Rental Car Guide to San Francisco
Renting a car in San Francisco is fairly straightforward at first glance. However, when you look a little bit closer at the unique driving, parking and rental situations in this fabulous city you’ll learn that there are actually many different things to consider before choosing and using an auto rental in San Francisco. This guide will help you navigate the waters of getting a San Francisco rental car.
Things to Consider
Here are some of the major things that you will want to consider about renting a car in San Francisco:
- Which rental car company to choose. Below you will find information about 6 of the top national rental car agencies that have offices in San Francisco. You will also learn about some alternatives to these companies.
- What type of car to rent in San Francisco. The steep hills, narrow streets and small parking spots make it important that you choose the right rental car!
- Where you should get your rental car. Many people opt to get their rental car from a location at the Bay Area airport where they land but others do choose to rent within the city limits.
- How long to keep your rental car. Having a car in San Francisco is convenient, especially if you want to visit outlying attractions like Napa Valley's wine tasting or Sausalito. However there are also some drawbacks so you may not want to keep your car for the entire duration of your San Francisco stay.
- Tips on parking, driving and car rental. Take a look at our top 10 car rental tips below for general can rental help. Also look at our specific tips below for help driving and parking in San Francisco.
- What to know if you don’t get a rental car. Some people will choose not to get a San Francisco rental car after all and that’s fine as well. Check this section below for alternative transportation ideas.
Top 6 National Rental Car Companies in San Francisco
The following six auto rental companies have names you know and recognize and also have rental options in San Francisco. Here’s our take on them:
- Hertz. One of San Francisco's most popular rental car companies with preferred service, great support, and a wide selection of Fords and other makes. Recent rentals for Hertz in the compact class have delivered a Ford Focus sedan and Chevrolet Cobalt sedan. We have seen an increasing number of really modern Hyundai sedans and SUV's with Hertz which is good if you like to try out imports. We received a recent intermediate airport quote around $415 per week with all taxes included. Service from Hertz was generally good, with the usual upsell attempts on insurance and gasoline pre-fill. Hertz in San Francisco is located downtown near Union Square next to the Prescott hotel and with easy access to the BART subway. Costco offers some good coupons for Hertz as does the AAA auto club.
- Dollar. This is a great discount rental car provider offering good deals on cars in the San Francisco area. We rented from Dollar on a recent trip and got a minivan for our family - Dodge Grand Caravan / Chrysler Town & Country - (our choice) for a week for under $300 before tax. An intermediate airport quote is around $350 per week with all taxes. The service was average, but the deal made it worth it. This dealer emphasizes Chryslers but of course offers other cars as well.
- Enterprise Rent a Car. This rental agency is focused on local in-city rentals but does have an expanding airport presence. A nice perk of this company is that it offers pickup / drop-off service in some situations. We received a recent intermediate quote around $365 per week (non-airport, via nearby shuttle) with all taxes.
- Budget. As its name suggests, this is a company that typically offers good prices on San Francisco cars, although we received a recent intermediate airport quote around $430 per week with all taxes, which is higher than some of the other national rental car agencies. A plus at Budget is that they offer a huge variety of different types of cars.
- Alamo. This is one of our favorite discount car rental places for vacations. They cater to leisure travelers and have great rates - particularly if you are renting for an entire week. Our recent quote was at $430 for a midsize at SFO airport including all taxes. They provide generally good service and have a free frequent renter program to get you through the rental counter quicker; we always recommend joining these programs versus hassling with paperwork on your trip. Alamo is primarily a GM shop with Chevrolets, Pontiacs, and other GM brands. They're located in downtown San Francisco's Union Square area.
- Avis. This rental car company is focused on General Motors cars and tends to offer premium business-focused service which means higher-priced but also higher-quality autos. We received a recent intermediate airport quote around $470 per week with all taxes. Here’s what one person recently had to say about the Avis Experience in San Francisco: “Avis Rental Car is located only 3 blocks from Union Square on Post St. I picked up a rental car on a Friday and was pleasantly surprised to walk right up to the counter. There was no waiting in line! The Avis rep was pleasant to talk to although he did try to get me to add their daily insurance and upgrade my car. They also offer the use of a GPS for an additional daily fee, which I declined as well. Though I declined on all the add-ons, the rep was still pleasant. I was then instructed to walk outside and they will bring the car out which they did promptly. The car I got was clean inside and had just had the exterior washed. The attendant also nicely reminded me that it has Sirius Satellite Radio, which was a big hit for me! It was also a pleasant experience returning the car. Since the off airport site is small, it was pretty simple to return the car. I drove into the garage and got out of the car. An attendant was there and I handed him the rental agreement on which he wrote something and handed it back to me to give to the counter rep inside the office. I think he just made sure that it had a full tank of gas upon return which it did. Over all, I had a hassle free and pleasant experience renting a car at Avis Downtown SF. Avis in downtown San Francisco is easily accessible by BART, street car, or Muni.”
