Whether you’re rejoining the world of travelers for the first time since Covid or whether you fly SFO all the time, summer travel at San Francisco's airport is going to be a bit different this year. The airport expects to be almost back to pre-pandemic traffic, with 14.9 million travelers flying through in the next few months.
But San Francisco International Airport—known to flyers as SFO—is ready for the crush. So far in 2023, the airport was crowned the best in North America by the Airports Council International and the U.S. airport with the best food by Food and Wine magazine.
And though San Franciscans might debate about the state of their city, their love for SFO is universal. Some love its compact size, some love its modern aesthetic, some love its accessibility—but for almost everyone, San Francisco’s airport is a source of pride for Bay Area travelers.
After touring the brand new Harvey Milk Terminal 1, spending a day exploring the airport and picking the brains of veteran flyers, The Standard compiled the following list of 25 tips for getting to, from and around SFO this summer.
If you’re lucky enough to fly JetBlue, Southwest or American this summer, you’ll be taking off from Terminal 1, a place of immense pride named for San Francisco’s slain gay rights activist and Supervisor Harvey Milk.
Opened in 2021 after a $2.4 billion renovation, thoughtful design fills the new space, from departure gates furnished like reading rooms to auto-tinting windows that lower glare to kids’ play structures that match the modern, natural aesthetic. And, of course, a museum-quality exhibition of photos covers the walls, and a ridiculous array of Bay Area favorite food and drink purveyors line the terminal (see below).
It’s true that Terminal 1 is the current star of SFO’s best-in-the-U.S. culinary scene—heck, Michael Mina’s Bourbon Pub has a spot near Gate B9! And Amy’s Kitchen vegetarian, Bun Mee Vietnamese, Drake’s Brewing, Ritual Coffee and Starbird chicken are nearby. And word on the tarmac is that the vegan pork belly at Mama Go’s Filipino Cuisine cafe is worth flying somewhere for.
The great news? No traveler must settle for a sandwich in a plastic clamshell at SFO. (Check the airport’s handy directory for the new food that awaits near your gate.)
In Terminal 2 and the International Terminal, Napa Valley Farms is a frequent flyer favorite for packing SF-level flight snacks plus gourmet grab-and-go or made-to-order food and drinks (even wine!). In Terminal 3, Klein’s Deli makes fresh coffees, bagels and sandos that won’t break the bank. And if you come across the robot coffee maker, Cafe X, wave "hello" for us—it’ll wave back.
Want to eat at SFO before going through security? Head to the International Terminal—it’s the only one with pre-security eateries aside from Starbucks and vending machines.
Drinking water flows freely behind the security gates at SFO. In fact, new dispensers in some terminals offer four temperature settings—super cold, cold, warm and hot—to provide for all personal tastes—because, San Francisco.
United’s Terminal 3 and International Terminal’s G gates have security lines that require both TSA PreCheck and Clear—yes, passengers who hold both cards. So for those who can afford it, becoming a member of both travel security services lets you avoid standing in line with the riff-raff who only have a single membership.
For some lucky travelers, the party starts before you leave the airport. SFO Celebrates is an experiential series that brings the spirit of San Francisco to the airport with live performances, cultural presentations and art. After Terminal 3 hosted samba dancers for Carnaval, Terminal 1 is now putting on entertainment on a Pride parade float/stage on Thursdays and Fridays. Check the calendar to see what’s happening at SFO when you’re flying through.
DJ Juanita MORE! spoke with The Standard during her performance at SFO on June 15. “Watching people walking through, I either have people who are so excited and waving both hands in the air at me, or I’m getting the subtle wink—and I love them both,” she said.
Membership has its privileges—especially in Terminal 3. American Express opened its renovated Centurion Lounge for Black and Platinum cardholders in December. The new version of the exclusive club is nearly double in size and features more seating, private phone rooms and workspaces, additional restrooms, two wine bars serving flights of Napa reds and Sonoma whites and cafe areas featuring a menu from Liholiho Yacht Club Executive Chef Ravi Kapur—or so they say (The Standard couldn’t get in).
While San Francisco suffers from a lack of public facilities across its 7-by-7 miles of streets, SFO overachieves with hotel-worthy restrooms. Terminal 1 now boasts the best of the best, with Heath tile and marble adorning some lounges, including the first all-gender restroom at a U.S. airport.
Yoga is back! After closing for Covid, the yoga rooms in Terminals 2 and 3 have now reopened, providing a mat and a quiet place for a preflight meditative escape at SFO. And though napping is not officially allowed, it’s rare to see a yogi in Shavasana who didn’t catch a wink or two.
It’s easy for San Franciscans to forget that airport WiFi can still be an early-2000s nightmare in many airports around the U.S. At SFO, you choose the network, agree to conditions and get to browsing. Also 21st Century? The airport’s approach to electricity: You’ll find plain-old electric outlets and USB connections at departure gates and eateries throughout the terminals—though it is always safest to use a plug when you can.
SFO has the only accredited museum in the U.S. in an airport—an extravagance that most travelers have surely noticed but becomes clearer when you’re not running for your flight. A trip out of SFO will most certainly walk you past San Francisco Art Commission’s works of modern masters, such as Diebenkorn and Bechtle. But take a bit of extra time before departure sometime to wander through one of the rotating exhibitions—for example, the Centennial Opera Celebration in Terminal 1 and the submit-your-photo displays of "Your SF" in Terminal 3 this summer—or check out the amazing Aviation Museum and Library in the International Terminal. The permanent exhibition on the history of flight is housed in a replica of the 1930s passenger terminal at SFO.
