From luxury resorts to funky motor inns to charming B&Bs, San Francisco is more than accommodating to its 15.7 million annual guests. Most of the city’s 200-plus hotels cluster near Union Square, but smaller, independent gems are scattered around town. Stay in the heart of the tourist action for easy access to shopping and museums or shack up in the city’s quieter residential neighborhoods for a more authentic, local experience. Whatever you do, the city’s small enough that you’ll have easy access to everything you want to do and see.
Expensive: $250 and up
Inexpensive: Under $150
The Price You'll Pay
With the average price for a double room topping $200 per night, occupancy rates as high as 90 percent in peak season, and $300 hotel rooms going through $75 through Priceline on an off night, getting a good deal on a bed in this city is a bit like playing roulette—you never know what number will come up. If you have your heart set on a particular neighborhood or hotel, by all means book it. But you're likely to save money if you shop around, check the discount hotel sites, and stay in neighborhoods less central than Union Square.
Getting the Best Deal
All rates showcase the low and high end of each hotel’s price structure. Since there is no way of knowing what the offers will be when you’re booking, consider these general tips if you want to get the best prices:
Choose your season carefully. Room rates can vary dramatically—by hundreds of dollars in some cases—depending on what time of year you visit. Winter, from November through March, is best for bargains, excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years, of course—though the days between Christmas and New Years can offer amazing deals, and these just happen to be some of the best shopping days all year in Union Square. Occupancy rates hover around 90 percent from June through October; rates adjust upwards accordingly. Bizarrely enough, when the city fills up, lesser quality hotels will often charge prices that are equal to or even higher than what the luxury hotels are asking. So it’s important to never assess the quality of a hotel by the price it’s asking. Instead, read the reviews carefully and compare the prices you’re being quoted to make sure you’re not getting taken.
Remember to factor in the extras. Most folks simply look at the price when booking a room, without considering the value of the extras thrown in with a slightly more expensive place. For example, the Hotel Drisco is a lovely place in Pacific Heights. At $285 per night, many might not even consider booking a room here. But when you factor in free parking (about a $50 value if you have a car and parked downtown), free full breakfast (worth at least $40 per couple), evening cocktails and hot appetizers (easily another $20 per couple), and free Wi-Fi ($10), all of a sudden it’s as if you’re only paying $165 for the room itself. For one of the finest boutique hotels in the country, that’s a darn good deal. Whenever possible, we’ve tried to focus on hotels that offer free breakfast, cocktails, nibbles, parking, and Wi-Fi—it adds up.
Stay in a hotel away from Fisherman’s Wharf—or SoMa, Nob Hill, and Union Square for that matter. The advantages of staying in the popular tourist locations are overrated, particularly so when money is an issue. Muni buses and, especially, the historic F-Line streetcars, can take you to most tourist sites in minutes. Even if you stay as far away as The Castro, you can be at the ferry launch for Alcatraz in about half an hour; your daily ride up and down Market Street on these old beauties will likely be a lovely lasting memory of your visit. You’ll not only get the best value for your money by staying outside the tourist areas, in the residential neighborhoods where real San Franciscans live, but you’ll have a better overall experience: you won’t constantly be fighting crowds, you’ll have terrific restaurants nearby, and you’ll see what life in the city is really like. Lodgings in The Castro, Haight-Ashbury, Civic Center, The Marina, and quiet Japantown offer particularly good savings.
Visit over a weekend. If your trip includes a weekend, you might be able to save big. Business hotels tend to empty out, and rooms that go for $300 or more Monday through Thursday can drop dramatically in cost, to as low as $150 or less, once the execs have headed home. These deals are especially prevalent in SoMa. Also, you’ll find that Sunday nights are the least expensive, no matter the neighborhood. Check the hotel’s website for weekend specials. Or just ask when you call. None of this applies in Fisherman’s Wharf—it’s always expensive there.
