The least awesome part of a family vacation is usually the airport, second perhaps only to the flight itself. Waiting is not the strong suit of any child we’ve met, so security checkpoints, departure gates, and layovers can make everyone want to cry. But airports are stepping up to provide entertainment for kiddos. San Francisco International Airport provides modern play areas, cool art exhibits, family-friendly lounges and more to take some of the pain out of traveling. Here’s our survival guide for SFO with kids.
Where To Play
After getting past check-in and security, here’s hoping you’re not dashing in a panic to your jet and have a little time to check out SFO’s Kid’s Spots, designed to “allow children to ‘let off steam’ prior to their flights.” The one in terminal 3 is located past the security gate near gate 87A, and features the famous Bay Area weather patterns. The spot in Terminal 2 is located near gates 54A and 58B and is filled with twirling seats, interactive butterflies and a super cool Bird Encounter space with interactive learning and play stations created by Bay Area artists Walter Kitund and Charles Sowers.
If you’re flying internationally or have lots of extra time, head for the Louis A. Turpen Aviation Museum in the International Terminal (open 10am to 4:30pm, closed Saturdays and holidays). Look for the replica of a 1930’s era passenger lobby, lots of old planes and equipment on display, plus a library with reams of aviation history and info.
Courtesy of SFO
Each terminal also has a self-guided tour, and kids who complete the tour can pick up a prize from the Information Desk. The Aquarium in terminal 1 is another a kiddo-friendly airport highlight. Exhibits include From The Tropics: Animals of the Rainforest and Coral Reef.
InMotion Entertainment is a lifesaver if you’ve forgotten video equipment—you might pay a premium, but they carry tablets, chargers, protective cases, headsets, and lots more. Note that as of June, they no longer rent DVDs and players.
Insider Tip: The aviation museum, aquarium, self-guided tours and InMotion Entertainment are all pre-security, so make double sure you have plenty of time to get through the check point before checking out these activities.
Where to Chill
If a calm vibe sounds like a good idea pre-flight, Terminal 1 offers a quiet space in the Christian Science Reading Room, Terminal 2 features a yoga room, and a reflection room can be found in the International Terminal. Since silence is a virtue in these places, parents may have to take turns visiting between tantrums. For a whole-family chill opportunity, all of the waiting areas have free Wi-Fi, charging stations, low tables and wide chairs. Need to nurse a wee one? Every terminal offers a private nursery, with changing tables and family restrooms. Just call from the phone by the door for the access code. Learn more about SFO’s passenger services here.
Where to Eat
Happily, SFO takes after its city namesake and has some of the best eatin’ you’ll find at any airport anywhere, with more than 60 restaurants to choose from. Local restaurants have outposts in various terminals, and many also have kid-friendly options. Cat Cora’s in Terminal 2 near boarding area D and Gate 55 boasts a view of the runway action, which might captivate the littles long enough for parents to splurge on oysters and bubbly. Lucky travelers through Terminal 2 can also feast at The Plant and grab dessert at Pinkberry. You can rely on an Andale Mexican Restaurant in every terminal and there’s even a Buena Vista Cafe outpost in Terminal 3, where you can indulge in one of their famous Irish coffees. Try Lori’s Diner for burgers, fries and breakfast served all day in International and Terminal 3. Yankee Pier in terminal 3 is always good for some good ol’ fish and chips.
If you happen to be traveling on a Thursday afternoon between 11:00 pm and 2:00 pm, head to Terminal 1 on the departures level for food trucks from Off The Grid. Hankering for a sweet treat afterwards? Just Desserts, Embarcadero Treats, Ghirardelli and Natalie’s Candy Jar all offer delicious sweet snacks.
Insider Tip: Don’t forget to fill up your water bottles and sippy cups for the long flight. Be on the lookout for super eco-friendly Hydration Stations, found in all terminals, post-security.
Where To Shop
Desperate for a book or toy? Forgot a baby essential? Or maybe a delay is offering enough time for a mommy and me mani-pedi? Sunset News, SFO News, SFO News Connection, Hudson News and other corner-store-style shops stock baby essentials including diapers, formula, kiddie sized ear plugs, and medicine. Aviator Books and Compass Books have a kid section with classic books, toys and other fun options for tiny fliers. An ExpressSpa in each terminal is perfect for pampering tired travelers. Or browse at the SFMOMA store, Destination Green and Greetings from San Francisco.
San Francisco International Airport
Where is the family flying to next?
—Gabby Gullen and Kristen Philipkoski