From luxury resorts to funky motor inns to charming B&Bs, San Francisco is more than accommodating to its 24 million annual guests. Many of the city’s 200-plus hotels are downtown, but smaller, independent gems are scattered throughout. Stay close to Union Square for easy access to shopping and museums, near Fisherman’s Wharf for the more touristy attractions, or shack up in the city’s quieter residential neighborhoods for a more authentic experience. Whatever you do, the city’s small size means you’ll have easy access to everything you want to do and see. While there are multiple transportation options, you may find that hoofing it is the best way to see the sights—at least by day.
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 increasing up to 90% in peak season, and $400 hotel rooms going for $125 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 the winning number will be. 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. Tip: If you visit a hotel booking site and then leave and return later, you may be offered a better price, and the same goes for individual hotels’ websites.
Getting the Best Deal
There are many ways to find the best hotels for the best prices. The rates we list in this chapter 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 the time of year you’ll be visiting. Winter, from November through March, is best for bargains, excluding Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, of course—though the days between Christmas and New Year’s can sometimes 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% from June through October, and rates adjust upward accordingly.
Oddly, 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 reviews carefully and compare the prices you’re being quoted to make sure you’re not getting taken. Trip Advisor and Yelp are good review sources, but be sure to focus on reviews from the past few months and not ones that were made a year ago or more. Also, look for hotels’ responses to negative reviews—did they acknowledge and try to fix the problem? Such responses are indications that the hotel cares about the guest experience. It’s also important to factor in the extras.
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. Hotel Drisco is a perfect example. Many people might not even consider booking a room at this gorgeous and peaceful hotel because its rates start at about $400 per night. But when you factor in the extras—free parking (about a $50 value if you’re hoping to park a car downtown), free weekday chauffeur service downtown (up to $20), free breakfast (they call it “continental” but the ample gourmet buffet with made-to-order espresso drinks is worth at least $40 per couple), excellent wine and hot appetizers in the evening (easily another $20 per couple), free bikes on loan, and free Wi-Fi—all of a sudden it’s as if you’re only paying around $200 for the room itself. For one of the finest boutique hotels in the country, that’s an excellent 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, or 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. Your daily ride up and down Market Street on these old beauties will likely be a lovely lasting memory of your visit; even if you stay as far away as The Castro, you can be at the ferry launch for Alcatraz in about half an hour. You’ll not only get the best value for your money by staying outside the tourist areas in the residential neighborhoods, you’ll have a better overall experience: You won’t 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 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 $400 or more Monday through Thursday can drop dramatically in cost, to as low as $200 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 throughout the city, except Fisherman’s Wharf. Check hotels’ websites for weekend specials, or just call and ask.
Do what they do in Europe and share a bathroom. San Francisco is often said to be one of the most European-feeling cities in the U.S., so it’s perhaps no surprise that several of its hotels have layouts that expect some guests to share bathrooms. What is the value of a private loo? In San Francisco, 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 when visiting a friends’ house. The bathroom simply won’t be in your room, it will be down the hall, and will be used by fellow guests.
Try the chains. Since you probably know what you’ll get with a Hyatt, Hilton, or Holiday Inn, in this chapter we have focused primarily on smaller, unknown, independent properties with character and a good local feel. 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. 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. For your convenience, we have listed all of the major chains—including neighborhood, website, address, and local phone number.
Avoid excess charges and hidden costs. Little things add up big in hotels. If you’re cash-conscious (and who isn’t?) consider these strategies: Skip the minibar’s drinks and snacks; use your cellphone or prepaid phone cards instead of pricy hotel phones; and look for hotels that offer free Wi-Fi. (And, if you use the hotel’s Wi-Fi, make sure your smartphone is on it so you don’t rack up excess data usage. For information about free Wi-Fi throughout the city. When booking, ask hotels whether the quoted valet parking price includes tax, and whether larger vehicles rate an extra fee. If you decide not to use hotel parking, investigate parking rates—downtown rates are as high as $60 a day, and you may find better rates through parking websites (just search for “cheap San Francisco parking”) than through hotels. 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 had you booked it yourself. Most airlines and many travel agents, as well as the usual booking websites (Priceline, Orbitz, Expedia, Travelocity) offer good packages to San Francisco.
