A blog about spending wisely in your twenties, with advice on everything from cooking to saving money on gas; how to teach yourself to save money instead of spending it, traveling without breaking the bank, and much more.

Friday, March 21, 2008

San Francisco on the Cheap

How to Spend a Few Days in:
San Francisco
...and come home with a positive bank balance.

Note: Most of these guides will be somewhat California-centric until I can get some guest posters in this category.

Getting There
(1) By Train: If you're leaving from the LA/OC area, as most of my current readers are likely to be, I cannot recommend going by train enough. Taking the Amtrak Coast Starlight from Union Station in LA to Jack London Square in Oakland costs between $120 - $140 per person, round trip, less if you're a student or if you have AAA. The seats are HUGE, there's an insane amount of legroom, and the trip is beautiful. You see parts of California you might never see otherwise. Be careful when you book, many LA-SF Amtrak routes require time on a bus. These fares are cheaper, but they defeat the purpose of taking the train in the first place. Taking the Starlight from LA to Oakland and then BARTing into the city is a much more pleasant trip. Downside: It takes about 10 hours, not including any delays that might crop up, and the food onboard is expensive and not that great. I recommend packing a light lunch, snacks, and dinner.
(2) By Bus: Greyhound has some great fares, generally about $80 for a refundable ticket and $45 for a non refundable ticket from LA to San Francisco. There's also the California Shuttle Bus with fares between $45 and $60. The biggest disadvantage to bus travel is the lack of freedom to move around. The biggest advantage is the fare, of course.
By car: With gas prices trending upward the way they are, I do NOT recommend this option unless you've got a full car and you're all splitting the gas. Even then, parking is expensive in San Francisco ($25 a night, at least). So unless you're splitting those costs between three or more people, ouch. If you're going in a group, my best advice is to get a one way rental for the trip up, and another for the trip home. And if you must take your own car, park in a remote lot outside of the city and take the BART (subway) in.
By air: If you're flying from anywhere on the western seaboard and you can find roundtrip tickets for significantly less than taking the train, then you should definitely fly. If you're flying from farther away, the usual tips for cheap airfare apply, shop around, buy in advance and fly on off-peak days, like Mondays or Tuesdays.

Where to Stay
Hostels: Thanks to bad movies and a general misconception of a what a hostel is, most people avoid them. Perhaps others don't realize that hostels exist outside of Europe. Whatever the reason, I find that many people don't even think to book their lodging at a hostel. Beds in a dorm room can run anywhere from $12-20ish a night, and private rooms anywhere from $24-$40 a night, still a significant savings over nearly any hotel that isn't completely seedy. I've stayed at the Amsterdam on Taylor Street and the nearby Adelaide. I stayed in a private room at the Amsterdam for about a week, with its own bathroom, a dresser/wardrobe, a fridge and a microwave. No TV, but I seldom even watch TV at home- and why on earth anyone would spend so much money travelling just to watch TV in their room is beyond me. The Amsterdam boasts free wireless and free all-you-can-eat belgian waffles in the morning (I advise you get there early.) I've stayed in dorm rooms at the Adelaide, which are generally segregated by gender, and include a sink/mirror in room (the bathroom w/shower is seperate), and a locker (bring your own lock). The Adelaide also boasts free internet, but the breakfast isn't as good. If you're traveling as a couple, a private room is the best choice. If you're travelling alone or in a group, I'd advise a dorm room.
Hotels: As with travelling by car, I really only recommend this option if you're in a group and splitting the cost. Even then, you're most likely going to be paying double or triple what you'd be paying at a hostel. Unless you know someone in the industry with a significant discount, you should opt for one of the hostels.
With Friends: Really the best option if you're alone or in a group and it's available to you. If you're travelling as a couple...well, crashing on your buddy's couch for more than a night or two might get old. If your gracious host is still working while you are on vacation/visiting, that might also be a negative. A combo of a buddy's house + a few nights at a hostel is also a great idea.
Couchsurfing: I've never couchsurfed myself, but I hear it's great fun if you're up for it.

