San Francisco

By | 16th January 2018

Do you need a car in San Francisco?

Do you need a car in San Francisco > Should you rent a car in San Francisco USA > San Francisco ( SFO ) Do you need a car in San Francisco? Is it worth hiring a car in San Francisco? Should you rent a car in San Francisco?

San Francisco Car hire summary

Overall drive rating

Based on a weighted score across all cost and quality factors. [Full notes - drive rating]


  • Price alone isn't the only factor in determining whether or not it's worth hiring a car in San Francisco but clearly it's an important one. See our "why" section for more figures.
  • Cost factors include - price of car hire (peak and off peak season), car hire extras, fuel, tolls and parking costs.
  • Quality factors include - scenic drives, road quality and upkeep, general safety and congestion levels.
  • A complete index of all 10 factors will be uploaded shortly.

Cheapest rate for one week

Based on cheapest economy car hire deal with no added extras. [full notes - basic costs]



  • This is the very lowest price we could find for a one week car rental period in San Francisco during the quiet season.
  • You will almost always end up paying more than this figure, but any extra costs or supplementary charges are usually determined by the renter, so we cannot easily compare like with like.
  • In many cases, rental companies will offer a cheap rental and then expect you to take out expensive insurance waivers. There are always ways to avoid this!

How much should I expect to pay in the peak season?

Based on cheapest deal during the summer holiday season. (Unless otherwise noted) [full notes - seasonal variations]



  • During the peak holiday season, public transport is often better value, as many train and bus fares are fixed throughout the year. See our "why not" section for more suggestions.
  • For most featured destinations, the peak season will be during the summer, typically July and August for northern hemisphere destinations. However, peak demand might occur at different times, for example in some ski resorts or winter sun destinations etc.

Free parking score

Based on the number of hotels which offer free parking. Total 505 - of which 164 have free parking. [full notes - parking]



  • Free hotel parking is very useful to have when you are hiring a car, and it's always worth checking ahead beforehand.
  • If free hotel parking is not available, you might want to consider renting a car for a single day, rather than for your whole trip.
  • The availability (or lack of) free hotel parking can be a really important factor in determining whether or not it's worth hiring a car in San Francisco, as it can be a significant extra daily cost which you won't usually be paying at home!
  • Parking costs play a very major part in our consideration of whether or not it's worth hiring a car in each destination.
  • By using public transport, walking or hiring a bicycle, you can avoid having to worry about parking charges altogether! See our "why not" section for more suggestions.

San Francisco public transport quick facts

Train score

Higher scores go to the systems which don't just take you to the most amazing places, but also to the ones which are easy to use, fast, reliable and frequent. A good train system on its own is usually enough to determine that you don't need to hire a car in many destinations.


  • [full notes trains]
  • Trains include all kinds of urban rail system from trams up to metro and suburban networks.
  • Trains also include mountain railways and cable cars.
  • Generally, places with a good rail network will automatically mean that you don't "need" to hire a car, but you can still might find that on balance you are better off by having one.

Water travel score

This is a general rating for all types of water travel, including scheduled ferries, sea / rivers cruises and excursions in San Francisco


  • [full notes - water score]
  • The water score looks at means of transport on water - it does not consider water based activities like surfing or kayaking.

Overall public transport score

This is a more practical rating based on bus and rail travel, and also including ferries and other boat services, where they are part of the public transport network.


  • [full notes - overall transit] buses | trams | metro | local & regional rail | national rail
  • Is public transport in San Francisco good value, or is it worth hiring a car just because it is cheaper overall?
  • Even if public transport is cheap and reliable, you might still feel that you should hire a car in San Francisco because it will still give you more flexibility to reach out-of-the-way places, especially in rural areas.

Walking and Cycling Overview

Active travel score

This overall rating considers walking and cycling in and around San Francisco. It includes factors such as the quality of the street environment, and whether you are likely to feel safe walking or cycling, together with the availability of bicycle hire and the ease of linking walking or cycling routes with public transport.


  • [full notes - active score] walking (city) | hiking | cycling (city /  country).
  • A high active travel score means that you might not need a car in San Francisco, because you can see everything you need to see using a combination of your own two feet and the public transport system.

Car rental in - San Francisco Need v worth & should!

Whether you have come here asking "do I need a car in San Francisco", "is it worth hiring a car in San Francisco", or whether or not you "should" hire a car here, these are all slight variations on a similar theme. Here we break each one down according to the criteria we use for each question. This is a weighted score based on the values above. These are explained further in the text which follows - [#why] [#whynot]. Do you need a car in San Francisco?

