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San Francisco Airport: The Ultimate 3 to 6 Hour SFO Layover Guide

Long layovers are usually not something you look forward to. But when it comes to San Francisco International Airport (SFO), you might just be in for a surprise.

Situated on the West Bank of the incredibly gorgeous San Fransisco Bay, south of downtown SF and north of San Mateo, SFO International Airport is brilliantly located.

In fact, SFO has one of the best airport locations in the US! And this makes for awesome longer layovers – whether you prefer staying at the airport or are feeling a bit more adventurous.

Longer layover than 6 hours? Check out: San Francisco: The Ultimate Overnight Layover Guide & Top 5 Local Activities

My other Ultimate Airport Layover Guides: ATL | AMS | JFK | SEA | LAS | ATH | CDG | LHR | and more!

What to do inside the airport at San Francisco International (SFO) during a long layover

San Francisco International Airport (SFO) is a great place to spend a 3, 4, 5, or 6 hour layover.
San Francisco International Airport is truly a piece of art. It’s a great airport to admire – and an even better one to enjoy a long layover. [Photo: Håkan Dahlström (CC BY-2.0)]

SFO is an intrinsically beautiful airport, inside and out. Where do you think all those California tax dollars end up?

This means SFO is actually a great place to spend a couple hours – even if you never actually leave the airport premises.

Between lounges, food trucks, walkways, observation decks, and more, SFO International Airport won’t leave you feeling bored on a layover.

Take a hike: SFO is big (and mostly walkable!)

Those looking to get their steps in on a long layover at San Francisco International Airport may be dismayed by the lack of space inside the terminals. It gets crowded in there.

However, those willing to exit the secure zone will find plenty of there’s plenty walking to be had. Each of the 3 terminals is situated on a loop, with pedestrian walkways connecting them.

Use this interactive map to plan your trek! Note that construction at Terminal 1 may limit access to those pathways.

Tip: On most days, there are food trucks parked outside some of the terminals - with wonderful international (usually Latin and Mediterranean) food at non-airport prices.

Use your layover at SFO to do some yoga

Using your airport layover to unwind? I know that’s unheard of. But at San Francisco, it’s totally possible, thanks to a Yoga room.

Located between Terminal 1 C Gates and Terminal 2 D Gates, and totally free of charge, the Yoga room isn’t heavily used and totally provides for a great relaxing experience on any long layover at SFO.

Go airplane spotting

The observation deck at SFO is a great place to spend a couple hours on a layover.
A gorgeous Delta Boeing 757-200 lands at San Francisco International. The observation deck is a wonderful place to enjoy the magic of flying – while getting some fresh air. [Photo: Bill Abbott (CC BY-2.0)]

As an airline pilot, spotting airplanes is one of my favorite activities. And for anyone looking to pass time in an interesting way, you’re in luck.

SFO offers an observation dock – called the “SkyTerrace” right in Terminal 2. It’s situated outside security, and is a great way to get some fresh air while having some fun.

Highly recommended.

Lounge out and relax, SFO has you covered

Lounges at SFO are a great place to spend a couple hours. The Centurion lounge by Amex is the perfect example.
American Express Centurion lounges are known for their immaculate details, delicious food, intricate drinks, and amenities. Photo: Dion Hinchcliffe (CC BY-SA2.0)

Sporting over 20 lounges, SFO offers something for everyone.

Those with Priority Pass would be remiss to skip some of the lounges they can access for free. These include the:

  • Air France/KLM Lounge
  • Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse

While both of the above are located in the international terminal, those with an Amex Platinum will be ecstatic to find they can access:

  • The Centurion Lounge in terminal 3
  • If flying Delta, the Delta SkyClub in terminal 2

Other lounges in SFO offer day passes for purchase. These include:

  • The Alaska lounge in Terminal 2 ($50)
  • American Admirals lounge in Terminal 1 ($59)
  • The United Club in Terminal 3 ($59)

There are 15 other lounges – mainly airline specific for those flying business/first class. Most are located in the international terminal.

Right now, PriorityPass is offering up to 25% off yearly memberships, bringing the yearly price down to only $64. In just two lounge visits, you are already ahead vs. paying for one-time access. Just one if you bring a guest!

Take a nap

The Grand Hyatt SFO Airport provides day rooms, which are a fantastic way to rest over a longer layover.
From the World of Hyatt website, every reason why the Grand Hyatt is the perfect place for a nap at SFO Airport.

If you’re in between long flights, or just feeling a little sleepy, head to the Grand Hyatt SFO, easily accessible by AirTrain.

The Grand Hyatt is only two stops from Terminal 1/International. The AirTrain departs every 4 minutes, so it should not take you longer than 10 minutes each way between the terminal and the hotel.

According to the hotel website, you can “reserve a microstay at a special day-use rate to enjoy hotel benefits without staying overnight. Our day-use rooms are the perfect solution for fly-in, fly-out conferences and daytime layovers. Enjoy access to our massage suite, fitness center, restaurant, bar, and room service. “

This makes it an attractive stop for those who want a nap, shower, or just a quick refresh. I can’t blame you for that.

Spending your layover exploring around & outside San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

Burlingame is the closest town to SFO Airport and is actually a fantastic town to visit on any short layover.
Nearby Burlingame makes an attractive town to spend your SFO 4-6 hour layover. With plenty of restaurants, bars, and walking trails, you’ll be sure to stay entertained. [Photo: Javelinca (CC BY-SA4.0)]

Sometimes, all you need is a breath of fresh air.

