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Our “Layover Lowdown” series feature airports and destinations around the world where you’re likely to be stuck between flights, offering tips on navigating and spending time in the airport, as well as some things to do if you find yourself with time to explore the nearby city. TPG Contributor Katie Hammel guides us through San Francisco International Airport.
A hub for United Air Lines and Virgin America, San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is a common layover spot for those traveling to Hawaii or onward to Asia. If you have to kill time at any airport, it’s not a bad one at which to spend the day. Even better, it’s close enough to the city that if you have a longer layover, it’s easy to get downtown for some exploring outside the confines of the airport.
At the Airport
WiFi is free throughout SFO and each terminal offers all the standard services like rapid charging stations, self-service mailers, and shoe shines, as well as extra perks like XpressSpas (which offer massages, mani/pedis, facials and waxing in case you need some emergency beauty maintenance in-between flights) and art exhibits spread throughout the airport.
Rambunctious little ones can let off steam at the Kids’ Spot play areas in Terminals 2 and 3 or on the Self-Guided Tours offered in each terminal; itineraries can be found online or at iPad kiosks at the Information Booths and at the end the tour kids receive a prize for completion (prizes available 8 am-8 pm). The airport’s Aviation Museum and Library is open and free to the public from Sunday through Friday, 10 am-4:30 pm.
In the International Terminal you’ll find cell phone rentals from TripTel, as well as a medical clinic, luggage storage and luggage wrapping, a full-service travel agency and access to the Freshen Up! showers. For quiet spaces, you have your pick between the Berman Reflection Room (International Terminal, free, open 7 am-11 pm) or the Christian Science Reading Room (Terminal 1, free, 8 am-10 pm).
Additionally, there are lounges galore, especially in the International Terminal where you’ll find lounges for Air France – KLM, British Airways, Cathay Pacific First & Business Class, China Airlines, Emirates, EVA AIR, Japan Airlines, Philippine Airlines, Singapore Airlines Silver Kris, United Red Carpet Club, Virgin Atlantic Club House, and United First Class. Terminal 3’s lounges include an American Express Centurion Lounge (exclusively for American Express Card Members) and United. Terminals 1 and 2 have more limited options: there’s a Delta Sky Club in Terminal 1 and an American Airlines Admirals Club in Terminal 2. United States Armed Forces members and their families can access the USO pre-security lounge in Terminal 1.
And of course, there are a few amenities that are oh-so-San Franciscan: free hydration stations encourage travelers to use refillable water bottles, free Yoga Rooms (open 24 hours in Terminals 2 and 3) will help you achieve a zen outlook (handy if you’re faced with a screaming baby on your next flight), and startup entrepreneurs—or anyone looking for a quiet work space, even if they’re not working on the next big app—can use the WiFi, whiteboard, and power outlets in the #Converge@flySFO space in the International Terminal. And if you’re lucky, you might be greeted by the Wag Brigade, a group of SPCA-certified therapy dogs that patrol on weekdays in Terminal 3.
Luggage storage is available at the Airport Travel Agency, on the Departures Level of the International Terminal. Hours are 7 am – 11 pm and prices—charges per a 24-hour period—vary by object.
Terminal 1 has a serious dearth of shopping options, with only a few bookstores and snack shops, as well as a Simply Gourmet, which features California foods and gifts. Terminal 2 has a bit more (including a Kiehl’s and some souvenir shops) but the best options are in Terminal 3 and the International Terminal.
Along with the usual bookshops and tech stores, Terminal 3 offers organic cosmetics from 100% Pure, original art and handicrafts from local artists and artisans at Collector and Boucle, delicious chocolates from famed Ghirardelli and See’s Candies, trendy clothes from Spain-based Mango, and locally sourced olive oils, soaps and lotions from McEvoy Ranch. In the International Terminal you’ll find more high-end brands—such as Burberry, Gucci, Coach and Hermes—as well as Brookstone, the SF MOMA store, and Duty Free.
San Franciscans like to eat, and they place a heavy emphasis on local, organic, and seasonal food—a fact that’s evident in the dining options at SFO. Terminal 2 has some of the best drinking and dining spots. Go for Mexican at Andalé Mexican Restaurant, small plates at Cat Cora or Vino Volo (the latter also has a great selection of wine by the glass or bottle) or head to Napa Farms Market for fresh-made sandwiches, salads, pizzas, to-go snacks, and a large assortment of desserts like cupcakes and macarons.