Do you need a car in San Francisco?

This is essentially based on whether or not public transport and other "non car" options are good enough to get around and beyond the city. For the lowest "need" score, the destination should have a combination of excellent all-round public transport, great opportunities for walking and cycling, together with poor value car hire or generally poor quality roads. 
  • In destinations where both public transport and car hire options are excellent, the verdict for "do I need a car in  San Francisco " will swing towards a strong no, because you can do absolutely fine without one).
Is it worth hiring a car in San Francisco?

Is it worth hiring a car in San Francisco?

Is car hire good value, especially during the peak season? How does this compare with transit fares? This question mainly looks at issues of cost and practicality.
  • In destinations where both public transport and car hire options are excellent, the verdict for "is it worth hiring a car in  San Francisco" will swing towards whichever option offers the lowest overall cost for a group of 2-4 people travelling together.
Should you rent a car in San Francisco?

Should you rent a car in San Francisco?

Weighing up the above questions, if you are here for the first time AND asking about hiring a car, is it a good idea?
  • The final "carometer" swing is much more opinion based, and it takes into account which options will give you the truly best travel experience (n our humble opinion of course). Where a destination offers an excellent score with or without a car, the swing will go towards whichever option we feel gives the most truly unforgettable experience.
  • Ultimately, it's your choice whether or not you rent a car here. We're trying to give you something that's sufficiently far enough away from a "maybe" to help you make that choice. Ultimately, people only come to us because they are uncertain, but we don't really know what each person's preferences are. Whether we say you should or you shouldn't rent a car in  San Francisco, you might also want to look up some of our other cities to see how  San Francisco compares with other destinations in  USA or  North America.
  • By using public transport, walking or hiring a bicycle, you can avoid having to worry about parking charges altogether! See our "why not" section for more suggestions.

What does everyone else do?

Do most people hire a car in San Francisco?

This is based on our observations of (a) car rental facilities and (b) what we think most people will do here. It's not an exact figure, just an estimate of how likely people are to get hold of a rental car here.
  • his is based on the percentage of people "in the market" who we think are likely to hire a car. This includes anyone arriving on holiday here who would usually hire a car on their travels, so it doesn't include people who don't usually drive (or don't drive), people staying with friends etc.


Visitors per year (million)

  • Cities with more visitors are more likely to have more complex airport car rental arrangements, and generally they will also have better public transport, but this is not always the case, especially in North America.


  • [full notes - do as everyone else does?]
  • You may wish to go with the flow, or you might prefer to avoid doing the most popular or obvious option. This will vary according to the range of choice available. This tends to be much higher in destinations which are closer to the middle of the car or no car scale.

Who is travelling?

Your group size and travel budget has a major impact on whether or not getting a rental car is good value compared to using public transport as your main means of getting around. Ultimately, these are all "worth" questions:

Is it worth renting a car in San Francisco if I am a solo / budget traveller?

Generally, hiring a car is not good value for solo travellers for multiple reasons, especially as most of the costs of renting apply to the car, not the occupants. With public transport, the reverse is usually true! However, there are always some places where you will need a car, simply because they are almost impossible to reach using public transport.

Is it worth renting a car in San Francisco for 2 people travelling together?

A rental car can be good value for couples or for friends travelling together, but since most cars come with at least four seats, it's often still better value to use public transport. However, if you prefer to keep yourselves to yourselves, then you might still want to rent.

Is it worth renting a car in San Francisco for families?

Families of groups of 3-4 people travelling together will always get the best value from a rental car. However, you may also be burdened with extra costs for car seat hire, and you well also prefer to use local trains and buses, if they are quicker than getting stuck in heavy traffic.

Where are you staying?

The place you are staying, together with the sort of places you want to see, will have a large impact on whether or not you "need" to rent a car:

Do you need a car in San Francisco if we are staying in the city centre / main resort area?

Most large towns or purpose built holiday resorts will have some kind of public transport, whereas parking provision will vary greatly from one place to the next. 

Do you need a car in San Francisco if we are staying on the edge of the urban area?

Typically you may be staying in an apartment or hmall house on the edge of a resort or urban area. These places usually have some level of public transport, but not as much as city / resort centres.

Do you need a car in San Francisco if we are staying in a rural area?

