SFO Airport BART Guide
This guide presents a detailed step-by-step directions to riding San Francisco's subway or "BART" trains right from San Francisco (SFO) airport to the heart of downtown San Francisco's Union Square.
You’ve just arrived at SFO after a long flight. It may be tempting to grab your baggage and then grab a taxicab to your San Francisco hotel. Don’t give in to that temptation. Taking a taxicab from the airport to hotels in San Francisco is a pricey indulgence and it’s not at all necessary since you can easily take public transportation to your Union Square hotel. Many travelers who are coming to San Francisco for the first time are afraid that they’ll get lost trying to use the city’s BART system to get around but the system is easy to learn and can save a lot of the cost of transportation.
From the baggage claim area of SFO, you should follow the signs to the Air Train and BART. The signage in the airport is clearly marked with both of these destinations and arrows pointing you in the right direction. You’ll be heading upstairs to the Air Train. When you arrive there, there will be two air tram lines – red and blue. You can take either of these lines to the BART station but you’ll see from the signage above the lines that the red line is marked for BART. That’s because this line will get you there more quickly than the blue line will. Enter the air train and take it from your terminal to the BART terminal. It is called Terminal G but is also clearly marked as the BART terminal. This will be 1-3 stops from your starting point depending on which terminal you were in when you got on to the tram.
When you arrive at the BART terminal, you will need to purchase your BART ticket. This is done from the machines which are located right at the exit off the tram. On each machine, a paper is posted with the updated rates of a BART ticket showing what it costs to ride from your current location to various destinations throughout the Bay Area. The stop that you’ll be getting off at will be the Powell Street Station so this is the destination you’ll want to look for on the rate sheet. At the time of this writing, it costs $5.15 to travel from SFO to the Powell Street Station.
To purchase the ticket, follow the instructions on the BART ticket machine. You will either insert cash or insert your ATM or credit card. The BART machine will give you a ticket amount; for example, if you insert a $20 bill, it will ask if you want to purchase a $20 BART ticket. You can reduce the amount of the ticket in increments of $1 or $0.05 by selecting the proper buttons on the BART ticket machine. (There is a button for “subtract $1” and a separate button for “subtract $0.05”.) Reduce the ticket down to the desired ticket amount.
If you are purchasing more than one ticket, you can do so separately using this same purchasing method. Alternatively, you can purchase two tickets at once. On the right hand column of the choices on the BART screen, you will see the option to buy one ticket of that price or to buy two tickets at half price. (For example, if you inserted $20, you can see that it gives the option to purchase 1 $20 ticket or 2 $10 tickets.) Once you have your tickets in hand, you will proceed throughout the turnstiles. Insert your ticket into any turnstile that has a green arrow. Your ticket will pop back up and you will grab it and then the turnstile will open to allow you entry. If you have any problems at all, a BART attendant will be available at the BART information booth.
Follow the escalator down to the BART station. There should only be one direction that you can head from this point. The signage will read that you are headed to San Francisco and the East Bay. If you have somehow mistakenly ended up on the side of the station that says you are heading to Millbrae, you’ll need to take the escalator back upstairs and head down the escalator in the opposite direction.
When the BART train arrives, let it come to a complete stop. Let anyone who might be exiting the BART train get off before you get on. Then you can get on the BART train yourself and find a seat. Don’t hesitate; an announcement will be made that the BART doors are closing and you’ll need to get on immediately. Take any seat and place your luggage in front of you. There will be seats that are clearly marked right by all doors for those people with disabilities as well as for the elderly. If these seats are open, you may sit in them but you’ll need to give them up if you see an elderly or disabled person get on the train.
Otherwise, just sit and wait until your stop arrives. The ride from SFO to Union Square will take about thirty minutes. The stops are announced as you approach them. There are also dark brown signs with white lettering on the walls at each arrival point so you can see where you are. Keep your eyes and ears out for the two stations before yours – the 16th Street Mission Station and then the Civic Center Station. This way, you’ll be prepared to get out when your turn arrives. Your station, The Powell Street Station, is the one following the Civic Center Station. If you see that you have reached the Montgomery Street Station or the Embarcadero Station, you’ve gone too far. If this happens, simply get out of the BART at this stop, cross to the opposite side of the station and take the BART train back to Powell Street Station. This won’t cost you any additional money.
When you arrive at the Powell Street Station, exit the BART train. Take the escalators upstairs. You will need to take your BART ticket and insert it into the turnstile to exit. This is because BART is priced by distance; the ticket records at which stop you entered BART and at which stop you are leaving. Look for any turnstile with a green arrow and insert it, wait for it to pop back up, grab it and then go through the turnstile. You are done riding BART. Now you’re ready to get to Union Square.
You’ll need to exit the BART station by taking the escalators up to street level. Look for the exit that lets you out near the Visitor’s Center and Cable Car Coffee Shop. At the Powell Street Station is an entrance into the Westfield Shopping Center. Look to this as your landmark and then look across the station and you will see the exit that you want. When you are facing the Cable Car Café, the escalators to street level will be on your right hand side. When you get to the top of the escalator, you should see the cable car turnaround. You will be located at the intersection of Market Street and Powell Street.
Walk away from Market Street, up Powell Street, in the same direction that the cable cars will be going. You will be able to see hotels, department stores and restaurants along both sides of Powell Street. Walk four or five blocks up and you will see Union Square on your right side. Powell Street is the street which makes up the west side of Union Square. Geary Street and Sutter Street will be the intersecting streets making up its south and north borders respectively. From here, you can proceed on to your San Francisco hotel. If you get lost at any time, follow Powell Street and the cable car line back to the BART station and Visitor’s Center where someone will be able to assist you.
Key BART San Francisco Airport Stats:
- Average time between trains: 15 minutes
- Average time SFO Airport to Downtown: 30 minutes
- Typical Taxi Fare with 20% Tip: $60
- BART Fare from SFO Airport to Downtown: Under $6
- Official BART Site for Detailed Schedules
- Great Things to Do Near BART
By: Kathryn Vercillo, Copyright JL7 Ventures LLC