You have a few options when booking your San Francisco rental car. You can either rent your car at SFO or rent one from an agency in the city.
This is a great option for those needing a vehicle for their entire trip. If you are staying outside of SF or planning on driving daily, this is the easiest way to get your San Francisco rental car.
All of the major rental companies including Alamo, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz and Thrifty have rental cars available at SFO. The Rental Center is open 24 hours a day - so you can pick up yours at anytime.
To ensure the vehicle you want is available, I always recommend booking in advance. This simplifies the process once you arrive and also allows you to get the right one at the best price possible.
Once you arrive at SFO, you'll want to find the signs for the AirTrain Blue Line Train. This is the train that will take you over to the SFO Rental Center. This train also runs 24 hours a day, so you can always easily reach it.
If you only need a San Francisco rental car for a day or two, you can also rent from an agency in the city. Many agencies are just a few blocks off Union Square. This way, you won't have to worry about parking or paying for it for your entire trip.
Many agencies in the city offer 24 hour rentals. If you pick it up at 9am, then you are to return it before 9am the next day.
I've often found that most people want to pick it up in the morning and then return it that same night. A word of caution on this is that most rental car agencies in the city close at around 6pm or 7pm. They close even earlier on Sundays (sometimes around 3pm).
This often doesn't give you enough time to explore outside of SF and be back in time to return your car.
Before booking, confirm the time the agency closes so you can plan around it. If they happen to close too early, ask around to the other agencies or make a plan to keep your car overnight in the city.
One of the biggest considerations before booking your San Francisco rental car is parking. The parking here is difficult and expensive. Make sure you know where you are parking your vehicle and how much it will cost you each night before you arrive.
Most hotels charge up to $40 a night for you to park in their parking garage. Street parking is not an option near most hotels, since you face both parking meters and early morning street cleaning.
My recommendation is to talk to your hotel first. Once you know their nightly price, then ask if there are any other garages nearby that are cheaper. If the cost is completely outrageous (which it probably will be!), then consider just getting your car for a day or two.
I received a note recently from a visitor to San Francisco that rented a car. On their very last day, their car window was broken and bags were stolen. They went to their agency to return the car and the agency mentioned this is a common problem in SF.
No matter where you park your car in San Francisco, please make sure no valuables are visible through the windows. In fact, I recommend leaving all valuables in a safe place (your hotel or rented apartment) instead of in your car. While SF is a very safe city, it sounds like this is becoming a major problem for tourists, so please be cautious.
What are your other options for getting around the city? If a San Francisco rental car is going to be too much of a hassle, then check out some of these other transit options.
The public transportation system in SF is easy to use. You can choose from the cable cars, street cars, trains and buses. You can quickly access most major attractions by using some form of San Francisco public transportation.
Learn More: Public Transportation
When I visit a new city, I love doing the Hop On/Hop Off Bus Tour. This is a one or two day tour that takes you past all the top San Francisco attractions. You can hop off at any of the 17 stops, visit the attraction and then hop back on the bus to head to your next destination. It's a great way to get familiar with the city quickly and easily get around to some of the main attractions.
More Info & Booking Details: Hop On/Hop Off Bus Tour
Another great way to avoid having to get a San Francisco rental car is by using taxis. The city is full of taxis and they are easy to get on almost any corner throughout the city (unless you are on the far western side). They can be expensive if you are going long distances, but are perfect for shorter trips in and around Union Square, North Beach, Chinatown and/or Fisherman's Wharf.
Learn More: Tips for Taking Taxis in SF