The northern Bay Area has two major airports: San Francisco International and Oakland International. Fifty major scheduled carriers serve San Francisco International Airport (SFO; flysfo.com), 12 miles directly south of downtown on U.S. Route 101. Drive time to downtown during rush hour is about 40 minutes; at other times, it’s about 20 minutes. Ten miles south of downtown Oakland, at the Hegenberger Road exit from Interstate 880 (if heading north, take the 98th Avenue exit), Oakland International Airport (OAK; oaklandairport.com) has traditionally served passengers with East Bay destinations, but many San Franciscans prefer this less-crowded, more accessible airport; it takes about 35 minutes to get there from downtown San Francisco (traffic permitting). From either airport, you can also ride BART, an aboveground rail and subway system, to downtown San Francisco and the East Bay. For transportation details, see “Getting Into Town,” below.
Call tel. 511 or visit www.511.org for up-to-the-minute information about public transportation and traffic.
Arriving at the Airport
Wherever you’re coming from, international travelers arriving by air should be prepared for the possibility of delays when arriving in the United States. U.S. airports have considerably beefed up security at immigrations checkpoints, and clearing Customs and Immigration can take as long as 2 hours. You can try speeding up this process by enrolling in the Global Entry program (globalentry.gov), which allows expedited entry for pre-approved travelers.
Getting into Town
From San Francisco International
One of the fastest and cheapest ways to get from SFO to the city is to take BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit; bart.gov; tel. 415/989-2278), which offers numerous stops within downtown San Francisco. This route, which takes about 35 minutes, avoids traffic and costs a heck of a lot less than taxis or shuttles. A BART ticket costs $8.95 (children under 4 ride free) for a one-way ride from SFO to the Embarcadero stop. Just jump on the airport’s free shuttle bus to the international terminal, enter the BART station there, and you’re on your way to San Francisco. Trains leave approximately every 15 minutes during operating hours (weekdays 4am–midnight, Sat 6am–midnight, and Sun 8am–midnight).
A taxicab from SFO to Fisherman’s Wharf costs about $60, plus tip, and takes around 30 minutes, traffic permitting. You can also opt for Uber and Lyft—taxi-like ride-service apps accessed only via cellphone. (If you don’t have their apps on your smartphone and you plan on cabbing it, definitely download them, as they’ll save you money to and from the airport as well as getting around town.)
SuperShuttle (supershuttle.com; tel. 800/BLUE-VAN [258-3826]) offers door-to-door airport service in a shared van with a few other passengers. Simply wait at the designated SuperShuttle pick-up spot outside the terminal. They will take you anywhere in the city, charging $17 per person to a residence or business; each additional person going to the same location is usually charged $8. (The same goes for the return trip to the airport.) Reservations are required for the return trip to the airport and should be made 1 day before departure. While the shuttle service usually works well, keep in mind that you could be the first one picked up and the last one dropped off, depending on your destination, so this trip could take a while. For $74, you can charter the entire van for up to 10 people, or reserve an ExecuCar private sedan ($65) for up to three people.
The San Mateo County Transit system, SamTrans (samtrans.com; tel. 800/660-4287), runs two buses between SFO and Mission and 7th streets. Bus 292 costs $2.25 and makes the trip in about 45 minutes. Check the SamTrans site for schedules.
From Oakland International
The cheapest way to reach downtown San Francisco is to take BART from the Oakland Airport to the Coliseum station in Oakland, where you can transfer to any San Francisco–bound train. BART trains leave the airport every 6 minutes from 5am to 11pm on weekdays, 6am to 11pm on Saturdays, and 8am to 11pm on Sundays; between 11pm and midnight, they run every 20 minutes. The Oakland Airport BART station is located right across from the Terminal 1 baggage claim and a short walk from Terminal 2. BART fares vary depending on your destination, but the trip to any of the downtown San Francisco stations costs $10.20 one way (children 4 and under ride free). The entire excursion should take around 45 minutes.
A taxicab from OAK to Fisherman’s Wharf costs about $70, plus tip, and takes around 40 minutes, traffic permitting.
San Francisco is easily accessible by major highways. I-5, which runs north-south, connects to I-80 and I-580, which head into San Francisco; U.S. 101 cuts south-north through the peninsula from San Jose and across the Golden Gate Bridge to points north. If you drive from Los Angeles, you can take the longer coastal route along Highway 1 (about 455 miles, 10 hours) or the inland I-5 route (381 miles and 6 hours). From Mendocino, the drive to San Francisco is 154 miles and takes just over 3 hours; from Sacramento, 87 miles and 1 1/2 hours; from Yosemite, 210 miles and 4 hours.
If you are driving and aren’t already a member, it’s worth joining the American Automobile Association (AAA; csaa.com; tel. 800/922-8228). Memberships start as low as $56 per year, and provide roadside and other services, including valuable hotel discounts. Amoco Motor Club (bpmotorclub.com; tel. 800/334-3300) is another recommended choice.
Traveling by train takes a long time and usually costs as much as, or more than, flying. Still, if you want to take a leisurely ride across America, rail may be a good option and the views can’t be beat.
San Francisco–bound Amtrak (amtrak.com; tel. 800/872-7245) trains leave from New York and cross the country via Chicago. The journey takes about 3 1/2 days, and seats sell quickly. At press time, the lowest one-way fare cost $186 from New York (that’s a reserved seat with no bed and a transfer in Chicago) and $136 from Chicago. If you’re planning a train trip that lasts more than a day, unless you’re a human pretzel and can sleep in the train seats, reserving one of the small but expensive rooms is the way to go. You’ll arrive refreshed and full of stories from the sights you’ll see and the people you’ll meet on the journey. Round-trip tickets from Los Angeles start at $59 and involve two buses and a train. All trains arrive in Emeryville, just north of Oakland, and connect with regularly scheduled buses to San Francisco’s Ferry Building and the Caltrain station in downtown San Francisco at Fourth and Townsend streets. Caltrain (caltrain.com; tel. 800/660-4287) operates train service between San Francisco and cities on the eastern side of the peninsula.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.