If cities could go on sale, San Francisco would be having a close-out. My friend Diane and I gloated over our $4.70 trip into the city from the San Francisco Airport on the new...

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If cities could go on sale, San Francisco would be having a close-out.

My friend Diane and I gloated over our $4.70 trip into the city from the San Francisco Airport on the new Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) connection, and we were more than pleased with the Serrano Hotel downtown where we snagged a $113 rate on a $209 room by taking advantage of an Internet price-match offer.

The free morning papers and Scrabble boards in the lobby were nice touches; even nicer was the complimentary afternoon wine gathering where a masseuse and tarot-card reader offered their services for a small tip.

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Dinner that night was a $15 spread we assembled from a lounge menu of $3 drinks and Asian appetizers.

“Everyone’s totally doing deals right now,” an acquaintance who runs a San Francisco hotel-reservation service told me last month. “The phones just aren’t ringing. Things are slow.”

They call it the dot-bomb blues. The decline of the dot-com industry hit San Francisco hard. Business travel is down, and hotels and restaurants are going begging.

This is good news for any of you who might be planning a trip soon. Let the bargain-hunting begin before you leave home.

Getting there

Check fares into Oakland International Airport, as well as into San Francisco International. Prices are often lower in and out of Oakland, and getting into the city is just as easy.

BART is the cheapest and fastest way, if you don’t have much luggage. A new connection to SFO opened last month. Travel time is about 40 minutes including a short ride on the airport Air Train to the BART station. Cost is $4.70 compared with $13-$15 for a shuttle and about $40 for a taxi.

BART isn’t quite as convenient from Oakland, but certainly is doable. An Air-BART bus shuttles between the airport and the Oakland/Coliseum Airport BART station ($2). Travel time is 15-30 minutes. From the station, it’s a half-hour ride into downtown ($2.85). Follow the signs in either airport, or consult www.bart.gov.

Hotels and packages

Hotels are dealing. Check Internet rates, then call the hotel and ask if it will match the price. Consider booking the room directly if you want to avoid the upfront payments and other rules that go with most Internet bookings.

The Kimpton Group, the largest owner of boutique hotels in San Francisco, will match any Internet rate plus throw in a free upgrade. I tested the guarantee when I booked my room in the Serrano and found no strings attached.

Also worth checking are Priceline.com and Hotwire.com. You don’t find out the name of the hotel until after you book, but they allow you to narrow your choices to a specific neighborhood (i.e.: Downtown-Union Square), and type of hotel such as “four-star deluxe” or “boutique.”

A woman I talked with at my hotel booked her room for $75 on Priceline, the same room for which I paid $113 and the hotel’s Web site advertised at $209.

Summer hotel deals are also available through the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau. Book online at www.sfvisitor.org/ or call 888-782-9673.

For last-minute weekend getaways, check www.Site59.com. I booked my trip several weeks in advance, but if I hadn’t, I could have found a great deal on this site — a $697 package for two (including air fare, four nights hotel and taxes) available four days before I was set to depart. The air fare alone for one person at that time was $430.

Getting around

FREDERIC LARSON / THE AP
The moon and San Francisco’s Transamerica Pyramid combine for this sculpted view of the city.


Public transportation in San Francisco is excellent and inexpensive. A three-day pass good for the cable cars, buses and the city’s fleet of historic street cars is $10. Buy it at the Visitor Information Center at the corner of Powell and Market downtown, or at the Half-Price ticket booth on Union Square. For information on schedules and routes, see www.transitinfo.org.

Freebees and discounts

Make your first contact the San Francisco Convention & Visitors Bureau (www.sfvisitor.org/ or 415-391-2000). Order online or call for a San Francisco Visitor Kit, a free packet of information, maps and a booklet good for discounts and free offers when you use a Visa card.

If you’re interested in theater, check on the day of performance for half-price tickets at the TIX Bay Area-Half Price Ticket Booth on Union Square (Powell & Geary Streets.).

Take advantage of many activities that are free for the doing.

Hike or take a cable car to Nob Hill for a fantastic view of the San Francisco Bay. Get off at Grace Cathedral and join a Community Peace Walk around a labyrinth inside the church at 1100 California Street, Fridays from noon to 1:30 p.m., or walk the outdoor labyrinth anytime.

Explore the newly-refurbished Ferry Building, Coit Tower murals or the Victorian mansions on Alamo Square with San Francisco City Guides, a group of volunteers who give free daily walking tours around the city. See www.sfcityguides.org or call 415-557-4266.

Dining deals

Conversation between shoppers and a clerk overheard in a downtown department store:

Shoppers: “Excuse me, we’re tourists. Can you recommend a nice place to eat somewhere near here?”

Clerk: “Well, you might try the Cheesecake Factory.”

You can do better.

I, too, was looking for lunch that day, and a few minutes later, I was sitting in Asia de Cuba, the Asian-Latino fusion restaurant inside Ian Schrager’s ultra-chic Clift Hotel.

I was determined not to be too embarrassed to inquire about the Visa Card $19.95 three-course special. Turns out I didn’t have to ask. The prix-fixe lunch is part of the regular Monday-Friday menu. For the price of an appetizer at dinner, I dined on ceviche, a Thai beef salad with oranges and coconut shavings and tea-flavored sorbet with fresh fruit. At 12:30 p.m., only five other tables were taken.

This was an adult splurge. If kids had been with me, I might have hopped on the BART two stops to the outdoor arcade at the Embarcadero Center for pizza or a banana-Nutella crepe (cheddar, pesto and Roma tomatoes for you), or walked a few blocks to the Floating Sushi Boat Restaurant just inside the Chinatown Gate. Here you can grab a stool at the counter around a fake river, and select dishes (99 cents and up) as they pass by on little boats.

Hotel bars offer some of the best in elegant dining on the cheap.

My top pick is the Petit Café inside the Hotel Monaco, 501 Geary, a cozy French bistro that serves a bar menu and desserts until midnight. Drop in for an omelet and a glass of wine ($11) or a wood-fired pizza ($9). Nothing is more than $11.50.

A close second is the Feng Shui happy hour at Ponzu inside the Hotel Serrano, 405 Taylor. Drinks are $3, and so are any of the terrific Asian appetizers.

For sheer kitsch, there’s the Tonga Room in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel, 950 Mason, atop Nob Hill. The all-you-can-eat happy-hour buffet of Pacific Rim delicacies ($7 Monday-Friday) is served next to a lagoon in a tropical setting.

As always, no matter how you spend a long weekend in the city by the bay, San Francisco will steal your heart, but this time, not your wallet.

Carol Pucci’s Travel Wise column runs the last Sunday of the month. Comments are welcome. Contact her at 206-464-3701 or cpucci@seattletimes.com .