San Francisco - SFO


The traditional U.S. gateway to Asia

From the days of sailing ships to the flight of the China Clipper, San Francisco's ports have long been the primary connecting point for passengers and cargo between the USA and Asia. California's Gold Rush of the 1850s and construction of the Transcontinental Railroad were not just logistical drivers that put San Francisco in its hub position, but also the reasons for the initial wave of Chinese immigration to North America.

Despite a troubled social and environmental history, Asians stayed in the city, and more waves followed, creating iconic neighborhoods like Chinatown and Japantown in the city proper, and giving the entire Bay Area an exciting and unique cultural mix like nowhere else on Earth.

Universities, research centers, military, electronics and Internet industries all promote a trans-Pacific worldview, and school systems in the region routinely teach Asian languages.

All this demand has resulted in a cornucopia of choices to cross the Pacific, with over 20 daily departures:

  • To Tokyo-Narita, United and ANA-All Nippon each have a daily nonstop. To Tokyo-Haneda, United and Japan Airlines each fly daily.
  • To Osaka-Kansai, United flies nonstop daily.
  • To Seoul-Incheon, there are three daily nonstops; one each on United, Korean Air, and Asiana.
  • To Beijing, United and Air China each have a daily nonstop.
  • To Shanghai-Pudong, China Eastern and United each have a daily nonstop.
  • To Chengdu, in China's western Sichuan Province, United has a 3-times-per-week nonstop.
  • Guangzhou is reached daily by China Southern; 4 flights per week are nonstop, and the other 3 stop in Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei Province.
  • Hong Kong enjoys twice-daily nonstops on Cathay Pacific, plus a daily nonstop each on United and Singapore Airlines, and new nonstop service on Hong Kong Airlines which started in March 2018.
  • To Taipei, China Airlines and United each offer daily nonstops; EVA Air flies it twice-daily.
  • Manila has a daily nonstop on Philippine Airlines.
  • Singapore is now served nonstop twice daily: one with United and one with Singapore Airlines - and those are mighty long flights, indeed. Additional nonstop service will be added in late 2018. The city is also reached with a one-stop on Singapore Airlines via Hong Kong.

For domestic flights, United is by far the dominant carrier at SFO with a full-fledged hub operation with commuter, regional, and transcontinental service; they run all the E and F gates out of Terminal 3 and have a connector to concourse G in the International Terminal so that you do not have to go through another security screening.

American, Alaska, and Delta are the next-biggest carriers at SFO, both covering a number of key business destinations and some shuttle services. Southwest, Frontier, JetBlue, and Sun Country cover a narrower set of domestic routes.

Customs Arrival

All flights from Asia arrive at the International Terminal. Star Alliance flights (United, Air China, ANA, EVA Air, Asiana, Singapore) arrive at Concourse G; everyone else arrives on Concourse A. For both concourses, there is a departures level above and an arrivals level below. As you exit your aircraft, ramps will direct you to the ground floor and moving sidewalks will take you to the central Immigration desks. Wait times range between 5 - 30 minutes depending on how many flights are unloading; SFO is usually one of the fastest airports in the country for handling passport control.

Your bags should be waiting on the carousels beyond; if you have any goods to declare, stop at the Customs/Inspection counters; if not, you'll leave the hall. Airline counters are just outside to re-check your bags if connecting onward; if the Bay Area is your destination, ground transport including the AirTrain and BART are just outside.

After checking your bags, go up one floor to the Ticketing level to move on to your domestic terminal / gate. United is to the left (north) in Terminal 3; Delta on the right (south) for Terminal 1; for American you'll take the AirTrain to Terminal 2. You will have to re-clear security.

Navigating the Airport

Click on this graphic to open the SFO Airport map page (San Francisco International Airport)

Click on this graphic to open the SFO Airport map page (San Francisco International Airport)

SFO has been rebuilding the domestic gates and terminal buildings; Terminal 2 / Concourse D (American and Alaska is complete) is all-new. United's complex in Terminal 3 has finished its renovations, and Terminal 1 is well underway.

United has the lion's share of domestic-international connections, and their gate setup makes it seamless for travelers to connect; departure areas in concourses E, F, and G are all inside the same security zone.

Concourses C (Delta) and D (American, Alaska) are also in a common security zone.

Concourse B is mostly Southwest and is in its own security zone - it is undergoing heavy remodeling; Concourse A - in addition to international departures - also houses JetBlue and Sun Country.

There are connecting passageways between Terminal 3 - Terminal 2 - Terminal 1, but these are in the public (non-security) zone. It's usually faster to take the AirTrain if you have to get between Terminal 2 and the International Terminal, and while construction on the western end of Terminal 1 is ongoing, there's no walkway to even use - so you'll have to use the AirTrain as well.