Rural proprties might include larger villas or apartments, but they can still be within a short walk of a bus stop or local railway station, and the opportunities for hiking and cycling might also be substantial, depending on the destination.

What is your attitude towards driving?

We can give you suggestions based on whatever we consider to be a "typical" visitor to San Francisco, but ultimately your decision is also going to be influenced by whether or not you ususally prefer to hire a car in the first place.

Should I hire a car in San Francisco if I prefer not to drive?

This is especially the case when there is only one main driver in the group, and it's based on the attitude of the driver rather than their passengers! The main driver may also simply prefer to use public transport, or they may prefer to take scenic train journeys where available.

Should we rent a car in San Francisco if we are easy either way?

This is more aimed at the typical visitor who isn't that bothered about how they get around, as long as it is the most convenient / best value option.

Should I rent a car in San Francisco if I prefer to drive?

For people who usually prefer the freedom and flexibility of having a hire car. Is it still best to rent a car in San Francisco, or are there good reasons not to?

Do you need a car in San Francisco? Introduction

When someone asks "Do you need a car in San Francisco?", this often breaks down to two key questions:
  1. Can you actually get around using public transport, or is a car all but essential?
  2. Is it worth hiring a car in San Francisco? Is it good value for money, compared with non-car options?
Over the next few sections, we wil look at the pros and cons of driving in San Francisco as a tourist, and ultimately weigh these up, so we can answer the key question of Should you rent a car in San Francisco?
Why? Why not? Ratings Comments

Why should you rent a car in ?

What are the main reasons for hiring a car here? Do you just want to drive locally? Do you want to go further afield, or should you even look at taking a road trip?

In terms of factors like the cost of the hire itself, fuel costs, road tolls and parking charges, is it worth hiring a car in ?

  • Pacific Highway — whether you drive Northwest or Southeast toward Los Angeles, the Pacific Highway (Highway 1) is one of the great driving roads of the USA.
  • Redwoods — carry on up the Pacific Highway towards the border with Oregon, and you can visit the dramatic redwoods National Park, where you will encounter the tallest trees in the world.
  • Wine country — drive across the Golden Gate Bridge to visit the superb wine country which sits just to the north of San Francisco. Visit the famous Napa Valley or the slightly more laid-back Sonoma Valley. However, you can still get to this wine region by bus and then take a guided tour from there, and this area is also great for cycling (although the wine might make your pedalling a bit wobbly).
  • Yosemite — head directly east from San Francisco for a couple of hours and you will hit the world-famous Yosemite National Park. You can continue even further east towards the border with Nevada, where you will find White Mountain Peak, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states.
  • One-way rental — you can easily start your trip to California by picking up a hire car in San Francisco and then dropping it off later in Los Angeles. You can also drop it off in Portland or Seattle to the north, or in Las Vegas.
    Generally, if you pick the right rental car company, you should be able to arrange a one-way rental to any of these relatively nearby cities without paying an extra fee.
  • Lombard Street — although there is really no need to have a hire car just to visit downtown San Francisco on its own, if you already have a car, then take a drive down the famous Lombard Street, the movie directors’ favourite venue for car scenes.
  • Kings Canyon National Park and Sequoia National Park — these two national parks sit on top of each other, and are around a three-hour drive from either San Francisco or Los Angeles. A natural one-way tour of these eastern Californian natural wonders, if starting from San Francisco, might head to Yosemite first, then Kings Canyon and Sequoia National Parks and then further east to Death Valley for a much drier, starker experience. From Death Valley you could easily continue south west to Los Angeles, straight down to San Diego or back through the Big Sur to San Francisco.

