The San Francisco International Airport is great for plane spotters. With two of its runways stretching out in the bay, there are plenty of spots to capture planes landing on them. I am fascinated with planes since I am a little kid. The first official plane spotting event I attended here was the Lufthansa A380 plane spotting party. Held at Bayfront Park to celebrate the inaugural flight of the first Lufthansa A380 landing at SFO.
Ever since I try to come here more often to capture planes. SFO is a major international airport and you get to see a lot of long-haul flights arriving and departing here, which means you get to see the big boys.
Here some of the spot I can recommend you.
This is a very easy one to get too and probably also one of the more known places to come here to do plane spotting. There are a few parking spots available right next to the park itself and the parking lot of the Marriott hotel. You can park here for up to two hours for free and its public parking for people to access the Bay Trail. The parking lot is full most of the time. You can either test your patience to get a spot or you just take one of the side streets and find a spot there.
This spot gives you great views of planes landing on 28L and 28R. Perfect to catch the Airbus A380, because they all roll in on these runways.
Holiday Inn Express San Francisco-Airport South
This is an easy location to get to. It’s located right behind the Holiday Inn Express. Their parking lot extends all the way to the bay front. The hotel has normally no issue with you being there, but it’s best to go inside and let them know. It gives you similar views as the Bayfront Park. I also like to stay at this hotel in one of their bay view rooms.
Millbrae BART Station
Atop of the parking garage of the Millbrae BART station is another good spot. Parking here is free on weekends and during the week after 3 p.m. However, if you try to get here early on a weekday, before 3 p.m., you basically have to park without paying. The problem is, you can only pay for parking by buying a train ticket and enter your stall number. Since there are no gates, you should be fine as long as you don’t abandon your vehicle and keep an eye open.
You get some views of the planes taking off on runway 1L and 1R as well as of the terminal areas (see the red lines in the image). A good zoom lens is almost a must here.
San Bruno Ave
There is a small green between San Bruno Avenue and the 101 northbound off-ramp. This brings you directly below the planes taking off on runway 28L and 28R. Giving you more or less only the chance of a head on view or view of the underside of the plane. Still a good location. There is no close by parking. Head west on San Bruno Ave and park somewhere in the neighborhood. From there walk to the location.
Long Term Parking Garage
The top of the parking garage gives you a similar view as from the spot at the San Bruno Ave. However, you are more elevated here and a little off-center to the flight path. Here you can get photos of the sides of the planes, as well as they, depart on 28L and 28R. With a good zoom lens, you can also zoom into the airport itself and get photos of the tarmac traffic. The stair case gives you some protection from the rain.
Cell Phone Waiting Lot
This spot is good for a quick in and out. Views are similar as the once from San Bruno Ave with the exception that you get an angled view of the planes taking off on 28L and 28R. You can directly drive there and park. You shouldn’t stick around too long but if you know what you want to spot, this is a good location. It’s very easy to get to. Just follow the signs to Cell Phone Waiting Lot.
San Francisco Bay Trail near SamTrans Yard
There are a few public parking spots on the little island. The parking lot is right next to a homeless shelter but I never had any problems with them. Most of them are very friendly. The parking is for free here and probably most people don’t even know about that spot. From here you get a unique view of the planes when the fly over the United Airlines service hangars. You can take the Bay Trail around this little island to get great views of the bay itself.
To get there exit Highway 101 at N. Access Rd and go east. After you get off the bridge take the second street to your left after you passed the parking garage.
Coyote Point Yacht Club
This spot gives you a good view of the planes coming in from the south over the San Mateo Bridge and heading towards SFO. From here you get to see all the traffic landing on 28L and 28R. These two runways get used by the big planes like the A380. The Yacht Harbor can work as a great background for the photos of the planes. A big zoom lens is also required here to get frame-filling shots of an aircraft.
There is paid-parking at the Yacht Club or you can use the Bay Trail and walk here. A good location would be Harbor View Park on Monte Diablo Ave. There is plenty of free street parking there.
SFO Rental Car Center
I discovered that spot by accident when they gave me a car which was parked in the farthermost stall from the rental counter. The roof levels here give you a good view of 28L and 28R. I would recommend you to only use the spotting locations (1) Level 3 and (2) Level 4. The location at (3) is swarmed with staff and they might see you as a distraction or maybe even a threat. You know you are around the airport. Everything is suspicious here, even if it’s not.
International Terminal Concourse G Observation Deck
The airport just recently opened a new observation deck for passengers. To get to the observation deck you have to get past security in either Terminal 3 or International Terminal Concourse G. Passengers from other Terminals can visit the observation deck too, but have to re-clear security to get back to their Terminal. From the outdoor terrace passengers have a great view of the big planes. Read more here.
Peter has a passion for Traveling, Photography, and Geocaching. These are the best ingredients for amazing adventures all over the globe. “Traveling is fun, no matter if you stay in a luxury hotel or travel like a backpacker.” Peter shares his experiences on his Blog www.gatetoadventures.com
Some of Peter’s photos are published on corporate websites, in-flight magazines, travel guides, and much more.