Car Rental San Francisco
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Why rent a car in San Francisco?
San Francisco has long been a popular tourist destination. Among its sites are the city’s Golden Gate Bridge is an icon of the city that is known across the world and Alcatraz, the former island prison. Countless tourists enjoy riding the cable cars up and down the city’s hills and taking the famous streetcars to the Castro. The Fisherman’s Wharf along the waterfront is also a popular destination for visitors and from where harbor tours are possible. From sampling the most exquisite of cuisines to shopping in small boutiques, San Francisco has something to offer every traveler.
While it may seem at first glance that a rental car would be more of a hassle than a benefit in the city, it would be the only reasonable option to reach many of the areas surrounding tourist destinations. Noone would ever be able to forget a trip wandering through the wine valleys of Sonoma and Napa Counties. Nor could it be possible to regret driving down or up the coast on Californian Highway 1. A popular route is to drive from San Francisco south to Los Angeles where it's possible to drop off a car that was rented in San Francisco. No matter what you choose, venturing outside of the San Francisco peninsula with a car would be an experience of a lifetime.
Top ways to enter San Francisco
The Bay Area has multiple large airports. San Francisco International Airport is the closest of these to the city of San Francisco, lying just 13 miles south of the Financial District. It is also one of the busiest airports in California and has international flights to Asia, Latin America, and Europe. The airport has a Rental Car Center that is connected to all of the terminals via the AirTrain’s Blue Line. Major rental providers are located in the rental center. Other providers are located off-airport with a shuttle taking travelers from the rental center to their location.
Across the bay in Oakland, the Oakland International Airport is the second largest of the Bay Area’s airports. The airport hosts flights from many U.S. locations, Mexican cities, and a growing number of European destinations. Many low-cost carriers serve the airport, including Southwest for which the airport is a hub. The airport also has a Rental Car Center which is open 24 hours a day. A shuttle from the terminal brings renters to the facility. If your rental car provider has an off-airport location, a shuttle can be taken from the Rental Car Center to the provider’s location (though, you will probably have to call the provider to arrange this). Note that open returning the car to the provider, you will have to take a shuttle to the Rental Car Center and then the normal shuttle from there to the terminals.
Many locals and visitors choose to fly to the Bay Area via the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport which is roughly an hour-long drive south of Downtown San Francisco. Like the other Bay Area airports, the San Jose Airport has a Rental Car Center which can be reached on foot from the baggage claim area of Terminal B. If arriving at Terminal A, travelers will have to take a blue shuttle to the Rental Car Center.
Long-distance Amtrak trains do not stop in San Francisco but across the bay in Emeryville. A free bus service takes riders across the Bay Bridge into Downtown San Francisco where rental cars can be picked up at providers’ downtown locations. Alternatively, if arriving from the south, riders can switch at San Jose’s Diridon Station to a Caltrain service to Downtown San Francisco. Unfortunately, rental cars are not available at San Jose’s station.
If planning to stay in the city for a few days and then make day-trips or travel to further destinations, it may be best to not rent a car at the airport. While in the city, a car is not that useful due to the difficulty and expense of parking along with the coverage of public transportation. It is also more expensive to rent a car at the airport than at a downtown location. This is due to rental car providers having to pay for the AirTrain and other taxes for being located at the airport. These taxes are not required when renting in the city.
Useful city facts
Before visiting the city, one may want to see it through film and television or read about it in literature. The city has been popular in entertainment, particularly in film. Those in their 30’s will remember the 1990’s television show Full House which was set in the city. As for movies, the Maltese Falcon, Pursuit of Happyness, Vertigo, and Mrs. Doubtfire were all set in the city. The Rock, which starred Sean Connery, is an action film set on Alcatraz Island.
While the Bay Area has two of the most prestigious universities in the world, namely the University of California at Berkley and Stand for University, the city itself has multiple university including the University of California, San Francisco which has only graduate students in health and biomedical sciences and is one of the leading institutions for those subjects.
