The least expensive airfares to San Francisco are priced for round-trip travel and should be purchased in advance. Airlines generally allow you to change your return date for a fee; most low-fare tickets, however, are nonrefundable. (But if you cancel, you can usually apply the fare to a future trip, within one year, to any destination the airline flies.)
Nonstop flights from New York to San Francisco take about 5½ hours, and with the 3-hour time change, it's possible to leave JFK by 8 am and be in San Francisco by 10:30 am. Some flights may require a midway stop, making the total excursion between 8 and 9½ hours. Nonstop times are approximately 1½ hours from Los Angeles, 3 hours from Dallas, 4½ hours from Chicago, 4½ hours from Atlanta, 11 hours from London, 12 hours from Auckland, and 13½ hours from Sydney.
The major gateway to San Francisco is San Francisco International Airport (SFO), 15 miles south of the city. It's off U.S. 101 near Millbrae and San Bruno.
Oakland International Airport (OAK) is across the bay, not much farther away from downtown San Francisco (via I–80 east and I–880 south), but rush-hour traffic on the Bay Bridge may lengthen travel times considerably.
San Jose International Airport (SJC) is about 40 miles south of San Francisco; travel time depends largely on traffic flow, but plan on 1½ hours with moderate traffic.
Depending on the price difference, you might consider flying into Oakland or San Jose. Oakland's an easy-to-use alternative, because there's public transportation between the airport and downtown San Francisco. Getting to San Francisco from San Jose, though, can be time-consuming and costly via public transportation. Heavy fog is infamous for causing chronic delays into and out of San Francisco.
From San Francisco International Airport
Transportation signage at the airport is color-coded by type and is quite clear. A taxi ride to downtown costs around $60; rideshare companies like Lyft and Uber are a popular option and start around $25 for a shared ride into the city. Airport shuttles are inexpensive and generally efficient. Lorrie's Airport Service and SuperShuttle both stop at the lower level near baggage claim and take you anywhere within the city limits of San Francisco. They charge around $17 each way, depending on where you're going. Lorrie's also sells tickets online; you can print them out before leaving home.
Shuttles to the East Bay, such as BayPorter Express, depart from a lot near the lower level; expect to pay between $38 and $47. Inquire about the number of stops a shuttle makes en route to or from the airport; some companies, such as East Bay Shuttle, have nonstop service, but they cost a bit more. Marin Door to Door operates van service to Marin County starting at $40 for the first passenger, and $12 for each additional person. Marin Airporter buses cost $22 (cash only) and require no reservations but stop only at designated stations in Marin; buses leave every 30 minutes, on the half hour and hour, from 5 am to midnight.
You can take BART directly to downtown San Francisco; the trip takes about 30 minutes and costs less than $9. (There are both manned booths and vending machines for ticket purchases.) Trains leave from the international terminal every 15 or 20 minutes, depending on the day or time.
Another inexpensive way to get to San Francisco (though not as convenient as BART) is via two SamTrans buses: No. 292 (50 minutes) and the KX (35 minutes). Fares are $2.25 from SFO, $4 to SFO. Board the SamTrans buses on the lower level.
To drive to downtown San Francisco from the airport, take U.S. 101 north to the Civic Center/9th Street, 7th Street, or 4th Street/Downtown exits. If you're headed to the Embarcadero or Fisherman's Wharf, take I–280 north (the exit is to the right, just north of the airport, off U.S. 101) and get off at the 4th Street/King Street exit. King Street becomes the Embarcadero a few blocks east of the exit. The Embarcadero winds around the waterfront to Fisherman's Wharf.
From Oakland International Airport
A taxi to downtown San Francisco costs around $80; rideshare companies like Lyft and Uber offer rides for around $50. BayPorter Express and other shuttles serve major hotels and provide door-to-door service to the East Bay and San Francisco. SuperShuttle operates vans to San Francisco and Oakland. Marin Door to Door serves Marin County for $50 for the first passenger, and $12 for each additional person.
The best way to get to San Francisco via public transit is to take BART, which is free upon boarding but requires ticket purchase at the Coliseum/Oakland International Airport BART station (BART fares vary depending on where you're going; the ride to downtown San Francisco from here costs $10.20).
If you're driving from Oakland International Airport, take Airport Drive east to I–880 north to I–80 west over the Bay Bridge. This will likely take at least an hour.
From San Jose International Airport
A taxi to downtown San Jose costs about $20 to $25; a trip to San Francisco runs about $150 to $165. Rideshare companies like Lyft and Uber offer rides to downtown San Jose starting around $12; a trip to San Francisco starts around $55.
To drive to downtown San Jose from the airport, take Airport Boulevard east to Route 87 south. To get to San Francisco from the airport, take Route 87 south to I–280 north. The trip will take roughly two hours.
At $9.75 for a one-way ticket, there’s no question that Caltrain provides the most affordable option for traveling between San Francisco and San Jose's airport. However, the Caltrain station in San Francisco at 4th and Townsend Streets isn’t in a conveniently central location. It's on the eastern side of the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood and not easily accessible by other public transit. You'll need to take a taxi or walk from the nearest bus line. From San Francisco it takes 90 minutes and costs $9.75 to reach the Santa Clara Caltrain station, from which a free shuttle runs every 15 minutes (every 30 minutes on nights and weekends), whisking you to and from the San Jose International Airport in 15 minutes.