Family Travel To San Francisco On A Budget? Yes, It’s Possible – Here’s How!

Posted in Frugal Travel
on March 2, 2019

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When I told people that I wanted to take a family trip to San Francisco on a tight budget, everyone pretty much said the same thing: good luck with that!

San Francisco has the reputation of being one of the most expensive cities to visit in the US. I love a good frugal travel challenge, so I decided I would plan a family trip to San Francisco to see visit my brother and see how it went.

I’m happy to report that not only did we have an AMAZING time in the Bay Area, but we also did it all on the cheap. I’m sharing my tips and tricks for budget-friendly travel to San Francisco with kids in this post so you can do the same!

Tip #1: Use Points For A Free Stay at the Hyatt Regency

Our room at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco

I quickly learned that accommodations are generally very expensive in downtown San Francisco. We wanted to stay downtown so we could meet my brother on his college campus easily.

So I started researching where we could stay on hotel points using one of my favorite budget travel tools, Award Mapper

Hyatt Regency Lobby

I discovered that we could stay at the gorgeous Hyatt Regency San Francisco for 20,000 Hyatt points per night.

It has a convenient location near the historic Ferry Building in an area called Embarcadero. It was easy to get to campus from there on a bus. So I used points earned from opening the Chase World of Hyatt card to book our stay there!

You can click here to learn more about the Hyatt card (this is my referral link). We were able to stay at the Hyatt Regency for totally free on points when the out-of-pocket cost to stay here was about $500 per night!

There was supposed to be a $25 per night “destination fee”, but we were never charged this, possibly because we were staying on points. So we were able to stay three nights in San Francisco totally for free on points. 

If collecting hotel points isn’t your thing, then I suggest scoping out an affordable place to stay on Hotwire or Priceline

Tip #2: Find Affordable Things To Do With Kids

My second tip for visiting San Francisco on a budget is to find cheap things to do with kids. The places we went and things we did in San Francisco were super affordable, and I feel like we got a good taste of what the city has to offer. 

Here are the things to do with kids that I recommend:

  • Trolley ride
  • Chinatown visit
  • Lands End hiking trails
  • Legion of Honor Museum
  • Historic ferry building
  • Day trip to Muir Woods

You can get all of the details on each of these activities in my post about affordable things to do with kids in San Francisco. Here are a few highlights:

We rode the iconic San Francisco trolley up steep California street. It was a thrilling ride, especially when we sat on the seats facing outward! 

Riding the trolley one-way costs $7 per person, which I think is totally worth it for the unique experience. 

We explored the shops, bakeries, and restaurants in Chinatown for the first part of one day. It was a great source of cheap eats and souvenirs plus it feels very exotic there (especially to kids). 

Hiking around Land’s End was a highlight for me – how gorgeous is this California coastline? This is a free activity with great views of the Golden Gate bridge.

We also took an affordable day trip to see the giant redwoods in Muir Woods.

This national monument is located outside of Sausalito, across the bay from San Francisco. It was the highlight of the trip for me.

Just the ferry ride we took to get to Sausalito was spectacular. We can learn how to put this day trip to Muir Woods and Sausalito together for yourself in this post.

We saved $60 per person compared to what a tour company would charge for the exact same trip since I planned out the transportation myself. It does take the better part of a day but the trip to Muir Woods is worth it, I promise!

Tip #3: Find Affordable Eats in San Francisco

We were able to get some delicious and cheap food at the Ferry Building, which was right across the street from our hotel. There seemed to be a mix between locals and tourists there, which is a good sign that the food isn’t outrageously priced. This lovely rose-flavored macaroon was $2. 

We got empanadas for lunch one day at the Ferry Building and this filling spinach and bacon empanada was $6. My daughter ate hers in its entirety, which is the ultimate compliment from a 5-year-old, right?

There are tons of pizza places in San Francisco, so we went to one close to campus one night with my brother. We all split this huge salad and pizza from Little Star Pizza and the total was less than $15 per person, which is an excellent price for eating out in the city. 

We also found some cheap eats in Chinatown, like these yummy potstickers and requisite bubble tea. You must have Asian food while visiting San Francisco, and some of the best (and cheapest) options are found in Chinatown.

Our hotel was a 5-10 minute walk from a grocery store in a residential neighborhood. We walked down there to get supplies for eating breakfast in our room, fresh fruit, snacks for when we were on the go, and a bottle of wine. 

I always try to find a grocery store close to our hotel or I order groceries to be delivered to our hotel with Instacart. This saves us SO much money on our frequent travels!

If you get some groceries, steer clear of tourist traps (like Fisherman’s Wharf), and avoid pricey table service restaurants, you can definitely eat on the cheap on your trip to San Francisco. 

Tip #4: Use Public Transportation & Uber – DON’T Rent a Car

If you are visiting San Francisco on a budget, you’ll want to avoid renting a car. Parking downtown is incredibly expensive (hotel parking costs $40-$80 per night) plus the cost of the rental car. 

Public transportation and Uber are the best budget-friendly options for getting around. You can take buses, ferries, and even trolleys to easily get where you are going. 

Goofing around on the BART train

We took the BART train from the airport directly to our hotel. It took about 30 minutes and cost $9.65 each way for an adult ticket. You can get your ticket at the machines at the airport.

If you will be traveling with kids I highly suggest you order a free Youth Clipper Card ahead of time here. With this card, the trip from the airport is only $4.55 each way per child. So you’ll save $10 round trip just for doing some leg work in advance of your trip!

We took a bus to get to the University of San Francisco campus for only a few dollars each. There was an express route with minimal stops which was really convenient. I did all of my public transport research with the Google Maps app on my phone, which showed me pick-up and drop-off times as well as cost. 

On one of many Uber rides

We also took many shared Uber and Lyft rides to get around. Since there are so many people using rideshares in the city, you can get really affordable rides if you are willing to share with another rider. It will take a little bit of extra time but sometimes the cost was half of having a car to ourselves.

#5: Get Cheap Flights To San Francisco

I always suggest using Google Flights to find cheap flights for your family travel. Our flight home to Raleigh Durham on Alaska Airlines was only $99 – a fantastic price for a cross-country flight! I only had to buy one ticket since I had enough Alaska miles for one of our tickets. 

I also used miles to fly us out to the west coast on Delta. If you are new to leveraging credit card bonuses for free travel, check out my post on the five best credit cards for free travel with points and miles.

So in total, I spent $99 plus the taxes on our award flights booked with airline miles. Keeping flight costs down helps us travel to places like San Francisco.

I hope you got some inspiration for family travel to San Francisco on a budget in this post! Any questions? Please leave a comment below or send me a message on The Frugal South’s Facebook page.

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  • Tyler Johnson

    I like the idea of using public transportation to get around. I would think that would let you see some parts of the city that you normally wouldn’t. If I go on a trip to San Francisco, then I’ll have to look into some public transportation options.

    August 26, 2019 at 2:12 pm Reply
  • Affordable Things To Do With Kids In San Francisco - The Frugal South

    […] We took a quick family trip to San Francisco recently and were able to visit on the cheap thanks to all of these tips for visiting San Francisco on a budget. […]

    March 2, 2019 at 12:10 pm Reply
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