San Francisco’s weather could leave some wanting. On the one hand, the city doesn’t experience cold winters. In fact, a winter coat is almost entirely unnecessary in the city. On the other hand, a light jacket is usually required in the summer. Between November and March, the city sees rainy weather, though rarely heavy rain. In the summer, it is usually drier. The city is also famous for its summer fog. Usually, the fog will burn off during the day and return in the evening, though sometimes the fog can stick around all day long.
San Francisco and the Bay Area have teams in all major American sports leagues. Currently, the only team that hosts games in the city itself is the San Francisco Giants of Major League Baseball playing in Oracle Park in SoMa (South of Market). The Oakland Athletics play across the bay. In basketball, the Golden State Warriors, who have been located in Oakland, will move to the freshly built Chase Center in Mission Bay in October 2019. The San Francisco 49ers will soon be the only NFL team located in the Bay Area when the Oakland Raiders move to Las Vegas in 2020. The 49ers, whose home stadium was located in San Francisco for many years, now have home games at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara on the south end of the bay. Finally, the Bay Area hosts the San Jose Sharks of the National Hockey League who have home games at the SAP Center in Downtown San Jose.
Top destinations and activities
- Alcatraz - The infamous landmark in the middle of the San Francisco Bay, Alcatraz Island was the location of one of the most notorious prisons in the world. The prison, which operated from 1934 to 1963, housed some of the world’s most well-known prisoners. The island is also the location of the older lighthouse on the Pacific coast. Tours of the prison and island are available. While other harbor cruises and tours come close to the island, Alcatraz Cruises is the official concession and the only company that is allowed to offer tours which dock at the island. Tickets sell out quickly, so it is advisable to book as far in advance as possible. The Alcatraz Cruises website also has a map of parking locations near Pier 33 from which it departs.
- Golden Gate Park - Located in the western part of the city, Golden Gate Park spans more than 1,000 acres. The park contains the San Francisco Botanical Garden, the Japanese Tea Garden, the de Young Museum with its sculpture garden, the Conservatory of Flowers, a polo field, a golf club, a fishing club, and a plethora of bicycle trains. A disc golf course can also be found within the park. An entire day could easily be spent just in the park itself.
- Lombard Street - The section of Lombard Street between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets is deemed to be the Crookedest Street in the World with hairpin turns navigating down a steep hill. It is, unsurprisingly, very popular with tourists. The street is one-way for this section with the direction of traffic going downhill. If intending to drive down the street, plan to arrive early in the day. The later it gets, the more the line of cars waiting to transit down grows. It may be preferable to visit the street on foot, in which case parking can be found on the surrounding streets. Though currently a free public road, a reservation system, and a fee is planned and may be implemented in 2020.
- San Francisco Zoo - Located between the Pacific Ocean and Lake Merced in the southwest part of the city, the San Francisco Zoo is a great destination for families. The zoo has more than 2,000 animals. There is a parking lot at the zoo that costs $12 (2019). Free parking can be found on the street on Sloat Street. Alternatively, take the L Taraval line to 47th Ave & Cutler Ave and not only will you save on paying for parking, but you will also save $1 on general admission.
- Cable Cars - San Francisco has long been famous for its cable cars the first of which opened in 1873. Three cable car lines are left. The California Street Line, which travels from the Financial District up Nob Hill, is the oldest. It is also the one with that some commuters ride. The other two lines start at the intersection of Powell and Market Streets and both go towards Fisherman's Wharf. A single ride costs $7 and can either be purchased in advance or from the conductor on board except at the Bay Street and Taylor Street Turnaround. There is a ticket office located at the stop, though. The Visitor Passports are also good for riding the cable cars. If interested in the history and working of the cable cars, don’t miss the Cable Car Museum in Nob Hill.
- Street Cars - Not to be confused with the cable cars, San Francisco’s equally famous streetcars, the F Market & Wharves Line, uses antique streetcars both for San Francisco and other American cities and from around the world. It is perhaps best to border a streetcar at one of the stations at the end of the line, Fisherman's Wharf and the Castro. The fare is just $2.25 and can be paid in cash in the machine next to the driver or with a Muni Farecard or Clipper Card. If paying with cash, keep in mind that the machine does not give change and therefore exact change is required (it does take bills, though). When you want to disembark, pull the metal cord to ask the driver to stop at the next stop.