For local passengers, check-in at the spacious International Terminal is straightforward, with the Star Alliance carriers' counters close to the Concourse G entrance, and the SkyTeam & oneworld carriers concentrated toward the Concourse A entrance.

On the International Terminal concourses A and G, the boarding gates are actually below the walkway and retail/restaurant space. Escalators and elevators can take you between these levels; everything is in the same security group.  (You can't pass between A and G, however.)

Family-friendly Amenities and Hidden Gems

SFO is not just well-known for its extensive art displays and numerous seasonal exhibits throughout the complex, they're an actual, accredited museum, with more than 20 different gallery spaces in the terminals, plus a library, and a full-sized permanent aviation museum in the International Terminal.


There are four "Kids' Spots" at SFO - two in Concourse D, one on E, and one on F - each with weather-related science experiment stations, some kind of climbing / crawling apparatus, and spongy flooring to help tykes wiggle out extra energy before flights. On Concourse E by gate 60, also see the "Flight Deck," where a great view of the tarmac is paired with interactive screens teaching about aviation history and the city of San Francisco.

Yoga rooms have been set up on Concourses D and E to help you unwind. SFO has self-guided tours / scavenger hunts for kids for each of the three domestic terminal areas, with prizes for completing each course - check with the Information desks for the guides.

Drinking fountains on all the concourses have been upgraded to hydration stations, so you can refill your water bottles for free.

Perhaps the most AWESOME amenity at SFO is the "Wag Brigade," a group of over 20 specially-trained dogs who are brought all over the terminal complex to help de-stress travelers and bring smiles to kids and grown-ups.


Standard mens' and women's restrooms at SFO get a lot of traffic, so be prepared for lines during peak connecting waves. Stall space is at a minimum and would be very cramped with a child; expect one hook but no shelf to keep your bags off the floor. Cleanliness varies with traffic, but we saw frequent cleanings. The fittings and finish in the International area is nicer than the United gates, but overall SFO's restrooms don't stand out one way or the other.

At SFO their 'companion care restrooms' are what other airports would label 'family restrooms', meaning the same thing: a good amount of shelf space for changing and keeping bags off the floor; sinks and handles at lower heights; and plenty of maneuvering room. There are 8 of these on the all-new Concourse D; just one each on E and F - and none on B or C, nor on the International wings.

There are private nursery rooms available in each of the domestic terminals and most of the domestic concourses; you'll need to reserve them - there's a code you have to enter for access (use the airport courtesy phone to get set up.)

Food and Shopping

While on the International wings you can expect the usual duty-free lineup of luxury brands, perfume, crystals, and leather, on the domestic side you can really see how the airport has brought in local restaurateurs and merchants to give travelers a real sense of being in San Francisco. 

The only Starbucks outlets are pre-security, and there's only one Burger King; for coffee inside security it's mostly local Peet's, and while you can get burgers, there's an amazing amount of seafood and Asian fare compared to nearly any other airport in the U.S. - and fairly priced, too!

Likewise for merchandise, the vendors have been thoughtfully selected and souvenirs are relevant to the city; and there is a good selection of material for kids at bookshops and even clothing stores.



The airport's Wi-Fi is strong and free, with no interruptions for commercials.

The BART system has a station just outside the International Terminal; trips to downtown are 30 minutes long. BART connects to Caltrain at the Millbrae station for folks heading south. And SamTrans has 24-hour bus service available for all of San Mateo and parts of San Francisco.



If your flight timing has an awkward connection in or outbound, or for families driving to SFO from a distance, an overnight stay near the airport may be a good idea. Thankfully there is a good variety of family-friendly hotels just north and south of the airport with shuttle service, including:

  • The Aloft San Francisco Airport
  • The Westin San Francisco Airport
  • Hampton Inn & Suites - San Francisco-Burlingame
  • Hampton Inn & Suites - San Francisco Airport
  • Comfort Inn & Suites San Francisco Airport West
  • Four Points by Sheraton Hotel & Suites San Francisco Airport
  • Courtyard by Marriott San Francisco Airport
  • Holiday Inn Express San Francisco Airport South
  • Holiday Inn Express San Francisco Airport North
  • Crowne Plaza San Francisco Airport

Several of the hotels on the airport's southern side are immediately across the street from Bayfront Park, which has a nice walking trail and stunning views of the intersecting runways.

