San Francisco tops my list as an affordable and eco-friendly urban oasis. So, in honor of this month's Earth Day, Escapes Under $500 is going green for a week. I've laid out a solid plan for remaining environmentally conscious while keeping under budget in the Golden (or should I say "Green") Gate City. You can stay at a trendy hotel, ride iconic trolleys, and eat farm-fresh food, all while reducing your impact. Plus, you can even offset the carbon emissions from your flight and have some cash to spare.
Finding airfare to San Francisco
San Francisco is popular with both business and leisure travelers, and affordable airfare is easy to come by. When I checked, I found round-trip fares for April and May departures for around $300 or less (including taxes and fees) from destinations across the country:
Los Angeles: $98 (American) San Diego: $99 (United) Seattle: $167 (United) Phoenix: $179 (US Airways) Salt Lake City: $179 (Delta) Denver: $187 (Frontier) Portland, OR: $192 (Alaska) Oklahoma City: $199 (Delta) Omaha: $206 (US Airways) Detroit: $218 (US Airways) Cleveland: $253 (United) Dallas: $254 (American) Kansas City: $254 (United) Houston: $256 (US Airways) Washington, D.C.: $257 (US Airways) Minneapolis: $268 (US Airways) Indianapolis: $275 (US Airways) Nashville: $276 (US Airways) New York: $282 (US Airways) Philadelphia: $286 (AirTran) Colorado Springs: $287 (US Airways) Boise: $291 (Alaska) Atlanta: $298 (Frontier) Charlotte: $300 (Continental) Boston: $302 (US Airways)
Though I limited my search to San Francisco International Airport (SFO) for simplicity's sake, you might find cheaper flights flying into Oakland International Airport (OAK), so be sure to compare prices at both.
Carbon offsets to and from San Francisco
With global warming brewing, price isn't the only consideration for travelers anymore. While flying inherently does little good for the environment, there are a few things you can do to reduce the impact of your travels. Perhaps the easiest way is to book a non-stop flight, which reduces the amount of miles you fly and the number of takeoffs and landings (which consume more fuel than cruising), thus the amount of fuel you burn. But whether or not going direct is an option, you can take things a step further by buying carbon offsets through a website like TerraPass, which funds carbon-reduction projects such as wind farms. The company recommends that you pay $9.90 for trips of 6,000 or fewer miles, which applies to all the fares I've mentioned above.
Finding green hotels in San Francisco
Hotel Triton, part of the Kimpton Hotel chain known for its boutique accommodations and eco practices, is a great option if you want to count "green" sheep in San Francisco. Located next to the Chinatown gate and decorated with a bit of Suessian whimsy, the hotel proves you don't have to sacrifice practicality or style to be kind to the environment. When I stayed a few years ago, there was only one eco floor, but now you can find eco rooms that offer recycling options, organic bed linens, and green bath products on every floor, all in addition to hotel-wide practices such as non-toxic housekeeping and landfill-use reduction.
Though room rates can cost more than $300 per night, you can save considerably by booking at least 14 days in advance. Just make sure you firm up your plans since these rates are non-refundable. For two-night stays in April or May, I found prices averaging as low as $111 per night for a 140-square-foot "green" room with a queen-sized bed. With taxes and fees, the total came to $253.08, or $126.54 per person if you share a room.
Eco-friendly transportation in San Francisco
One of the greenest ways to transfer to and from the airport is by riding the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) light-rail system. Luckily, it's also the cheapest option. I plugged Montgomery St., the nearest station to Hotel Triton, into BART's QuickPlanner, which told me the fare would be $10.70 round-trip between the airport and hotel.
If you fly into Oakland, you can still take BART; however, you'll have to hop on a shuttle bus between the station and the airport, which will tack on an extra 15 minutes or so and cost a few more dollars.
When it comes to getting around in general, San Francisco is a very walkable city, especially if you want to explore the popular tourist spots. For when your feet get tired, you can use Muni (San Francisco Municipal Railway), which runs the subway, buses, and vintage electric streetcars for $1.50 per ride (the famous cable cars cost $5). My favorite option is the street cars: Recycled and energy efficient. You can't get much greener than that.
When you add up airfare, offsets, hotel, and airport transfers, here's how the math works out for the entire trip:
$302 (airfare from Boston, the most expensive departure city on my list) + $9.90 (carbon offset) + $126.54 (hotel) + $10.70 (SFO airport transfer) = $449.14
Affordable "green" eats and activities in San Francisco
With at least $50 left in the budget, you'll have extra room for some food and activities. And thankfully, the city is silly with cost-friendly green options.
A tourist attraction in its own right, the restored Ferry Building serves as the city's premier public food market, and virtually everything inside follows this mantra: local, seasonal, and sustainable. From 10 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. on most days (perfect for breakfast, lunch, and early dinner), you'll be greeted with a smorgasbord of California vendors like Cowgirl Creamery, Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker, and Hog Island Oyster Company. Outside on Tuesdays and Saturdays, the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, a California-certified farmers' market operated by the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), offers some of the freshest produce you can find in the Bay Area. Though the Ferry Building houses a few sit-down restaurants, you'll save money by building your own meals and having a picnic in one of the city's many green spaces such as Golden Gate Park.
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