- The Golden Gate Bridge - The famous bridge that is the icon of the city, driving across the Golden Gate Bridge is bound to be on the top of any travelers to-do list. There is no toll if crossing the bridge northbound, but there is a toll for southbound drivers. To get to the bridge, you can follow the signs throughout the city ending up on Lombard Street (Highway 101) Of course, while driving across it provides a unique view, travelers should get out of the car to enjoy it in all its glory. There are vistas on both the north and south side of the bridge, with the one on the south side being reached with the last exit off the 100 before the bridge. Pedestrians are also allowed to cross the bridge on foot on the east (bay-facing) side.
- Mission Dolores - The oldest building in the city, the Mission Dolores is also known as the Mission San Francisco de Asis. The mission is a small building located next to a basilica that was built later. The neighborhood named after the Mission (also called the Mission) lies to the east of the building. This ethnically diverse neighborhood has a large Hispanic population and is a great cultural destination.
- Coit Tower - Built in the early 1930s, the Coit Tower is located in Pioneer Park in the Telegraph Hill neighborhood. The white concrete column offers excellent views from its top. Tickets for the elevator can be booked online to avoid standing in line. Parking is very limited at the tower. Therefore, to save the time of waiting for a parking spot, it is perhaps best to reach the tower via the Filbert or Greenwich Street stairs.
- Painted Ladies - The location of the opening credits of Full House among other TV shows and an untold number of postcards, the Painted Ladies is a row of historical houses along Alamo Square Park. The scenic view of the houses with the city’s skyline behind them is a great destination at sunset.
- Whale Watching - Whale watching is one of the most popular tourist activities in CaliforniaUnlike in other sections of the state, in San Francisco whales, are not generally seen directly off the coast. Instead, they are mostly found 20 miles or so offshore. Numerous companies offer whale sighting tours that can take up to an entire day. If you want to try to see a whale from land, head south of the city along Highway 1. Though different species of whales migrate at different times of the year, at least one species can be seen at any point in the year. During the months from May through November humpback whales are feeding, while from December through May gray and killer whales can be seen migrating. Finally, blue whales can be spotted from July to October feeding on the area’s krill.
- Twin Peaks - For those seeking the best views of the city and its skyline, the Twin Peaks is where you need to head. Located in the geographical center of the city and southwest of downtown, the two hills are two of the highest points in the city (the highest point can be found further to the southwest). The peaks can be reached by hiking or by road. The panoramic views of the city’s skyline, the bay, and the ocean are certainly worth the trip.
Traffic and parking tips
Parking in San Francisco is no joke. The city’s laws are strict and its parking enforcement officers overzealous. In residential areas, parking is limited, even if free. Most of the time, the time limit is two hours. If no signs are present, then the limit is a maximum of 72 hours. If you park anywhere for longer than 72 hours, your car will be towed.
Pay attention to the days and times when it is not allowed to park in a specific section. This is sometimes a two hour period once per week and is so that the street can be cleaned. In other locations, it is during weekday rush hours and your vehicle will be towed if you park there.
San Francisco has hills, lots of them. So be prepared for parking on them. Always angle your wheels so that if your brakes were to fail or if your car were to be hit by another it would not roll into the street. Follow these tips to avoid receiving a ticket for improper parking (at best) or having to pay for the damage caused (at worst).
If parked going uphill, turn your wheels toward the street so that the back of the wheel closest to the curb rests upon it or points at it.
If parked going downhill, turn your wheels away from the street so that the front of the wheel closest to the curb rests upon it or points at it.
Always use the parking brake and be sure to leave the car in gear or park (‘P’). Also, note that your wheels should be no further than 18 inches (45 cm) from the curb.
Payment can be made for parking with coins, credit cards, and by phone with an app. With the app, your parking time can be extended without returning to the meter. Numerous garages are also available for parking for a longer period of time.
Hotels closer to the Financial District charge for parking, oftentimes upward of $50. Other hotels, such as the roadside hotels on Lombard Street, offer free parking.
Finally, San Francisco has its fair share of auto break-ins. If parking on the street, be sure to lock the car and take all valuables with you.
