Everything you need when planing a vacation trip to San Francisco
The Farmont Hotel on Nob Hill


The Mark Hopkins on Nob Hill


The Best Room at the Best Price

If price is no object, have your personal secretary book the penthouse suite in the Fairmont Hotel and enjoy your trip. It is by far San Francisco’s most luxurious hotel suite. And the view is breathtaking. Or so I am told.  At $15,000 per night it is also the city’s most expensive. Perhaps you can negotiate a slightly lower rate, but why demean yourself, why bother – price is no object.


However, if you are not staying there, then it means price is a factor and if it is, why not get the best price for the best room you can? I can’t think of a good reason, so let’s explore the ways of doing so. Keep in mind that prices and conditions are changing all the time as vacancy rates rise and fall with the tides of tourists and conventioneers pouring into and out of the city. It is important to be current, flexible and have more than one trick up your sleeve.


San Francisco Hotels and Motels

San Francisco Map showing Motels and Hotels


A little knowledge of the city is a good thing before booking a hotel or motel. And that knowledge includes knowing that the biggest concentration of hotels is downtown around Union Square and going to the north, up Nob Hill and over towards Chinatown. This is where most of the big five star hotels and most of the quaint (meaning old with no onsite parking) boutique hotels are. This also happens to be where parking is the most difficult and expensive. In terms of price, the biggest drawback of staying in this district if you have a car, is the added expense of parking. For just about the same amount as the big hotels charge extra for parking, you can find a decent motel just a couple of miles outside of the downtown (Union Square) district.


The biggest concentration of motels is along Lombard Street, just south of the Marina District between Van Ness (a major north – south artery) and the Presidio. There is also a cluster of them around Fisherman’s Wharf. They are also scattered along and about Van Ness, particularly just to the east of it, north of the Civic Center. I should explain to those of you not well versed in Americanisms, that the word motel is a blend of motorists’ hotel, and refers to a common type of unpretentious lodging establishment that typically is made up of  a one or two story building with rooms with doors opening out onto a parking lot. It is that parking lot that is the germane part of the definition when considering where to stay in the city with a car. When staying at a motel, it is assumed that parking is free, not a small matter if you have ever had the unpleasant experience of paying from your own pocket an insultingly high parking bill at one of the nicer high rise hotels in downtown San Francisco. True, when you stay in one of the Union Square hotels, you are near the center of the big city action, but if you stay in a hotel along Lombard Street, you are only a block south of Chestnut with all its coffee houses and cozy restaurants, and three blocks north of the Union Street shopping district, where you can also easily find a great little place for breakfast, a fresh ground cup of coffee and the paper.


If you are traveling by car and not planning on spending the night clubbing, the motels around the airport are not a bad budget choice. The airport is only 13 miles from downtown, which can be traveled in about 15 minutes or so, if you avoid the rush hour traffic. It is often possible to find an amazing bargain (check the discount coupon sites discussed below) out at the airport even when things in town are a little pricier than normal. The food choices around the airiport are mostly of the old time coffee shop variety such as IHOP and Denny’s. Most of the motels include a simple breakfast in the room price so that may not even be a factor. But if it is not included, as it sometimes is not, when you are paying a price slightly higher than what the motel pays the maid to clean up after you. But if you are a hardcore budget traveler, a few minutes of forethought and a stop at a super market will take care of the morning’s nutritional needs.


While on the subject of hardcore budget travel, we should consider hostels. Or, rather why not consider them.  Put me down in the not column. Why? I think they are too expensive. At least when two are traveling together. Let me explain. There are about a dozen hostels in San Francisco, most are downtown skirting the Union Square district where things are a little dirtier and a walk down the block will likely come with two or three offers to relieve you from the burden of having to lug around your spare change.  The going price for a bunk in a dorm room of four to eight bunks is about $25. For two that would be, let me see…$50. It is possible to get a regular motel room out by the airport for less than that. And you are only $5 to $15 over what you can find in the motels along Lombard Street if you use the techniques below.  But it is possible to get a private room in a hostel where you don’t need to worry about a bunkmate keeping you awake with snoring or making off with your iPod when you are sleeping. Those go for around $75 to $100.  Again, you can get a much nicer and lower priced hotel or motel room with just a little bit of savvy.


Nickel and Dimeing


"Go ahead, have a drink."One more point before we move on to booking a room: when comparing the prices of high star rated hotels with low star rated hotels, is that unlike the lower rated hotels, the better hotels will pull all kinds of tricks to see to it that you end up paying more than the room fee. And it does not matter if you pay the full price or not, every time you turn around the luxury hotels will be overcharging you for some thing or other. It seems counterintuitive, but the more expensive the hotel the less they provide included in the room fee. Parking is a good example. Motels provide free parking when the big luxury hotels will charge about $60 extra per night. OK, that may not be fair since the hotels tend to be in areas where parking is at a premium, which is not the case with motels. But they will charge you $60 to park your car, when across the street is a public parking garage charging $18 for the exact same thing. And at the same time, just down the street, there may be a two or three star hotel that while they don’t have their own parking facility, has made a special deal for their guest to park in a nearby public parking garage at a discount.


WiFi is another good example. A standard motel can provide a clean, comfortable room along with a simple breakfast and WiFi for well under $80 per night, when a grand hotel charging some $250 a night, demands to be able to pluck some extra profit from your pocket if you want to check your email.  The tipping point for me was finding this bottle water in my ostentatious Union Square hotel room. One can almost hear the cynical laughter of the copywriter and hotel management in that text.


