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For the past few trips I’ve taken I’ve been keeping track of my travel expenses, via an excel spreadsheet (cool, right?). Last year I shared a budget breakdown for Oslo, Norway. Today I’m sharing my budget breakdown for San Francisco. I went with two friends to celebrate our collective 35th birthdays. We landed in San Francisco on the afternoon of May 5, and left early the afternoon of May 10. San Francisco has become one of the most expensive cities (to live) in the US. Does this translate to a pricey trip? Let’s find out.
Note: Prices in this budget are in Canadian dollars, unless otherwise noted. You can visit xe.com to see prices in your local currency.
I booked my flight with WestJet for $326.87. I had a short layover in Vancouver on the way down and a longer layover in Calgary on the way back. I booked the super economy fare, which meant I could only take carry-on luggage. The super economy fare also means I was assigned a seat for my flights. I could have picked my own seats for an extra cost, but I didn’t.
We decided to stay a hostel close to downtown. We booked a 4 bed dorm with an ensuite (only taking 3 beds of course). We each paid $37.64 for the deposit to hold our beds.
My one friend convinced us to buy an Explorer Pass from Costco. This let us pick four different attractions to visit for $100 Canadian. We used it for a 2-day hop on/off tour with Big Bus ($67), a Bridge 2 Bridge Cruise ($60), the California Academy of Sciences ($41), and The Walt Disney Family Museum ($33). Without this pass those attractions would have cost over $200, so it was a great deal. We also decided to pre-buy tickets for Alcatraz, which cost $54.30 per person.
I bought travel insurance for $20 (always get travel insurance), and a US simcard for my phone for $10.45. I also purchased a data plan for the simcard with Roam Mobility for $21.95. Unfortunately, during our trip the plan did not work, but customer service refunded me the $21.95. I’d bought the simcard from a gas station and they offered to send a replacement one if I wanted. By that point in the trip it was too late.
Return flights: $326.87
Hostel Deposit: $37.64
San Francisco Explorer Pass: $100.00
Alcatraz Ticket: $54.30
Travel Insurance: $20.00
Phone Plan: $21.95, but it got refunded due to it not working.
Total Pre-trip Cost: $549.26
Day 1 – May 5
I got dropped off at the airport, and got a drink and breakfast sandwich from Starbucks. I redeemed some stars making it cheaper than normal. When we got to Vancouver’s Airport I picked up a bottle of water and some chickpea snacks for lunch.
After we landed in SFO we took the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train to Powell Street Station, close to our hostel. I put $13.48 ($10US) on my ticket not realizing the trip would only cost $9.65. I kept the ticket to reload for the end of the trip.
We had to pay for our balance for the hostel at check in, which came to $221.46. After dropping off our bags it was time for supper, so we wandered over to an Irish pub (Johnny Foley’s). I got a glass of cider and fish and chips for $48.51. Then we went to Trader Joe’s mostly because we don’t have that in Canada and I wanted to check it out. I got some snacks, spices (the everything but the bagel mix) and coconut milk for my coffee. I spent $14.50 at Trader Joe’s.
Starbucks drink and breakfast sandwich at YEG: $4.99
Bottle Water and Chickpea snack at YVR: $9.30
BART from SFO to Powell Street: $13.48
Balance for 4-bed Hostel Dorm: $221.46
Dinner and drinks at Johnny Foley’s Irish Pub: $48.51
Groceries from Trader Joe’s: $14.50
Total Cost Day 1: $312.24
Day 2 – May 6
Our hostel had a complimentary breakfast, so I grabbed some coffee and toast to start the day. We wanted to do the Hop On/Off Bus Tour on our first day (this was in the Explorer Pass we’d bought). We thought it was a one day tour with a bonus stop on the second day. Turns out it was for 2 days, so we used the hop on/off bus as our transportation the first two days.
We rode around and listened to the audio tour. Some of the tours had live guides, but the first bus we went on didn’t. We got off at Pier 39 to wander around. My friend likes to go to Hard Rock Cafes when she travels and she collects their drinking glasses, so we went there for lunch. I got a patty melt on sourdough and a coke for $37.70.
After we wandered around some souvenir shops. I got a pressed penny. It was from the Left-Hand shop (I’m a lefty) that says “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” It cost $1.36 (or $1.01 US).
My other expenses included getting a towel from the hostel ($1.34), and buying some snacks from Walgreens ($5.84). We also had dinner at Chipotle. My burrito bowl and drink cost $16.11, and was quite filling. We spent the evening playing cards at the hostel because that’s what you do when you’re old.