All of the bridges in the Bay Area are tolled. Some bridges only have tolls for vehicles traveling in one direction. Others have tolls going both ways. In addition, some of the interstates in the area have express lanes.
Most rental providers in the Bay Area offer a service plan that includes a FasTrak transponder. While being the most convenient option and allowing travel in the express lanes, the rental provider will charge a fee for the service. As detailed below, all tolls can be paid on your own, so the rental companies' toll packages aren’t strictly necessary. Here are some examples of the fees rental companies charge for the transponder:
- Dollar - $11.99 per day including unlimited tolls
- Sixt - $12.01 per day including unlimited tolls
- Alamo - 3.95 per day (maximum of $19.75 per rental) plus the cost of tolls incurred
- Thrifty - $11.99 per day including unlimited tolls
- Nu - $11.99 per day including unlimited tolls
All tolls, except the Golden Gate Bridge, can be paid either with a FasTrak tag or with cash at a toll booth. The Golden Gate Bridge has a pay-by-plate system. If not using your rental provider’s service, you can pay your toll for crossing the Golden Gate Bridge (only southbound going into the city) online. You can make a payment before a crossing or within 48 hours of crossing the bridge. Be sure to make an online payment during this timeframe, as otherwise the toll will be forwarded to the rental provider which will also charge an administrative fee in addition to the toll. Though the online payment is more convenient, it is also possible to make a payment in cash at these locations.
Ideas for a day-trip
- Wine Country- One of the highlights of a trip to the Bay Area is the infamous wine grape-growing valleys to the north of San Francisco. Cross the Golden Gate Bridge and head further north to reach Sonoma and Napa Counties which make up the San Francisco’s wine country. Sonoma and Napa are both towns too, both being the main hubs of their counties. Napa County tends to be more expensive and has more mass-producing wineries. Sonoma County tends to be less expensive and has many smaller, family-owned affairs. Head to both, but spend more time in Sonoma County if you want fewer crowds. Sonoma County consists of more than just Sonoma Valley. The Russian River and Dry Creek Valleys are certainly are further north and certainly worth visiting for more laid-back wineries.
- Mt Diablo - Located east of Oakland, it takes a little over an hour to drive to Mt. Diablo from San Francisco. The area is a State Park with numerous hiking trails. Of course, the highlight of the park is the peak of the mountain which offers gorgeous views of the Bay Area. The summit can be reached both via a hiking trail and by car.
- Santa Cruz - Located about 75 miles (125 kilometers) south of San Francisco on Monterey Bay, Santa Cruz is the best place to go for a beach town vibe. In addition to its beaches, the town is known for being a hub of the counterculture. Since the beaches in San Francisco are generally not suited for swimming, Santa Cruz is a great destination for those wanting to swim in the Pacific Ocean. It is also the place to go to try surfing.
- Muir Woods National Monument - The national monument protects a primeval forest of redwoods and is located just across the Golden Gate Bridge from the city. Open all year long from 8:00 a.m until sunset, the forest has six miles of trails along with connections to the neighboring Mount Tamalpais State Park for longer hikes. You must reserve a parking spot (or a shuttle from the city) ahead of time which costs $8 in addition to the entrance fee.
- California Highway One - Taking various names over different stretches including Pacific Coast Highway or Coast Highway, California’s Highway One is a scenic road stretching 659 miles (over 1,00 kilometers) mostly along the coast. The road starts in Legget, north of San Francisco and ends in Dana Point in Orange County. The most epic road trip would be to travel the entire road which would be a multi-day trip. Alternatively, driving either the section north of San Francisco or part of the southern section is doable in a day. If heading north, cross the Golden Gate Bridge and take Exit 444B. From Legget, it is possible to get back to San Francisco via Highway 101. If heading south, make sure to at least make it as far as Big Sur. At the north end of the road, be sure to visit the Drive-Thru Tree Park where you can literally drive through a large redwood tree.
