Visit Free Attractions
It may seem obvious, but you can't get much cheaper than free, and in San Francisco, that doesn't mean second-rate. Some of the things you can see for free include top attractions like Chinatown, Fisherman's Wharf, the Golden Gate Bridge and Golden Gate Park (some of the park's attractions charge admission, but getting into the park is free). City Guides tours are always free and you'll find a list of more in the guide to Free Things to Do in San Francisco
Finding San Francisco Hotels on a Budget
San Francisco hotel prices are on the rise - between 2011 and 2012, they went up nearly 11%, to an average cost of $172 per night. The simplistic advice would e to choose a cheap hotel, but you don't have to go for the lowest list price and stay in a dirty place with surly staff just to keep lodging costs under control.
Even better: I use a few simple tricks to find a place to stay in San Francisco, never pay as much as the "average" cost - and I always stay in pleasant places with no hidden parking charges. Use the simple guide to finding the best hotel rates in San Francisco to find out how to get yourself a nice room for the same price as a "cheap" one.
Don't Rent a Car. You May Not Need It
San Francisco has a big reputation, but it's a surprisingly small city (49 square miles) and most of the tourist attractions are located in about one third of that. Think before you rent a vehicle. Parking is hard to find and city traffic can ruin the best of moods. To make matters worse, most of the centrally located hotels charge $40 or more per day for parking, a rate that might be higher than your rental cost and a definite budget-buster.
Explore other ways of getting around instead. If you want to go out of the city for a day, rent a car for just that one day, using a car rental company that has a city office (most of the major ones do).
If You Bring Your Own Car, Parking Costs Suck
Street parking is nearly impossible most of the time, but if there's a city-owned parking garage near your hotel, it may be less expensive than the hotel's parking fees. They're listed here. In some parts of the financial district, you can park on the street during weekends without having to pay the meter.
If you stay outside the busiest tourist areas, you may find a place that offers free parking. One of our favorites for this is the Marina Motel.
Discount Admission Cards Really Work:
If you're visiting enough of the attractions they offer, a multi-attraction admission card is a great way to do more for less while visiting San Francisco on a budget.
San Francisco CityPASS includes a seven-day Muni Pass good for unlimited rides on the cable car, historic trolley and other public transport, along with admission to various attractions and a San Francisco Bay Cruise. The Go San Francisco Card also includes several attractions and offers more options.
For deep discounts on bay cruises, guided tours and lots of entertainment and performances, see how we use Goldstar to save money.
Buy a Muni Passport:
Many folks don't think about transportation costs when planning to visit San Francisco on a budget, but they can add up. Every ride on the cable car alone will set you back $5 per person. A Muni Passport costs about the same as two cable car rides, but it's also good for unlimited travel on the cable cars, historic streetcars and buses. Some of the discount admission cards mentioned above include it, or you can buy them at these locations.
Do Lunch (or Skip It)
If you want to try an expensive restaurant, but you're on a strict budget, lunch prices are often lower than dinner. Or try one of my favorite strategies: get a really cheap lunch and spend most of your meal budget for dinner. Every January and June, many of San Francisco's top restaurants participate in the Dine About Town program, offering special, fixed price meals for discounted prices.
Be Smart About Getting to Downtown from SFO
The best way to go depends on where you're headed in the city and how many people are in your group. To find out all the options check the guide to getting to San Francisco.
Little-Known About Airfare
An admonition to shop around for airfare is trite - but true.
What you may not know is that Southwest Airlines and Jet Blue don't participate in any of the fare-comparison sites. Check their prices separately by going directly to their websites. You can also check for bargains on air/hotel packages at Southwest Vacations. For even more bargain-shopping, try the Oakland Airport (OAK), which is almost as close to downtown San Francisco as SFO - and it has a better on-time arrival record.