Do what they do in Europe and share a bathroom. What is the value of a private loo? In San Francisco, I’d say it’s at least $100 per night. If the thought of “sharing” brings back dreaded memories of the high school locker room scene, don’t worry; “sharing” usually means you can lock the door to the bathroom—as you would visiting a friends’ house. The bathroom won’t be in your room, it will be down the hall, and will be used by fellow guests.
Shop online. There are so many ways to save online and through apps, we’ve devoted an entire box to the topic.
Try the chains. Since you probably know what you will get with a Hyatt, Hilton, or Holiday Inn, we focused on smaller, unknown, independent properties with character—and a good local feel—in this chapter. That said, the big brand names are usually in good locations, and, depending on how booked they are, can offer great deals since they have loads of rooms to let. Most chain hotels let kids stay with parents for free using existing bedding and they accept loyalty points. Ask for every kind of discount; if you get an unhelpful reservation agent, call back, and try calling the local number.
Avoid excess charges and hidden costs. Little things add up big in hotels. If you’re cash-conscious (and who isn’t?) consider skipping the mini bar, use your cell phone or prepaid phone cards instead of pricy hotel phones, and look for hotels that offer free Wi-Fi. Most important, if you’ve rented a car, check parking rates. Downtown rates are as high as $60 a day! Also, if a hotel insists upon tacking on an “energy surcharge” that wasn’t mentioned at check-in, you can often make a case for getting it removed.
Buy a money-saving package deal. A travel package that combines your airfare and your hotel stay for one price may just be the best bargain of all. In some cases, you’ll get airfare, accommodations, transportation to and from the airport, plus extras—maybe an afternoon sightseeing tour or restaurant and shopping discount coupons—for less than the hotel alone would have cost had you booked it yourself. Most airlines and many travel agents, as well as the usual booking websites (Priceline, Orbitz, Expedia) offer good packages to San Francisco.
Accommodations with Free Parking
With parking fees averaging $45 to $60 a night at most hotels, you might want to consider staying at one of these hotels that offers free parking:
- Hotel Del Sol, Marina District/Cow Hollow
- Hotel Drisco, Pacific Heights (no garage, but lots of free street parking)
- Marina Motel, Marina District/Cow Hollow
- Phoenix Hotel, Civic Center
- Seal Rock Inn, Richmond District
- The Wharf Inn, North Beach/Fisherman’s Wharf
- Seaside Inn, Marina District
Consider private B&B accommodations. You can easily rent a bed, a room, and sometimes a whole house or apartment, from a private owner. This type of accommodation is usually much cheaper than a hotel room, it allows you to meet a friendly local, and it places you in a residential neighborhood where you live like a local. One of the best companies to use for this type of booking is Airbnb.com, though many also turn to websites www.homeaway.com, www.flipkey.com, or www.bedandbreakfast.com. Be sure to get all details in writing and an exact price for the stay, including applicable taxes and fees, before booking.
Try a Home Exchange. There are three types of home exchanges: simultaneous (you stay in someone’s house while they stay in yours), non-simultaneous (you stay at someone’s home, no one stays in yours), and a hospitality exchange (you stay in someone’s home while they are there). Sound like a weird, new trend? Homelink (www.homelink.org), one of the premier home-exchange companies, has been in business for over 60 years. You pay a small fee to join (though you can take a look for free), and then connect with homeowners around the world.
I have never done a home exchange, but friends have, and swear by it. They say that by the time the exchange happens, they have emailed and spoken on the phone with their exchange partners so often, they feel like old friends. Two more companies specializing in exchanges are HomeExchange (www.homeexchange.com), and Intervac (www.intervac.com). Most experts warn against using Craigslist for swaps, because it’s had problems with scammers. Those clubs that charge a fee—and all those listed above do—are able to weed out the ne’er do wells.