Terminal 1 options include Asian (Fung Lum Chinese and Go Bistro), burgers (Perry’s), pizza (PIQL and Willow Creek Grill Pizza), and locally-made organic ice cream from Three Twins. In Terminal 3, choose from famous San Francisco sourdough from Boudin Bakery and Café, an Irish Coffee from Buena Vista Café, or locally-sourced wine, craft beer, and small plates at SF Uncork’d.
The International terminal has an international selection that ranges from Mediterranean (Amoura Café) to Japanese (Ebisu, Osho, and Tomokazu) to Italian (Emporio Rulli and Il Fornaio) with a smattering of American classics (Burger Joint and Lori’s Diner).
Travel to the City Center
Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) makes getting into the city a breeze. Head to the International Terminal and follow the signs to the BART station. Once there you can swipe plastic or insert cash to load up a stored-value travel card; each rider needs his or her own card. Travel time to the city is 25-35 minutes depending on your final destination.
Look for trains that say Pittsburgh/Bay Point or Richmond—those go to the city while Milbrae trains head the opposite direction. You’ll need to swipe your travel card before going through the turnstiles; keep it handy because you have to do the same on the way out at your destination. You’ll be charged depending on how far you travel: for example, the fare to the 24th Street Station in the Mission is $8.50 while going farther north to the Embarcadero will cost 15 cents more.
Taxis are abundant but pricey, and best avoided during rush hour when it could take nearly an hour to reach the airport (off-peak travel time can be as little as 15 minutes). A cab will cost about $50 to Union Square. Lyft and Uber are also options: for the cheapest ride, opt for Uber Pool, which pairs you with another rider going the same way and usually costs less than $25.
If You Have Half a Day
With a few hours, pick a neighborhood and stick to it. Hop off in the Mission and grab some single origin coffee or a heavenly pastry (like The Rebel Within, a sausage and green onion muffin with a soft-baked egg inside) from Craftsman and Wolves, do some always-entertaining people watching in Dolores Park, take a self-guided tour of the area’s beautiful murals, see what makes a Mission burrito so special at Taqueria Cancun or El Farolito, or go for cheese and wine at Mission Cheese.
If you’re in the mood to shop, opt for Union Square, where you’ll find everything from H&M and All Saints to Chanel and Gucci. From Union Square, it’s easy to get to other neighborhoods like Russian Hill and the Marina, each lined with great independent boutiques.
Or knock a few items off your sightseeing bucket list: within just a few hours, you can see some of the city’s major tourist sights (more on that below) and still have time for a leisurely lunch or a happy hour cocktail.
If You Have a Whole Day
With a full day in the city you can get a quick glimpse at all of San Francisco’s big draws. Start with some breakfast nibbles from the purveyors at the Ferry Building Marketplace, then ride a cable car up Powell Street to Fisherman’s Wharf, where you can watch sea lions bask in the sun at Pier 39 or sample some famous San Francisco sourdough from Boudin Bakery. From there you can hop a ferry to the charming town of Sausalito or spend the afternoon exploring Little Italy and Chinatown.
If you’re the guided tour type, a full-day tour will show you the city’s highlights, such as Alamo Square (where you’ll find the colorful houses from the opening credits of Full House), the Golden Gate Bridge and Golden Gate Park, and the infamous former prison at Alcatraz. Book early for Alcatraz; tickets often sell out in summer and on weekends. For more on what to do in the city, see this comprehensive post on San Francisco.
If You Have the Night
Given how easy it is to reach SFO from the city, there’s no need to stay at the airport unless you’re arriving very late or departing obscenely early. In the heart of downtown in the SOMA neighborhood, the LEED-Silver certified W Hotel offers stylish rooms starting at around $380 per night or 20,000 Starpoints. Close to the Embarcadero (and the ferries to Alcatraz), the 804-room Hyatt Regency offers accommodation starting at around $400 or 15,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points per night. Fun fact: the hotel’s futuristic-looking atrium lobby and elevators were used as a set in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire movie.
At the grand, 110-year-old Westin St. Francis conveniently located in Union Square, rates start at around $280 or 12,000 Starpoints per night. And in Nob Hill, the Ritz-Carlton is worth the climb—and the cost—for its stately design and impeccable service. Room rates start at around $550 or 60,000 Marriott Rewards points per night.
There’s no hotel located at the airport (though plans are in the works to open one by 2018). Hyatt Regency, Marriott, Radisson, Sofitel, Hilton, Doubletree, Crowne Plaza, and Aloft are all located close by and offer shuttle service to the airport. Several nearby hotels also offer day rates if you just want to nap for a few hours while you wait for your next flight.