Alternatives to the National Car Rental Chains
San Francisco is a city that loves to support small businesses over big chains. We don’t have a Wal-Mart or a Barnes and Noble. So although we do have the big national car rentals and they provide a solid option for renting a car there are also smaller local agencies to choose from. We always recommend photo documenting all of the body of a car on all four sides, together with all seats in the interior to avoid damage claims.
One of the family-owned companies that may help you get a better price on a car, particularly at the last minute, is Reliable Rent a Car, located in Union Square. They focus on affordable cars that can get you around, and also offer extended late night hours for dropoff - very close to the largest San Francisco hotels. You can even get free parking. It can make a big difference in the highly-automated rental car industry to deal with an actual small business that is part of San Francisco. You may find shorter lines and they are often mentioned by the hotel concierge staff.
For example, one option is City Rent-a-Car. From their website: “In November 1996, Bay Area natives Joseph Blandino, Paul Blandino, and Tamim Ghilzai founded City Rent-a-Car. Over the last ten years, we've become the local favorite by offering the widest selection of cars along with friendly, experienced staff.” This company offers cars of all sizes and styles. They are located within city limits a little ways away from Union Square.
San Francisco is also a city that strongly supports peer-to-peer sharing. Residents here happily rent out rooms to visitors through services like AirBnB, share co-work spaces and yes, rent cars to travelers. For example, use Getaround or Relay Rides to rent a car from a local. This often results in lower prices and the chance to help support someone living in the city.
Finally, San Francisco is a city with a lot of options for Zipcar members. Zipcar is a car sharing program available in many cities. This option is great because you can reserve a car just for the hours you need it and then return it, saving yourself time as well as the hassle of finding parking for a rental car.
Which Rental Car is Right for San Francisco?
No matter which rental car agency you choose, you need to make sure that you select the right car for your San Francisco needs. The car you normally like to drive on a vacation may or may not be right for the unique driving and parking story in San Francisco. Here are some tips and things to consider:
- You will be driving on many steep hills. San Francisco is a city of hills, hills and more hills. Because of this people often prefer an automatic transmission to a manual. A car that handles well and is comfortable for the driver is important!
- Parking spots are tight. Parking is hard to come by in San Francisco and the spots are small both for street parking and in most garages in the city. Because of this you should err on the side of a smaller car whenever possible. Also consider the shape of the car if you’re not a skilled parker; for example, some people find that it’s more difficult for them to park a car if it has a longer-than-average front.
- A luxury car in San Francisco can be a real treat. This is nice if you’re planning to take a day trip outside of the city to a place like Stinson Beach or Monterey Bay. The coastal, curving drives and steep hills are made to show off sport sedans like Lexus, Infiniti, Volvo, Audi, BMW, and Acura -- all of which you can get for the right price if you shop around.
Which Location Should You Rent a Car From?
Most San Francisco rental car agencies have several different locations to choose from including locations at SFO Airport, Oakland International Airport and within city limits. The majority of car rental locations within city limits can be found near Union Square and around Fisherman’s Wharf.
If you are coming to and from San Francisco via the airport and will be keeping your rental car for the entire duration of your trip then it makes sense to rent a car from an airport location. (Alternatively you can rent a car from an off-airport location within shuttle distance of the airport to save a little bit of money.) Car rental at the airport is usually slightly more expensive than car rental within the city but remember that you’re saving the cost of getting to and from the city (which can be around $50 each way for a taxi ride, for example).
If you will only be keeping your rental car for a portion of your trip then it makes more sense to rent a car within city limits. Choosing the location closest to your hotel makes the most sense for many people. Nevertheless, it is worth it to shop around and see where the best price is in the city since getting to and from rental locations within city limits isn’t difficult using public transportation.
How Long Should You Keep Your Rental Car?
You may be asking yourself at this point why you would get a San Francisco rental car for only a portion of your vacation. Most of the time when you go on a trip you will keep the car to use during the entire stay. However, you really don’t need a car within San Francisco city limits and it can actually be more of a headache to have one than a joy, which is why some people choose to limit the duration of their rental. You may decide to rent a car for a day or two in order to easily visit wine country, Muir Woods or another nearby attraction but then return the car since you don’t need it for the attractions you are actually enjoying within the city limits.
Driving and Parking Tips
Here are some of the things you should know about driving and parking a rental car in San Francisco:
- The city’s hills are steep. Very steep. Make sure to turn your wheels toward the curb when parking on the hills. Make sure to set your parking brake.
- There are lots of one-way streets in San Francisco. Pay attention so you don’t end up driving the wrong way down one of them.
- Turns are frequently not allowed. Look at all the signage. It may seem like a perfectly logical place to make a right or left turn and still not be allowed.
- The city’s streets are narrow and often crowded. Be a vigilant driver.
- Taxis commonly zip in and out of traffic so be on the watch for them.
- Hotels usually charge a per-day fee for parking. Although it can seem pricey it is often cheaper than garages in the area.
- Street parking in the city has a lot of restrictions. Look for signs about street cleaning, where overnight parking is not allowed, whether it’s a ten-minute only zone, etc.
