Travel to San Francisco on a Budget

Travel to San Francisco on a Budget

This year, as Spring arrived holding the hand of its younger brother, Baseball Season, my partner and I had the itch to take a trip  — Oh, San Francisco! Reveal to us your glory! Give us baseball! Give us food! Please don’t rain!

I began looking for an affordable place to stay, but it seemed all I could find was a list of overly expensive hotels or completely rundown, poorly located flophouses, and I wondered, “Wait, am I googling Tokyo?” “Is the yuppie takeover complete?” “IS NOTHING SACRED?!”

Budget Travel Is Possible

Despair not, fellow shallow-pocketed travelers.  My partner and I were able to enjoy a three day, two night San Francisco trip for under $500 and it didn’t even feel strained.  If you’re traveling solo you could do it for even less.

Keep in mind this travel budget is biased to my preferences–where I may spend $90 on food and $140 on entertainment, you may prefer to invert the two.  This is simply a platform from which you can plan your own trip.

  • Getting there: $100
  • Staying there: $170
  • Eating & Drinking: $90
  • Things to Do: $140

Getting There

Round trip:  two tanks of gas, two toll booths, one In-n-Out stop (it’s the law)  = $100.

Given my current location in the isolated northern reaches of California (approximately 300 miles north of the city), driving is the most convenient and economical option to get to San Francisco.

Depending on your location, one of the many buses, planes, or trains which serve the San Francisco area may be a better choice.  This kind of transport may be the wisest option, as you don’t need (nor do you want) a car to heave around while in the city.  San Francisco’s public transportation is excellent, wide-reaching, and cheap. Driving is a pain in the ass and parking can easily add $50 or more to your trip.  We were able to park the car and not touch it again until we were ready to leave.

Okay, if you live across the country, transport will clearly be the biggest expense when traveling to San Francisco.  Plan ahead and keep your eye out for cheap flights to SFO.  If you have an economical vehicle, consider making it a road trip, or take the train cross-country.

Staying There

2 nights in one-bed Mission apartment = $170 

Cheap hotel in San Francisco
Our Room in Mission Dolores

As mentioned previously, the hotel situation in San Francisco is dire.  However, the AirBnb situation is off-the-hook.  There are options for any location and any budget, just set the maximum amount you want to spend and take it from there. Our $85/night room in the Mission was gorgeous, clean, and close to public transport, bars, and food.

Spend Less: Do you have a friend or family member in San Francisco? Hit them up, perhaps you can crash on their floor.  Try Couchsurfing, stay at the Green Tortoise Hostel, or look for hotels just outside the city, but close to a BART station for easy access.

Eating and Drinking

Various places = $90

I have some friends who love to visit San Francisco specifically for the food.  Their trip revolves around wining and dining, and their spending reflects that.  I am more of a hole-in-the-wall kind of ingestor, and my  budget here, reflects that.

I wanted to eat everything, and we almost did.  In Chinatown, we had green tea and plate full of Dim Sum from Dol Ho ($15), and we walked away from Garden Bakery with a bag full of baked buns for breakfast ($5); in the Mission, we had crispy carnitas tacos from Taqueria El Buen Sabor ($15), foot-long servings of lamb shawarma and falafel from Truly Mediterranean ($20), and beers from the 500 Club ($40).

Spend Less: We brought sandwich and snack supplies with us so that we didn’t eat out every meal; we also purchased beers from the grocery store to enjoy whenever we damned-well-pleased.

Things to Do

There are countless things you can do in San Francisco — museums, theaters, parks, galleries, bookstores, coffee shops, neighborhoods.  We passed on the popular Fisherman’s Wharf, Ghirardelli Square, and Union Square tourist attractions.  We had both been there before, and were more interested in seeing some other parts of San Francisco. Here is what we did, all for around $140. 

Walk Across Golden Gate Bridge (Free):

Walking across the Golden Gate Bridge is a charming way to check out the northern views of the peninsula,  Alcatraz, and the Bay Bridge.  You can also get a closer look at the Art Deco design on the international-orange-painted towers and feel weird when you look over the edge into the water and contemplate the number of people who have jumped off (1600).

Walk Across the Golden Gate Bridge
Photo Courtesy of Ramiro Checchi

There are a few free parking areas on the northern and southern ends of the bridge.  While there is a clearly marked “vista point” and parking area on the North Side, it is only accessible when driving north on the 101 and is often full of cars and tour buses. We found two great places to park: North Tower Golden Gate Parking (Conzelman Rd), and down the hill at Fort Baker.

Golden gate bridge free parking
1. North Tower Golden Gate Parking (Conzelman Road) 2. Fort Baker

Directions to Free Parking: If you’re driving south on the 101, you can get to the first location, (1) North Tower Golden Gate Parking (Conzelman Road) by taking exit 442 towards Sausalito, and then following Alexander Ave and Conzelman Road to the end (or, simply punch North Tower Golden Gate Parking into your GPS).

