On my fourth flight with Baby M. and my first one with out Daddy I was feeling brave. Bold even. I knew we had this down, and thanks to the support of services like Clear, airlines like Virgin America and my well-oiled security line routine, I figured the trip would be a breeze. I was totally and completely wrong.
So apparently this thing happens every now and then when people see a stroller: they freak out. I haven't experienced this but I will presume its fear of messing something up for the baby that causes them to become complete quivering blobs who don't want to have anything to do with said baby. So they do nothing at all. Which was the case when I arrived at curbside check-in ready to drop off my bag and sail through security. Instead the outside agent would not take my bag—because I had a stroller. He said he couldn't check me in, and while I hadn't tried checked in curbside with an infant before, I couldn't and still can't imagine why he couldn't help us. It threw a serious kink in my plans. Still, I was at the airport early enough that I went inside to drop my bag with an agent. Except in a perfect storm of cluster-f*ckery, there were only a few agents working, three of them helping one distraught woman, two of them helping a guy I'm pretty sure was drunk at 9:30am, and one more for the rest of us. There were a ton of us. As I watched the minutes tick by I went from being on time to late, to finally being told I was not going to make my flight. And the next one was not for 6 hours.
Magically a Virgin manager appeared to assist us. He and the counter agent acknowledged I should have never been sent inside in the first place and they confirmed me on the next flight AND gave me a free voucher for lunch. What they did not do was bend the time-space continuum so I did not have to kill six hours in an airport with a few-months old baby in a big stroller and no Daddy.
Still, I did what any smart mama would do. I decided to blog about it. And my loss is your gain because I spent those six hours scouring SFO to figure out what you need to know when you're traveling in and out of this fine airport with a baby. We pounded terminal pavement, ate, nursed, napped, went outside, relaxed, and had a great time. I'm not saying I want to live in an airport, but if I had to, this would be it.
The Bay Area is blessed with a large number of transportation options that can get you and your family to and from SFO:
BART: When not on strike, BART is a great way to get to the airport. Before I had a baby this was my preferred way to go, especially when I was already in downtown San Francisco. If you're connecting from MUNI, CalTrain, or even East Bay ferries, once you get on BART you rarely have to change trains until you get to the terminal. From there you can walk or take AirTrain to your terminal. If you're able to travel light enough to navigate your child(ren) and your luggage, this is a great option, keeping in mind that BART escalators and elevators are frequently out of service. Plan ahead.
Uber: If you live in the area you may already be familiar with Uber to get around town in style. It isn't the cheapest deal but having a car and driver arrive at your door and deliver you to the terminal in towncar comfort is awesome. Even better, Uber is offering $30 off the first trip for new customers with the code ThanksSF--use by Dec 1. (This is also a great option to get your family from the airport to your door if you don't want to pick them up).
Parking: If you drive yourself, SFO has several options for parking: short term/valet, long term, and off-airport. The prices vary widely-plan to arrive early enough to choose where you want to park so you don't end up in short-term ($36/day) when you want long-term ($18/day). Another benefit is that all SFO parking garages accept FastTrak for payment, so you don't have to worry about digging through your bags at the end of your trip to pay when you just want to get on the road. There are also several off-airport garages that often have online coupons available, so if you have time to research those can be good options as well.
If you've arrived at the airport early perhaps you have some time to kill before going through the security line. On my trip I didn't want to spend six hours browsing the same shops in Terminal 2, so we waited and explored the pre-security sections before going through. I discovered a few gems that parents need to know about:
The Nurseries: Positioned strategically throughout the airport are several nurseries, basically locked private rooms with a sink, changing table and a rocker. These things are a godsend in what is otherwise a noisy, brightly lit place, perfect for feeding and changing an easily distracted baby. Simply look for the sign and call the number listed on the door on the nearby airport phone for the entry code. My only complaint is the piped-in muzak is actually a little bit loud and kept M. from falling asleep. Otherwise the airport nursery is my new favorite thing. The airport's online map shows 14 nurseries, so be sure to ask the information desk to point you to the closest one.
The Reflection Room: Or the poor man's airport lounge, as I like to call it. This is a quiet space for reflection in the airport's main hall. It's easy to forget that many people have to travel for stressful reasons, and this is a perfect place to get out of the hustle-bustle of the airport and gather your thoughts. I only came in when my daughter was asleep to ensure we didn't disturb any actual reflecting, and the whole time we were there I saw a total of 4 other people. Given that most airline clubs don't allow children there aren't many places for a family to go and relax. If the kiddies are quiet this is an option.
Freshen Up: Also in the main hall, this is actually the store connected to the airport's showers. They sell single diapers, wipes and other baby needs, and if God-forbid you have a blowout situation you can even bathe your babe.
The Aviation Museum: If your kids are a little older or you're an aviation buff yourself, the museum in the airport is a really cool stop. While we were there they had an exhibit of classic flight crew uniforms, and several huge old plane parts are on display, like propellers and engines.
Let the fun begin! I have one word where airport security is concerned: Clear. Its the service that allows you to flash your card, scan your thumb, skip the line and proceed directly to the metal detector, cutting in front of everyone else with the TSA's permission. Your fellow travelers will wonder what just happened, they may even grumble, but pay them no mind. Since this wasn't around when I was a frequent business traveler I figured it wouldn't be of much use to me, but now that I have a child I'll take any excuse to shorten the security process. Clear isn't cheap so if you only fly once a year its probably not worth it, but three or more flights seem to justify the cost, and you can often find coupons online. I bought three months of the service for my family with a Travelzoo voucher, and when it was time to renew we didn't hesitate. SFO is one of several airports in the US that accept the service and more are coming on all the time.
If you don't use this service you still have some options—at a non-Clear airport I simply asked the TSA agent (not the one checking IDs but another one standing nearby) which was the best aisle for my stroller. Completely unexpectedly he led us to the shortest line and had another agent help me get everything organized for the metal detector. Since then I always ask for the agent's suggestion and it seems to help. SFO always seems to have very organized lines, so even if they are long they tend to move quickly.