I touched this subject in my blog post, San Francisco Budget Travel Tip #1: How To Use Priceline To Name Your Own Price, but I felt this tip was important enough to have its own post.
If you are planning on staying in the City of San Francisco, then I highly suggest you not rent a car. Not only is it incredibly inconvenient, but also extremely expensive to park a car around town.
For example, if you were to stay at any hotel around Union Square, Fisherman’s Wharf, or Moscone Center, then you should fully expect to pay around $59/night, excluding taxes. Note, that is just for overnight parking. That price doesn’t include the cost of parking throughout the city.
While there are public parking garages, mostly centered around downtown, that offer lower-rates, many are not open 24/7 and do not offer overnight parking. Also, I can tell you from first-hand experience that I’ve had my car broken into in one of those garages, St. Mary’s Garage to be more specific.
But even if money isn’t an issue, then parking in certain parts of the city is incredibly inconvenient, especially neighborhoods with no parking lots. Like most major cities, free & metered street parking is limited to 1 - 2 hours during the day and the City of San Francisco have ninja like reflexes when it comes to ticketing and towing. That doesn’t include moving & parking violations caught on camera, such as cameras at intersections or attached to buses. Then during the evening, in the most popular neighborhoods for nightlife, it’s taken me as long as one hour to find parking. While some people call having a car in the city a luxury, I consider it an incredible inconvenience. Taking an Uber or Lyft wherever you want is as close as having a private driver, so even if money isn’t an issue, the inconvenience of having a car is.
As you can guess, the alternative to not renting and parking a car in San Francisco is to use public transportation and/or Uber and Lyft. For everything between Union Square to Fisherman’s Wharf, I would suggest public transportation or even walking. I’ve walked the two points on two different occasions. For further points, such as Golden Gate Park, Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, and Golden Gate Bridge, you may want to take Uber or Lyft to save time, but getting across the city could cost up to $30. If you do decide to do that, then make sure you visit other attractions in that area so you don’t have to pay again to criss-cross the city.
My last tip, if you’re going to use public transportation, then buy a Clipper Card, an all-in-one transit card for San Francisco, at Walgreens. The card itself costs $3.00, but each ride is discounted and if you decide to take the San Francisco Ferry, then you’ll make up the cost on a round trip. Besides that, you’ll never have to worry about exact change on Muni, AC Transit Buses, etc.