When Northern California families are planning vacations down to Anaheim to see Mickey Mouse, the first big trip planning question many face is how to get there. To drive or to fly? That is the question!
Los Angeles and San Francisco are approximately 380 miles apart. It’s a 6 hour drive (without traffic) from the San Francisco Bay Area to Disneyland or a 1 hour and 15 minute flight. What should you choose?
My family is certainly a bit biased in favor of flying. We enjoy air travel and love being able to do it on the cheap with our frequent flyer mile addiction. For quite some time, we were a family of three, meaning that we only had to purchase 3 airline tickets (and, in fact, we only purchased 2 seats on our daughter’s first Disneyland trip at 22 month when she flew as a lap child). Now that we are a family of four, however, the calculus changes a bit.
When Disney invited me on fairly short notice for a family blogger weekend special event, we decided it was time to join the ranks of families driving down I-5 from the Bay Area to Disneyland. I dreaded having to strap a newly toddling 14 month old in a car seat for that length of time. I worried we would hit terrible traffic as we approached Los Angeles on a Friday evening not long after rush hour. I lamented a missed chance to earn frequently flyer miles (well, not really).
It turns out that our drive from San Francisco to Disneyland was quite successful. We managed to make only one stop at the midpoint of the trip on the way there and the way back, and the kids listened to Disney songs and slept a large portion of the trip. It’s a boring drive, but it’s an experience that I would have no qualms recommending to others, including frequent flyers.
But how do you decide whether to drive or fly on a trip-by-trip basis? I’ve put together some factors to help you make that decision for your next trip.
San Francisco to Disneyland Drive vs. Fly Factors to Consider
Everyone assumes that road trips are substantially cheaper than air travel, but that is not always the case, even for families. You have to consider not only gas, but also wear and tear on your car, insurance costs, and the like. At the current IRS standard mileage reimbursement rate of 56 cents per mile, driving from San Francisco to Disneyland will “cost” your family $448 round trip.
What about air travel? During fare sales, I’ve regularly been able to snag roundtrip airfare from the Bay Area into a number of Los Angeles area airports for $120-140. If you have 3 members of your family who need tickets, a $130 airfare totals $390 for your family — actually a bit cheaper than driving. Of course, if you are booking a trip at the last minute or have a larger family, the balance begins to shift towards driving.
Before you make your cost assessment, also don’t forget about parking. You’ll likely have to pay for parking at the airport if you fly, but you’ll probably have to pay for parking at most hotels near Disneyland if you drive.
2) Convenience & Airport Accessibility
Most casual travelers heading from the Bay Area to Disneyland check SFO to LAX flights and call it a day. Those are both busy airports. I can see why many families hate to fly that route and instead opt to drive.
This approach may not make sense at all, however, depending on where you live in the Bay Area. With a little knowledge of all the airport and airline choices, air travel from the Bay Area to Anaheim can be quite convenient.
The most convenient airport to Disneyland is actually the John Wayne/Santa Ana airport (SNA) and it is only a 20 minute drive from the Disneyland gates. It is also a small airport that is exceptionally easy to navigate with kids. Long Beach is another smart option that is about 30 minutes away from Disneyland. It’s also quite compact and has an increasing number of flight choices. Flying into LAX, on the other hand, can subject your family to some gnarly traffic just getting to and from Anaheim after you land. LAX can also be a travel nightmare for families with kids.
So which airlines and routes are best? Southwest Airlines (my favorite airline for family travel these days) flies from all three Bay Area airports (SFO, OAK, and SJC) to SNA non-stop many times a day. Southwest flights are not available to search through online travel search engines, so be sure to check the Southwest website directly. Southwest has also recently expanded in LGB, flying 4 routes daily from OAK and 4 routes from SJC.
For additional Long Beach travel options, JetBlue offers two non-stop flights a day from OAK to LGB and two more a day from SFO to LGB. United also offers a couple of daily non-stop flights from SFO to SNA. Check for these airlines and airports to find the most convenient option before discarding the idea of flying out of hand.
SFO to LAX is not the only option and probably isn’t even the best one! Be sure not to miss my complete guide to flying to Disneyland for even more tips and details.
Even though the drive from San Francisco to the Los Angeles area is about 6 hours, traffic can be a major wildcard that may not make it worth the risk for some family trips. You will avoid a substantial amount of gridlock by taking Interstate 5 (instead of Highway 101), but there is still the chance for major traffic jams leaving the Bay Area and approaching Los Angeles. It is crucial that you time your drive to miss rush hour windows in both places.
Related: Check out 510 Families’s guide and tips for I-5 road tripping, with lots of fun kid-friendly stops to make the drive easier!
And it is also important to do your research about major events in either city to determine if those events would cause substantially greater traffic issues. Sitting in an unmoving car with young kids for hours on end is a recipe for family travel disaster. An airline flight might be looking much easier in comparison.
Time is money. If you are trying to make a short weekend trip down to Anaheim, it often doesn’t make sense to factor 12+ hours of driving time into your vacation. People largely assume that flying is substantially quicker than driving. While it is quicker, just how much quicker? I did the math for my family’s particular situation and you should do the same for yours. Simply calculate the following and compare it to a (roughly) 6-7 hour drive:
Drive to airport + time to arrive before flight + flight time + bag collection time (if needed) + drive to Anaheim hotel = Total travel time
Here is how my family’s options stack up: (Note: I live just 12 minutes door-to-door from the Oakland airport, but I have to allow 1 hour drive time for SFO due to potential traffic.)
OAK to SNA:
- 15 mins (drive to OAK) + 1 hr 15 mins arrive before flight + 1 hr 15 mins flight time + 30 mins bag collection time + 15 mins ride to Disneyland = 3 hrs 30 mins
SFO to LAX:
- 1 hr (drive to SFO) + 1 hr 15 mins arrive before flight + 1 hr 15 mins flight time + 30 mins bag collection time + 1 hr ride to Disneyland = 5 hrs
You can see that SFO to LAX for me is not a substantial time savings over driving. When I can snag a flight from OAK to SNA at a reasonable price, it is still my preferred choice if the price is (remotely) right!
How does your family prefer to travel from the Bay Area to Disneyland? Do you drive or fly? What have been your challenges and successes with either choice?
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Disclosure: Disneyland graciously hosted my family for three days and two nights at a family blogger weekend during our recent road trip to Anaheim. My family regularly takes other Disneyland visits at our own expense. As always, all opinions are my own.
This post was last updated and is factually current as of May 18, 2019.