Accommodations with Free Parking
With parking fees averaging $45 to $65 (plus tax) a night at most hotels, if you’re arriving in San Francisco with a car you might want to consider staying at one that offers free parking:
- Inn on Castro, Castro District (free street parking)
- 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
- The Willows Inn, Castro District
Established in 1959, the Seal Rock Inn, 545 Point Lobos Ave. at 48th Avenue (sealrockinn.com; [tel] 415/752-8000), is San Francisco’s only oceanfront motor inn. The perfect spot for a family stay, the inn is surrounded by parks and trails and sits across the street from the beach—great for exploring, though don’t expect a sun-filled beach outing, as this part of San Francisco is often nestled in fog. Unless you’ve got a wetsuit and are an accomplished surfer, it’s best not to swim here; there is a nasty current. But the San Francisco Zoo and Golden Gate Park are just a few minutes away and filled with family-friendly activities. The motel’s restaurant is popular among locals and serves a great brunch. Rooms are large, and some feature kitchenettes or fireplaces; all have fridges, free Wi-Fi, and access to free parking. Doubles go for $170 to $202 per night, with a 2-night minimum on weekends and holidays; it’s $10 per night for additional guests 16 and older, $5 for guests under 16.
Consider private accommodations. Thanks to companies like Airbnb, there are more and more varied options on where to stay than ever before. Now you can easily rent a bed, a room, or 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. One of the best companies to use for this type of booking is Airbnb.com, though many also turn to homeaway.com, flipkey.com, or bedandbreakfast.com. Be sure to read recent reviews; before booking, get all details in writing, including number (and type) of beds and an exact price for the stay, including applicable taxes and fees. And if you have pet allergies, be sure to ask if the room or house you’ll be staying in has had canine or feline visitors.
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 (homelink.org), one of the premier home-exchange companies, has been in business for over 60 years. You can take a look for free, but once you’re ready to join there is a membership fee of $50 to $152, depending on length of membership and whether you want to travel internationally. You’ll be instantly connected with homeowners around the world.
I have never done a home exchange, but friends have, and they 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 (homeexchange.com), and Intervac (intervac.com). Most experts warn against using Craigslist for swaps due to problems with scammers. The clubs that charge a fee—and all those listed above do—are able to weed out the ne’er-do-wells with their screening processes.
Finding Hotel Discounts Online
Turn to the Internet to get deep discounts on hotels—and when you do, be sure to use the best hotel search engine. They’re not all equal, as we at Frommers.com learned in 2017 after putting the top 20 sites to the test in 20 cities (including NYC) around the globe. We found that Booking.com found the lowest rates for hotels in the city center, and in the under-$200 range, 16 out of 20 times. And Booking.com includes all taxes and fees in its results (not all do, which can make for a frustrating shopping experience). For high-end properties, again in the city center only, both Priceline.com and HotelsCombined.com came up with the best rates, tying at 14 wins each.
There are three types of online deals 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 money-savers, particularly if you’re booking within a week of travel (that’s when the hotels 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. Before you bid, visit BiddingTraveler.com, where actual travelers spill the beans about what they bid on Priceline.com and other sites and which hotels they got. You’ll be surprised by the quality of many of the hotels that are offering these “secret” discounts.
- Discounts on a specific hotel’s website. Most hotels now reserve special discounts for travelers who book directly through the hotels’ websites. These are usually the lowest rates on the hotels in question, though discounts can range widely, from as little as $1 to as much as $50. Our advice: Search for a hotel that’s in your price range and ideal location and check the hotel website for deals before going to the general booking sites.
- Last-minute discounts. Booking last-minute can be a great savings strategy, as prices sometimes drop in the week before travel as hoteliers scramble to fill their rooms. But you won’t necessarily find the best savings through companies that claim to specialize in last-minute bookings. Instead, use the sites recommended above.
Name Brand Hotels
I’ve focused on independent hotels that offer uniquely San Francisco experiences (or really great deals). On the other hand, many readers alleviate the cost of travel with free stays through hotel loyalty programs, so you’ll find the following list of name-brand hotels, in all price ranges (here I list an average rate, but you may often be able to find a lower price). Just so you know, the hotels in the Civic Center, while indeed centrally located, are in an area that has a large homeless population. Check online reviews before you book so you know what to expect.
