For Christmas 2015, I decided to give my boyfriend the present of taking a trip to San Francisco together. We had always discussed flying somewhere, but he was always afraid to be on a plane. I thought of ways to conquer his fear of flying, and then one day it occurred to me that perhaps a short plane ride would help him overcome that fear.
We live in Southern California, so a flight to San Francisco is only about an hour – something I knew he could definitely handle. We’d both never been to San Francisco, so that became my destination of choice for the surprise!
Although we visited San Francisco for only 3 days, we experienced a lot more than we expected and didn’t have to stick to a painstakingly tight budget. We ate at pier-side restaurants, but had great street food too. We used public transportation and ran around in the rain. We indulged in free chocolate-covered strawberries and glasses of wine in luxurious robes in the balcony of our 4-star boutique hotel.
Do you know how much I paid for this experience? For both of our transportation and hotel costs, I paid a total of $719.46. For a weekend getaway to San Francisco.
For a seamless flight.
For a private corner balcony with a complete view of San Francisco.
For Japanese-style soaking tubs and plush bathrobes.
For free chocolates and booze.
Getting jealous? Read more to learn how I did it.
First and foremost: Plan ahead of time
The closer you get to your vacation date, prices on hotel rooms and flights tend to skyrocket. I came up with my San Francisco surprise idea back in October, although the trip wasn’t until early January. This gave me ample time to conduct research on the airlines and hotels, while waiting for promotions and discounts to pop up.
Doing research ahead of time also helped me find restaurants and activities and give a general idea of how much money I should prepare to spend. With so much time before the vacation, I had enough time to save money so that I wouldn’t have to resort to charging everything to my credit card. This helped my control my stress levels significantly!
Another important thing you should plan before anything are your departure and arrival dates. Flights tend to be more expensive on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays since that’s end of the work-week, and hotel rooms can sell out of weekend availability fast. If you’re able to start your vacation mid-week, you could save on airfare and hotel accommodations.
For visual learners like me, using Hipmunk can make the planning process much easier. Both Hipmunk’s desktop website and mobile app use pretty charts and graphs to organize prices on airfare and hotel rates. I definitely suggest using either due to the user-friendliness of both platforms.
Ask a local or native
I was able to have a great experience because of having friends and family who lived there or around the area. My cousin told me about the best things to do and my colleagues informed me of the most efficient ways to travel around. San Francisco is a very touristy city, so a lot of attractions can get extremely pricey. Knowing people native to the area helped me dodge all the tourist traps and find the true gems of the city.
Find alternate airport locations
After hard research, I discovered that flying directly into San Francisco would cost me well-over $300 per person round-trip. The next best alternative: fly into Oakland, and take the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) to San Francisco. The ride was only about 20 minutes, so it wasn’t a huge sacrifice. Bonus: The airport provided a complimentary BART trip to the city!
Because we flew into Oakland instead, the round-trip tickets were only $134.46 per person, bringing me to a total of $268.92 for both tickets. This means I got two tickets for less than the price of one to San Francisco. After taxes and fees, I saved a good couple hundred dollars, for which I was able to use towards food and other expenses.
Southwest Airlines also gave us such a pain-free experience, something completely foreign to me. I also really liked their cancellation and refund policies as well. Thank you Southwest for the great customer service!
Consider third-party companies, but check airlines too
Many third-party companies like Priceline or Expedia offer discounted flights, but before you book always check the rates with the airlines directly. I used to think that I could always get a better deal through third-party companies, but realized that with all the additional fees sometimes it was more expensive.
Another important thing to remember as well is that third-party companies tend to have more strict cancellation policies.
The thing that I do like about Priceline is that non-destination cities can sometimes be more affordable. I went to Orange County for a work assignment and was able to get a 4-star hotel near the John Wayne airport for roughly $130 a night. I used Priceline’s “Name Your Own Price” program, where I was able to find a room within my own budget.
Does your ticket include free luggage or carry-ons?
One of the reasons I decided to fly with Southwest was because they allow 1 free luggage and 2 carry-ons. Although I planned to utilize luggage, we wound up packing light for the weekend and only used one carry-on and one backpack for each of us.
Many budget-friendly airlines like Spirit are priced so low because they don’t include fees like luggage. This is one very important factor to consider, especially when things like airplane food, drinks, luggage fees, and other incidental fees can add up.
