Arrival and Departure: San Francisco
I recently had the pleasure of spending quite a bit of time at SFO, some of it in the International terminal. This was the first time I had used the International side since it was redone a few years ago, and I was pleasantly surprised!
When you arrive to SFO from an international destination, you will of course be shuttled through customs. I found the process here to be much quicker than I had experienced at other American airports. Make sure to have your forms complete; when you hit the line, US nationals go to the left and all other nationals go to the right. Neither line was very long. There were not a ton of arrivals when I went through (early evening on a Friday), which leads me to think there is a steady but not overwhelming flow throughout the day. Once you’ve gotten stamped by the officials, you will collect your checked luggage and be on your way!
There are the typical transportation options – taxis, super shuttles, limos…but in the interest of budget travel, I am focusing on one- BART. This is the easiest public transportation option to/from San Francisco and the airport.
BART is the easiest and most direct of the two. Once you leave the baggage claim area, you will see the signs for BART. Lucky for you, the BART stop is in the international terminal, so there is no need to take the “AirTrain” option. The ticket from SFO to any of the three downtown San Francisco stops (Powell St., Montgomery St., and Embarcadero) is $5.35 one way. If you plan on taking BART back to the airport at the end of your stay, you may want to save time and purchase a round trip ticket. However, be warned: BART tickets will demagnetize if it is near your cell phone or anything magnetic (i.e. wallet clasps, purse closures, some credit cards, etc.), and it is a pain to get a refund. I personally rarely get round trip nowadays for this reason.
Once you have purchased your tickets, walk through the gates and board the “Pittsburg/Bay Point” train (yellow line on the system map). This train will bring you to any San Francisco stop, and leaves approximately every 15 minutes; it takes about 30 minutes to ride to the first of the downtown stops. If you are staying at one of the hostels in the Union Square area, you will take the Powell St. exit. From there you can either walk to most of the hostels/hotels, take a cab (rides start at about $3.35), or the bus ($1.50). If you are staying in the North Beach, take the Montgomery St. exit. You can walk straight up Montgomery Street to Columbus and Broadway, and from there to any of the hotels/hostels, or, hop on one of the buses that will take you directly there; the bus can be picked up on Kearny & Post (take the One Post Plaza exit from BART, go right onto Montgomery, then an immediate left onto Post, go one block to Kearny and the bus stops will be to your left). If you are staying at Fishermen’s Wharf, or along the water, you’ll want to take the Embarcadero exit, and then you have the option of taking the Muni F line to Fisherman’s Wharf (walk out of the BART station and up to Market Street to catch this line – I highly recommend it!), or the new Muni Metro T line to other points along the Embarcadero (no need to leave the station to catch the T, just head upstairs and go to the underground entrance). All Muni bus/metro trips are $1.50.
When it’s time to go back to the airport, you will head to your nearest BART station, and take the train marked “SFO Airport.” The check-in process in the International terminal takes a little longer than on the domestic side, I found, and it is crowded! There are lots of fun shops prior to security, and there are also several very nice dining options, including a branches of popular City restaurants. The line may not seem too long, but it took me close to 45 minutes to get through. Please make sure to read the latest carry on rules before arriving at the airport; also be aware that in the USA, you need to take your laptop out of its bag and put it in a separate bin, pull out your small bag of liquids, remove your shoes and any jacket/overcoat you have on. It can take a while to get all this done, so the more prepared you are (slip on shoes are a good idea), the quicker you’ll move. Once you have passed security, there is a plethora of duty-free and fancy shops that are worth checking out. They are a fun way to kill some time. You can also grab a bite to eat and drink to carry onto the plane with you.