Flying To SFO This Summer? Leave Yourself Extra Time

Filed Under: Misc.

If you’re flying in or out of San Francisco’s SFO this summer, you may want to leave yourself more time than usual. According to the airport’s AirTrain Alert, SFO’s AirTrain will be subject to overnight closures through mid-August.

More specifically, the AirTrain will be closed from 8PM to 5AM on Mondays through Fridays, and will operate in an “alternate mode” from 10PM to 5AM on Saturdays and Sundays.

Who does this impact?

SFO’s AirTrain circulates between terminals, and is the main form of transport to the rental car center. It also serves as a people mover for anyone arriving via BART, and provides access to West Field Road (the cargo area – although I rarely see anyone enter or exit here).

So, I imagine this will impact the following people:

  • Anyone transiting between terminals with limited time, or a limited desire to walk
  • Anyone renting a car
  • Travelers and airport employees who take public transit

Bear in mind that the closures are nighttime only, so if you are traveling during daylight hours, you should be fine.

OK, technically this is about 13 miles north of SFO, but it’s much nicer to look at than an AirTrain

What can you expect?

If you’re a daytime passenger, you probably won’t even know the difference. Last week, I had a 7:45AM flight, and when I asked some of my fellow AirTrain passengers about the construction, not only did they not know anything about it, but I don’t think they actually believed me.

If you’re arriving after 8PM or departing on a redeye or other late night flight, then 1) I’m sorry and 2) you’re in for a different experience altogether. In lieu of the trains, SFO is operating intra-terminal buses that will take you around and to the rental car center.

Signage is actually really good – honestly, it’s probably better than the permanent AirTrain signs. But in case you do get lost, you’ll want to work your way to the same area as the hotel shuttles, where you will likely see a crowd of people waiting for the same bus as you.

SFO’s AirTrain Alert website indicates that the buses depart every five minutes from 8PM to 1AM. While their intervals are good, the service isn’t exactly lickety-split, since the busses are fighting SFO’s typical Uber/Lyft/Hotel Shuttle/Passenger pickup and drop-off traffic in between terminals.

It’s probably also worth noting that my bus had more people in it than some CRJ900s – so there’s a good chance that you’ll be standing and practicing your best balancing skills if you arrive on, say, a Friday night.

Drop-off (and presumably pickup) at the rental car center is on the ground level, close to the off-airport rental car shuttles. It’s a bit of a zoo to get to the main rental car desk, which is located on the fourth floor.

At least Hertz Gold Plus Rewards members get door-to-door service.

What should you do?

If you’re departing after 8PM and know that you would normally rely on the AirTrain, I would plan for an extra 20-30 minute buffer, to account for both intra-airport traffic and any potential traffic from the rental car center to the terminal. And hey, if you get there early, there is no shortage of things to do or lounges to explore.

If you’re arriving on a late night flight, the ball isn’t really in your court as far as when the plane lands. That said, you may want to mentally prepare for a functional, if not comfortable, bus ride to your car or transit.

If you’re arriving on a Saturday or Sunday night and are dreading the warning that “only one line may be operational,” you may want to throw an extra sweater or jacket in an easily-accessible bag. “Summer” temperatures in San Francisco often drop to the mid-fifties (Fahrenheit) at night, which is easy to forget if you are coming from a location that has any modicum of humidity.

Finally, if you are traveling from one terminal to another, it may be quicker to walk. All of the terminals are fairly accessible, and you may even be able to cut through a parking lot to get from one side to the other. This interactive map provides a pretty good baseline for how to get around.

Bottom line

While this is far from the end of the world, it can definitely be a nuisance if you’re not prepared. A little bit of extra buffer time can make all the difference between a pleasant experience and an unexpected “cardio day” at the airport.

Have you been impacted by the AirTrain closures at SFO? What have you done to get around the airport?

  1. If you want to take BART to SF downtown from SFO, it is much easier to walk to International Terminal from Terminal 3 (United side). The Bart entry is right there. It happened to me several times recently that I just walked from SFO BART to Terminal 2 via Terminal 3 or vice versa when AirTrain wasn’t running (less than 8 min walk).

  2. Any frequent traveller to SFO knows to avoid AirTrain whenever possible with or without construction. Jeff is right that it is better to just walk to the International Terminal to take BART. The only time necessary is when you are forced to rent a car from SFO, and if you are returning it, it’s better to stay at an airport hotel the night before an early flight as it can take 20 to 25 minutes to return the car and board the AirTrain to a terminal.

