With a well-deserved reputation for being costly, San Francisco and the entire Bay Area regularly top the charts of the USA’s most expensive places to live.
While it’s possible to spend unlimited sums on a visit to SF, there are ways to make your trip more affordable. Discounted flights aren’t hard to find, thanks to plenty of competition, and California’s support of public transit keeps fares reasonably priced and services convenient (at least by US standards). San Francisco is best seen on foot, and the views, neighborhoods and parks – some of the city’s greatest attributes – are all free. San Francisco is also known for its great cheap eats, so you can fill up on something tasty without spending a lot.
While no one will ever call SF a budget destination, there are ways to tame the expense and still have an extraordinary visit. Here’s a guide to daily costs in San Francisco along with our top tips for a budget visit.
Daily costs in San Francisco
Hostel room: $35–60
Basic room for two: $120–250 and up
Self-catering apartment: $150 and up
Public transport ticket: $2.50–3
Dinner for two: $80–200 and up
Pint at the bar: $6–9
Make the most out of every adventure with help from our weekly newsletter delivered to your inbox. San Francisco doesn’t have a low season, so you’ll be lucky to avoid the crowds © Katherine Papera / EyeEm / Getty Images
Know when to go
Unlike destinations more centered on the weather, such as tropical resorts, San Francisco’s high season stretches across the year. Casual tourists are more prolific in the summer and during holidays, but at other times, hundreds of conventions and meetings big and small keep hotel rooms and restaurant seats filled.
Since January in San Francisco can be just as expensive as August (or any other month), you’ll need to take the time to comparison-shop for flights and accommodations across many dates to find bargains. Look for booking sites and apps that show prices in a calendar format so you can see when rates are reduced.
Be flexible with which airport you use
San Francisco’s international airport (SFO) is served by dozens of domestic and international airlines. As such, competition keeps fares reasonable, but it’s always worth checking the cost of flights to Oakland International Airport (OAK) across the bay. It’s only a little more time-consuming to get into the city from OAK, and especially for domestic trips, you may find a cheaper flight there.
Ride the BART to and from the airport
The Powell St station on the fast BART train network is close to scores of hotels around Union Square. Trains are frequent and often quicker than driving on the traffic-clogged freeways. Fares average $10 to $15 depending on distance, which is a significant saving over taxi fares or charges for shared rides.
The same advice applies to Oakland’s airport. BART makes reaching SF easy from OAK, with only one or at most two simple transfers needed.
Arrive by train or the bus
San Francisco has good access to Amtrak trains, although they stop across the Bay near Oakland and are linked to the city by bus. If you’re ready to ride the bus for longer distances, budget Greyhound services come to SF.
Regularly ranked as one of the most walkable cities in the US, most major sights in San Francisco are reachable on foot, and that’s the best way to explore the city’s endlessly engaging neighborhoods. Since 2020 numerous streets across the city are closed to vehicular traffic one or more days a week – and some, such as John F Kennedy Drive in Golden Gate Park, are now closed permanently to vehicles, creating a new public space for walkers, skaters and bikers.
Bring a bike, hire a bike, ride a bike: SF is one of the most cycle-friendly cities in the US © Martin Bissig / Getty Images
Ride a bike
San Francisco aims to be the most bike-friendly city in the US, and most residents are in the saddle. Many areas, such as Golden Gate Park (mostly car-free on Sunday), the Embarcadero, Ocean Beach, the Marina and the park-like Presidio are ideal for cycling.
San Francisco has an extensive 448-mile bike network, and most sights are reachable on two wheels. A map of the bike network is available via the SFMTA, and the non-profit San Francisco Bicycle Coalition also offers maps and information for cyclists.
Economical bike-sharing is available citywide through Bay Wheels. Both traditional bikes and e-bikes can be hired from stations throughout San Francisco and are available for single trips, day use or with monthly access passes. Bay Wheels stations are located downtown and at major intersections – but bikes come without helmets, so bring your own.
Muni operates bus, streetcar and cable car lines in San Francisco, and buses and streetcars are referred to interchangeably here as Muni. Some areas are better connected than others, but Muni spares you the costly hassle of driving and parking – and it’s often faster than driving.
