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I have managed in the UK to go around without Pounds. You can easily go around the UK with credit cards only. Even paying for a beer in the pub, a bus ticket, or a train ticket is just a question of using a credit card.

Last time I visited the US, I tried the same approach, but failed. Even toll booths were cash only. This was in Florida.
Soon I will be visiting San Francisco on a short trip and I don't want to be bothered having to look for an ATM or figure out how much money I should exchange.

So can I go around San Francisco without cash in my pocket and pay for everything with plastic?

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Wouldn't it have worked out cheaper if you had had liquid cash on before arriving in the UK rather than paid by credit card in the UK? (I guessing the same principle would apply in USA) –  Simon Sep 26 '13 at 11:16
    
When I go on holiday outside the UK, I take cash only, for the very reason I have it ready & waiting,I also don't want credit card fees being added at every transaction. Maybe its just me being thrifty. –  Simon Sep 26 '13 at 11:34
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@Simon there are credit cards that don't charge any fee for foreign transactions. You should look into getting one if you travel frequently; you'll save a lot of money and hassle. (Bonus: no currency exchange fee either!) –  LessPop_MoreFizz Sep 26 '13 at 12:06
    
@LessPop_MoreFizz I'd actually forgotten about those. I've never used them, but just find cash simpler (and would use a credit card in a rare event). But yes you are correct. –  Simon Sep 26 '13 at 12:14
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@Simon my credit cards don't come with fees for foreign transactions, only for getting cash at an ATM. Actually being able to go CC only, would be cheaper due to better exchange rates, no left over foreign coins/bills, no atm fees. –  andra Sep 26 '13 at 13:07
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4 Answers 4

Yes. Absolutely. Almost all that you mention and tips can be paid using credit cards in almost all of the USA. SFO is a major metro and I cannot think of any establishment which will not happily take your money in the credit card format. It helps to keep a few bucks in cash and the only areas that I think you will require cash for are :

  1. Alms : If you love giving alms or handing out change to panhandlers, then you will obviously need to have some cash on hand.
  2. Street vendors & performers : Street performances (musicians, mimes, artists), will obviously only accept cash as tips, and many street-side stands (selling arts and crafts, or snacks) will only accept cash. These are not extremely common in the U.S., but they do exist in certain areas--including San Francisco.
  3. Grocery store purchases less than $10 : If you end up shopping in ethnic grocery stores or mom & pop stores, a lot of them will not accept credit cards for bills lesser than 10 bucks (primarily because of the transaction fees they end up paying)
  4. Rain check tickets : One of the things I do when visiting tourist attractions in major cities is, subtly, ask some merchandise vendor near by if he is selling rain check tickets. If you are able to strike 'that' chord, those people will only sell such tickets for cash.
  5. Gentleman's services : Getting a dance on a card can be very cumbersome and I have rarely seen anyone get a lap dance on a credit card. But the club will jolly well give you cash out on your credit card. So you can get cash from the club itself.
  6. Vending machines : If you want to buy newspapers, sodas, snacks, etc, from the local vending machine, that will generally take loose change only.
  7. Mugged : If you venture out into the dangerous areas and unfortunately get mugged then there are chances that you will probably end up relatively more injured for not carrying any cash.
  8. Laundry : There are a few unmanned laundry places which will only take quarters. So you gotta be prepared for that.
  9. Buses : Most buses require an exact fare in coins. However, you can charge a prepaid Clipper Card with a credit card.
  10. Toll roads and bridges : In some areas these are set up for credit card payments (Oklahoma turnpike will take a credit card payment, if memory serves), but many will require either cash or a pre-paid account of some sort (not practical for most visitors).

Toll booths will usually have different queues for drivers with cash/credit cards in the USA. Going by this link it looks like you will be good with a credit card in SFO.

