San Francisco is a very popular destination for family travel. With kid-friendly attractions, excellent food, and moderate weather, family travelers flock to the Bay Area year round. Casual tourists are sometimes unaware, however, that the Bay Area is served by three major airports: San Francisco (SFO), Oakland (OAK), and San Jose (SJC). Many travelers, including locals traveling to other destinations, look primarily at SFO when booking a trip. Don’t make that mistake!
Oakland (OAK), located just across the Bay Bridge from downtown San Francisco, is often an equally good, if not better, airport to serve as a gateway to San Francisco. I think this is especially true for families with small children.
I live not far from Oakland airport, in the town of Alameda, so I’ll admit to being a bit biased. But my family regularly chose to fly OAK even when we lived in San Francisco and SFO and OAK were equally close to us. If you are considering coming to San Francisco with your little ones, you would be well-served to compare flight options into both airports. And if you happen to live in the East Bay, like I do, flying OAK is a no-brainer.
There are, of course, several caveats to my recommendation. Unfortunately, OAK doesn’t serve anywhere near the number of destinations that SFO does, particularly for cross-country travel or international destinations. And even though OAK is often cheaper or competitive price-wise with SFO, there are times where the destination you are eyeing is simply much more expensive out of OAK or requires extra flight connections. But for those of you who have a meaningful choice between the two airports, I think the choice is easy.
Here are all the reasons I go out of my way to fly OAK when I can:
Even though SFO benefits from having San Francisco in its name, it isn’t actually in San Francisco. In fact, it is farther away from many parts of the city of San Francisco than much of the city of Oakland. If your destination in San Francisco is the Financial District or Union Square, OAK is likely only 3 or 4 miles further away from where you are going than SFO.
2) Ease & Price of Parking
For Bay Area locals, OAK is often a cheaper choice when it comes to getting to the airport by car. Parking in the economy lot at OAK is $16, compared to $18 at SFO. Not a huge difference, but the savings add up for longer trips. Where the difference really matters is when you are trying to take a quick weekend jaunt. On such quick trips, you probably want to park in the hourly/daily lot and walk to the airport rather than wait for an economy lot parking shuttle. SFO charges $36 per day for that privilege in the domestic hourly parking lots. At OAK, you have the options of (extremely close) hourly spaces at $32 per day or (almost equally close) daily spaces for $22 per day. We love the OAK daily lot for 2-3 day trips with our kids. (Also, be sure to check out parking coupons and specials too! OAK is running a promo through July 31 that gives you free parking for 5 days if you are flying non-stop to Hawaii or Europe. Amazing!)
3) Cheaper & Quicker Rental Cars
For tourists, ground transportation is probably cheaper for you at OAK too, particularly if you are renting a car. All the major car rental agencies are available at OAK. I often compare prices for visiting family and OAK almost always comes out much cheaper. Since Oakland is a smaller airport, lines for renting a car are usually much more reasonable as well. My parents have waited in line for car rentals for more than 2 hours at SFO on several occasions. If you are coming to San Francisco during heavy tourist season (spring break, summer) or during a big convention, the waits for rental cars at SFO are brutal. Not good if you have a cranky traveling toddler with you.
3) Family Friendly Airline Choices
OAK is dominated by Southwest Airlines, one of my the best airlines for travel with kids in my humble opinion. Other major carriers that go into OAK include Alaska Airlines and JetBlue, airlines that are also on the top of my list for family travel. Chances are, if you are flying into Oakland, you will simply have a more family-friendly in-flight experience. That can’t be underestimated.
4) Easy TSA Experiences
As a smaller airport, the security checkpoint lines at OAK just don’t get as long as a busy international gateway like SFO. I usually wait 15-30 minutes to clear security at SFO on a good day, but I almost never wait at OAK. Although both airports have TSA family lanes where families with small kids cut the worst of the lines, the OAK family lane is ALWAYS empty.
Have you flown into or out of OAK? How does it compare with SFO?
Thursday 27th of October 2022
I know this thread is really old but I’m hoping someone can provide some updated answers.
Is OAK airport still pretty safe for families with little ones right now? Looking into some flights that have a lay over in OAK. One of the return flights is a 3 hour layover I believe in the evening. Thank you in advance.
Saturday 26th of November 2022
Hi there! OAK airport is very safe - with just a 3 hour layover I can't imagine you'd want to exit the secure area so it's just like any other medium sized airport option anywhere in the country. The food options are a little slim due to ongoing construction but more restaurants are opening as more of that is completed.
Friday 3rd of August 2018
Only 1 complaint for those traveling in the evening. Eat before you get here because kitchens close around 8:30.
Navigating OAK Airport with Kids - Trips With Tykes
Thursday 9th of March 2017
[…] already detailed why I think OAK may sometimes be a superior choice for family travelers over SFO. With that editorializing done, let’s get down to the logistics of OAK Airport with […]
Tuesday 24th of January 2017
What are your thoughts for a trip to San Francisco (as a tourist)? We'd be flying from Portland with 2 children (3 and 6 y.o). I've flown into Oakland several times to visit friends in San Leandro, but this time would be for a proper San Fran tourist trip with the kids. Oakland still the best bet, or SFO? No plans to rent a car, if at all possible to avoid. Thanks!
Tuesday 1st of March 2016
Hi there! Thanks for a great post, it answered a lot of questions I had re; SFO vs OAK. Can I also ask if could you please give me any advice for how long in advance I should book our flights from New Orleans to Oakland (flying January next year) to get the best best price? I'm from Australia and the flight prices are seasonal here, but it doesn't seem that way in the US? Thank you!
Tuesday 1st of March 2016
On that New Orleans to OAK route, chances are decent that Southwest would be a strong contender and Southwest only releases schedules about 6 months in advance. So I'd watch for that and watch for fare sales (usually announced on Tuesdays). You'll probably find the best price 2-4 months out. January prices are pretty cheap unless you are traveling on Martin Luther King Day weekend.