Budget Travel in San Francisco

by Michelle · 8 comments

This is Michelle here and a big hello from San Francisco! I’m happy to say that after weeks of anticipation, Aaron and I managed to leave work and home behind for five wonderful days in California. Aaron’s eleven year vacation dry spell is officially broken, and we are both much more seasoned at travel planning as a result of this experience (thanks so much to everyone for the much appreciated tips and suggestions along the way!).

Our vacation started with two days in San Francisco. We tried to plan as much as we could before leaving our home base of Chicago, but there was still plenty to learn about budget travel in the City by the Bay. For instance:

Bring a Good Pair of Walking Shoes

One of the best ways to experience a new urban setting is to set out on foot and see how much ground you can cover. You not only see sights and attractions that you might have missed from the car or the bus, but you also save on transportation costs.

On our first day in San Francisco, Aaron and I were able to find plenty of entertainment just by walking. We started in the city’s Union Square neighborhood (a very fun shopping/tourism area) and were able to cover the Financial District, Chinatown, the North Beach (San Francisco’s Little Italy), and the Fisherman’s Wharf all in one day.
Here are just a few of the awesome/bizarre sites that we saw in these neighborhoods, absolutely free:

  • Locals making fortune cookies in a tucked-away storefront in Chinatown (Side Note: We picked up a bag of cookies for $1 and snacked on them all day!)
  • At least 300 sea lions sunbathing and making a ruckus on one of the piers near the Fisherman’s Wharf
  • A display of truly grotesque antique carnival machines (remember the creepy fortune teller game in the movie Big?), also near the Fisherman’s Wharf

Try the Local Shops and Restaurants

Patronizing local businesses doesn’t always help you save money, but it can certainly help you get to know a new place better (and isn’t that the point of taking a vacation?).

On our first morning in San Francisco, Aaron and I found the city blanketed in a thick fog. We wanted a hot beverage as badly as the next guy, but we breezed past the hotel Starbucks—where no less than 30 out-of-towners were queued up for lattes and overpriced scones—and headed to a local café to fill up on yummy omelets and doughnuts, all prepared in-house.

When I passed by a tiny Italian grocery store in the North Beach area later in the day, I earnestly wished that I had access to a kitchen so that I could do some cooking with this store’s unbelievable selection of fresh ingredients. Perhaps on my next trip I’ll look for lodging in places other than hotels.

I did, however, make sure to have a tasty cannoli before leaving the North Beach.

Seek Out the Advice of a Local

Aaron and I are lucky to have a local friend, Ellen, who was able to show us the ropes. She told us where to get free chocolate samples and also steered us toward the famous Irish coffees at the Buena Vista Café. The morning fog had lifted but the chill in the San Francisco air never did, and the savory treats provided some much needed relief.

We saw and learned a lot in San Francisco, but we still had wine country to cover on our brief tour of the Golden State.

Editors note: If you’ve been doubting my advice in the budget travel book, now there’s some solid proof that people do have fun on vacations practicing some of the tips I talked about. As I always say, you can go to fancy restaurants, buy fancy clothes and go on vacations all the time while still saving lots of your money. It’s not what you do but how you do it that matters most.

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • FinanciallySmart says:

    Your advice is right on target and once a persons is actually willing to enjoy his/her vacation then there will be no problem following the steps you outline. Wish you all the best on your vacation.

  • Ann says:

    I recently spent 4 days in our Capitol City. Between several historic and notable landmarks, a museum, the zoo (small entrance fee), and the longest pedestrian bridge over a dam, the total cost of visiting great, fun sites was around $10. There are wonderful free locations where you can find entertainment and interest without having to pay for all kinds of pricey tickets. Using a camping trailer cuts hotel costs and gives you the comforts of home, too. Camping fees are very low and a great bargain.

  • Lee says:

    Glad to see you guys finally got away. Have a great time 🙂

  • Financial Samurai says:

    Whoo hoo. Welcome to San Francisco, the most beautiful city in America. 🙂 You guys enjoying the weather?

    If you get a chance, drive to the Palace of Fine Arts, park, walk around and walk all down the coast in The Marina area where Chrissy Field is. I would say this is probably a Top 5 hike in the country, and it’s flat ground.

    Will write more tips later, as I gotta go to work. 🙂

    • Michelle says:

      Unfortunately the San Francisco part of our trip ended a few days ago, but it was a blast. I enjoyed the range of weather we had, from the chilly/foggy mornings to the sunny afternoons by the bay. You have a great town 🙂

      • Financial Samurai says:

        Ah, that’s too bad Michelle. But, glad you enjoyed it. I just finished playing some tennis down near the Embarcadero, and had happy hour next to the pool with some dogs and beer. It’s been a great week weather wise.

        Next week will be Fleet Week, with the Blue Angles in town. It is the absolute BEST. Come back again now ya hear? 🙂

        Once I experienced the west coast after living on the east coast for 10 years, I don’t think I can ever go back.

  • Laura says:

    Next time make sure to get a warm beverage (Irish Coffee is their specialty) at the Buena Vista near Ghiradelli…
    been there forever, and SO good.
    On the frugal side, the walk from Pier 39 to Ghardelli is full of entertaining street performers. Just watch out for the bush men…

    • Jason says:

      Wow. The local’s idea is really awesome. It would be great if someone can somehow set something up where all locals talk about budget travel ideas in their own city that’s not filled with spam and advertising from merchants.

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