- Silicon Valley - The southern part, roughly the Santa Clara Valley, of the San Francisco Bay Area is known as Silicon Valley and host what the area has become known for, a plethora of high-tech companies including Apple, Google, Facebook, Uber, and Airbnb. Intel hosts a museum that is open to the public and free. The Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose along with the Computer History in Mountain View is also worth visiting as is Stanford University. Tours of the Valley are available and vary in-depth, with some offering extensive tours of some of the largest companies.
- California’s Great America - On the south side of the Bay Area in Santa Clara and around 40 miles from San Francisco, sits California’s Great America, a large amusement park. With over 40 rides, the park makes for a great day-trip for families. The park also includes a water park, Boomerang Bay, entrance to which is included in the price for the main park.
- Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. - Craft beer enthusiast should make the three-hour drive north of San Francisco to Chico where Sierra Nevada Brewery is located. In addition to a complimentary tour, the brewery offers more in-depth tours. It is recommended to book the free tour ahead of time, which can be done here. Of course, plan to stick around and enjoy a brew in the taproom.
A popular road trip is to travel from San Francisco to Los Angeles. Since both cities have major airports that are connected to numerous destinations, many chose to fly into one and out of the other. Due to the popularity of the trip in both directions, it is possible to rent a car in San Francisco and drop it off in Los Angeles. In fact, some providers may not even charge the usual one-way fee for this.
If planning a road trip through multiple states or wanting to travel to Mexico, it is worth noting that there are restrictions on where you can take a rental car and they depend on which company you rent from. Here are some examples (as of August 2019):
- Dollar - All states along with Canada (requires Premium Roadside Assistance) and Mexico (requires Mexican insurance)
- National - All states and Canada
- Nu - Nevada and Arizona
- Sixt - Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington
- Advantage - All states and Canada
- Alamo - All states and Canada
- Thrifty - All states
- Los Angeles The City of Angeles is a seven-hour to the south of San Francisco along I-5. World-renowned as the home of the film industry, Los Angeles attracts millions of tourists every year. Aside from trying to experience a celebrity-sighting, the city offers glamorous shopping, exquisite cuisine, glitzy clubs, and a number of family-friendly activities. Head south to Orange County for Disneyland if traveling as a family.
- Portland - The next large city to the north of San Francisco, Portland is a considerable drive away. The trip is worth the effort, though, as Portland is one of the most unique cities in the country. The city’s microbrew scene is rivaled by none, its food trucks infamous, and great forest hikes surrounding the city. The city also has a lively music scene. Be careful, many visitors want to move to the city after visiting it for just a short time.
- Reno - Driving west on I-80 for about four hours brings travelers to Reno, Nevada, what used to be Las Vegas for Northern California. Of course, no trip to Reno would be complete without a trip to one of its casinos. Reno is not just casinos, though. The city offers various museums along with many activities in the surrounding area, such as kayaking and enjoying the Truckee River. A drive down the nearby Highway 50, or the Loneliest Highway, is also a great adventure.
- Lake Tahoe - The famous Lake Tahoe is just far enough away from San Francisco to make it more than a day trip. The largest alpine lake in North America offers numerous recreational activities and gorgeous scenery. From relaxing on its shores to hiking and camping, the area serves as a great outdoor destination. It is also known for its winter activities, mainly the ski resorts that surround it. The closest resorts to San Francisco can be found along I-80 prior to reaching Donner Pass and include Boreal Ridge, which usually opens earliest every year, and the Sugar Bowl, which has a large amount of snowfall.
- Sequoia National Park - Located in the southern part of the Sierra Nevada and about a four-hour drive from San Francisco, the Sequoia National Park contains the Giant Forest, a forest of large sequoia trees that includes General Sherman, the largest tree in the world by volume. The park also offers wilderness, mountains, and backcountry hiking and camping. In this backcountry is the tallest mountain in the lower 48, Mt. Whitney. If you intend to climb it, be sure to register for the permit lottery between February 1 and March 15 every year.
- Kings Canyon National Park - Bordering Sequoia National Park to the north is Kings Canyon National Park. The canyon from which it takes its name is a valley, shaped by glaciers, that is around a mile deep. The park also hosts multiple 14ers (peaks of 14,00ft or 4,300 meters). With limited roads, backpacking is the only way to visit most of the park. It is necessary to obtain a backcountry permit beforehand. Kings Canyon is also a prime destination for rock climbing and canyoneering.
