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Flying to San Francisco: Complete Guide to Bay Area Airports

Planning a trip to San Francisco, California? A lot of travelers to the Bay Area don’t realize that the region has quite a few ways to get here by air. In fact, the San Francisco Bay Area has three major international airports – San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Oakland International Airport (OAK), and Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC).

Very few metropolitan areas are served by three airports within such a close distance. This affords San Francisco-bound travelers on a budget a lot of choices to shop around for good airfare. And depending on where you are going when you get here, the three airports also allow you to fly in and out with easy logistics because there is an airport close to pretty much everywhere you want to travel.

If you are a traveler flying to San Francisco, how do you choose among the three options? As a Bay Area local now for over 15 years, I’ve flown in and out of every airport in the area many, many times and have a lot of experience to share!

Here are the essentials you need to know about the three ways to the San Francisco Bay.

Flying to California's San Francisco Bay Area? Essential details on the three major Northern California airports, SFO, Oakland International, and Mineta San Jose (SJC). Where to find cheap fares, which airlines fly where, and ground transportation tips from a local.

(Trips With Tykes uses affiliate links which means I may earn a small commission if you purchase through links in this post. See our full disclosure policy linked in the menu at the bottom of this site.)

Flying Into San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

Fast Facts about SFO

  • Drive time to downtown San Francisco: 25-30 minutes (15 miles)
  • Airlines with most service: United, Alaska, American, Delta, Southwest
  • Additional airlines available: Aer Lingus, AeroMexico, Air Canada, Air China, Air France, Air India, Air New Zealand, ANA, Asiana, Avianca, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, China Eastern, China Southern, Copa Airlines, EL AL, Emirates, EVA AIR, Fiji Airways, Finnair, Frontier, Hawaiian, Iberia, Japan Airlines, JetBlue, KLM, Korean Air, Level, Lufthansa, Philippine Airlines, Qantas, Qatar Airways, SAS, Singapore Airlines, Sun Country, Swiss, TAP Air Portual, Turkish Airlines, Virgin Atlantic, WestJet
  • Nearby hotels: Grand Hyatt at SFO (on-site), San Francisco Airport Marriott Waterfront, Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport
  • Airport website: flysfo.com
SFO Airport with Kids - Airport Entrance
Approaching SFO’s international terminal.

SFO Basics

Located south of the city of San Francisco in San Mateo County is San Francisco International Airport. SFO is the largest airport in the region and the one that most international travelers will need to use to arrive into the Bay Area. It is served by every major U.S. airline as well as quite a few foreign carriers.

While it has a lot of service and sometimes super-cheap fares, SFO is notorious for delays. San Francisco’s infamous fog regularly results in a reduction in the airport’s takeoff and landing capacity. Beware short connections at SFO and flights later in the afternoon and evening when delays stack up, especially in the winter rainy months.

SFO Airport Layout

San Francisco International Airport is shaped like a large circle, with multiple terminals protruding outward from the center circle in a sun shape. The airport has 3 domestic terminals. Terminal 1 has the B gates, Terminal 2 has the C and D gates, and Terminal 3 has the E and F gates.

There is a single enormous international terminal made up of two different gate areas, A and G, each with its own separate security checkpoint.

All the terminals at SFO are connected pre-security by the AirTrain which also connects to public transit at the airport’s BART station (more on BART below). For the most part, the terminals at SFO are not interconnected past security except for 1) Terminal 1 and the C gates of Terminal 2 and 2) Terminal 3 to the G gates of the International Terminal. The latter connection enables United travelers connecting with most Star Alliance international flights to avoid exiting and re-entering security.

Additional connections between terminals are coming soon. These will include a T2-T3 connector as well as a connection between T1 and the A gates of the International Terminal. Unfortunately, ongoing renovations to the airport have been paused in 2020-2021 due to depressed demand for air travel but hopefully that will resume soon.

When departing from SFO, be aware that airport security lines can be long during busy times and during holiday periods, so plan ahead. The good news is that there are a number of ways to skip the line at SFO. If you have TSA Pre-Check, use it. Otherwise look for the family lanes if you are traveling with young kids or the elite lines if you have status on the airline you are flying.

SFO is an airport that is also served by CLEAR, a paid trusted traveler service that allows you to cut even more of the lines. We’ve found membership worth the cost over the last several years.

Finally, SFO of course offers both Global Entry or Mobile Passport for arriving international travelers.

SFO Airport Amenities & Food

Yoga rooms, play spaces, and dining at SFO are clearly a hit with my kids!

Pretty much all the amenities you’d expect of a large international airport can be found at SFO. Most airlines have an affiliated lounge, and there’s also a Centurion Lounge for American Express Platinum card holders by the F gates in Terminal 3. Priority Pass members have only limited choices, as the two affiliated lounges (Virgin Atlantic and KLM/Air France) are both in International Terminal A.