Finding Hotel Discounts Online
Turn to the Internet to get deep discounts on hotels. There are four types of online reductions to look out for:
- Extreme discounts on sites where you bid for lodgings without knowing which hotel you’ll get. You’ll find these on such sites as Priceline.com and Hotwire.com, and they can be real money-savers, particularly if you’re booking within a week of travel (that’s when the hotels get nervous and resort to deep discounts to get beds filled). As these companies use only major chains, you can rest assured that you won’t be put up in a dump. For more reassurance, visit the website www.BetterBidding.com. On it, actual travelers spill the beans about what they bid on Priceline.com and which hotels they got. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the quality of many of the hotels that are offering these “secret” discounts to the opaque bidding websites.
- Discounts on the hotel’s website itself. Sometimes these can be great values, as they’ll often include such nice perks as free breakfast or parking privileges. Before biting, though be sure to look at the discounter sites below.
- Discounts on online travel agencies as Hotels.com, Venere.com, Quikbook.com, Expedia.com, and the like. Some of these sites reserve rooms in bulk and at a discount, passing along the savings to their customers. But instead of going to them directly, I’d recommend looking at such dedicated travel search engines as Hipmunk.com, HotelsCombined.com, Momondo.com and my favorite, Trivago.com.These sites list prices from all the discount sites as well as the hotels directly, meaning you have a better chance of finding a discount. Note: Sometimes the discounts these sites find require advance payment for a room (and draconian cancellation policies), so double check your travel dates before booking. Be careful when one of these sites says “just a few blocks from Union Square,” as you could find yourself stepping over homeless people and around drug dealers and prostitutes in the Tenderloin—which is just a few blocks from Union Square. Always read the reviews! Tingo.com, a site founded by TripAdvisor, is another good source, especially for luxury hotels. Its model is a bit different than the others. Users make a pre-paid reservation through it, but if the price of the room drops between the time you make the booking and the date of arrival, the site refunds the difference in price.
- Try the app HotelsTonight.com. It only works for day of bookings, but—Wow!—does it get great prices for procrastinators and spontaneous people who decide to travel on a whim—up to 70 percent off in many cases. A possible strategy: make a reservation at a hotel, then, on the day you’re arriving try your luck with HotelsTonight.com. Most hotels will allow you to cancel without penalty, even on the date of arrival.
Yes, it’s a lot of surfing, but with the potential to save hundreds of dollars over a few days, it can certainly pay off.
Name Brand Hotels
We chose to write about independent hotels that offer uniquely San Francisco experiences (or really great deals). But we understand that many readers alleviate the cost of travel with free stays through hotel loyalty programs. So for those readers, we’ve compiled the following list of hotels, in all prices ranges, but not all areas (we only chose the ones we feel are well-located).
- Hyatt Regency FiDi ($381), 5 Embarcadero Center, [tel] 415/788-1234
- Fisherman’s Wharf ($299), 555 North Point St., [tel] 415/563-1234
- Union Square Grand Hyatt ($279), 345 Stockton St., [tel] 415/398-1234
- Courtyard Downtown ($169), 299 Second St., [tel] 415/947-0700
- Fisherman’s Wharf ($279), 1250 Columbus Ave., [tel] 415/775-7555
- Courtyard Fisherman’s Wharf ($299), 580 Beach St., [tel] 415/775-3800
- JW Marriott Union Square ($239), 500 Post St., [tel] 415/771-8600
- Union Square ($229), 480 Sutter St., [tel] 415/398-8900
- Marquis SoMa ($179), 780 Mission St., [tel] 415/896-1600
- Le Meridien Embarcadero ($469), 333 Battery St., [tel] 415/296-2900
- Sheraton Fisherman’s Wharf ($299), 2500 Mason St., [tel] 415/362-5500
- St. Regis SoMa ($625), 125 Third St., [tel] 415/284-4000
- W San Francisco SoMa ($446), 181 Third St., [tel] 415/777-5300
