International (US-Canada) connection at SFO in <50 minutes. Really?
November 26, 2017 11:19 PM   Subscribe

For an upcoming trip I have been booked (note the passive voice) on a United flight that includes a 49-minute transfer at SFO. I've never flown through SFO before - is this as impossible as it sounds to me?

I realize that airlines are, in general, not in the business of selling impossible tickets, but this just sounds like a terrible idea. Itinerary in question goes from New Orleans to Vancouver (MSY->SFO->YVR).

My research suggests that I may need to switch terminals (going from domestic to international - but on my online itinerary says both flights arrive/leave from Terminal 3, so idk?), but also that the terminals in SFO are fairly close together and I won't need to go through security again. Can someone more familiar with SFO hope me, or otherwise advise on how to best handle this situation? Switching my itinerary is unfortunately not an option (note again the passive voice in the first sentence of my question)
posted by btfreek to Travel & Transportation (12 answers total)
I was in SFO this morning. I walked from terminal 2 through terminal 3 and the international terminal to the BART station (there's a free shuttle train that all the signs tell you to take instead, but I like walking). SFO is in fact a pretty small airport.

Indeed lots of flights to Canada leave from domestic terminals. So I think your itinerary is correct, and it shouldn't even matter how big the airport is. But it is possible to walk between at least some of the terminals without leaving security.

So assuming you have average mobility, this seems entirely doable. Of course there's no buffer for flight delays, but if the flight's delayed the airline's still responsible for getting you to Vancouver, either by holding your connection, or finding another flight.
posted by aubilenon at 11:42 PM on November 26, 2017

If both of your flights are in T3, you can switch in a few minutes without passing security. If you do actually need to walk between International and T3, it's longer and there's an additional security check. 50 minutes feels like enough time to me in either case.
posted by migurski at 11:48 PM on November 26, 2017

Is this on the same airline? Do you have checked bags?
posted by TWinbrook8 at 12:01 AM on November 27, 2017

Check the flight numbers on previous days. It looks like you are going to have to walk maybe 10 gates. No problem.
posted by ftm at 12:39 AM on November 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

If you are able to walk at an average speed for humans you should be fine.

Also, I've missed many United flights at SFO because some places my flights often originate from have weather delays. United has always managed to get me on another SFO flight the same day; however, I am careful not to book on the last flight of the day. Caveat: I don't know if this plays well with the latest super economy seats, but you can probably upgrade to the next tier for about $50.
posted by yohko at 1:08 AM on November 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

United's flights to Vancouver leave from Terminal 3, which is where your flight from New Orleans arrives. All you'll need to do is get off the plane, walk to the gate for your next flight, and board, no other formalities involved. Terminal 3 isn't that large, which makes this certainly doable under reasonably good conditions. (Note that if you're really on a codeshare with the the Air Canada flight to Vancouver, you'll have to walk a bit further through the connector to the international terminal. Don't exit the secure area, there's a slightly obscure pathway that connects Terminal 3 and the G gates.)

That said, this doesn't leave much margin for error. SFO is well known for delays when there is weather, it could take a while to get off your first flight if you wind up in the back, and they can close the gate 15 minutes (or more, since the policy is technically "for flights within the U.S") before the departure time. And if you have checked bags, there's a possibility you might make it, but your bags won't (make sure you have essentials with you in a carry-on).

It's helpful to assess your risk tolerance in these situations. Are there lots of flights to Vancouver after yours or will you be stuck overnight? What are the consequences if you don't make it to Vancouver as expected? Would it be an irritating way to start a vacation or would you be missing your best friend's wedding? Depending on the circumstances, it can be a "give it a shot and hope everything goes smoothly" situation, but it would be risky if there's a lot riding on you getting to Vancouver.
posted by zachlipton at 2:27 AM on November 27, 2017 [2 favorites]

I think you will probably be able to make it, but it's questionable if any checked bags will.

In my experience, it usually takes the airlines 2-3 days to get you your checked bag if it didn't make it on to your original flight, so I would make sure you've got a carry-on big enough to carry everything you'll need for the first couple of days just in case.
posted by colfax at 3:11 AM on November 27, 2017

If you do actually need to walk between International and T3, it's longer and there's an additional security check.

While it sounds like the OP won’t need to do this, and it’s been a while since I’ve used it, there should be a post-security walkway between terminal 3 and the international terminal.
posted by zsazsa at 5:33 AM on November 27, 2017 [1 favorite]

If it helps, when you fly into Vancouver from the states, you go through customs and immigration in Vancouver. On the way back, you preclear customs in Vancouver, and land as a domestic flight in the US. So basically, your delays are in Vancouver.
posted by Valancy Rachel at 7:13 AM on November 27, 2017

Nice, this sounds much more doable than I originally assumed! I have no checked bags and am fairly experienced at dashing around unfamiliar transportation hubs, so it sounds like I just need to cross my fingers for no delays on arrival. Thanks all.
posted by btfreek at 7:31 AM on November 27, 2017

there should be a post-security walkway between terminal 3 and the international terminal

Looks like you’re right: this map shows a secure connector I wasn’t aware of.
posted by migurski at 11:29 PM on November 27, 2017

Update: I made it! But only barely, and only due to airline intervention.

We got caught up in the complications due to the chilly weather this weekend flying out of MSY, delaying departure by about 45 minutes and we touched down pretty much exactly when the SFO-YVR leg was supposed to depart. Thankfully there were enough of us transferring that they held the plane for us and changed our arrival gate so literally all we had to do was get out and dash next door (bypassing any terminal issues entirely) onto our other plane - which was good, because otherwise we would have had to spend the night as it was the last flight of the day to YVR, so kudos to United for doing that.
posted by btfreek at 5:41 PM on December 11, 2017 [1 favorite]

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