San Francisco ain't cheap. That said, there a few hidden gems where you can enjoy this amazing city without breaking the bank. In this post, I'll cover a few non-sketchy, clean, budget hotels that I've personally stayed in as well as tips and tricks for landing great deals for even nicer places.
Hotel Des Arts - $89+ per night
Hotel Des Arts is my favorite budget boutique hotel in the city. Each room is painted by a different artists and some of them are wacky. It is a unique and very San Francisco place to stay.
Hotel Des Arts has rooms with both private and shared bathrooms. Rooms are small but clean and have a desk, refrigerator, and free wifi. They also have free breakfast every morning which consisted of the standard continental fare: coffee, juices, bagels, yogurt, toast, etc. Rooms with shared bathrooms start at $89 and private bathrooms are $119.
I have never stayed in their rooms with a shared bathroom, so I can't comment on that specifically, but they appeared to be clean upon glance. It is an older building so the hallways are kind of narrow and there is a steep staircase to contend with. They have an elevator but it is one of the older style ones that I never had the guts to try (not a fan of elevators!). Overall, it's an older building with a lot of charm. The folks at the front desk are really nice and helpful.
The hotel is smack dab in the center of Union Square. You have tons of restaurants and shopping at your doorstep. A short stroll to Market street and your public transportation options are the best the city has to offer. You are also a half a block to the gates of Chinatown, which is a nice spot to take a photo. The front desk has great tips for places to visit and transportation options.
Casa Loma Hotel - $65+ per night
Casa Loma Hotel is a boutiquey hotel located in the Alamo Square neighborhood. It's a bit off the beaten tourist path, but that's a good thing in my book.
While the bathroom is still shared in most rooms (they do offer rooms with private bathrooms), the rooms are quite a bit larger than Hotel Des Arts. Each room has a sink, dresser, and some have refrigerators. The price varies by season but is typically $65-$115 per night depending on the room type. I appreciate when hotels don't have ugly comforters on the bed and Casa Loma does not disappoint. It has a cleaner look with just sheets and an extra blanket if you get cold. The room looks modern and clean. The Wifi was not free and my signal was bad there inside on T-Mobile, so that was a bummer.
Neighborhood and Transportation
Public transportation is pretty good from here, the 21 and 5 MUNI buses are a short walk away and will whisk you downtown in about 15-20 minutes. Bus fares are $2.25 each way. Don't forget to check out Alamo Square, with the iconic painted ladies just a few short blocks away. I also highly recommend visiting the Hayes Valley neighborhood which is about a 10 minute walk down Hayes street. There are some great restaurants and shops.
Hotel North Beach - $45+ per night
If you're looking for the cheapest of cheap, Hotel North Beach is your place.
At prices starting at $315 per week (plus tax), it's an amazing price for the city and location. You get a discount for a 7 day stay.
I was pretty worried from some of the reviews, but you just have to set your expectations based on the price. Don't expect a happy welcome and tourist map at the front desk. They are pretty much all business. Several of the reviews complained about the lack of AC. This is not uncommon at all in San Francisco. In fact, most homes in the city, even in luxury buildings, do not have AC. It only gets hot a few days a year (usually October is warmest month) and is typically cool at night.
As for the room, I had a single and it comes equipped with a tiny TV, desk, sink, refrigerator, and microwave. The wifi is free and was pretty good in my room. The bathrooms are shared, but they were cleaned multiple times per day. There are several on each floor so I never had trouble with them being occupied. There is an ugly comforter on the bed, but I just removed it and used the sheets.
There seem to be some people who live there, but they have security and I never felt unsafe. If you come in after a certain hour, you have to show your ID to the security at the front desk.
The neighborhood, North Beach, has some great restaurants, shops, and bars. It is safe but can be rowdy with the nightlife. While it's a little short on public transportation, Market street is about a 15 minute walk. From there, you will have the BART, MUNI, and can get anywhere you'd want to go. It's also a short walk to Fisherman's Wharf, the Financial district, and downtown.
I would recommend this hotel for those who are looking for a place to stay while apartment hunting or just want a safe place to relax and sleep. If you have kids or it's Mom's first time to the city, I'd recommend an upgrade to the previous hotel on my list, Hotel Des Arts.
Finding Deals on Nicer Hotels: Hotwire and Priceline
Hotwire.com is a great option for finding a cheap place in the city. The concept behind it is you put in your dates and city and are shown a list of available hotels. You can see everything except the exact hotel name (amenties, star level, general location, and price). You get a steep discount on hotels who have extra inventory. In October last year, I landed the Good Hotel in SOMA for $65 per night. It usually runs around $140 per night.
Priceline Name Your Own Price
Priceline is my bread and butter when I travel. If you are flexible with your location and amenties requirements, it's easy to get a great deal on a nicer property. The concept is, you pick the area you want to stay in, the star level of the hotel, and then name your price. You can clearly see on the map each neighborhood and are guaranteed that your hotel will be within those boundaries.
If your price is accepted, you are booked and will see the hotel you landed on the next page. Priceline claims you can save up to 60%, and I have found that to be true. Check out the site Better Bidding for strategies and tips for bidding.
If you have special requirements, such as pets or parking, you'll want to use Hotwire or try out their Priceline Express deals. You'll probably end up paying a little more but you can see the amenities before you buy.
AirBNB - A lot of people enjoy AirBNB but I never found it to be cheaper than the hotels I listed. There are other reasons to go that route though. It can be fun to stay with a local and experience the city through their eyes.
Craigslist sublets - If you're looking for a longer term stay, subletting a room on Craigslist is the way to go. It can be pretty competitive in the summer though, as San Francisco housing is pretty insane even for shorter term rentals.
Hotel Tonight is an app that offers discount hotels on a last minute basis. It's slick and well designed but I haven't seen deals that are better than Priceline or Hotwire. Still, it's really easy to use and you don't have to do much work to get a discounted hotel.
Couchsurfing - If you're really adventurous, stay on someone's couch for free! Definitely the cheapest way to see SF.
Hope this list will help you in your stay in San Francisco! Feel free to ask any questions in the comments!