Make a to-do list
Because we only had 3 days, I had to make a list of things to do and places to eat so that we could make the most of our time and experience everything that was high-priority to us. I mapped out which areas had certain restaurants or activities so that we could play it by ear and see how we felt.
To figure out where the bars and restaurants were, I used Yelp to check out popular spots and customer reviews. With Yelp deals, you can get up to 90% off at local businesses. You can also get discounts when you check-in using the mobile app. This is a must-have for me!
I also used Groupon to find things for us to do, like visit the local spas or attractions at discounted prices (you also can read my Ultimate Groupon Guide to Discounted Treatments and learn how to get spa treatments for ultra cheap). If you haven’t signed up with Groupon yet, you can use my referral link here.
Where will you sleep?
I really wanted to try the boutique hotels that San Francisco had to offer instead of settle for a chain hotel, but I was also dreading the boutique prices. I went on TripAdvisor to check out customer reviews and compare hundreds of different hotels.
For a king-size bed at just about any hotel it was roughly $200+ a night, and this was even before taxes. This meant I’d be looking at a $400 minimum for 2 nights. I decided to bookmark my top choice hotels, sign up for their mailing lists and wait until I found a promotion or discount. TripAdvisor eventually had a promotion for Cyber Monday, which brought that rate down to $150 a night. After taxes and fees, my total for 2 nights was $345.77, and we even got a free upgrade to a Corner King suite!
We also stayed at Hotel Kabuki, which currently has a 4-star rating with over 1,746 customer reviews on TripAdvisor. The hotel was absolutely beautiful, and was definitely worth the money! During our first night when we returned to our room after dinner, there was a gorgeous plate of chocolate-covered strawberries and a bottle of wine waiting for us at our coffee table, compliments from the hotel.
Figure out transportation
If you intend to travel the city, how are you going to get around? Will you be renting a car, walking, or using public transportation?
San Francisco revolves around public transportation and walking. I did some research and found that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency offers a 3-Day Visitor Passport for only $31 per person. This gave us access to ride the metro buses, streetcars, and cable cars with unlimited rides. That definitely beats 3 days worth of car rentals, rental insurance, and gas!
My top 3 tips for to save money on the best vacation experience
- Conduct all your Internet research on Private Browsing. Travel websites use the cookies stored on your Internet browser and use this to track your browsing history. So the more you search for a specific destination, the rates inflate. You can bypass this by using your private mode on your browser (I normally use Google Chrome, and you can simply open up a new “Incognito” window). When you do this, your browser does not save cookies during that session, so rates should be unaffected by your extensive searching.
- Save cash and set budgets. My boyfriend and I set a budget of $400 each for the whole trip, and this would cover food and any other purchases. We set a maximum meal budget of $100/day per person. Do the math: if each meal was $20 and we ate 3 times each day, that would still only bring us to $60/day. We didn’t hit anywhere near that limit, so we had extra money to spend on activities and souvenirs.
- If you can’t afford the whole trip in cash, charge the hotel and flight to your credit card. I know this sounds financially irresponsible, but if you know you are capable of making regular payments, then commit to paying for your trip in installments. I charged both the hotel and flight tickets to my credit card, which totaled $657.46. I knew I was capable of taking out $150 out of my bi-weekly paychecks, so I paid this off in a little over 2 months. I bought my plane tickets 3 months in advance and reserved the hotel 2 months in advance, so by the time our trip came in January, my credit card balance was already paid off. Bonus: I got reward points with my American Express Everyday Card and was able to redeem cash back!
Total transportation and hotel total costs: $719.46
- 2-night hotel stay: $169/night + $50.54 taxes = $388.54 total
- Round-trip airfare: $134.46/person = $268.92 total
- SFMTA 3-day passes: $31/person = $62 total
I understand for many of you this is still a lot of money, but I want to emphasize how expensive traveling to San Francisco can be. We didn’t have to stay at a roach-infested hotel with thin walls and grimy bathtubs, and we didn’t have to eat at McDonald’s either. I saved a lot of money but still managed to have a luxurious experience at the same time.
Let me also say this: People gave us confused looks in the hotel lobby because we were dressed in jeans and sneakers – not in the business attire the other guests wore. I know that for the quality of traveling experience we had, I could have paid well over $1,000 for.
What are your best money-saving tactics for booking vacations? Let us know in the comments below!
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