Hard Rock Cafe Lunch: $37.70
Pressed Penny Souvenir: $1.36
Chipotle Dinner: $16.11
Candy from Walgreens: $5.84
Towel from Hostel: $1.34
Total Cost Day 2: $62.35
Day 3 – May 7
Breakfast again was at the hostel for free. We used our Hop On/Off bus fare to get around the city today. We stopped off to take pictures of the famous Victorian houses (The Painted Ladies) at Alamo Square. We then went to the California Academy of Sciences, which was included in our pass. This was a great Natural History Museum. At their cafe I got a coffee $4.17.
Then we went back into the city and wandered around Fisherman’s Wharf, and then went to Chinatown. We stopped at The Golden Gate Cookie Factory (where fortune cookies were first made) and got to try one. My friends also bought a few flavoured ones to try. We had dinner at Slurp Ramen, where I had the delicious shio tonkotsu ramen and a coke ($23.50). After dinner we went stopped at a gelato shop and I got sorbet (lychee and lime and basil) $9.31. Then we went back to hostel and played cards because old.
Coffee at the California Academy of Sciences: $4.17
Chasu Pork Ramen from Slurp Ramen: $23.50
Day 3 Total: $37.28
Day 4 – May 8
We woke up early for the free hostel breakfast, because we were going to Alcatraz and our ferry left at 9am. After breakfast we stopped at a ticket kiosk outside Powell Station to get a Clipper Card. This is a card that’s valid for transit around the Bay Area (some exceptions apply). You can load it with funds and pay per ride, or load it with a pass. We put on a day pass, so we wouldn’t need to worry about having enough money for whatever transit we’d need. The Clipper Card and day pass was $20.73
We took F-Line Tram down to Pier 33, where the Alcatraz Ferry leaves from. The ferry ride was about 10 minutes, and we spent a couple of hours at Alcatraz. After Alcatraz we went for lunch at Boudin Bakery. It’s said this is where sourdough bread was first made. I got a crab melt (on sourdough of course) and a coke for $24.85. Then we spent a few minutes at Musée Mechanique, which is an arcade with a bunch of games from early 1900’s to now. It’s free to enter and most games cost 25 cents (quarters only) to play. I did 3 games for $1.04 (75 cents US).
That afternoon we went on the Bridge2Bridge Cruise, which was included in our pass. We went out to the Golden Gate Bridge, and then to the Oakland Bridge. It was a 90-minute tour and pretty interesting, although I did get a bit of sunburn on my hands and forehead. Remember put sunscreen on your hands too, and don’t scratch the sunscreen off your forehead.
After we decided to ride one of the famous San Francisco cable cars. We got in line at the Powell/Hyde Turnaround and it took about 45 minutes to board. The cable car is 100% for tourists. It’s $7US one-way, so having day pass for $15US was a good choice. If you ride the cable car twice in a day, then you’ve pretty much paid for your pass. We rode it up to the free Cable Car Museum, or tried to. Turns out they were doing work on the Powell/Hyde line, so part of our cable car journey included a free bus shuttle. The cable car museum is free and really interesting. I emptied out the spare change I had on me into a donation bin (only about 41 cents).
Then we took a bus back to downtown and went to Mel’s Diner for supper. I got a burger and coke ($31.79). We also stopped at Target and I got some Ghirardelli Chocolates because chocolate ($10.96). Then we partied hard. Just kidding went to the hostel and pretty much passed out from being exhausted.
Playing 3 Games at Musee Mechanique: $1.04
Cable Car Museum Donation: $0.41
Burger and Coke at Mel’s Diner: $31.79
Ghirardelli Chocolates from Target: $10.96
Day 4 Total:$89.78
Day 5 – May 9
This was our last full day in San Francisco, and after breakfast we decided to go to The Walt Disney Family Museum. We went to Powell Street to put another day pass on our Clipper Card ($16.19). We spent a good couples hours at this museum, which is in The Presidio (a massive park and former military fort). It’s an interesting museum, and I could have spent more time there. If we had more time in San Francisco I would have loved to see more of The Presidio as well.
We took a bus back to Ghirardelli Square, close to the Powell/Hyde Street Cable Car Turnaround. We went to the San Francisco Brewing Company for lunch. I got the Alcatraz Amber Ale, and a fried chicken sandwich for $41.95. I was pretty stuffed, but not too full to get a free Ghirardelli chocolate from the Ghirardelli Store. If you want the free chocolate make sure to go to the one on the 2nd level, not the ice cream shop on the ground floor.
My friends decided to wander and check out the Hyde Street Pier. It’s free to wander on the pier, but you have to pay to get onto the ships. My friends went, and I stayed back because my feet were killing me. Instead I watched some crazy swimmers in the water (it was so cold I was wearing mittens and a scarf). After we waited in line to get back on the cable car and ride it toward Lombard Street. We all agreed driving down Lombard Street would be insane. You can walk down the street and take some photos that way.