Visitors from less crunchy areas of the country will surely get a kick out of the yoga room available in Terminal 2. The airport also has an affiliated museum that has exhibitions on display within the passenger terminals to pass the time.

For travelers with kids, the airport’s amenities are about as good as it gets in a US airport. SFO has kids play areas in every terminal that are unique and engaging (my kids are fans!). The airport also has multiple private nursing rooms in every terminal.

Related: Guide to SFO Airport with Kids

As a city known for its restaurants, San Francisco definitely ups the ante when it comes to airport cuisine. Large national chains and fast food are in short supply at SFO. Instead, expect to find a lot of restaurants from diverse local chefs. A few of my personal favorites with airport locations: Gott’s Roadside, Dogpatch Bakehouse & Caffe, Boudin Bakery, and Farmerbrown. As of the date this article is being published, a lot of in-airport restaurants are sadly closed, so check availability closely as travel circumstances change.

Transportation to and from SFO

San Francisco - BART at SFO Airport
BART at the SFO Airport Station.

Getting to the city is fairly easy for those arriving into SFO. Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), serves SFO and can take you to some of the most common areas in San Francisco that vacationers or business travelers need to go. In particular, getting to Union Square or the Financial District is a breeze on BART. Travel time is about 35-40 minutes and the fare as of early 2021 is $10.15.

Related: Complete Guide to Transit & Transportation in San Francisco

BART does not provide easy access from and to the airport to every destination, however. Travelers headed to some of the hotels on Nob Hill or Fisherman’s Wharf or to other destinations elsewhere around the bay should look into other transportation options. Taxis cost about $60 from SFO to the city. Ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber are plentiful and tend to be quite a bit cheaper.

Flying Into Oakland International Airport (OAK)

Southwest Airlines Change Fees
Southwest ticket counters in Oakland’s Terminal 2

Fast Facts about OAK

OAK Basics

While not as large as SFO, Oakland International Airport offers a quality logistical and value based alternative for Bay Area travelers. And I’m not just saying that because I live only a couple of miles away!

Located in Oakland just across the Bay Bridge and down I-880, OAK is basically just as close as SFO is to the major tourist centers of San Francisco proper. It is also subject to fewer fog related delays.

By far the largest carrier at Oakland is Southwest, which is my personal favorite for family travel. Other family-friendly airlines like Alaska Airlines and Hawaiian Airlines also fly a lot of routes into OAK. 

Related: Tips for Flying Southwest Airlines with Kids

Intra-California and West Coast routes are well served from OAK, as is Hawaii. Oakland’s international service has been up and down in recent years as new low cost airlines spring up but is currently fairly limited.

OAK Airport Layout

Two easy to navigate terminals at OAK.

Compared to SFO, Oakland International Airport is much smaller. The airport has two terminals that are side by side. Terminal 2 is occupied entirely by Southwest. Terminal 1 is home a few extra Southwest gates as well as to every other airline that flies out of OAK.

There are two TSA checkpoints – one for each terminal at OAK. There is a connector post-security between the terminals so you can use either checkpoint when lines are long. The walk between them is about 5-7 minutes.

Like SFO, OAK offers both Global Entry or Mobile Passport for arriving international travelers.

OAK Amenities and Food

As more of a locals and commuter airport, amenities at Oakland have historically been more limited. But the airport is in the middle of a major renovation that should bring it up to speed. The airport is ditching a lot of the fast food chains and bringing in local restaurants much like SFO has done.

The airport has one lounge, operated by Escape Lounges (note it is currently closed temporarily as of the date this article is published). Entry is available for a $45 fee ($40 if pre-booked online) or is free to American Express Platinum Card holders.

Oakland is a very kid-friendly airport. It has a TSA family lane that rarely has any wait at all (but we tend to use Pre-Check which is just as short and is even easier to pass through with kids). There is a Mamava nursing room in each terminal for pumping or nursing moms who want privacy. If you are flying through Oakland with little ones in tow, don’t miss this complete guide to Oakland Airport with kids.

Transportation to and from OAK

Navigating Oakland Airport with Kids: AirBART train
Small connector trains run between OAK and the Coliseum BART stop.

Getting to San Francisco’s center after arriving into Oakland Airport is also fairly easy. Oakland now has a train connector between the airport and the full BART system at the Oakland Coliseum stop (previously known as AirBART). Travel time into the city (including time on the connector) is about 30-40 minutes.

Taxis, shuttles, and ride-sharing are all also readily available. The cost to downtown San Francisco in an Uber or Lyft is about $40.

