices in calendar form so you can see when fares are discounted.

Walking is one of the best ways to explore the sights of San Francisco © georgeclerk / Getty Images

walk everywhere

Consistently ranked as one of the most walkable cities in the United States, most of San Francisco’s top sights are within walking distance, and it’s the best way to explore the city’s endlessly attractive neighborhoods. As of 2020, many city streets have been closed to vehicular traffic one or more days a week — and some, like John F Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park, are now closed for the foreseeable future.

Ride a bike

San Francisco aims to be the most bike-friendly city in the United States, and most locals are in the saddle. Many areas, such as Golden Gate Park (most car-free on Sundays), the Embarcadero, Ocean Beach, the Marina, and the park-like Presidio are ideal for cycling.

San Francisco has an extensive bike network of 448 miles, and most sites are accessible by two wheels. A map of the bicycle network is available through the SFMTA, and the nonprofit San Francisco Bicycle Coalition also offers maps and information for cyclists.

Economy bike sharing is available citywide through Bay Wheels. Both traditional bikes and e-bikes can be rented at San Francisco train stations and are available for single rides, day trips, or with monthly passes.

Bay Wheels stations are located downtown and at major intersections – but bikes come without helmets, and riding without proper protection is dangerous, so bring your own.

A Caucasian man riding on a cable car
Muni’s charming historic tram line runs above ground on Market Street © Daniel Viñé Garcia / Getty Images

Take Muni

Muni trams run in a subway under Market Street, where they are called Muni Metro. The J, K, L, M, N and T lines are great ways to reach remote parts of the city. There’s also the charming historic F streetcar line, which runs above ground on Market Street and goes to Fisherman’s Wharf along the waterfront. For route planning and schedules, check out Transit 511. For real-time departures, check out nextmuni.com, which syncs with bus and tram GPS to provide the best estimates of arrival times.

Essential and free street and transit maps of Muni are available online. Also useful is the MuniMobile app, which you can use to pay fares. Note that service and times are constantly changing due to Covid-19, so check all routes and times in advance.

On buses and trams, tickets purchased from drivers (exact change required) or at Muni subway stations (where machines give change) are only $3. With a reloadable Clipper card (see below) or using the MuniMobile app, the fare drops to $2.50. A single fare corresponds to two hours of travel. Fares are reduced by 50% for people 65 and over, and people 18 and under travel free.

At the start of your Muni trip, free transfer tickets are available for additional Muni rides (not cable cars or BART) within 90 minutes. After 8:30 p.m., buses issue a night transfer good for travel until 5:30 a.m. the next morning.

Buy a Muni pass

The Muni Visitor Passport is aimed at tourists and allows you to save money (1/3/7 days 24/36/47$; with the MuniMobile application, 13/31/41$). It allows unlimited travel on the Muni system, including cable cars, and is sold at ticket kiosks and other locations.

The Muni’s bargain is the regular resident day pass. It only costs $5 whether purchased with the MuniMobile app or at a ticket box or kiosk. It allows unlimited trips on the entire system, except for the cable cars.

Use a Clipper card

Clipper is a rechargeable fare system with cards that work on Muni, BART, and other public transit systems across the Bay Area. It automatically deducts fares and applies transfers (for example, only one Muni fare is deducted per 90-minute period). You can put a digital Clipper card on your phone for free or buy a physical card for $3.

Downtown Muni/BART stations have machines that sell Clipper cards and fare credits. Clipper cards, whether in physical or digital form, can be linked to a credit card so they automatically reload with value.

Point: Purchase a Clipper card with your phone before arriving in the Bay Area. The queue to buy BART tickets at SFO is always notoriously long, as jet-lagged travelers fumble with unfamiliar ticket machines and the obtuse interface. With a Clipper Card, you can bypass the crammed masses without a ticket and head straight for the trains.

Avoid taxis and carpools

Taxi fares start at $3.50 and cost around $3 per mile. Add 15% to the rate as a tip ($1 minimum) and the cost adds up quickly. For faster service in San Francisco, download the Flywheel application, which sends the nearest taxi.

Lyft and Uber are based in San Francisco and are both ubiquitous and expensive. Note that with the high prices, traditional taxis are often cheaper, although taxis and shared vehicles are stuck in the same bad Bay Area traffic.

Think about the tourist pass

Two companies offer discount passes aimed at San Francisco tourists. Whether or not they offer real value depends on what you want to do with your time in the city – if either set of attractions is on your to-do list, it’s worth doing the math to see if the passes will save you money.

City Pass (adult/child $76/$56) covers admission to four attractions, including the California Academy of Sciences, Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise, Aquarium of the Bay, San Francisco Zoo, and Exploratorium. It also offers a pass valid for three attractions called C3.

Go Card (adult/child, one day from $63/$52) has a somewhat confusing range of options for varying durations. It provides access to many top attractions including the California Academy of Sciences, de Young Museum, Aquarium of the Bay, SFMOMA, USS Pampanito, Beat Museum, Exploratorium and many more .

People walking outside the Ferry Building, seen from Mission Street in San Francisco.
The iconic Ferry Building offers great food and drink options with affordable takeaways © Toms Auzins / Shutterstock

Eat on the street

Yes, you can spend stratospheric amounts of bread on some of the best meals in the country here, but you can also enjoy the same passion for high-quality dishes in a more pedestrian form – literally.

The humble Mission-style burrito is ubiquitous in SF and is usually delicious. All sorts of good food is sold in the town’s shops and cafes. As you stroll through the city streets, watch for lines of people outside bakeries, taquerias, dim sum shops, delis, and other casual spots.

Some of the city’s top chefs and purveyors have outlets in addition to their pricey restaurants where you can enjoy their food without the dinner prices. The iconic Ferry Building offers great food and drink options with grab-and-go items at affordable prices – just find an outdoor bench overlooking the bay and enjoy!

Daily costs

Hostel room: $35 to $60
Basic room for two: $120-250 and up
Independent apartment: $150 and more
Public transport ticket: $2.50 to $3
Coffee: $2 to $5
Burritos: $8 to $12
Dinner for two: $80-200 and up
Pint at the bar: $6 to $9

Wiley C. Thompson