As my corny title page implies, we did indeed leave (and arrive) by BART. This light rail system is by far your quickest and most economical way between downtown and San Francisco International. Depending on what terminal you arrive at, the station is just a few minutes walk or a short ride on AirTrain, the airport's free shuttle system. Here is a map with SFO BART station location:
Traveling from the airport, buy your ticket with cash or credit card from an automated machine at the station for (at time of this writing) $8.10 pp, one way, to stations in downtown area. Once you have your ticket, insert it in a turnstyle to access the platform and retrieve your ticket when it pops it out again - you'll need this again to exit the station at your desired location! Find the platform for the Pittsburg/Baypoint inbound line or one labeled "To San Francisco" - it should be clearly marked or ask one of the helpful people at a station kiosk. The platforms serve multiple lines so listen for audio announcements for when your specific train will be arriving. There should be others waiting for the same train so again, ask if you're not sure you have the right one.
Trains run every 15-20 minutes and it'll take about 30-35 minutes to reach one of several stations in the downtown area. When arriving at your station, exit through the turnstyles by inserting your ticket (it'll keep it this time) and take elevator, stairs or escalator to street level. If going to SFO airport from downtown, reverse the above process using Pittsburg/Baypoint/SFO outbound line. You can also access the Oakland airport via BART.
Station lists, timetables, fare finder to all BART locations in the bay area and other info can be found on BART website (below).
Still confused? Here's a nice article describing more detail on using BART (note: fares are outdated):
One little negative: trains do not run 24/7 so if you have a very early or very late flight, you'll need to use a different form of transportation.
In a series of BART station reviews, I provide examples of destinations and activites that can be take from those stations, as well as the connecting MUNI transport services. For those with limited time in the city, Glen Park could be a good stop. Glen Park is one of the first stops off BART on the south side of the city, with only Balboa Park being closer to the SFO city limits. The station interior is mostly unfinished concrete but the skylight roof creates a pleasant urban ambiance. Leaving Glen Park Station itself on foot is no great shakes because the neighborhood is quite near the 280 freeway, but just outside one can quickly find the #23 Monterey MUNI Bus which will wind it's way over the residential ridges south of Mt. Davidson to 19th and West Portal where there's a relatively quiet little business district with a row of great restaurants, good bookstores, and pleasant coffeeshops. Here, the average tourist visiting the city is rarely found (see my tip on West Portal). The upscale St. Francis Wood neighborhood is also here (see my tip on St. Francis Wood). The single family homes hugging the hillsides in this part of town are mostly early 20th century Mission Revival type homes with tile trim and rounded doorway lintels. Continuing from West Portal District, take Sloat Avenue west to Stern Grove (see Stern Grove tip), San Francisco State University, the San Francisco Zoo, and eventually Ocean Beach. This western side is the foggiest corner of the city. While these aren't considered "must see" places in SF, for those who have been to the city exploring this corner of the city will still rival the interest value of most American cities. Incidentally, at 19th and West Portal, one will find a line of the MUNI Rail system, which can be taken through the Twin Peaks Tunnel to the Castro District, creating a reasonable loop of sorts for those without a rental car.
BART is a godsend to us in the Bay Area. But it is important to realize that BART is primarily designed for commuters - it is a great way to get TO San Francisco, but of only limited use in getting AROUND it. As you'll see by looking at your map, BART doesn't serve anywhere north of Market Street - where virtually all of SF's tourist attractions are.
The only way to get to the Golden Gate Bridge is by bus. Fisherman's Wharf and North Beach are accessable by Cable Car, but the bus is faster, cheaper and less confusing. Chinatown and Union Square can be reached with a short walk from a BART station.
As as alternative (or, more likely, supplement) to BART, check out MUNI's metro system, which is a much better way to get around the city. You can reach the Haight/Ashbury, Golden Gate Park, the Castro, and the beach using the metro. Unfortunately, the Mission Street area is not directly served by MUNI light rail, but it is by BART.
The BART is one of those many world wide subway systems that does not run all night. This is always the one thing that upsets me most when I travel. But it is a decent system that they do try to expand. I don't know the latest but I can tell you that there were/are plans to complete the loop. You can travel all the way out to Danville or down to the Milpitas area. Both airports are now connected. And most lines will get you into and out of the city.
