One of the biggest challenges of traveling with kids is navigating through large airports. Each airport is laid out differently, has different amenities, and presents different challenges when it comes to traveling with kids. Wouldn’t it be great to know what to expect at different airports all over the country before you travel with your little ones? Trips With Tykes to the rescue! This post is going to be the first in a series where we look at all the details of various airports from a family travel perspective, with a special eye to the challenges that parents of babies, toddlers, and young kids face.
First up is my “home” airport, San Francisco (SFO). San Francisco is a popular family travel destination, so many family travelers end, start, or pass through SFO during their travels. I have started and ended dozens of trips with my kids at SFO on nearly every airline and in every terminal, so I’ve gotten to know it quite well. SFO airport turns out to be remarkably kid-friendly and fairly easy to navigate compared to many major U.S. airports.
Here are the essential facts you need to know when navigating SFO airport with kids:
Transportation To & From SFO
SFO is located about 13 miles south of downtown San Francisco, and there are a variety of ways to get to and from the airport, depending on where you are going and your level of mobility with your kids.
- Taxi: Waits at the taxi lines at SFO are usually quite reasonable and the ride to downtown is about $50-60. With a family of 3, 4, or more, the convenience of this option is pretty high even if it is a tad pricey. Car seats are not legally required in San Francisco cabs, but I’d highly recommend bringing your own.
- Uber/Lyft/Sidecar: Ride-sharing services are all the rage in tech-heavy San Francisco, and you can pick your service of choice now that SFO has struck deals allowing these three services to operate at the airport. At the moment, none of these services offer car seats so you will need to bring your own just as with cabs.
- BART: From downtown San Francisco, the ride to SFO on the Bay Area’s major transit service is about 35 minutes. Although BART can be great to skip traffic and save money if you are a solo traveler, I don’t recommend taking BART with younger kids and luggage. Getting to or from BART from anywhere other than the International Terminal requires taking AirTrain first. Then you are dragging luggage and little ones on escalators and elevators and onto busy trains. Finally, depending on where you are staying in San Francisco, you may find yourself with a several block walk once you get off BART in downtown. The only benefit of BART is that car seats are (obviously) not needed, so you can travel lighter.
- Rental Car: If you are arriving into SFO and need to rent a car, you’ll find all the major car rental agencies available. The AirTran connects the terminals to the rental car center. Be aware, however, that during conferences and peak tourist season (summer, especially), lines at those car rental counters can be very long. My parents have waited for a car more than an hour on multiple occasions. Not ideal after traveling a full day with your little ones. If you need a car, now is the time to join one of the car rental company programs that allow you to go straight to your car rather than wait in line. While many car rental companies used to charge for this privilege, the service is now free for some. Personally, our family loves Hertz Gold Plus Rewards. It’s free and Hertz also includes a free car seat for AAA members, so it’s a win-win for families with kids. Avis Preferred and National Emerald Club memberships are also free and allow you to skip the line.
- Parking: If your trip originates in San Francisco, driving your own car and parking at the airport is often the most convenient because you have your own car seats. Parking at SFO can be pricey ($18 per day in the long-term lot), so my family often parks in non-airport locations that are significantly cheaper. ParkSFO is one of our favorites and often has coupons on its website. It is also located right next to SFO’s long term parking, so your shuttle ride to the terminals is exactly the same length of time.
SFO Airport Layout
Once you’ve gotten yourself to the airport, what can you expect next? Transit within SFO is provided on the free AirTrain, which connects the terminals and some short-term some parking areas outside of security (before you get to the ticket counters). In my experience, AirTrain is speedy, clean, and convenient if you need to use it.
SFO has four terminals – Domestic Terminals 1, 2 and 3 and the International Terminal (which is divided into two parts, A & G). United is located in Terminal 3, Virgin America and American are in Terminal 2, and all the other domestic carriers except Alaska Airlines are in Terminal 3. Alaska, all the international carriers, and international flights on United or Virgin America can be found in the International Terminal. Be sure to check the SFO Airport’s Airline Information page for the latest airline location information, as construction and expansion results in some changes.
Each of these terminals has its own security checkpoint. Only a very few of the terminals are connected on the sterile side of security (namely United in Terminal 3 and the International Terminal Boarding Area G), so don’t expect to be able easily to move between terminals to access lounges, dining, or other amenities. There are efforts to connect some more of these terminals, but that will take time.
Most of these terminals are fairly compact and easily walkable for kids who have outgrown strollers, as you can see by the map on SFO’s website. United’s Terminal 3 is the longest walk for kids if your gate happens to be near the end of the terminal (approximately gates 87-90). But there is a play area at the end of this terminal (see below), so there is payoff after the trek!
SFO Security Lines
I’ve passed through SFO dozens of times with kids and I’ve found the security lines to be exceptionally pleasant compared to many other major airports. Perhaps that is because SFO is one of the few airports that uses private contractors rather than TSA employees to staff security. Lines can be long at peak travel periods, but SFO has family lanes at every terminal that often allow you to cut the worst of the lines when traveling with kids. In addition, if you have TSA Pre-Check, your kids can accompany you through expedited screening.
I have also had mostly good experiences when dealing with the actual screening process. SFO agents are used to seeing lots of families traveling with babies and young kids and usually don’t go overboard in screening bottles, juice boxes, and the like. If you are traveling with extra liquids, SFO agents usually do a quick and easy swab test on your items. Only very rarely have I had to undergo an enhanced pat-down as a result of carrying liquids (that process is, unfortunately, par for the course at many other airports).
SFO’s Kid-Friendly Features & Amenities
Once you are in the airport, SFO is quite kid-friendly as well. Very few airports have a “Traveling with Kids” section on their websites, but SFO does, which demonstrates its greater commitment to making the travel process a bit more pleasant for families.
Your kids won’t be bored at SFO on a long layover or flight delay, as there are play areas at several strategic locations in the airport. At the end of Terminal 3 near United’s gate 87A is a weather-related play area that has entertained my daughter on many occasions. Terminal 2 also has a “Kids Spot” with a kinetic play installation. New to SFO is a moving art installation in Boarding Area E in Terminal 3 that our daughter loved exploring. There are plenty of other interesting museum-style exhibits all over the airport that change regularly that kids may find interesting.
If you are traveling with a baby and want a private spot to feed, SFO is as good as it gets. All the terminals have nurseries with a private space where you can nurse, pump, or change diapers if you wish. That is an extremely rare amenity in most U.S. airports.
Dining in SFO reflects the foodie culture of the area, and fast food is therefore significantly less present than in many major airports. But foodie doesn’t necessarily mean adults-only. You can certainly find reasonably healthy and kid-friendly meal choices for your little ones at most restaurants.
Have you traveled through SFO with kids? What other tips would you add? Any challenges you’ve faced?
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