Car Rental Prices in San Francisco
- Convertibles - from $140 per day
- Large cars - from $75 per day
- Medium cars - from $85 per day
- People Carriers/Vans - from $169 per day
- Premium cars - from $109 per day
- Small cars - from $68 per day
- SUVs - from $140 per day
Top 15 Cities near San Francisco
Los Angeles Car Rentals from $43.29 per day543.2 km / 337.5 miles away
San Diego Car Rentals from $24.53 per day718.9 km / 446.7 miles away
San Jose Car Rentals from $82.26 per day48.6 km / 30.2 miles away
Santa Ana Car Rentals from $25.33 per day598.2 km / 371.7 miles away
Palm Springs Car Rentals from $58.10 per day676.6 km / 420.4 miles away
Sacramento Car Rentals from $82.26 per day137.9 km / 85.7 miles away
Ontario Car Rentals from $25.33 per day584.8 km / 363.4 miles away
Long Beach Car Rentals from $82.26 per day569.1 km / 353.6 miles away
Oakland Car Rentals from $56.24 per day17.7 km / 11.0 miles away
Burbank Car Rentals from $25.33 per day524.6 km / 326.0 miles away
Fresno Car Rentals from $82.26 per day253.3 km / 157.4 miles away
Santa Barbara Car Rentals from $82.26 per day421.8 km / 262.1 miles away
Santa Rosa Car Rentals from $55.59 per day106.1 km / 65.9 miles away
Monterey Car Rentals from $82.26 per day124.1 km / 77.1 miles away
McKinleyville Car Rentals from $82.26 per day402.2 km / 249.9 miles away
Top 18 Locations near San Francisco
San Francisco Union Square Downtown Car Rentals from $67.26 per day
San Francisco Airport Car Rentals from $56.24 per day
San Francisco, Downtown Car Rentals from $76.98 per day
Oakland Airport Car Rentals from $56.24 per day17.7 km / 11.0 miles away
San Jose Airport Car Rentals from $82.26 per day48.6 km / 30.2 miles away
Santa Rosa, Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport Car Rentals from $55.59 per day106.1 km / 65.9 miles away
Monterey Airport Car Rentals from $82.26 per day124.1 km / 77.1 miles away
Sacramento International Airport Car Rentals from $82.26 per day137.9 km / 85.7 miles away
Fresno Airport Car Rentals from $82.26 per day253.3 km / 157.4 miles away
McKinleyville, Arcata-Eureka Airport Car Rentals from $82.26 per day402.2 km / 249.9 miles away
Santa Barbara Airport Car Rentals from $82.26 per day421.8 km / 262.1 miles away
Burbank Airport Car Rentals from $25.33 per day524.6 km / 326.0 miles away
Los Angeles Airport Car Rentals from $43.29 per day543.2 km / 337.5 miles away
Long Beach Airport Car Rentals from $82.26 per day569.1 km / 353.6 miles away
Ontario Airport Car Rentals from $25.33 per day584.8 km / 363.4 miles away
Santa Ana, John Wayne Airport Car Rentals from $25.33 per day598.2 km / 371.7 miles away
Palm Springs Airport Car Rentals from $58.10 per day676.6 km / 420.4 miles away
San Diego Airport Car Rentals from $24.53 per day718.9 km / 446.7 miles away
Map of Car Rental Locations
Which is the cheapest month to rent a car in San Francisco?
What’s the usual rental length in San Francisco?
What's the most popular month to rent a car in San Francisco?
Most Popular Car Models of Rental Suppliers
|FOX||Toyota Yaris||4||2||Small cars|
|FOX||Toyota Camry||4||2||Large cars|
|FOX||Toyota Corolla||4||1||Large cars|
|FOX||Nissan Versa||4||3||Medium cars|
|FOX||Dodge Caravan||4||4||People Carriers/Vans|
|FOX||Ford Explorer 5+2||4||SUVs|
|National||Ford Mustang Convertible||3||2||Convertibles|
|Advantage||Toyota Yaris||4||2||Small cars|
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