BART has construction plans to extend lines out east as far as Antioch, Brentwood, and Livermore, and south to San Jose via the Fremont line. These extensions will make BART an even better service than it is now. As others have stressed many times, BART is a good deal in terms of American transportation economics. From the end of the Blue Line at the Pleasanton Station, the average automobile will take at least an hour, assuming no traffic jam, and pay a $5- Bay Bridge toll. A Round Trip, per person, BART ticket to the Embarcadero Station in San Francisco is currently (Feb 2012) only $10.80, payable with either cash or credit/debit card. For not a lot more, one can ride all the way to the airport---beating all the airport shuttle prices. The price of parking alone in the city or at the airport will easily persuade visitors that BART is a good deal. The long-term airport parking at the BART parking stations are a particularly good value over private concession parking near the airport. When returning to the East Bay destinations though, be sure to check which train you are on. You may need to transfer at one of the Oakland stations, and in some cases, back track. But, don't worry, you don't have to pay extra if you make a mistake as long as you don't leave the station. The busiest transfer stations are the Balboa Park, Powell Street, MacArthur, and Bay Fair, so choosing another transfer station can be a good idea to avoid passenger congestion. As others have written, be careful of the parking lots at night, but all lots have video surveillance and BART police patrol, and in general, BART is very safe. See my combined transport for recommended routes in the city itself.
BART is fantastic, really easy to use and effecient. Tickets are sold from automatic despensers with easy to read price destinations. Locals are very freindly and willing to help visitors find their way. Getting into San Francisco from the Oakland airport was very easy and quick. Avoid BART at night, it can be a little scary. Read my danger tip.
The BART is one of the easiest and best ways of getting into SF from the airport and to the surrounding areas.
The BART system runs on a mileage based forumla. Your starting and ending points will determine your fair. There are vending machines throughout the stations that take cash, coins and some machines take credit and debit cards.
The fare tickets are cards with stored values in them and at the end of your trip, will be deducted upon your exit.
Usually I am picked up at the airport by my friends, but if I am traveling with a companion on a short mileage run, the B.A.R.T. was always our form on getting into downtown San Francisco fast, easy and very cheaply.
Just be mindful that the BART stops service about 12:00am and doesn't resume until about 6:00 a.m. Recently we were forced to pay an exhuborent fare on a taxi to our hotel because our flight was delayed and we arrived to late for the BART.
For more information, schedules, times and prices, visit their website.
BART is a decent enough service for getting around a lot of parts of the Bay Area. It serves part of SF, part of East Bay, about halfway down the Peninsula. It doesn't go to San Jose (yet) and it will never go to Marin County. It certainly beats driving into the city and having to park your car in some place where you might not come back with a driver side window, like, say, the Mission District.
BART has seen better days and is in need of an upgrade. The interior is getting a bit shabby, the trains don't always run on time, and the rails screech a lot. However, it generally works (when workers are not on strike), and it is much cheaper than taking a cab or parking.
Build in some extra time for waiting for Bart, waiting for it to leave the station, and the time it takes to get from point A to point B. Overall, well worth it. Combined with other mass transit systems, like Caltrain, Muni and Golden Gate Transit, you can pretty much get around to a lot of places in the Bay Area without a car.
Since there was a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station just down the street from our hotel, we used it to travel from the San Francisco airport to downtown San Francisco. It was very easy to find the BART station at the airport by following the signs, and the trip to the Powell St. station (near Union Square) took about 30 minutes. Trains run roughly every 20 minutes between 6:00 am and 1:00 am. Tickets cost $8.10 each way, which is by far the cheapest option for traveling to downtown SF from the airport.
Why pay 40USD or 50USD to get to San Francisco by taxi when it will cost you much less by taking B.A.R.T or the Bay Area Rapid Transit system. You'll get there in less than half an hour and don't worry because the trains are spacious enough for your luggage. Trains do run frequently so there is no issue there. B.A.R.T travels all over the Bay area and can get you to wherever you are going.
Take the air train from whichever terminal you arrive in to the B.A.R.T station. You'll have to buy your ticket from a machine (there are no clerks you can buy your ticket from). There are price listings with the station names that show you what to pay above the machine. I paid 8.10USD per person from SFO to the Powell St. station. A return ticket cost me 16.20USD per person
You must stamp your tickets both when entering and leaving the B.A.R.T station.
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