- Westin Market St. SoMa ($436), 50 Third St., [tel] 415/974-6400
- Westin St. Francis Union Square ($350), 335 Powell St., [tel] 415/397-7000
- FiDi ($275), 750 Kearney St., [tel] 415/433-6600
- Union Square ($249), 333 O’Farrell St., [tel] 415/771-1400
Holiday Inn (www.holidayinn.com)
- Civic Center ($164), 50 Eighth St., [tel] 415/626-6103
- Express Fisherman’s Wharf ($265), 550 North Point St., [tel] 415/409-4600
- Fisherman’s Wharf ($247), 1300 Columbus Ave., [tel] 415/771-9000
- Nob Hill ($197), 1500 Van Ness Ave., [tel] 415/441-4000
Best Western (www.bestwestern.com)
- The Tuscan at Fisherman’s Wharf ($263), 425 North Point St., [tel] 415/561-1100
- SoMa ($158), 121 Seventh St., [tel] 415/626-0200
- Union Square ($235), 580 Geary St., [tel] 415/441-2700
- The Castro ($158), 1707 Market St., [tel] 415/621-6775
- Fisherman’s Wharf ($179), 1450 Lombard St., [tel] 415/673-0691
- Marina ($144), 2230 Lombard St., [tel] 415/922-3900
- Marina ($175), 2755 Lombard St., [tel] 415/931-8581
- North Beach ($127), 1201 Columbus Ave., [tel] 415/776-7070
Days Inn (www.daysinn.com)
- Civic Center ($146), 465 Grove St., [tel] 415/864-4040
- Marina ($99), 2322 Lombard St., [tel] 415/921-4980
- Marina ($144), 2358 Lombard St., [tel] 415/922-2010
- SoMa ($99), 10 Hallam St., [tel] 415/431-0541
- Sunset ($126), 2600 Sloat Blvd., [tel] 415/665-9000
Hotels with a Past
We can thank early San Francisco businessmen (some would say swindlers and rapscallions) for some of the city’s most luxurious and historic hotels. Founded on new-moneyed competition, The Big Four, also known as the Southern Pacific Railroad group Leland Stanford, Colis P. Huntington, and Charles Crocker, competed with each other to see who could build the largest, most lavish home on Nob Hill with their new found railroad wealth. Though their homes burned to the ground after the 1906 earthquake, their legacy lives on with hotels, a park, and a church built on the sites.
Leland Stanford was president of the group, loved the limelight, and served as governor of California and U.S. Senator. After his 15-year-old son passed away, Stanford converted his horse farm in Palo Alto into a university named for the boy, now a world-famous institution considered the Harvard of the West. He loved to spend money and was first of the group to build on Nob Hill. At one point, he could brag his mansion had the largest private dining room in the West. On the site you’ll find the aptly named Stanford Court Hotel (905 California St. at Powell St.; [tel] 415/989-3500; www.stanfordcourt.com; 393 units; $180–$429.) Compared to its luxury-minded Nob Hill neighbors below, the Stanford Court strives for “modern classic” and caters more to the no-fuss business travelers who might appreciate the high-tech touches, such as the iPad minis set up in the lobby and complimentary Wi-Fi, as well as the 24-hour fitness center. The carpets are due for a replacement and there is no room service, but this option is comfortable with a great location.
Known for his ruthlessness, Collis P. Huntington was vice president of the Big Four. He spent time behind the scenes greasing palms and lobbying for favorable treatment of the group’s interests with politicians. The site of his mansion is now Huntington Park (at California and Taylor sts.). He has a Nob Hill hotel named in his honor: the Scarlet Huntington Hotel (1075 California St. btw. Mason and Taylor sts.; tel. 415/474-5400; www.huntingtonhotel.com; 136 units; $329–$629), which completed a $15-million renovation in 2014—and added “Scarlet” to its name. The makeover lent a much-needed modernization to the guest rooms, complete with new bathrooms adorned with hand-carved vanities and marble showers, and made improvements to the public spaces with Asian-inspired touches and a new color scheme featuring rich jewel tones accented with gold. Rooms are large and tastefully decorated; the lobby is small and elegant. The hotel restaurant, suitably named The Big Four (tel. 415/474-5400; www.big4restaurant.com), has walls covered with photos and historical objects commemorating the group; it serves fine tycoon-fare such as truffled lobster mac and cheese and its breakfast goes for $18—a steal compared to the $49 it cost before the renovation.