Why not? Visiting San Francisco without a car

What is public transport like in San Francisco? What about local conditions for walking or cycling? Can you rely on public transport and maybe a few taxis for most or all of your trip? Are there some times of year when it's easier to get by without a car than others? When should you rent a car in 5?
  • City of San Francisco — whilst San Francisco itself needs no introduction, the city structure is vastly different from fellow Californian mega-city Los Angeles, where we strongly recommend getting a hire car. This is because San Francisco has a large and very clearly defined central area, and this very much follows the traditional tightly packed European urban model.
  • Alcatraz Ferry — San Francisco’s world famous former prison is obviously somewhere you don’t need a car to get to.
  • San Francisco cable cars — although the naming might be slightly confusing, as in most other cities these would be referred to as trams, the San Francisco cable cars are legitimately named as such because they run on a pulley system, with traction provided by cables running underneath the street.
    These delightful streetcars are as much an icon of San Francisco as the red Routemaster bus is of London, except that the poor Routemaster has been retired from all but one or two ceremonial routes!
  • BART — originating in the late 70s and long before Simpsons, BART stands for Bay Area Rapid Transit, the ultramodern underground system that provides easy transport through the San Francisco Bay region. BART is also supplemented by the “Muni”, a system of trams which also runs underground through the city centre, in a tunnel just above the BART line.
  • Just keep walking — of all the American cities I have visited, San Francisco has to be one of the most delightful just to enjoy walking around. Apart from downtown San Francisco itself, the other obvious area to head towards is Golden Gate Park, and then through the simple grid pattern of Richmond to the Presidio and right up to Fort Point, for close-up views of the Golden Gate Bridge.
  • Golden Gate Bridge — although the bridge is most naturally associated with cars, it is possible to walk or cycle across it, and this is undoubtedly the best way to take in the breathtaking views of and from the bridge. If you only take one walk in the San Francisco area, then make it this one, and take advantage of being able to take pictures of the scene directly, rather than from a moving car or bus. Access varies by time of day, with pedestrians generally using the eastern (Bay) side, whilst only cyclists can use the western (Pacific) side.
  • Ferries — numerous ferries shunt back and forth across the Bay Area, supplementing the bus network which uses the main bridges, and the rail network, which includes tunnels for BART.
  • California Academy of Sciences — If there is one new building that is a must-see above all others, it is the California Academy of Sciences, designed by Italian “Starchitect” Renzo Piano. This facility, with its massive living green roof is situated in Golden Gate Park, so it is easy to get to using public transport. You can even make a night time visit on a Thursday, providing you are aged 21 or over, as drinks are served.
  • Marin County cycling — the area immediately to the north of the Golden Gate Bridge is renowned for cycling, and this from where the famous Marin bikes brand takes its name. You should have no problem arranging bike hire for the day or longer, often including van pickups.
  • Marin County Civic Center — as featured in the film Gattaca, Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael is one of the most famous Frank Lloyd Wright buildings. Although it would be just as easy to pop in here in a rental car, this prominent public building is also easy to reach using Golden Gate transit buses.
  • Pacific coast by rail — Highway 1 makes a great drive, but you can also head along a similar alignment by taking the train south to Los Angeles. Amtrak Viewliner coaches all have massive panorama windows, and there’s no need for any arguments about who does the driving.
    Another amazing, but much longer, rail trip is to head east from San Francisco towards Denver, heading through the breathtaking Rocky Mountains.
  • Open jaw trips — these days it is easy to visit two or more different cities and to return home from a different location. Whilst low-cost airlines will let you book individual single trips anyway, if you are flying in to California from Europe or Asia, your best bet is to travel with an airline that serves both the cities you want to fly in/out from/to. United Airlines has a hub operation in Los Angeles as well San Francisco, so they might be ideal. From the UK, British Airways and Virgin Atlantic operate flights from London to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, giving plenty of options for open jaw ticketing.


Our slider ratings range from 0 (it isn't even possible to hire a car, e.g. Hong Kong) through to 10 (you really must rent a car here, e.g. Phoenix, Tampa). However, most places are somewhere inbetween these extremes, and this is where it gets more interesting! Further ratings breakdowns, including a much more detailed public transport rating, are currently being added. If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.


What is our final score for San Francisco on the Carornocar scale?

Remember, this isn't so much a rating of the road network, or a score for what we think of the buses or trains, but it's simply a scale showing the swing between whether or not we think a rental car is a good idea here.


Whilst there is certainly no need for a hire car within San Francisco itself, there are still many other places outside the Bay Area which can also be visited by using public transport, or even by bike, especially as California is one of the more progressive states with regard to cycling infrastructure. However, cycle trails are still sporadic, whereas rail options are very limited once you try to go beyond the reaches of the BART system. Commuter rail in California really is just that – a system developed for peak time travel into the Bay Area, and not much use for tourism. To reach the great Californian outdoors, including national parks like Yosemite, you will still really need a car.

Verdict – yes

Would you hire a car in San Francisco?

Have you driven in San Francisco? Do you agree with our advice on whether or not it's worth hiring a car in San Francisco}? Do you need a car in San Francisco? For some or all of the time? Tell us what you think using the comments section below:

Category: USA

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