SFO’s ideal location right on the bay, surrounded by waterfront walkways, restaurants, and epic views, means a long layover there is something you can actually enjoy. Some of the must-sees near SFO airport for a layover include:

  • Downtown Burlingame, for a great meal or quick drink
  • The Bayfront Walkways and “SFO Airplane Spotting Points”, with miles of waterside walking paths and epic bay views
  • Coyote Point, San Mateo: where you feel like you’re in pure wilderness – mere miles from SFO airport

But what is the best way to get to those wonderful walkways and restaurants and parks? Well, there are several.

The best ways to get from the terminal at SFO International Airport to the San Mateo waterfront area

Coyote Point in San Mateo is an amazingly beautiful place to get some steps in on your next SFO layover.
Coyote Point, San Mateo is easily accessible even on a short SFO layover and makes for a great way to get some fresh air. [Photo: Sandip Bhattacharya (CC BY-2.0)]

Unfortunately, there is no real way to walk from the terminal to the surrounding area like you can in Washington DCA. But it’s still super easy and cheap to leave the airport for a couple hours. Here’s how:

1) Take a hotel shuttle to an airport hotel

The Hilton SFO Airport shuttle runs on a continuous loop, making a great option to explore the area around the airport even on a short layover.
The Hilton San Francisco Airport shuttle runs on a continuous loop, so you shouldn’t have to wait too long for a ride from SFO. [Photo: Thank You (23 Millions+), CC BY2.0]

Most SFO airport hotels are located on or near the waterfront and are great access points. These hotels run shuttles every 15-30 minutes, and you can follow signs from baggage claim to the “Hotel Shuttles” area.

I’ve had great luck with the Crowne Plaza and Hyatt Regency hotels.

It’s a great courtesy to give the van driver a $1-2 tip. Much cheaper than an Uber!

2) Ride on the BART

The SFO AirTrain Blue Line, getting you to the BART station so you can continue further downtown or to San Mateo.
The AirTrain provides super convenient access to the BART for public transportation all around the San Francisco Bay Area.

BART, or the Bay Area Rapid Transit, is the local metro train and bus system with convenient service all around the city.

  • You can ride the AirTrain down to the BART station. From here, take the red Line to Millbrae, which is the first stop (about 5 minutes from the airport). Walk directly east towards the water to find the awesome waterfront walkway. This will cost around $4.85 each way.
  • If you have more time, you can take the red line all the way to San Mateo, which is about 15 minutes further. This will set you back around $9 each way.

Alternately if you have a longer layover, you’ll find convenient access all the way to downtown San Francisco. You can get from the airport BART station to the Embarcadero in downtown San Francisco in about 30 minutes.

3) Take an Uber or Lyft

For those pressed for time but still looking to grab some fresh air and get some exercise, taking an Uber or Lyft is another great option to explore the area around SFO International Airport.

The rideshare area is located in the parking garages across from the terminals. You’ll need to access a bridge over from the top level of the terminal.

Rideshares from SFO are very expensive. You can expect to pay $30+ for a 15 minute ride towards San Mateo.

4) Take the bus

The 292 sanTrans from SFO Airport is a convenient way to get to the waterfront area just south of the airport.
The sanTrans 292 bus to and from San Francisco International Airport is another option to get exploring the surrounding area conveniently. [Photo: mliu92 (CC BY-SA2.0)]

There are also convenient public bus options for as low as $2.25.

  • Take the 292 line towards Hillsdale Mall. Get off at Bayshore Hwy & Mitten Rd, or further if you choose.
  • The bus picks up and drops off from the lower level.

5) Rent a car

The Rental Car Center at SFO is located right on the AirTrain line, and provides access to a ton of rental companies.

Last time I rented a car at SFO, I only paid about $35 – far less than Uber or Lyft would cost anywhere from the airport.

My preference on a short layover is to rent with Hertz, as Gold Members can hop in any vehicle and drive off without waiting. It’s super handy and convenient.

Make sure to plan enough time to go through security at SFO

As much fun as you’re having on your layover, make sure to plan some time in there to head back through security!

Quickest way through security at SFO: CLEAR

For those looking to maximize their layover and minimize time through security, the best option is to enroll in CLEAR. Although TSA PreCheck is a decent option, it’s become overwhelmed with travelers. However, CLEAR is the only system that I’ve never seen with a line. Plus, it’s touchless.

TSA PreCheck and Normal TSA Security Wait Times at SFO

Lines at SFO vary tremendously, so it’s important to plan in 30-60 minutes of time going through security. If you’re not checked in for your flight, or you have to re-check some baggage, plan some time for that too.

Typically, lines at SFO aren’t very long. On average, wait time is about 15 minutes. However, it’s best to be prudent and plan extra time.

There’s so much you can do on your 3, 4, 5, or 6 hour layover at SFO

There are so many ways to spend a 3, 4, 5, or 6 hour layover at San Francisco International Airport (SFO).
SFO International Airport truly is one of the nicest airports to have a 3-6 hour layover. You may even want to book one on purpose! [Photo: zoxcleb (CC BY-SA2.0)]

As you can see, there’s no way to get bored on a long layover at SFO – whether you stay inside the airport or venture out to the wonderful surrounding area.

If you have an even longer layover, say 8 hours, I would probably make the trek all the way to downtown San Francisco. It’s actually my favorite city in the entire United States, one I spend a lot of time exploring. Here’s everything I do on my overnight layovers/day trips to San Fransisco.

If you’re continuing onto Seattle, make sure to read: Seattle, Washington: 10 BEST Things On a Short Layover. That’s probably my second favorite city in the US!

Safe travels, and enjoy your layover at SFO!

As an affiliate with Hertz, PriorityPass, and Hotels.com, I may receive a commission (at zero cost to you) if you click some links provided in this article and make a purchase. This is what keeps this website running.

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