This may be wrong about the toll roads and I stand corrected. Please see http://travel.stackexchange.com/a/20828/4584 for the correction

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You mention Newspaper vending machines, but not other vending machines. While some soda and snack machines will take credit cards, most, especially in smaller cities and towns, still require cash. Many toll roads require payment in cash, as well--won't matter to someone staying within SF, but for a question targeted at the larger U.S., it would be worth mentioning. –  Flimzy Sep 26 '13 at 19:16
    
The toll bridges in the San Francisco Bay area do not accept credit cards at the toll booth. See my answer. –  Nate Eldredge Sep 27 '13 at 21:40
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What is a rain check ticket? –  WW. Sep 28 '13 at 11:50
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@WW. Say you bought a ticket to watch the whales swim in the ocean. For some reason that tour didn't happen. Then the tour operator instead of returning your money, will give you a rain check - meaning a ticket which can be used in the future. –  happybuddha Sep 29 '13 at 17:57
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As a correction to HappyBuddha's answer, the San Francisco Bay Area has many toll bridges, and they do not accept credit cards at the toll booth.

The main alternative to cash on the toll bridges is FasTrak, an electronic tolling system. You buy a transponder (grocery stores often sell them) and link it to your credit card. If you rent a car, it will probably already have a transponder; the tolls will be charged to the rental company, who will tack on a surcharge and collect them from you.

On the Golden Gate Bridge (but not the other bridges in the area), there are no cash tolls either; anyone without FasTrak will have their license plate scanned and receive a bill at the address where the car is registered.

I'd also like to point out that, while most restaurants, stores and bars accept credit cards, in my experience there is a significant minority that remain cash-only. This particularly includes little hole-in-the-wall establishments, which IMHO offer some of the best food in the City. So if you refuse to use any cash, you may miss out on those.

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Updated my answer with a link to this. Thanks. –  happybuddha Sep 29 '13 at 17:54
    
FasTrack does not require you to buy a transponder - you can simply apply for an account online, register your license plate (including rental vehicles) and pay there via Credit Card. –  Doc Sep 29 '13 at 23:06
    
@doc: I believe that is only true for the Golden Gate Bridge. As far as I know, all the other Bay Area bridges still require a transponder. –  Nate Eldredge Sep 30 '13 at 3:23
    
All Bay Area bridges support pay-by-plate. The only places that do not are the "Express" lanes on I680 and I237/880, and these are easy to avoid if you don't have a tag. –  Doc Oct 1 '13 at 4:52
    
Are you speaking from personal experience? I visit the area fairly often and had not heard this, and I can't find any reference to it on the FasTrak website I linked above. –  Nate Eldredge Oct 1 '13 at 12:38
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The only thing I can think of is MUNI buses and streetcars, which only accept cash or Clipper. Even MUNI passes from the drugstore can only be purchased with cash. However, getting a Clipper card will save you a lot of time if you're riding transit a lot, as you can board at the rear door of the bus or streetcar instead of having to wait in line at the front. Also, if you plan to ride the ferries (highly recommended, even for a round trip to nowhere), the discount for Clipper is significant.

Otherwise, I know more than one person who visits "the City" routinely and does not carry cash. Even the types of small businesses that one might expect only take cash often take cards, thanks in no small part to the little iPhone/iPad payment devices. [Full disclosure: I have friends who work at one of those companies.] Not to say that every hot dog stand takes cards, but many do. Also, apparently Coit Tower is cash-only, as is the Musée Mecanique. Even vending machines often take cards now.

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Let's try to list the common places where you need to spend money:

  • Taxis: accept credit cards.
  • Restaurants/fast food: accept credit cards.
  • Groceries/supermarkets: accept credit cards.
  • Hotels: accept credit cards.
  • Car rentals: accept credit cards.
  • Movie theaters: accept credit cards.
  • Famous shopping stores: most accept credit cards (some don't, like sam's club).
  • Gas: Credit card accepted.
  • Museums: not sure they will accept credit cards.
  • Clinics: credit cards accepted.

These were the places you most likely to visit.

Most of the above are from personal experiences.

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I wrote this before the other answer, but I got busy and didn't finish it and submit it, the other answer is better but I still submitted this. –  MeNoTalk Sep 26 '13 at 21:38
    
Sam's Club accepts MasterCard and Discover credit cards, but not Visa or American Express. They do accept all debit cards. –  Michael Hampton Jul 16 at 1:34
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