San Francisco on a Budget: A Family Focused Itinerary

San Francisco is a hugely popular travel destination and for good reason.  It’s situated in an area of California that lends itself to a multiple destination trip (San Fran/Napa Valley, San Fran/Yosemite National Park, etc) and the city itself is dynamic with loads of famous sites.  It has an amazing food scene and famed attractions like the Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and Pier 39 help San Francisco draw in over 24 million visitors a year.  

It’s also a very expensive city to live in and visit.  The average hotel in San Francisco is upwards of $230/night (minus taxes) and on average most visitors spend $172/per person per day.  That doesn’t include flights.  So, it can really add up especially for a family.  But, that doesn’t mean you have to skip it entirely if you’re on a budget. Here are some areas where you can cut corners to keep your costs down. 

Hotel Choice

Accommodations are one of the more expensive ticket items you’ll incur on vacation.  Staying in a less touristy area of town will slash prices considerably. What you give up in amenities (pools, spas and central location) are generally made up for with personalization and local charm (they’re often family run). Here are some hotels to consider.

Hotel Beresford (includes breakfast at the White Horse) in Union Square- rates starting in the $150’s

Sheraton Fisherman’s Wharf– rates starting from $215 

Use Points

If you don’t have a credit card that gives you some bonuses I’d highly recommend you get one.  We have had a Marriott rewards card for years and we do generally stick to Marriott properties when we travel (#notanad).  Since we have the points or get more by staying at their affiliated properties it gives us the option to stay in places we’d rather not spend the cash.  Depending on your status you can also get upgraded to club level when available and take advantage of free breakfast, evening cocktails and hor d’oeuvres.  

Book a hotel with included breakfast

Eating out for a family is an expensive venture.  We usually try to hit up the included continental breakfast at our hotel which saves us at least $40 (with tip) a day.  

Walk to see the sights

We love walking tours of cities.  San Francisco is a great walking city and most of the main sights are within a 1-2 square mile radius.  We often walk one way and take transportation back if we’re tired or the weather isn’t favorable. The best thing is that it’s free!

Get a city pass

If you are motivated to do all the things, a pass that combines attractions often does so at a steep discount.  The City Pass San Francisco includes unlimited trips on Muni trolleys, buses, historic cable cars and Muni Metro for three consecutive days, entrance to California Academy of Sciences, Aquarium of the Bay, Exploratorium, and a one hour bay cruise adventure past Alcatraz, Golden Gate & Angel Island.  $94/74 adults/kids under 12 saving you about 40% than if you bought them all separately.

Take advantage of the free activities 

You don’t have to spend money to have a good time and see some sights. Below are some of the best free entrance options in San Francisco you can do with kids.

Cable Car Museum– In Nob HIll check out the history and working exhibits of the famous cable car system in this free museum

Walk around Pier 39– one of the most touristy and well known areas of San Francisco, take in the sights of the bay and Alcatraz, grab a bite to eat, and observe the famed sea lions.  

Golden Gate Park– 3 miles long and ½ mile wide, Golden Gate Park is 20% bigger than Central Park in NYC and has plenty to do.  Stroll the Japanese Tea Gardens (free before 10 am), check out one of their many playgrounds, ride the carousel ($1-2 per ride), take a picnic lunch. There’s tons to do in the Park. 

Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory in Chinatown- check out this cool little factory where they’ve been making fortune cookies by hand since the 60’s.  Options to buy unique cookies at the end.

Musee Mecanique– free admission daily to this vintage arcade where you can throw down a few coins and play games and instruments in their original working condition 

While San Francisco is easily one of the more expensive vacation family destinations you can still enjoy all the amazing activities without breaking the bank!