San Francisco Rental Car: Locations, Safety & Driving Tips

Jill on a windy day at the Golden Gate Bridge

by Jill Loeffler  •

Updated: September 5, 2023

Are you looking for tips for a San Francisco rental car? You will find several car rental companies near Union Square, downtown SF, and Fisherman's Wharf.

If you plan to use your car for your entire visit, you can also pick one up at SFO when you arrive. Airport car rentals usually include an additional pick-up fee, but it's a convenient option if you need a car for your entire stay.

My guide also offers tips on how to keep your car safe, what to know if you plan to drive around SF, parking advice, and distances to popular nearby destinations. 

San Francisco Rental Car Popular Locations

Disclaimer: I receive a small commission from some of the links on this page.

How to Stay Safe with Your San Francisco Rental Car

Before I begin to talk about tips on how and where to rent your car, I want to talk about staying safe with your rental car (and your belongings) in San Francisco.

Right now, San Francisco is a safe city, but the one big problem is what are known as "smash and grabs" or "bipping." These are  when a team of people targets certain cars for quick and easy car break-ins. 

The challenge with rental cars is that they are easy to spot (often called "break-in magnets"), and there is a good chance visitors have left valuables in their car, including luggage, electronics, jewelry and other valuables. 

There are two ways criminals determine if a car is a good target. They visibly locate valuables or catch a signal from within the car from electronics. 

They Visibly See Valuables in the Car

The most common way thieves target the cars they want to break into is by visually seeing there are valuables inside.

They work in teams. They have one person walk up and down a line of cars and then point out to the "getaway car team" which ones they should break into.

The smash-and-grab happens fast. It takes about 5 seconds to break the window and another 5 seconds to pull out the valuables. These types of car break-ins are hard to stop since they are so quick.

This is how it works. Once they identify the car they plan to break into, a team of two pulls up next to the targeted car. The passenger of the getaway car quickly hops out, breaks the window, grabs the valuables, jumps back in the car, and they speed off. All of this happens within just a few seconds. 

The way to avoid being a target is to leave nothing, and I mean nothing visible in your car.

  • Don't leave luggage, purses, or even phone cords in your car. 
  • Don't try to hide things under the seats.
  • Don't try to hide things under coats or blankets.
  • Don't try to hide things on the floor in the front or back seat.
  • Don't leave things in your hatchback, either. Even if it has a dark tint, they will be able to see it and quickly grab your valuables.

If you need to step away for a few minutes, you will still want to avoid leaving anything in your car. I've heard stories of people stepping away from their cars for 10 minutes and coming back to their things being gone.

They Find a Signal from Electronics

The second way they target cars is by picking up a signal from an electronic device. This could be any phone, tablet, e-reader, etc., that has Bluetooth or WiFi enabled.

This is one of the ways they target items in the trunk of a car. If they pick up a signal, they know there are valuables in the car and/or trunk. 

This is why I also recommend that you don't leave anything in your trunk.

If you decide to take the risk and leave things in your trunk, make sure you shut off ALL electronics. 

Also, do not open your trunk when you park. The teams are always watching, so they will often see you get into your trunk and know there are valuables in there. 

Top Spots for Break-Ins

There are a few spots around San Francisco that I would consider hot spots. These are often in the more touristy areas, where people more commonly leave goods in their cars.

The current hot spots are:

  • Fisherman's Wharf: More specifically, the area around Ghirardelli Square is often targeted. There is a lot just south of it on Polk and North Point that is a big problem. It's also a problem right along Beach Street, which is often busy with both car and foot traffic.
  • Alamo Square: This is another hot spot for smash and grabs. Many people will step out of their car for just a few minutes here and leave valuables in their car. I know of someone recently that left for about 10 minutes. They tried to hide their purse under the front seat, and the car was broken into when they were gone. 
  • Lombard Street: This is another place where visitors will make quick stops and leave valuables in their cars. 

However, you can avoid issues by not leaving anything in your car. 

I have a friend who has lived in the Alamo Square district for more than 10 years. They park their car on the street every night and they have never had any trouble. Therefore, as long as you don't leave anything in your car, you should be fine.

You might also think that these break-ins happen under the cover of night. This isn't the case. They mostly happen in broad daylight. 

I've personally seen two break-ins in the Alamo Square area. Both happened in the middle of the afternoon. They were so quick that I didn't even realize what was happening until they sped off down the road with the valuables in hand. In both cases, there were valuables just sitting on the seat and it took just a few seconds for them to smash the windows and drive off with the valuables.

What Should You Do with Your Luggage?

What are your options if you are visiting for just a few hours, the day, or you can only get into your hotel after you want to explore? You have a few options.

  • Luggage Storage: San Francisco has dozens of luggage storage options. You can choose from small shops to hotels that allow non-guests to store their luggage there for a small fee. You can find and book a spot in advance on a site or app such as LuggageHero
  • Drop It Off or Leave It at Your Hotel: Most hotels allow you to drop off your luggage for storage before you check in there. This is an excellent option as you won't have to move your luggage twice. They also will often hold your luggage for you after you check out.