Getting Around

(1) Public Transit: San Francisco has one of the best public transit systems in the country. Please, I beg of you, use it. If you're only going for a day or two opt for a day pass. If you're staying more than a few days, go ahead and opt for the 3 or 7 day Muni Pass. MUNI is the bus/light rail system that covers pretty much the entire city. BART covers a few major stations in San Francisco, and a significant chunk of the East Bay.
(2) Your Feet: San Francisco has a land area of less than 50 square miles. You can walk most places. Unless the hill is too steep or your feet are too tired. Then you can hop on MUNI.
(3) Taxis: Please don't take cabs unless you're somehow nowhere near a bus stop and it's really late at night and you're to tired/drunk to stumble back to your lodging.

What to See
(1) Museums: If you go during the first week of the month, you can get into some of the best museums for free, not to mention the San Francisco Zoo. Here's a guide to their usual admission prices:

Free on the First Tuesday of the Month
SF Museum of Modern Art (MOMA): $12.50 Adult / $7 Student
Asian Art Museum: $12 Adult / $7 Student
Legion of Honor (Fine Arts Museum): $10 Adult
de Young (Fine Arts Museum in GG Park): $10 Adult / $6 Student + any special exhibition fees
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts: $7 Adult / $5 Student
Cartoon Art Museum: $6 Adult / $4 Student
Museum of Craft & Folk Art: $5 Adult
Conservatory of Flowers (in GG Park): $5 Adult / $3 Student
California Historical Society: $3 Adult / $1 Student

Free on the First Wednesday of the Month
California Academy of Sciences: closed until September 2008
Exploratorium: $14 Adult / $11 Student
San Francisco Zoo: $11 Adults

I've only profiled the first week of the month because that's when most of the "big ones" are free. Don't go to a museum just because it's free, check out their websites, figure out which ones you'd most like to visit, then make your decisions based on normal admission fees. Many museums are cheap if you've got a student ID, so there's a little more wiggle room there.
(2) Landmarks: The Golden Gate Bridge, Fisherman's Wharf, Lombard Street, The Full House House (Alamo Square), the Palace of Fine Arts, Coit Tower, the list goes on and on, and most of them are free. Some San Francisco landmarks can be visited with little fear of someone waving an overpriced t-shirt in your face. Some (read: Fisherman's Wharf) cannot. Here's the thing about Fisherman's Wharf, it can be a lot of fun, and there's a lot of to see, but most of it is insanely overpriced and not really very interesting. Go for the Sea Lions though, and stand across the street and watch the Bushman scare the crap out of the other tourists. Just please don't buy any stupid overpriced Alcatraz souvenirs. If you realllly want an "Alcatraz Escapee" shirt that you'll never wear, check a local Goodwill.

Speaking of Alcatraz, don't even thinking about trying to get out to that island unless you've bought tickets in advance. If you try to buy them at the Pier, you're going to get reamed

Food & Dining

(1) Bring Snacks. Don't wait until you're hungry to scavenge for food. Hit up the nearest Safeway and stock up on some water bottles, juice boxes, granola bars, fruit, or other healthy, filling snacks. These aren't meant to replace meals, just to get you through the urge to buy overpriced goodies to snack on. That way, you'll have more money to spend on dinner.
(2) Plan Meals Ahead. Have at least a vague idea of where you'd like to have your meals. Do a little research (SF Gate Food & Dining, Citysearch) before you go. Plan to have dinner near whatever attraction you'll be visiting in the later half of the day.
(3) Eat Within Your Means. Don't blow your money on eating at an upscale restaurant every night. You are on vacation, so one really nice meal isn't anything to beat yourself up over, but there are hundreds of moderately priced restaurants with amazing cuisine all over the city. There's really no excuse to be paying more than $15 a person, TOPS. Food is the easiest category to blow all of your money on, so really watch this.

I am aware that most of these tips can be applied for traveling almost anywhere. I reserve the right to come back and edit this post to make it more and more applicable to SF only. This guide is far from exhaustive, but I wanted to present the idea that it is entirely possible to spend a week's vacation in a major city for less than $1000 for two people if you plan even just a little bit ahead. I'll be adapting this into an exhaustive non-destination specific guide in a few weeks.

1 comment:

Darryl said...

Another option while traveling is to bring a tent. I say this as one of the least outdoorsy human beings on the planet, but depending on where you're headed and what your interests are (ie, maybe nature?) you can look into nearby cheap campsites.