The Costs of Traveling in San Francisco on a Budget for 6 Days

Costs of Travel in San Francisco

San Francisco is definitely one of the more expensive US cities to visit, especially for Canadians at a time right now when our dollar is doing so poorly against the American dollar. Of course, I only realized the value of the dollar after I had booked my flights! But it cost me over $100 extra in exchanging my money and paying for accommodation. Yikes! Next time I will check the dollar first before booking, but traveling to San Francisco was so worth it and I don’t regret it for a second. The really great thing about San Francisco is that most of the activities that I did, were completely free! One of my favourite things to do was exploring new neighbourhoods and checking out the gorgeous and colourful Victorian homes. The Golden Gate Bridge was free, the many scenic stairways, Chinatown, and more. The only attractions I paid for, were Alcatraz and riding the cable cars.

Here is a breakdown of exactly what I spent on my trip to San Francisco, California:

Where I Traveled:

San Francisco, California, USA

Number of Days:

6 days (July 28, 2015 to August 3, 2015)

Type of Travel:

Independent, Budget, Mother-Daughter

Accommodations:

We stayed at an Airbnb apartment rental in the Mission District.

Flights:

I booked my flight with the Canadian airline company WestJet about a month and a half prior to leaving on my trip. I booked on a Tuesday night – I have had the most success of finding cheap flight sales when I book on Tuesday nights (not sure if it’s a coincidence or a trend). My flight was from Winnipeg, Canada to San Francisco, California with one connection each way (Calgary, Canada on the way there and Vancouver, Canada on the way home).

Food:

We ate at local “taquerias” (Mexican taco places) in the Mission District for dinners, usually a Cliff protein bar for lunches on the go, and we would buy groceries from local markets in the Mission District (eggs, yogurt, milk, fresh fruit and kombucha).

Transportation:

We used the BART train and MUNI city buses to get around San Francisco. The BART is a convenient option for getting to and from the San Francisco Airport. We also used BART when traveling from the Mission District to downtown San Francisco (Powell Street or The Embarcadero).

The MUNI buses were also easy to use and a great option for getting around the city.

A one-way ticket with BART costs $1.85 USD and a one-way MUNI bus ticket costs $2.25 USD. Taking the BART to and from the airport costs between $8.60 and $11.65 one-way.

Activities/Sights/Attractions:

The majority of the attractions that I visited during my stay in San Francisco were either completely free or very cheap. The only activity I paid money for ($37 USD) was touring the prison and island of Alcatraz.

Entire Trip Cost Per Person:

$1497.60 USD – This price includes flights, food, transportation, accommodations and the Alcatraz tour.

$959.24 USD – This price includes everything I spent in San Francisco, excluding the cost of flights.

Average Cost Per Day Per Person:

$159.87 USD per day which includes everything spent in San Francisco (excluding flights)

Breakdown of Travel Expenses – How Much Did I Spend?:

Activities/Sights/Attractions:

The only attraction that I paid money to see was a tour of Alcatraz, which costs $37 USD. All of the other attractions that I went to were completely free.

Flights:

I paid $538.36 CAD for my flight from Winnipeg, Canada to San Francisco, CA (with a connection in Calgary, Canada on the way there and Vancouver, Canada on the way back).

I purchased my flights about 7-8 weeks in advance of my trip, using the WestJet airline website. The flights had originally been priced at over $700 CAD, but I was searching the airline website on a Tuesday evening and noticed that they were now on sale. I ended up getting a great deal!

Food:

I spent a total of $162.49 USD for groceries and eating out while in San Francisco. I purchased groceries to make my own breakfasts, protein bars for lunches, ice cream, and tacos for dinners.

My average daily cost for food was $27.08 USD.

Transportation:

I spent $57.75 USD on transportation in San Francisco. This included the $17 one-day pass to ride the cable cars, as well as BART and MUNI tickets for getting around within the city and to and from the airport.

My average daily cost for transportation was $9.63 USD.

Accommodations:

I spent a total of $702 USD per person for six nights for the Airbnb apartment rental, which translates to $117 USD per night. Hotels in the downtown area of San Francisco would have been much more expensive.