Comfort animals at airports are always popular but SFO’s program is breaking new ground: Duke the Cat joined the Wag Brigade in May. Already counting a pig, rabbit and 18 dogs in its corps, the crew never fails to nose a smile out of all the passengers it encounters.
The Sky Terrace observation deck at SFO has also reopened to all visitors in Terminal 2 from Friday-Monday. More good viewpoints are found around the airport:
When flying abroad, download the Mobile Passport app before you board your flight back to SFO. While onboard or waiting to deplane, fill in the required fields. When your gaze hits the throngs of weary travelers standing in an endless zigzagging queue, wave your phone at an immigration officer and say, “Mobile Passport.” The officer will direct you to the left side, where there are no lines, but there is a bank of machines along the wall. You’ll input your passport and then zip up to an agent and beat your baggage to baggage claim.
If you’re up for a stroll, you can actually take a walk through corridors and find your way between just about all of the terminals at SFO. The only connection that is not possible is the one between Terminals 1 and 2. Not only might walking be just as quick as taking the train, but the edges of each terminal also have lovely, secluded lounges and corridors filled with more of the city’s extraordinary art collection.
If you love the giant, new Long-Term Parking Lot at SFO and parked there a bunch over the last few years, you should forget about all those easy-to-find spaces. During this busy summer season, finding a spot will be a bumper-to-bumper battle. Save headaches and time by booking a spot ahead of time at the SFO lot, Park SFO or Park 'N Fly—and then arrive at the lot with plenty of time in case the lot is overbooked, and you need to scramble for another place. (Parking lots typically only charge your credit card when you leave the lot, so you might not even have to fight for a refund.)
Lost luggage is a very real possibility these days, given the increase in air traffic expected this summer. Frequent flyers say dropping an AirTag or other Bluetooth tracker in your checked bag can provide some peace of mind (unless you’re flying Lufthansa). Once in the air, you can check “Find My” on your iPhone to see if your bag is traveling along with you—or know where to tell the airline to go look for it. (And a word to the wise, pack your weed in your carry-ons.)
When SFO moved ride-share pickup to the roof of the domestic parking garage, travelers were aghast. But anyone who’s taken a deep breath and the short walk to the new pickup zone has found that it is just about as close and a lot easier than fighting for a spot along the curb. The poorly guarded secret that Uber and Lyft can still pick up curbside at International Terminal is really only more convenient if you fly into that terminal. But if you absolutely refuse to walk farther than the curb outside baggage claim, premier ride-shares like Uber and Lyft XL will grab you from the “second curb”—but you’ll pay quite a bit extra for that convenience.
Now that ride-share prices have increased in the post-pandemic era, it’s a great time to shake the rust off the ol’ cab-hailing skills. Are both Uber and Lyft giving you the spinning wheel of “Your Pickup Is Going To Take Forever”? Got too much stuff to schlep to the parking garage pick-up spot? Simply walk over to that “second curb” outside baggage claim, and there’ll be a line of friendly cabbies eager for your business. A ride to Downtown San Francisco runs $55-$65 without traffic—and surge pricing is never a thing.
With all the worries over autonomous vehicles on the streets of San Francisco, no one mentions the two decades of success of SFO’s self-driving AirTrain. It comes every few minutes and has a delightfully simple route plan: The Red line swirls clockwise through the terminals; the Blue line does the opposite and hits the rental car center and long-term parking. And the trains board just a floor or two away, not in the extremities or bowels of the facility like some airport trains. Nab the front seat on the AirTrain and ride an extra loop next time you’re early. The views are excellent, and it’s way cheaper than Disneyland. (Another fun fact? SFO spokesman Doug Yakel moonlights as the AirTrain announcer.)
Speaking of trains, BART has driven right into the side of the International Terminal since it opened in 2003. Again, SFO’s compact size makes transferring from plane to train a short and simple process—and for just $10.50, you can ride to or from Downtown San Francisco in 30 minutes.
SFO’s on-premises Grand Hyatt hotel is a gorgeous one. Reachable by AirTrain from any terminal in just a few minutes, the hotel’s nightly room rates are dear (averaging $400 or so), but it does offer a day rate of $199 for six hours in a room with a king-size bed (call to check availability and reserve). Facing an XL delay? Head to its lobby, bar or dining room for views of taxiing planes.
When traffic hits its summer peak around the terminals, consider dropping off friends at the SFO rental car center’s Kiss and Fly zone. They can jump on the AirTrain back to the terminal, and you can jump back on the highway to head home.
When you just can’t carry your bag a step further, don’t forget curbside luggage check-in is alive and well at SFO. United, Delta and Southwest provide the service for a tip, and American charges a per-bag fee. Though a group of United skycaps politely evaded The Standard's question on how much to tip, one smiled when The Standard suggested $10 per bag.
Want the best parking near SFO’s Terminal 3 and not afraid to pay for it? Book ahead for a ParkFAST spot. The reserved section of the domestic garage near United’s terminal costs $40 per day but gets you to security just minutes after shutting your trunk.
Short-term parking at SFO is only $2 per 15 minutes—not cheap, to be sure, but not exorbitant if you are only staying an hour. And it’s a rare and happy thing these days for your loved one to see balloons and flowers—or just your smiling face—when they land.
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