Fixed Price Booking


The first step in booking a room is to go to the fixed price websites, such as Hotels.com and check out the prices and hotels. Another great site is Trivago where you can compare hotel prices and find the perfect hotel in San Francisco. These are straight forward booking agencies who give the base line prices. If you are just going to go with a fixed price site, there are many of them and they don’t all have the same prices. But good news, there are sites that search all the fixed price sites and put the different deals together so you can easily pick the best deal. These are called meta search engines. We have tested all the top hotel meta search engines and we have found that the one that works best is HotelsCombined.com.


Top Fixed Price Booking Sites:



Recommended meta search engine:



Discount Coupons

Discount Coupons


There are a couple of companies that publish discount hotel coupon books that are distributed in high traffic restaurants and coffee shops around the country. You will usually see them in a stand near the front door. The coupons are often deeply discounted and the participating hotels tend to be one or two stars so the prices tend to be low to begin and then with the discounts you are getting down to about as low as you can go. The catch, if it is even a catch, is that most (but not all) of the coupons are for walk-in and honored based on room availability. So there is a bit of a risk of being turned away. But if traveling during off season, they can be an excellent way of getting a room at rock bottom prices.


Besides picking up the coupon books, you can print out a coupon from their web sites and in some cases the participating hotels and motels will take a reservation online for the discount coupon’s bargain rate:






Priceline vs Hotwire


Two of the major hotel booking sites work a little different than the others in that they don’t reveal all the information about the hotel until you have paid for it. For that reason they are called “opaque sites”.  The deals on these sites must be lower than the regular fixed price sites, or else no one would use them. The reason the names of the hotels are not revealed until you except their offer is that the prices are so discounted the hotel operators don’t want you to be able to compare their discounted price with the price on the regular booking sites.  If people could do that, no one would pay the regular price. They just want to fill the room that would otherwise go empty at the published prices.


Since there is more room for a discount in higher-end hotels room rates than the rates at budget motels, the deals are often more spectacular as you go up the star rating ladder. However, on the lower end it is quite possible to get a two star room for two for less than it would cost them to get bunks in a dorm room with six other people in a typical hostel.


The way Hotwire.com works is you tell them the city, dates and star rating you are interested in and they tell you the price and neighborhood, but not the hotel or motel’s name.  Once you have paid the non refundable fee, they give you the hotel’s information.


The interesting part of Priceline works a little differently. Like Hotwire it does not reveal the name of the hotels and motels. But unlike Hotwire, it does not give you the price for the rooms. Instead, it asks you to “name your own price”.  To keep you from low balling them, and then just inch your bid amount up until it is accepted, they limit you to one bid per itinerary per 24 hours. I said “the interesting part of Priceline” because it has a fixed price booking section that works the same as Travelocity and Hotels.com. To get to the bidding section you must be sure to click on their “Name Your Own Price” buttons on their homepage.

There are a few catches to keep in mind with opaque sites. First, they assume two people per room. Also, you are not given the option of choosing between smoking and non-smoking rooms. They also tack on an extra charge of $15 to $20. And of course, there are the built in catches of only being able to choose the star rate and area and not the actual hotel. And not being able to cancel or change the room once it is booked. But if none of these issues are deal killers, it is quite possible to get a fantastic deal with just a little work as we will explore below.


The Bidding Game


Just as Hotwire must deliver prices lower than on the fixed price sites such as Hotels.com, in order to attract business, so must Priceline be able to deliver deals better than Hotwire’s. Indeed, why would anyone place a bid for an unnamed hotel if a better deal could be had on a published price site. And why would anyone book a room through a site that does not name the hotels if equal or better deals were on the sites that not only name the hotels, but also provide photos and detailed information about them before consummating the deal.


With the above in mind, one of the first steps before placing a Priceline bid is to check out the action on Hotwire. A few minutes of research will tell you the lowest price for your star rating on Hotwire. This is the price to beat.  But how much to under bid it? As a general rule, take 20% off the best Hotwire price for the same star rating for your Priceline bid.


But what if your bid is not accepted? You can’t bid for another 24 hours. Right? Well, there are ways around that.  If you make a change to your itinerary, you can bid immediately.  This is where free rebid areas come in handy.


Free rebid areas are areas of the city that do not have any hotels or motels of your star class working with Priceline. If your bid was not accepted, you can add a free zone to your itinerary and rebid, say, $5 higher to see if that is the magic lowest number they will accept. Since the area you added to your itinerary has no hotels that meet your minimum acceptable star rating, you have not changed the substance of your bid except for the slightly higher bid. With several free rebid areas you can inch your bid up until you nail the lowest possible bid.


To find free rebid areas, click the areas one by one in the bidding section of Priceline and see if your chosen star rating is grayed out. If it is, you just found a free rebid zone. It does not matter if there are higher or lower rated hotels. The lower rated hotels are excluded from the bidding when you enter your star rating. But if you are bidding on a, say, three star hotel and the free bid area has no three star hotels but several four and five star hotels, it is highly unlikely that they will except a bid that is just a little above a bid that was just turned down by all the three star hotels. And if it goes wrong, so what? How hard is life when you get a room in a four or five star hotel at below what you were willing to pay for a three star?




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