Another option is only to pack what you can reasonably carry. This would allow you to take your luggage in with you when you hop out of the car to explore. I know this isn't a great option for everyone, but just one more idea to help you stay safe.

San Francisco Rental Car: SFO Tips

This is a wonderful 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 any time.

I always recommend booking in advance to ensure that you get excatly the vehicle you want for your trip here. 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.

This is the only rental car place in San Francisco that is open 24 hours a day. If you plan to rent a car and need to return it at an off-hour, then make sure to rent your car from SFO.

One downside of renting from SFO is that it is often more expensive than renting at a place right in San Francisco. Keep this in mind if you have the option to just rent it directly in SF instead. 

>> More tips to get from SFO to Union Square

>> More transit options from SFO to Fisherman's Wharf

San Francisco Rental Car Tips & Locations

If you only need a San Francisco rental car for a day or two, you can also rent from an agency in the city. 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 9 am, then you are to return it before 9 am 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 choice is that most rental car agencies in the city close at around 6 pm or 7 pm. Some close even earlier on certain days (sometimes around 3 pm).

This often won't give you enough time to explore outside of SF and be back in time to return your car.

Before booking, confirm when 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. 

Note: You are supposed to be a minimum of 25 years old to rent a car in San Francisco. However, if you are between the ages of 21 and 24, you can still rent one, but you may have to pay an extra "Young Driver's Fee."

If you are a member of AAA, USAA, or other clubs, you may be able to have this fee waived, so you should call ahead and see what deals are offered at the car rental agencies.

Rental Car Companies Near Union Square

You will find four San Francisco rental car companies near Union Square. Here is where you will find them.

Hertz, Westin St. Francis: You will find a Hertz location directly across the street from Union Square. It's inside the Westin St. Francis at 335 Powell Street. This location is only open from 9 am to noon and 1 pm to 3 pm daily.

Hertz: If that location doesn't work for you, you'll find a second Hertz just a few blocks away. This one is at 325 Mason Street and is open daily from 7 am to 5 pm, Mondays to Fridays. They are open from 7 am to 3 pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

Thrifty Car Rental: About three blocks away from Union Square is another San Francisco rental car agency, Thrifty. They are at 364 O'Farrell Street and are open Monday to Friday from 7 am to 5 pm. They are open from 7 am to 3 pm on Saturdays and Sundays.

Enterprise Rental Car: This agency is about four blocks away and located at 340 O'Farrell Street. They are open Tuesdays to Fridays from 8 am to 5 pm. They are open from 9 am to 1 pm on Saturdays and Sundays. Note: They are closed on Mondays.

Rental Cars Near Downtown

In addition to the list above, there is also one San Francisco rental car company close to the downtown/Financial district.

Budget Car Rental: You will find them at 5 Embarcadero Center. They are open from 8 am to 5 pm on Monday to Friday, but on Saturday and Sunday, they are only open from 8 am to 4 pm.

San Francisco Rental Car: Fisherman's Wharf

You will also find a handful of San Francisco rental car companies in Fisherman's Wharf.

Enterprise: This car rental company is located at 350 Beach Street in the heart of the district. It is open from 8 am to 5 pm from Tuesdays to Fridays. It is open from 9 am to 1 pm on Saturdays. Note: It is closed on Sundays and Mondays.

Hertz & Avis: They are both located inside the Anchorage Square Shopping Center at 500 Beach Street. Both of these car rental agencies are open Monday from Friday from 8 am to 5 pm.

Their Saturday and Sunday hours are different: Hertz is open from 8 am to noon on Saturdays and Sundays. Avis is open on Saturdays and Sundays from 8 am to 1 pm.

*Note: Make sure to double check the rental return time before you leave with your car as these hours may vary especially on holidays. 

Distance from SF to Popular Locations

It will likely be easier to use public transportation instead of a rental car if you are only staying inside the city limits of San Francisco. However, renting a car in SF is a good option if you plan to head outside the city and explore some of the Bay Area and Northern California's best attractions and cities.

Here are just a few details to help you get started on your plans for some of the best destinations.

SF to Muir Woods

Muir Woods is about a 45-minute drive north of San Francisco. It's a beautiful drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and along a scenic, curvy road.

They now require parking reservations, so make sure to get yours before renting your car in SF. You will also want to download your parking reservations to your phone as there often since cell service or WiFi is not available near Muir Woods.

>> More driving tips and other ways to get from SF to Muir Woods

SF to Napa Valley

One of the most popular destinations for those reserving a San Francisco rental car is Napa Valley. This lovely Northern California wine region is about an hour to an hour and a half away from SF.

>> More driving tips from SF to Napa and other ways to get here

SF to Monterey

You can also book a San Francisco rental car to drive down the coast to visit Monterey. This cute waterfront town is about two hours away. If you plan to take Highway 1, it will take approximately 2.5 to 3 hours.

