As the largest of the Bay Area’s three airports, San Francisco International is the most common point of departure for those in the area. Before the pandemic hit, SFO was the 7th busiest hub in the United States. Over 27 million passengers passed through in 2019. If you don’t live in close proximity to SFO or near a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) station, however, departing the airport comes with its own set of challenges. Traffic can be rough, and parking can get ridiculously expensive. For North Bay residents, the Sonoma County Airport Express is one option to consider if you plan to fly out of SFO.
What Is the Sonoma County Airport Express?
The Sonoma County Airport Express is a bus service that runs from Charles M. Schulz–Sonoma County Airport (STS) to both San Francisco International Airport (SFO) and Oakland International Airport (OAK). It’s intended for airport passengers (although I’m sure they’d be happy to transport you even if you weren’t flying). Their buses are a standard motor coach, similar to greyhound and Amtrak buses.
The Sonoma County Airport Express bus service runs nearly hourly to SFO, with 16 daily departures. The first bus of the day departs STS at 2:45 AM, arriving at SFO at 5:00 AM. The final bus of the day departs SFO at 11:00 PM, returning to Sonoma County around 1:00 in the morning. There are fewer runs to OAK, with just seven per day.
The buses stop at the following locations:
- Sonoma County Airport
- Santa Rosa Park and Ride (located under Highway 12 along Maple Ave)
- DoubleTree Hotel Rohnert Park
- Petaluma Fairgrounds
- San Rafael Transit Center (OAK runs only)
- San Francisco International Airport (SFO) or Oakland International Airport (OAK)
Given the distance and traffic between Sonoma County and the Bay Area airports, the bus takes 90 minutes to nearly 3 hours, depending on your departure location and time. Check out the Santa Rosa Airport Express schedule.
Sonoma County Airport Express fares are the following between Sonoma County and SFO, one-way:
- Adult – $39
- Seniors (62+) – $37
- Military (with ID) – $37
- Students (13-21) – $37
- Children (12 and under) – Free
From Marin County, the rates are slightly reduced:
- Adult – $31
- Seniors (62+) – $29
- Military (with ID) – $29
- Students (13-21) – $29
- Children (12 and under) – Free
Note that children only ride free with a full paying adult. You can buy tickets online for a $1 discount per direction if you purchase a round trip. Purchasing a ticket ahead of time online is the easiest option in all cases.
While it can be convenient to depart STS, flight options are limited, and fares are often more expensive than SFO. Depending on the total cost of parking and other factors, the bus service could be a reasonable
My Experience in May 2021
I’ve only taken the Santa Rosa Airport Express twice, my most recent experience being in the middle of last year. The previous time I’d departed the DoubleTree Hotel. This time my brother-in-law dropped me at the Santa Rosa Park and Ride, which is located under Highway 12 to the east of the 101 interchange. There were several other people taking the bus from the same stop at 8:00 AM. The bus arrived right on time, and we were underway by a few minutes after the hour.
The bus was in good condition. I’ve certainly traveled on worse. The driver was friendly and kept us briefed on the stops and plan.
Early on in the COVID-19 pandemic (once they restarted service), Sonoma County Airport Express was blocking off seats for social distancing. I confirmed with them that they are no longer doing this.
Overall, the trip went very smoothly. It took 1 hour and 40 minutes to travel from Santa Rosa to SFO to arrive at Terminal 1, making all stops along the way. Admittedly, traffic was light. We got there well ahead of published arrival. This was much better than my previous experience where we encountered a decent section of stop and go traffic. Traffic time is built into the schedule, so if you are traveling on a weekend, you may end up at the airport a half hour or more ahead of schedule.
The Santa Rosa Airport Express bus stops at all SFO terminals. I decided that getting off at Terminal 1 was quicker than waiting through the stops at terminals 2 and 3, and then finally the stop at the International Terminal, which is the one that I needed. I think I beat it using the AirTrain.
Is the Sonoma County Airport Express Useful?
The short answer is yes, as they have weathered the pandemic and are still in business. There are a few things that really play into the utility of the service, however.
The first thing to consider is the number of people in your group. If the whole family is flying and you have teens, coughing up $37-$39 per person per direction is steep. It really then comes down to how much you’ll save in parking at SFO. Sadly, $39 is a little over two days of parking at one of the mid-range garages. The garage in the middle of the terminals is $36 per day. This should put the $39 one-way Sonoma County Airport Express fares into perspective.
Airfare out of Charles M. Schulz – Sonoma County Airport is generally more than out of SFO. Sometimes the difference may be enough to justify the $78 round-trip bus fare and value of your time to/from SFO on the bus.
While the Sonoma County Airport Express is a decent option depending on your situation, I doubt I’ll be using it again. This time was something of a fluke, as I was between trips, flying into Santa Rosa one evening and out of SFO the next day. A one-way airporter bus ride was the perfect solution.
Living in Humboldt County, which is even further north, driving to Santa Rosa to park and then riding the bus doesn’t make a lot of sense. I find it’s still best to park at the airport. Well…off-airport. To save some money. SFO has the most ridiculous parking costs I’ve ever encountered.
If you live in the North Bay, though, I’m curious if you’ve considered the Sonoma County Airport Express. There aren’t a whole lot of situations where I’d prefer to take the bus rather than book a more expensive ticket out of STS if traveling solo (if traveling with the family, fuggedaboudit). Yet SFO does have way more nonstop options and international carriers that offer better deals than a connecting itinerary on a domestic carrier out of STS.