Mark Hopkins was considered the most frugal, making his role as the group’s treasurer fitting. Though he was happy living in small, rented quarters on Sutter Street, his social-climbing wife had other ideas. At a cost of $3 million, she commissioned the Gothic, wooden fairytale castle, complete with towers and spires. Hopkins died just before it was completed and his wife lived there only a few years before moving to the East Coast. On the castle’s site, you can sleep at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins (1 Nob Hill at California and Mason sts.; [tel] 415/392-3434; www.intercontinentalmarkhopkins.com; $199–$500; pets welcome). Hopkins’ widow would approve of the hotel named after her husband. The lobby is part French chateau, part Italian renaissance with high ceilings, light-drenched sitting areas, and ornate chandeliers. The rooms and suites, all with city views, feature rich woods and fine fabrics, though they are on the smaller side thanks to the Victorian architecture style. While steeped in history, the hotel has added modern touches to its farm-to-table restaurant and lounge, Nob Hill Club, which is now equipped with a self-serve espresso bar that uses touchscreens to deliver the goods. It’s all very Luxury 2.0, considering the classic furnishings and historic surroundings. Enjoy grab-and-go pastries from the bakery, or sit down to a daily breakfast buffet amid the aubergine-colored walls, high-backed chairs, and gold details. The chef from the Top of the Mark (upstairs) developed the seasonal menu, offering guests another option for modern Californian cuisine.
Charles Crocker was the group’s construction supervisor—too bad he built his mansion out of wood. After the 1906 fire, the Crocker family donated the entire city block where their home had stood to the Episcopal church, which built the beautiful Grace Cathedral on the site.
The Big Four’s counterpoints were known as the Bonanza Kings, four Irish buddies who made their fortune from a silver mine in Nevada. Whiletheir wealth far out-paced that of The Big Four, their names are less well known today. Members John William Mackay and William S. O’Brien left little mark on San Francisco, whereas the mansion of partner James C. Flood can still be seen today at 1000 California Street on top of Nob Hill as home to the private Pacific-Union Club. Because it was built using Connecticut sandstone, it was one of the few structures in the area to survive the 1906 earthquake fires. You can’t go inside, but you can take an up-close look from the street and admire the original bronze fence, which still exists on three sides of the property.
The last Bonanza King partner, James Fair, died before he could build his mansion on Nob Hill. His daughters, Tessie and Virginia, built a hotel to honor their father, but, because they got in a little over their heads financially, had to sell it to the Law brothers. The property changed hands on April 6, 1906, less than 2 weeks before the great quake. The hotel burned, though some of the structure survived. It was completely rebuilt with the help of architect, Julia Morgan—of Hearst Castle fame—and reopened 1 year to the date of the quake in 1907 as The Fairmont San Francisco (950 Mason St. at California St.; [tel] 415/772-5000; www.fairmont.com/sanfrancisco; 591 units; $399–$899). Perched high atop Nob Hill, the majestic Fairmont completed a $21-million refresh in 2014 to its 591 rooms bringing contemporary, custom-made furnishings, hand-blown glass lamps, and a “jewel box” theme featuring bright sapphire blues with accents of contemporary pewter and platinum. The large marble bathrooms and walk-in closets have remained constant. While the revamped guest rooms showcase the Fairmont’s of-the-moment aesthetic and commitment to modern amenities, the opulent lobby, with its vaulted ceilings and Corinthian columns trimmed in gold is a nod to its timeless grandeur.
The Fairmont isn’t all pomp and circumstance. For a fun dance floor and tropical drinks, head down to the basement (the site of the Fairmont’s original pool) and visit the whimsical Tonga Room and Hurricane Bar, where guests enjoy Asian fusion food and umbrella drinks while sitting in tiki huts. Every so often thunder rumbles and warm, tropical rain pours down into the center pool, where a live band plays on the little floating pontoon boat in the middle.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.