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If you want an alternative to a hotel—one that gives a more authentically San Francisco experience (or at least a slightly more spacious one)— vacation rentals are the way to go. Many families and long-term visitors have found great apartments for reasonable rates by searching online in specific neighborhoods. There are few reputable local vacation rental companies, but you can't go wrong by visiting the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau (www.onlyinsanfrancisco.com), where some property owners list their rentals.
While most travelers do not equate camping with an urban experience, those nutty San Franciscans have toppled that belief. The Presidio of San Francisco has recently renovated its Rob Hill Campground (415/561-5444 www.presidio.gov/explore/Pages/rob-hill-campground.aspx)—the only place to pitch a tent in the city. Perched atop the highest hill in San Francisco's largest green space, beneath a canopy of eucalyptus trees, and with views of Baker Beach, this site may be small (there are two sites that house 30 people each) and expensive ($100 a night with a maximum of two nights), but you can imagine the bragging rights earned for a night spent outdoors in the fog. Book well in advance: as you might expect, sites fill fast. The season closes on October 31.
No matter your age (or style of luggage), staying at a hostel saves cash. San Francisco's three hostels are members of Hostelling International (the massive umbrella organization of thousands of properties all over the world). While members receive priority reservations (and discounts), you don't have to pay the 30 bucks to join in order to stay the night. The San Francisco City Center and San Francisco Downtown hostels offer reasonable rates in the heart of the action. But the real steal is the San Francisco Fisherman's Wharf Hostel, as some rooms offer bay views. www.norcalhostels.org.
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