Muni streetcars run in a subway under Market Street, where they are called Muni Metro. Lines J, K, L, M, N and T are excellent means of reaching far-flung parts of the city. There is also the delightful historic streetcar line F, which runs above ground on Market Street and runs to Fisherman’s Wharf along the waterfront. For route planning and schedules, consult Transit 511. For real-time departures, see nextmuni.com, which syncs with GPS on buses and streetcars to provide best estimates on arrival times. Essential and free Muni street and transit maps are available online.
Use the MuniMobile app for single journeys
You can use the MuniMobile app to pay transportation fares and you’ll get discounted rates when compared to cash purchases. On buses and streetcars, tickets bought from drivers (exact change required) or at underground Muni stations (where machines give change) cost $3. With a reloadable Clipper card (see below) or by using the MuniMobile app, the fare falls to $2.50. A single fare is good for two hours of rides. Fares are 50% less for people age 65 and older, and those ages 18 or younger ride for free.
At the start of your Muni journey, free transfer tickets are available for additional Muni trips (not including cable cars or BART) within 90 minutes. After 8:30pm, buses issue a Late Night Transfer good for travel until 5:30am the following morning.
Staying longer? Get a Muni pass through the app
The Muni Visitor Passport is aimed at tourists and offers some savings (1/3/7 days $24/36/47; with the MuniMobile app, $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 great bargain is the regular day pass aimed at residents. It only costs $5 whether bought with the MuniMobile app or at a farebox or kiosk. It allows unlimited rides on the entire system except for the cable cars.
Get a Clipper card for travel across the Bay Area
Clipper is a reloadable fare system with cards that work on Muni, BART and other transit systems across the Bay Area. It automatically deducts fares and applies transfers (e.g. only one Muni fare is deducted per 90-minute period). You can put a digital Clipper Card on your phone for free, or purchase a physical card for $3.
Downtown Muni/BART stations have machines that sell Clipper cards and fare credit. Clipper Cards, whether in physical or digital form, can be linked to a credit card so that they automatically refill with value.
Tip: Buy a Clipper Card with your phone before you arrive in the Bay Area. The line to buy BART tickets at SFO is always notoriously long, as jet-lagged travelers fumble with the unfamiliar ticket machines and obtuse interface. With a Clipper Card, you can bypass the huddled ticketless masses and head right to the trains.
Taxis and shared rides aren’t worth the cost or traffic
Taxi fares start at $3.50 and run about $3 per mile. Add 15% to the fare as a tip ($1 minimum), and the cost adds up fast. For quickest service in San Francisco, download the Flywheel app, which dispatches the nearest taxi.
Lyft and Uber are based in San Francisco and are both ubiquitous and expensive. Note that with surge pricing, traditional taxis are often less costly, though both taxis and shared ride vehicles get stuck in the same bad Bay Area traffic.
The iconic Ferry Building has excellent eating and drinking options with to-go items at affordable prices © Toms Auzins / Shutterstock
Eat on the streets
Yes, you can spend stratospheric amounts of bread on some of the finest meals in the country here, but you can also enjoy the same passion for high-quality fare in more pedestrian form – literally. The humble Mission-style burrito is ubiquitous in SF and is usually delicious. All manner of great eats are sold from storefront shops and cafes across the city. As you walk the city’s streets, watch for lines of people outside bakeries, taquerias, dim sum shops, delis and other casual spots.
Some of the city’s best chefs and purveyors have outlets in addition to their pricey restaurants where you can enjoy their food without the dine-in prices. The iconic Ferry Building has excellent eating and drinking options with to-go items at affordable prices – just find an outdoor bench with views of the bay and enjoy!
Do the math before buying a tourist pass
Two companies carry discount passes aimed at tourists in San Francisco. Whether they offer any real value depends on what you want to do with your time in the city – if either set of attractions is on your list of things to do, it’s worth doing the math to see if the passes will save you money.
CityPass (adult/child $84/64) covers entry to four attractions, including the California Academy of Sciences, Blue & Gold Fleet Bay Cruise, the Aquarium of the Bay, the San Francisco Zoo and the Exploratorium. It also offers a C3 pass, giving you one-time entry to three attractions.
Go City (adult/child, one day from $79/64) comes in a somewhat bewildering array of options for varying lengths of time. It provides access to many major attractions, including the California Academy of Sciences, the de Young Museum, the Aquarium of the Bay, SFMOMA, USS Pampanito, the Beat Museum, Exploratorium and many more.