Notable Expenses:
Alcatraz Tickets: $37 CAD
Cable Car One-Day Pass: $17 USD
Golden Gate Transit One-Way to Golden Gate Bridge: $5.25 USD

Tips for Budget Travel in San Francisco:

Here are some suggestions for keeping your budget down while traveling in San Francisco:

Travel in the off season:

The high season for travel to San Francisco is in September and early October. This is when the weather is the warmest and the sky is the clearest. The weather is usually foggy, chilly (average of 17 degrees Celsius) and windy during the summer months. You would see the least amount of tourists during the winter and spring months, although it can be rainy during these times. However, when you visit a destination in the off-season, you can expect to pay significantly less for hotels and flights, which would save you money.

Cook your own meals:

If you want to eat as cheap as possible, you can purchase groceries from a local market or supermarket and make your own meals. I made my own breakfasts and bought protein bars to eat for lunches, as we were often on the go exploring the city, with no time to stop and eat lunch.

Find Cheap or Free Activities:

Even though San Francisco is a touristy and expensive city to visit, there are so many free and cheap activities and things to see in the city if you are on a budget. You can check out my detailed guide to these attractions here. If you do a Google search for “free or cheap things to do in San Francisco,” you will get lots of results. The only attraction that I paid to visit was Alcatraz, which was very reasonably priced at $37 USD per person.

The Golden Gate Bridge, Mosaic Steps, Filbert and Greenwich Stairs, Lombard Street, Mission District, Haight-Ashbury, Golden Gate Park, The Painted Ladies, Buena Vista Park, Mission Dolores Park are all free to visit, and there are many more.

Some of the museums and gardens in the city also offer free admission during certain days of the month, or certain times of the day.

Use Airbnb Instead of Staying at a Hotel:

Airbnb is a website that allows homeowners in destinations all over the world, the ability to rent private rooms in their houses or apartments for a fee. Some people even rent out their entire homes. If you sign up for Airbnb using this link, you will get a $25 USD or $33 CAD credit that can be used towards your first booking!

Airbnb rentals are awesome because you can have the comforts of home, stay in a variety of neighbourhoods and not be limited to just the downtown or other touristy areas, and you have the opportunity to meet some of the locals who can provide you with great recommendations on things to do and places to eat in the city. You can find many rentals that are cheaper than the hotels in downtown San Francisco.

I enjoyed staying in an apartment in the Mission District. You can read more about my Airbnb experience here.

Use the Local Public Transportation Instead of Booking Tours:

The local transportation in San Francisco is easy to use and convenient, yet I saw so few tourists actually using it, which surprised me. I suppose the more popular thing to do is book organized tours to the attractions that you want to go to, however, you can save a lot of money if you choose to get where you want to go independently.

San Francisco has the Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) which is a subway-like train that take you from the airport to the Mission District and downtown San Francisco, as well to various suburbs. The MUNI city buses can take you everywhere within the city.

You can look up the train and bus schedules online or by using Google Maps.

How Did I Save Money for this Trip?

I have a separate savings account that I created through my online banking, which is my dedicated “travel fund.” On the morning of my pay day from my full-time job, I log in to online banking and immediately transfer $400 every two weeks from my primary savings where my check was direct deposited, into my travel fund. That equals a total of $800 CAD monthly that goes towards my travels. I know this sounds like a lot of money! But you can choose whatever amount you would like, depending on your financial situation, budget and current expenses and obligations.

I live with my parents and pay cheap rent, which definitely helps me save for travel faster. I also sacrifice a lot, in terms of my spending. I rarely go out to eat, I don’t drink alcohol, I don’t go to movies, I live minimally and frugally, I rarely go shopping unless it is for something that I need (and not just something I desire) and I eat a simple but healthy diet of mostly fresh fruits and vegetables. I also live about 5 minutes away from where I work and thus, save a lot of money on fuel for my car that way.

It’s not easy, but if traveling is a priority for you, you will have to find a way to make it happen and fit it into your budget. You will have to make sacrifices to save money. I suggest setting up a specific bank account for your travel fund and don’t touch the money in there, unless it’s for travel! Choose an amount of money that works for you and diligently transfer that amount to your travel savings whenever you get paid or set up your online banking to do it automatically, so you don’t forget.

San Francisco is a gorgeous city with so much charm, character, history and diversity. Although it is an expensive and touristy city, it is still a great destination for budget and independent travelers as well, and there are many ways that can cut down on your budget while traveling there.

Have you been to San Francisco? What was your budget like? How much did you spend?

Let me know in the comments.

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