The second location, (2) Fort Baker, is a great spot if you want to sit below the bridge, eat a sandwich and gaze across the water.  The bridge is accessible from there, you just have to hoof it up the hilly, but paved, Conzelman Road for about 1 mile.  To get there, exit 101 South at exit 442 toward Sausalito, turn right onto Alexander Ave (signs for Sausalito), turn left onto Bunker Road, then turn right to stay on Bunker Road, which eventually turns right again and becomes Murray Circle. Continue Straight onto Moore Road and drive until you can’t anymore. Parking is available on the side of the road.  If you want to use GPS, punch in 411 Moore Road, Sausalito.

Chinatown & City Lights Bookstore (Free-$20):

Chinatown San FranciscoOnce we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge into North San Francisco, we were hungry.  We decided to go to Chinatown; I wanted Dim Sum, and we both wanted to peruse City Lights, the landmark bookstore and publisher, which was nearby.  We easily found metered parking  (on Washington Street) and walked north through the streets of Chinatown until we came upon Dol Ho, where all my cheap and delicious Dim Sum dreams came true.  Dim Sum, or cha siu bao, are steamed buns filled with pork, vegetables, shrimp, beans, chicken, et cetera and so forth.   We split a plate of 12 for  about $15, then walked over City Lights to spend about an hour in book heaven.  If you cross Columbus Avenue (the big street on which City Light is located), you’ll be in “Little Italy,” which is denoted by red, white, and green stripes painted on the light poles.  The Beat Museum is there, along with a large variety of titty bars, porn shops, and I’m assuming, Italian food.

Catch a Baseball Game ($10-120):

Even if you’re not a huge fan of the great American past time, spending an afternoon at AT&T Park feels quintessential and cheerful.  The park is beautiful and fun to explore, the fans are notably polite, and almost every seat in the house has a great view.

AT&T Park San Francisco
A beautiful day for baseball at AT&T Park

Ticket costs will depend on where you sit, who the Giants are playing, and what day you go.  We saw the beloved Chicago Cubs on a Saturday afternoon, which was a popular, sold-out game—we spent $50 each for our seats.  I purchased the tickets from StubHub, where you’ll find a lot of season-ticket holders selling their seats for a decent price.  You can often find standing-room only tickets and bleacher seats starting from $10, so, really, there is something for everyone.

Spend Less: Note that beers are $12, a Hot Dog is $6, Garlic Fries are $8, and a bag of peanuts will set you back $5.  To spend less, either buy cheap seats and go crazy with food and drink, or buy better seats and bring snacks.  Priorities.

To Get There:

San Francisco Muni to AT&T Park
Taking the Muni to AT&T Park

AT&T Park was designed with public transportation in mind, so it is easy to get there. From our room in the Mission, we walked about 5 minutes north to the Metro Church Station, where we bought two round-trip Muni ticket for $9.  Then, we boarded the inbound T-Third for Sunnydale.  About 20 minutes later, we got off at the 2nd and King Street Station, right outside of AT&T Park.

Alternatively, according to the Giants Website:

Muni Metro Streetcar service to the Ballpark is available daily on the N-Judah, T-Third and via other Muni Metro streetcar lines on game days. Fans can transfer from any Metro line to streetcars serving the ballpark at Embarcadero Station – look for trains headed to Mission Bay, Caltrain or Sunnydale and get off at the Second Street/Ballpark Station. Muni buses 10, 30, 45 and 47 also stop within one block of the ballpark.

Golden Gate Park/Haight (free-$10)

Walking through Golden Gate Park is a great way to kill a few hours—it’s full of activity and you can just sit on a grassy hill and watch all kinds of people come and go.  There’s a cool botanical garden, along with a couple museums, and various other gardens and attractions.

Map of Golden Gate Park When we were done walking around, we left via Haight Street on the East Side.  We walked through the Haight, got a couple beers (yes, it’s a theme), and then caught the Muni back to the Mission.

Walk Around the Mission (Free):

We probably spent the most time walking around the neighborhood where we were staying.  The Mission offers a first-hand look at gentrification and hipster culture.  It is a weird mix of “super cool” coffee shops, restaurants, and skinny jeans on Valencia Street and family groceries, no-name taquerias, and store fronts on Mission. Walking through Mission fills me with historical wonder and guilt as I simultaneously reap the benefits and judge the pervasive cancer of gentrification.

Dolores Park is a great place to relax and drink a beer, have a picnic, or read a book.  There’s a cast of colorful characters and a slew of people coming and going which makes for great people-watching.  If it’s a nice day, or even if it’s not, don’t expect to have the park to yourself.  It is definitely a destination.

The Murals in the Mission are beautiful, colorful, and worth walking around to see—this also allows you the opportunity to see all parts of the Mission and get some historical context to the area.  Here is a great guide to all San Francisco’s Mission District Murals.

Mission District Mural San Francsisco
Photo Courtesy of Rafael

Go!

You do not have to be rich to enjoy some of the joys of San Francisco. There are plenty of ways to stay cheaply, eat cheaply, and still get your fill of that sweet, sweet San Francisco love.

Any other recommendations for places to stay, eat, or enjoy in SF for those on a budget? Share the informational wealth in the comments!