Simply put, San Francisco is expensive. According to CBS Money Watch, San Francisco made the list as a fourth most expensive city in America, behind Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Honolulu. But we don't want to cut out the Bay City just because it's expensive. Resplendent with beauty, full of vivacious charm and historical integrity, San Francisco is a top runner for student travel. There are certainly ways of doing the city on a budget and we're here to show you how!
First of all, the hotel is probably what's going to get you the most. Here, hotel rooms cost a staggering average of $397 a night according to the Bloomberg report, as of this June. This is even higher than Geneva, Switzerland, and Milan, Italy. But the way around this only takes a little finesse and some cooperation. If you're traveling in a large-ish student group, you and your friends could bunk together in a budget hotel and take down the per-person cost to a more reasonable level. (The San Ramo Hotel, a two-star hotel, averages at about $130 depending on the season. There are others with similar prices.) Or, if you don't have a chaperone and you want to try it, the hostels in San Fran are popular among the young crowd. Airbnb and other house-share programs are also popular budget-friendly saving tools but if you're set on a traditional hotel, maybe going outside the city limits is your best bet. Just going a little further out to Oakland, perhaps even near the airport, can get you very affordable hotels.
Transportation is another budget buster if you don't plan it out. Let me give you this piece of advice, though: Don't drive in San Francisco. It's a waste of money and time and will give you a headache. The city has a pretty good Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) program that crisscrosses the entire city and even goes out to the Oakland and San Francisco Airports. If you have a hotel near the airport, that's even better because they can pick you up and chauffeur you into the city for some touring fun. It costs a fraction of what you'd pay in taxis or gas and parking with your own car, and the drivers know the city back to front. While you're in the city, though, you might just want to hop on a cable car if only for the novelty of it.
Now we get to the fun stuff. After we get lodging and transportation taken care of, you'll want to know about the food. Traveling in a group is always a good idea, for several reasons. Not only can you take down the per-person cost of lodging but you can do the same with your meals - and you share your experiences with friends! Isn't that nice? Anyway, San Francisco is packed to the brim with restaurants and the price may vary drastically depending on what neighborhood you're in at the time. The most expensive neighborhoods, where the cost of living is higher overall, include Presidio Heights, Pacific Heights, and Sea Cliff. Areas like Chinatown and the Mission District have more of a variety and are, frankly, more fun to walk through. The website sfgate.com has a fantastic "advanced search" function on their restaurant finder that can narrow down restaurants by budget and rating, making it easier for you to find budget-friendly eateries. Oftentimes, Chinese food establishments tend to be the least expensive choices and what better place to have Chinese food than the largest Chinatown outside of Asia? Some of the highly-rated budget-friendly restaurants include El Farolito on Mission Street, Michelangelo Cafe, and the House of Nanking.
Finally, we come to touring attractions. San Francisco, like I said before, is insanely expensive and they can really get you at the admission prices for your attractions. The plus side is that San Francisco is best seen by foot and a mere walking tour, which is free, is the ideal way to go. You can visit the Fisherman's Wharf for free and see the sea lions play at
Pier 39, head up to Coit Tower (going up costs money) and take pictures of the Crookedest Street in the World, Lombard Street. The Painted Ladies, as seen in Full House, are a popular photo opp, as is the Dragon Gate of Chinatown and the Golden Gate Bridge. There are plenty of free things to do such as visiting the
historic San Francisco City Hall and the San Francisco Opera House, the Transamerica Pyramid building and the Palace of Fine Arts, all of which offer free walking tours. Union Square Shopping Center is another popular destination, as is Ghiradelli Square where you can shop, eat, learn about the history of the city and Ghiradelli chocolate, and have some tasty cocoa creations.
You're probably going to want to visit Alcatraz, the famous island-based prison in the Bay, and while the prison itself is free to see, the ferry ticket costs big bucks. If you get something like the San Francisco GO Card, a tourism card that gets you into several attractions for free, you can get your money back in the sites you visit. However, the GO Cards can be tricky as you only get your money's worth if you see a lot of sites, and seeing more sites hikes the price of the card up. It's worth looking into but make sure your budget can handle it before you commit. See our blog here on the pros and cons of the tourism cards! There are also websites and ways to get discount theater tickets and it's recommended that you check which events are going on in the city before you visit. There's bound to be a free festival happening somewhere that'll be exciting and unique to see.
Here's my final say: As long as you're aware of the expense of San Francisco before you go, and budget your hotel accordingly, you'll be absolutely fine. The city is phenomenally gorgeous and definitely best seen by foot - even if the hills are a bit of a climb - and there are plenty of experiences throughout the city that can fit into your budget. You just have to be a little discerning. No matter what you decide on, your student group is bound to have a blast in San Francisco!