  3. I’m here right now. I wish I knew this sooner. I got here last night and it took me 1.5 HOURS JUST TO GET ON TO THE BUS. Also, the driver was extremely rude and our bus was packed to the point that PEOPLE HAD TO HOLD THEIR SUITCASE OVER THEIR HEADS! It’s terrible. Their was also very little busses and the driver stopped at every stop when we were already full. It took 45 Minutes for us on the bus to get from Terminal 1 to the Rental Car Center. Anyone who goes there, leave yourself ample time!!!

  4. I arrived in SFO yesterday night from Florida at around 9:30. One Family from Japan waited 2 hours for the bus since they had 3 pieces of big suitcases and their wasn’t any space. It’s awful.

  5. I arrived from FRA in the evening and rented a car. They direct you to the parking shuttle busses. It was fine… but definitely takes longer as it stopped at several spots before arriving at the rental car center. In summary…. not so bad but definitely an extra 15 – 20 mins and annoying when you arrive on a long haul and expect a quick trip to rental car center.

  6. ““Summer” temperatures in San Francisco often drop to the mid-fifties (Fahrenheit) at night…”

    Thanks for the ‘(Fahrenheit)’ note, Steph. For a second I thought Celsius and was really worried SF got down to a chilly 131F at night.

  7. If it’s too busy just get an Uber/Lyft from the terminal to the rental car center. They pickup on the same level, departures, and the wait is usually 5 minutes.

  8. Other than the car rental area, I really wouldn’t worry about airtrain which you generally shouldn’t bother with anyway. You can walk from the end of terminal 3 all the way to the other end which is the international terminal within 15 to 20 minutes. It’s not that large of an airport. The car rental building is a different story. I wouldn’t recommend walking there in the dark and outdoors. You won’t see anybody else walking. Get lyft instead

  9. What does Hertz gold plus get door to door service mean? Hertz has their own bus? Or a snarky joke I don’t get?

  10. For locals, it’s also a big deal that the upper deck of the short term garage is closed. That’s by far my preferred place to park, because there and the ground floor are the only places where you don’t have to take an elevator to get to the terminal and then another elevator or escalator to get to/from departures. I found that out at 4:30 this morning when arriving for a flight, unfortunately.

  11. This is not a big deal for T3 (UA) passengers, unless they’re renting a car.

    It’s a real problem if you’re a T2 or, especially, a T1 passenger and you need to get to BART or the international terminal. There is currently no walkway from T1 to International, so if you walk, you’re going to have to go all the way around (T1=>T2=>T3=>INT) or shortcut across the parking structure to T3, and then walk to INT.

  12. @Henry – What’s your strategy for getting from RCC to hotels? Uber? I thought about doing this last week but couldn’t bring myself to rally for a late night AirTrain/Hotel Shuttle journey.

  13. @Aaron – You’re probably closer with the second one, but it actually is pretty close to door-to-door. You get dropped off on the ground level right by Hertz pick-up, and Gold Plus Rewards members can bypass the line and go straight to the cars. No snark intended, just a nice silver lining after an otherwise frustrating arrival experience.

  14. Seriously though If you’re going between T1/T3 any combo. You’d essentially never take the Airtrain except maybe if disabled or elderly for T1 all the way to T3.

    And yes you wouldn’t normally do it for T3 to International either. So this really limits impact to few travelers not renting cars.

    And if you’re going to SF proper for God’s Sake don’t rent a car. Parking is insane and expensive at hotels. Uber /Lyft are everywhere. There are ways to go wine country’ even

  15. “easy to forget if you are coming from a location that has any modicum of humidity”

    We have plenty of humidity.. we just call it fog and watch tourists walk around in cheesy sweatshirts that some gift shop in Fisherman’s Wharf overcharged them on.

    Seriously though, if you visit SF anytime of year, bring layers and carry them on you. Even days where it does get warm, you’ll notice locals carrying jackets with them, as the fog can roll in very quickly in the afternoon/early evening. Weather reports are vague estimates, and don’t reliably predict the fog, and the entire region is filled with microclimates where the temp can change 10f in a mile.

  16. @Steph .. if starting or ending my trip at SFO, I pick up and/or drop off my Hertz rental car at SFO Hyatt. It’s an unstaffed location, but they just leave the keys/contact at the front desk and there’s a lockbox to drop the keys and contract at the Concierge Desk. This usually works smoothly but I’ve had an occasional issue or two doing this over the years.

    There’s also a Hertz at SFO Marriott and some other standalone locations in that area.


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