Flying Into Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport (SJC)

Fast Facts about SJC

SJC Basics

In the south bay near Silicon Valley, San Jose International Airport offers a third airport alternative roughly the same size at OAK. SJC has been growing mightily the last few years, adding a lot of new airlines and routes.

Like Oakland, the airport has lots of service up and down the West Coast and also more favorable weather conditions than SFO. Also like at Oakland, Southwest Airlines is the dominant airline, carrying more than 50% of SJC’s passengers. The airline has been expanding with some international routes in the last few years, but most of those are on pause as of the time this article is being published.

For travelers headed to the South Bay, the airport is definitely the most convenient. For San-Francisco bound travelers, the traffic along the busy I-80 corridor might be too prohibitive to make this a viable choice unless you have a very early morning or late night arrival or departure.

SJC Airport Layout

SJC has two terminals – A & B – next to one another, making it incredibly easy to navigate. Gates numbered 1-35 are located behind the airport side-by-side in a straight line.

SJC has two TSA checkpoints – one for each terminal. All the usual TSA shortcuts are available at SJC, including TSA Pre-Check and CLEAR. Lines can sometimes be quite long at peak travel times for anyone without these shortcuts so plan accordingly.

Like SFO and OAK, SJC has both Global Entry and Mobile Passport for arriving international travelers.

SJC Amenities & Food

Amenities at SJC are pretty solid for an airport of its size. The airport has a mix of higher end fast food restaurants (Smashburger, Einstein Bros. Bagels) as well as some local sit down options.

If you have a long layover or wait at SJC, consider paying to visit the airport lounge, The Club. The Club is located near gate A15 close to the middle of the airport near international arrivals. Priority Pass members get complimentary entry and others can access for a $45 fee. The Club offers free snacks, drinks, and even showers – a rarity in US airports.

For family travelers, the airport also has ample nursing/pumping rooms available but no kids play areas.

Transportation to and from SJC

SJC Rental Car Shuttle

For travelers headed to most of Silicon Valley, SJC is likely to be the most convenient airport for you. I’d recommend a rental car if you plan to spend any time in the valley, as it definitely more of a suburban atmosphere. Taking public transit isn’t really a realistic option unless you plan to focus your time in downtown San Jose. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are everywhere so those work as well if you don’t have extensive transportation needs.

Getting to San Francisco or the East Bay from SJC is a little more challenging and time-consuming. The two public transit train systems – BART and CalTrain – don’t go directly to SJC. Instead, you’ll need to take the free VTA Flyer Shuttles that link SJC with the Santa Clara CalTrain station or the Milpitas BART stop. CalTrain will drop you off south of Market Street in downtown San Francisco. BART will take you on a circuitous route through the East Bay first before crossing into San Francisco.

Uber or Lyft is about $75 from SJC to downtown San Francisco. Taxis, shared shuttles, and private car services are available as well.

Even More Bay Area and Northern California Airport Choices

San Francisco, Oakland, and San Jose are home to the big three Bay Area airports. But truly savvy travelers know that there are a few more airports that travelers to and from the Bay Area might consider if a really good flight deal becomes available or if your San Francisco travels will include stops in some of the other tourist destinations of Northern California. These airports are smaller and that means that they are often more expensive, but not always. They include:

  • Concord (CCR): About 45 minutes from downtown San Francisco, located in the East Bay suburbs. This airport has JSX service to two SoCal destinations – Burbank and Orange County.
  • Monterey (MRY): About 2 hours from downtown San Francisco. With a world-famous aquarium and lots of attractions, Monterey is a favorite stop for a wide variety of traveler types. Family travelers – check out my guide to Monterey with kids.
  • Sacramento (SMF): About 1.5 hours from downtown San Francisco (but traffic can be very heavy on that corridor and can make it much longer at peak times). See my tips for visiting Old Sacramento with kids.
  • Stockton (SCK): About 1.5 hours from downtown San Francisco. The only commercial service is via low-cost carrier Allegiant from Las Vegas and Phoenix-Mesa.
  • Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport (STS): About 1.5 hours from downtown San Francisco (but my recommendation would be to fly there and to stay in wine country!). Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, and United all offer commercial service to several cities along the West Coast and in western states.
  • Merced Regional Airport (MCE): Served by Boutique Air only to LAX and Sacramento.
  • Fresno Yosemite International Airport (FAT): For travelers who plan to visit both Yosemite National Park and greater San Francisco as many do, this medium sized airport is a smart option. Service is available on AeroMexico, Alaska, Allegiant, American, Delta, Frontier, United, and Volaris.

Plan Your San Francisco Vacation!

San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge

If you are headed to San Francisco, these articles and guides can help you plan even more:

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