>> More driving tips and other ways to get from SF to Monterey

SF to Yosemite

Yosemite is another easy drive from San Francisco. This one is a bit further and takes about 4 to 5 hours, depending on which section of the park you plan to visit.

>> More driving routes and other ways to get here

SF to Lake Tahoe

Lake Tahoe is also within driving distance from San Francisco. The drive here takes about 3.5 to 4 hours. Make sure to avoid traveling on Friday afternoon or Sunday afternoon during ski season as the traffic is often terrible during those times.

You can also book a San Francisco rental car for a longer-term drive. You will encounter additional fees if you plan to drop the car off at one of these locations vs. driving it back to the original pick-up location in San Francisco.

SF to Los Angeles

You will find three routes from San Francisco to LA. The most scenic route is along Highway 1 (also called the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH). You could spend two to three days driving this route as there are so many exciting and unusual places to stop.

The fastest route along I-5 usually takes about 6 to 7 hours. This will depend on which part of LA you plan to visit, so allow for more time if you plan to visit places in central or southern LA.

SF to Las Vegas

You can also head over to Las Vegas by car. This is a much longer drive, but getting there in just one day is possible. Driving to Las Vegas will often take about 8.5 to 10 hours.

SF to Portland

Driving from SF to Portland is another option if you want to see more of Northern California and Oregon. The drive here takes about 10 to 11 hours.

Additional Tips: Parking, Driving & More

What You Need to Know About Driving in San Francisco

Driving in San Francisco is quite a bit more difficult than in other metro areas. The city is dense with both people and other cars, so it will take all of your concentration when you drive around the city.

Here are a few tips and things to keep in mind before you rent your car or start your drive around SF.

  • One Way Streets: San Francisco is full of one-way streets, especially in the downtown area. Watch for these so you don't drive the wrong way down the street (I see this happen about once a month!). 
  • Pedestrians: SF is full of pedestrians. They have the right of way, no matter where they cross. While most will cross at the intersections, some will cross in the middle of the street. Be very careful in areas where there are a lot of people walking around.
  • Cable Car & Streetcar Tracks: You will also find street-level cable car and streetcar tracks on our streets. You are allowed to drive on them, but they can pull your car if you don't do it properly. It is okay to drive on either side of them but try to avoid driving directly on the tracks.
  • Bus Lanes: SF is also full of bus lanes. In some areas, you can drive in the bus lane if you are turning right. In some areas, you cannot drive in them even if you are turning right. Make sure to watch the signs for what you can and cannot do.

San Francisco Parking

One of the biggest considerations before booking your San Francisco rental car is parking. The parking here is difficult and expensive. You will want to be sure you know where you are parking your vehicle and how much it will cost you each night before you arrive there.

Some hotels will charge more than $50 to $70 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, ask if any other cheaper garages are nearby. If the cost is completely outrageous (which it probably will be!), then consider just getting your car for a day or two at one of the locations in SF mentioned above.

>> More about SF parking

Renting a Car Without a Credit Card

Is renting a car in San Francisco without a credit card possible? Yes, you can rent a car with just your debit card. Here are some of the requirements local companies usually request if you pay with a debit card.

  • You must be 21 or older with two forms of ID.
  • A debit card will be pre-approved for the estimated total of the rental.
  • You will need to prove your income, have a water bill, an electricity bill, and the renter's name + address must match IDs.
  • Proof of travel plans that coincide with car rental (for example, flight leaves after return or cruise ship leaves dock after rental car return).
  • A debit card has been pre-approved by car rental companies and is already connected to your account.

Please double-check the requirements for the company you book through to ensure you have everything they request.

Other Ways to Get Around

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, check out some of these other transit options.

Public Transportation

The public transportation system in SF is easy to use. You can choose from cable cars, street cars, trains, and buses. You can quickly access most major attractions using some form of San Francisco public transportation.

Learn More: Public Transportation

Hop On/Hop Off Bus Tours

I love doing the Hop On/Hop Off Bus Tour whenever I visit a new city. This one- or two-day tour takes you past all the top San Francisco attractions.

You can hop off at any of the 20+ 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

Taxis, Uber, and Lyft

Another great way to avoid getting 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).

You can also take a shared ride using Uber or Lyft. These services let local people pick you up and take you to your location. You will need to download their app and sign up before you can use their ride-share platform.

They can be expensive if you are going long distances, but they are perfect for shorter trips in and around Union Square, North Beach, Chinatown or Fisherman's Wharf.

Learn More: Tips for Taking Taxis in SF

Additional Pages You Might Enjoy

Comments? Questions? Suggestions?

I would love for you to join me in my private Facebook group

It's a great place to interact with me and others who know the area well.

You can ask questions, get advice for your upcoming stay, and then share your photos and advice with others when you return home. It's a great community and the fastest way to get answers to those nagging questions about your visit!

Come join the fun here!

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