After we took the bus toward one of the other cable car lines. Since the Powell/Hyde line was being worked on and had a bus shuttle for part of it’s service. We decided to go on the California line, which was fully operational all the way. Plus the couple of cable rides we’d been on we got put in the centre seats. We wanted to try to get a side seat facing out to the street. Turns out that was a good plan. The California Line isn’t as busy as the Powell/Hyde line, and we got to sit on the seats facing out. And then I decided to stand on the platform and that is the funnest thing ever. Touristy as all heck, but fun.
We got off on the one end and walked over to Bob’s Donuts, which is a famous 24 hour donut shop in San Francisco. The donuts here are pretty delicious. I got a couple, but took one back for later (total cost $6.15). We then rode the cable car back to the other end (and took lots of photos and videos on the way). Also the one trolley operator we had for our ride was hilarious. Good times.
We wandered back toward our hostel. My one friend was starting to get hungry so we found a casual Mexican restaurant (Taqueria El Sol). I got a fish taco and a hibiscus drink. I didn’t realize how much food there would be here. It was delicious, but I ate way too much. Dinner was $19.28. And once again after we went back to the hostel and hung out (and started packing to leave tomorrow).
Day Pass on Clipper Card: $16.19
Chicken Sandwich and Coke at San Francisco Brewing Company: $41.95
Apple Fritter and Glazed Donut from Bob’s Donuts: $6.15
Supper at Taqueria El Sol: $19.28
Day 5 Total:$83.57
Day 6 – May 10
This was the day we were all heading back home, so there isn’t too much excitement to report here. I had breakfast at the hostel, and a leftover donut from the day before. When we had checked into our hostel we each paid $5 for a key deposit, so we got that back when we checked out. My one friend was heading home to Vancouver so we said goodbye in San Francisco. My other friend and I were heading back to Edmonton, via Calgary.
I put money on my one train ticket from day one (that had a small balance on it). It cost $12.85 to get to the airport. I got a pack of gum and a candy bar at SFO, and using the $5 I got back this only cost me $0.39 (this cost had been included in the hostel balance I paid on Day 1). The only other expense I had this day was having dinner when we got to Calgary Airport. We went to Chili’s and I got some chicken fingers and a drink for $24.16. Aside from our flight from Calgary to Edmonton being delayed slightly everything went well.
Train Ticket to SFO: $12.85
Gum and candy bar: $0.39
Supper at Chilli’s in Calgary Airport: $24.16
Day 6 Total:$37.40
Grand Total for the whole trip: $1171.88
Takeaways on My San Francisco Budget
San Francisco was a bit pricey, but nearly as bad as I thought (I think going to cities like Oslo and Copenhagen last year and in 2017 put things in perspective). My biggest expenses were transportation (which cost $390.12), food and drinks ($333.76), and accommodation ($259.10). With the Canadian dollar being much lower than the US dollar I knew my $30 lunches would be a bit more pricey for me, but I think I did pretty well. We could have saved money by eating in the hostel kitchen, but we were usually out and about and rushing back to cook some spaghetti or another cheap hostel dish didn’t seem worth it.
One thing that did help me was using a bank card that allowed me free withdrawals at Bank of America. Obviously I had to pay whatever the conversion rate was at the time, but with my Tangerine bank card I didn’t have to pay any extra fees. Same with my credit card. I used my Home Trust Visa, which has no foreign conversion fees, you just pay whatever the exchange rate is.
I am also very glad my friend convinced us to get that Explorer Pass. I’m usually hesitant when buying travel/attraction passes because often there are restrictions that make it not worthwhile. Or in order to get your money’s worth you have to rush around and try to cram in a whole bunch of stuff making for a stressful trip. This Explorer Pass was a really good deal, and we got our money’s worth. There were about 20 or so different attractions we could have chosen, but I’m happy with what we did.
Finally, getting a Clipper Card for the last couple of days was a good deal. As I mentioned before if you take the cable car it’s $7 (US) one-way, and the card is $3 (US) with $12 (US) for the day pass. If you ride the cable twice in a day, and even take the bus, or tram, or subway at any point then you’ve got your money’s worth.
If we had another day or two I would have wanted to spend some more time in The Presidio, or wander around the shops in Haight-Asbury (which we saw from the hop on/off bus). All things considered I got to see and visit most of the stuff I wanted in San Francisco. I really enjoyed my trip here and I’d definitely visit again.
Things You Should Know
While in San Francisco my friends and I stayed at the Orange Village Hostel in a 4-bed dorm that had a small ensuite bathroom. The hostel is close the Powell Street Station, has the BART to SFO. You can book your stay at the Orange Village Hostel here.
Of course there are plenty of accommodation options if you don’t want to to the budget route. Book your hotel in San Francisco here.
Have you been to San Francisco? What would you do there?