- Hyatt Regency FiDi ($379), 5 Embarcadero Center, [tel] 415/788-1234
- Fisherman’s Wharf ($399), 555 North Point St., [tel] 415/563-1234
- Union Square Grand Hyatt ($289), 345 Stockton St., [tel] 415/398-1234
- Courtyard Downtown ($249), 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 ($279), 515 Mason St., [tel] 415/771-8600
- Union Square ($249), 480 Sutter St., [tel] 415/398-8900
- Marquis SoMa ($199), 780 Mission St., [tel] 415/896-1600
- Le Meridien Embarcadero ($339), 333 Battery St., [tel] 415/296-2900
- Sheraton Fisherman’s Wharf ($299), 2500 Mason St., [tel] 415/362-5500
- St. Regis SoMa ($545), 125 Third St., [tel] 415/284-4000
- W San Francisco SoMa ($359), 181 Third St., [tel] 415/777-5300
- Westin Market St. SoMa ($436), 50 Third St., [tel] 415/974-6400
- Westin St. Francis Union Square ($300), 335 Powell St., [tel] 415/397-7000
- FiDi ($275), 750 Kearney St., [tel] 415/433-6600
- Union Square ($269), 333 O’Farrell St., [tel] 415/771-1400
Holiday Inn (www.holidayinn.com)
- Civic Center ($207), 50 Eighth St., [tel] 415/626-6103
- Express Fisherman’s Wharf ($227), 550 North Point St., [tel] 415/409-4600
- Fisherman’s Wharf ($247), 1300 Columbus Ave., [tel] 415/771-9000
- SF Golden Gateway ($174), 1500 Van Ness Ave., [tel] 415/441-4000
- SF Central The Castro ($158), 1707 Market St., [tel] 415/621-6775
- Fisherman’s Wharf ($179), 1201 Columbus Ave., [tel] 415/776-7070
- By the Bay (Fort Mason) ($184), 1450 Lombard St., [tel] 415/931-8581
- Presidio ($233), 2755 Lombard St., [tel] 415/931-8581
Days Inn (www.daysinn.com)
- Civic Center ($167), 465 Grove St., [tel] 415/864-4040
- Lombard/Marina ($170), 2358 Lombard St., [tel] 415/922-2010
When writer and poet Robert Louis Stevenson visited the city in 1879, he dubbed San Francisco’s Nob Hill “the Hill of Palaces,” and that has remained an apt description to this day. The grand hotels that sit atop Nob Hill today were born of the fierce competition between millionaire businessmen (see “The Big Four and the Bonanza Kings”) to see who could build the largest, most lavish mansion—all of which burned to the ground after the 1906 fire and earthquake. Their names live on, however, in these luxury lodgings.
On the site where railroad president Leland Stanford erected his mansion, you’ll find the Stanford Court Hotel (905 California St. at Powell St.; stanfordcourt.com; [tel] 415/989-3500; 393 units; $204–$556.) Compared to its luxury-minded Nob Hill neighbors below, the Stanford Court describes itself as a hotel where “high-tech meets high style,” appealing to business travelers with a newly renovated business center in 2017. There is also complimentary Wi-Fi and a 24-hour fitness center. There is no room service, but this hotel is a comfortable option in a great location.
Stanford’s wheeler-dealer partner Colis P. Huntington had his home where Huntington Park now stands, at California and Taylor streets, but he also has a Nob Hill hotel named in his honor: the Scarlet Huntington Hotel (1075 California St. btw. Mason and Taylor sts.; huntingtonhotel.com; [tel] 415/474-5400; 134 units; $329–$629), which added “Scarlet” to its name after a $15-million renovation in 2014. 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 (big4restaurant.com; [tel] 415/474-5400), is a veritable museum commemorating the railroad barons who so grandly settled Nob Hill; its upscale chicken pot pie seems designed to please any ravenous railroad barons who decide to drop in for a bite.
At the former address of railroad’s treasurer Mark Hopkins, you can sleep at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins (1 Nob Hill at California and Mason sts.; intercontinentalmarkhopkins.com; [tel] 415/392-3434; $199–$500; pets up to 25 lb. welcome for $50). 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 offers a self-serve espresso bar that uses touch screens to deliver the goods. 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 hotel’s real jewel, however, is the famous Top of the Mark restaurant on the 19th floor, where locals and visitors alike go to soak in the 360-degree views. Tip: Go for the champagne brunch on Sundays, when the food (and service) tends to be a bit more on point.
Last but not least is the Fairmont San Francisco (950 Mason St. at California St.; fairmont.com/sanfrancisco; [tel] 415/772-5000; 606 units; $399–$899). Originally built to honor mining magnate James Fair, it was extensively rebuilt after the quake. Perched atop Nob Hill a steep but quick jaunt from Union Square and Chinatown, the majestic Fairmont is the hotel of choice if you’re looking for classic San Francisco elegance and flavor. After a $21-million refreshment of its rooms in 2014, the decor is contemporary and fresh with custom furnishings and hand-blown glass lamps (the large marble bathrooms are still intact). But it's the common areas that make this hotel extra special. The lobby, with its vaulted ceilings and gold-trimmed Corinthian columns, begs to be your selfie background, especially during the winter holidays when it adds a neck-craning Christmas tree, kid-friendly tea service, and walk-thru gingerbread house. Downstairs, no one (including us) can get enough of the hotel's kitschy-fabulous Tonga Room & Hurricane Bar, where Asian fusion food, umbrella drinks, tiki huts, and the occasional "thunder storm" surround a centerpiece pool with a live band playing on a little pontoon boat floating in its middle.