- Many street parking spots are slightly too small for a regular car. The only car that will fit in these is a tiny Smart Car. This is especially true in North Beach and the Fisherman’s Wharf area and can be infuriating for drivers circling around looking for a spot. Don’t think about parking here anyway, though, because you will be ticketed.
- Parking tickets in San Francisco are pricey. And meter maids are everywhere.
- Garage and parking lot prices are often based on 15 or 20 minute time slots. So when you see a sign that says, “$2” look closer because it may mean “$8 per hour”. Expect to pay high prices to park in San Francisco garages, especially in the tourist-popular areas like Pier 39. If you are going to drive to these areas there is usually little choice but to pay those fees.
- Parking meters usually take credit cards. This is nice since it means you don’t have to carry change with you everywhere to park.
- Don’t feed the meter. If you are parked at a meter with a limited time on it (such as two hours) and the time runs up then you have to move your car to a different location. If you just feed the meter you can get caught and ticketed.
- There’s an app for that. Before you head to San Francisco you might want to check out the plethora of apps that are available to help you find parking spots in the city. One example is the SF Park app, available for both iPhone and Android.
Our Top 10 Car Rental Tips
- Check Out the Fees. Make sure you know about all of the fees that are part of your online car rental bookings. Click through to the screen that shows the total price with taxes and fees and print out your confirmation screen. When you pick up the car make sure that the price, fees, and taxes match what you were quoted on the web, with the confirmation printed out from your web booking.
- Consider The Full Price and What You Get. Keep in mind that a rental car is more than just the car; it's the service and how you are treated also so the lowest price isn’t always the best. Use your experiences, our reviews, and friends’ experiences to pick the best company.
- Reservations. Make a reservation at least one week in advance. You don't want to be rental car shopping upon arrival. You want the time to shop around, get the best rates and guarantee to get a car even in the busiest season.
- Check the Vehicle's Condition. Always be sure to look at the car before you take it off of the rental car property for the first time. Take a good walk around the vehicle, checking for any damage, scratches, and dings. Many companies (like Dollar Rental Car) will ask you to sign off on the vehicle's condition before leaving the lot.
- Off-Airport Rentals. You can save money by renting a car away from the airport. All airports have a multitude of special fees and taxes. By renting off-airport, you can save 10% - 20% or more. There are often discount car rentals just a few short miles from the airport's "tax zone".
- Dropoff Location / Time: Check into the fees before you drop off a car anywhere besides where you rented it as there are often fees for drop off of the car at another location. Make sure you return on time. After 1-2 hours over a 24-hour rental day you’ll be paying for an entire additional day at most companies.
- Car Seats. Consider bringing along your own children's car seats rather than renting them from the car rental company at a high price. You can often pay for a brand new car seat for the same price as the price of a car seat rental.
- Drivers. It may cost extra for a registered second driver (even a spouse). Make sure any actual vehicle drivers are on the contract or you can expose yourself to risk.
- Gas. Make sure that you understand the terms you’ve agreed to about refilling the car with gas. In many cities it makes sense to agree to return the car with a full tank but in San Francisco gas stations are few and far between so it may be worth it to pay a little extra to be allowed to return it less than full at no penalty. If you are required to bring it back full, make sure to fill your car up with gas on the way to drop off the vehicle.
- Insurance: Make sure you understand what your auto coverage handles on rental cars. If you're unsure at the rental counter they'll push you hard for the upsell, which can cost more than necessary. Christine shared with us, "I didn't know that CA has a policy that you need to bring your insurance with you when you rent a car in San Francisco or else you have to get extra insurance. If I knew that I would have brought my info with me."
Can Rental Alternatives in San Francisco
What is great about a trip to San Francisco is that you don’t actually need a rental car if you don’t want one. You can save yourself money and hassle by choosing alternative forms of transportation during your stay. Here are some alternatives to consider:
- Take BART. This is especially a great way to get from the airport into San Francisco. BART will also take you to many outlying destinations (like Berkeley and Oakland) and can take you to some great spots within city limits as well (such as The Mission neighborhood).
- Take common public transportation. The MUNI busses and cable cars are a great way to get around the city at a low cost. There are day passes and multi-day passes, which can be purchased at the Visitor Information Center at Powell and Market streets. M.C. shared with us, “The bus passes/cable car passes are a best buy and I think you might want to tell other tourists like myself to think twice about renting a car if you're just going to stay in town... It's not at all like Phoenix rental cars where you absolutely need one to visit.”
- Take the ferry. You can use the San Francisco ferry system for a scenic ride on the water to get to Sausalito, Tiburon, Angel Island and Oakland.
- Rent a scooter. This is an alternative to car rental for people who want their own wheels but don’t want to deal with a big car. W.L. writes, "I quickly realized that parking is almost impossible in SF and the buses are too slow. I rented a scooter for around $20 per day and it was a blast! They are a little slow climbing steep hills, but parking is a cinch. It took me 2 days to run out of gas and filled it up for only $1. Scooters are a great way to get around SF.
- Rent a bicycle. If you enjoy bike riding then this can be a terrific way to get around the city. See our suggestions for bike rental.
By Kathryn Vercillo, Copyright SFTravel LLC