Also see:

Our Pinterest board on San Francisco

Houston - IAH

Image courtesy Visit Houston

Image courtesy Visit Houston

New flights power Asian connections through the Energy City

Houston’s historic importance as a center of energy production and logistics quickly put it on the post-World War II map of long-range flights from Europe and Latin America. Companies like Phillips 66, Conoco, Halliburton, and Occidental – and the contractors and suppliers who support them – send their people all over their world, often on short notice: they require frequent international service and are willing to pay well for it.

The city’s seaport and distribution infrastructure – and closeness to Mexico and the Caribbean – also gave it more of a global outlook, cuisine, and population. Yet it was not until after the Vietnam War and the emergence of the Four Tigers economies in the 1970s-80s when Houston started to pick up Asian influences and migration, and vibrant Vietnamese and Taiwanese communities developed in the southwest quarter of the metro area in the 1980s-90s.

Continental 777-200 at Narita Airport, preparing to depart for Houston

Continental 777-200 at Narita Airport, preparing to depart for Houston

It took until 1998 for Houston-headquartered Continental Airlines to start nonstop service to Tokyo, the city’s first air link of any kind to Asia.


United and Continental merged, moving their headquarters to Chicago but keeping Houston as a mega hub. While United has not added any more nonstop flights to East Asia, they have encouraged their Star Alliance partners to come to Houston, so today IAH has daily or near-daily service to:

  • Tokyo Narita – on United and also ANA-All Nippon Airways
  • Beijing – with Air China
  • Taipei – on EVA Air
  • Singapore – with Singapore Airlines (this flight stops in Manchester, England on the way)

From these four hub cities, nearly any point in East and Southeast Asia can be reached in just one stop.


Domestically, United covers all major US cities from IAH and regional destinations in Texas, the Southwest, and the Gulf Coast. These areas, and Florida, are best-positioned to use Houston as a connecting point for flights to Asia.

Delta, American, and Spirit also send numerous flights into IAH, but don’t have international partners flying there to take you to Asia via Houston. Finally, Southwest doesn’t fly to IAH at all, as they have a significant base at Hobby Airport on the south side of the city.


Customs Arrival

International arrivals for the Asian carriers pull up to gates in Terminal D, where mid-level walkways and bridges direct passengers through the building, across the street, and into the central Customs checkpoint.

Image of Terminal E courtesy Visit Houston

Image of Terminal E courtesy Visit Houston

Passengers arriving on United’s flight dock at Terminal E, where they ascend a level and walk above that concourse to get to the same central Customs area.

Passport checks take place on the upper level, and then passengers go down a floor to the baggage claim and Customs inspection area. For travelers not flying onward, there are exits from this point to the arrivals area on the ground floor of Terminal E. For people connecting to other flights, turn right after Customs for baggage re-check stations and then security screening. Once through TSA screening, you will come out into a corridor linking the D and E gates, with the Skyway train station just around the corner.

Click this map to open a new window for detailed maps on the airport's official site.

Click this map to open a new window for detailed maps on the airport's official site.

Navigating the airport

One thing is certain when flying from or connecting through IAH: there’s almost always going to be a lot of walking.

The airport opened in 1969, before the days of security checks or massive airline hub operations, so the original Terminals A and B were small, separate buildings each with four “banjo” concourses tucked in close.  By the early 1980s this arrangement was clearly impossible to manage for Continental’s growing hub, so they built Terminal C further east.  Terminal D opened in 1990, then Terminal E in 2002.

In 2018, only two "banjos" remain, on the north side of Terminal B. These will get torn down in the early 2020s and replaced with more-conventional concourses.

In 2018, only two "banjos" remain, on the north side of Terminal B. These will get torn down in the early 2020s and replaced with more-conventional concourses.

The terminals are spread so far apart because they are sitting between the airport’s east-west runways, and concourses can only extend outward by a few airplanes’ wingspans before blocking taxiways. Likewise, creating one central terminal is impossible because of how the roadways and tunnels were laid out in the 1960s. In fact, the airport has run out of room and cannot add any more terminal buildings to the east – so they have been progressively re-constructing the terminals and gate areas to become more efficient.  IAH is about halfway through that process, and it will take well into the 2020s for all its parts to be rebuilt.

The C-North gates have breathtaking design with lots of open space - the model for what the B-North and D gates will look like in about ten years...

The C-North gates have breathtaking design with lots of open space - the model for what the B-North and D gates will look like in about ten years...

United’s operation in Houston is so large that it now uses all the B, C, and E gates, and many of the northern A gates as well. Delta, American, Spirit, Air Canada, Alaska, Frontier, and other US and Canadian carriers use gates in the A complex, while all the overseas and Mexican carriers use the D gates.

So even for a United-United connection it is entirely possible you may arrive at gate A1 and depart from gate E19. Thankfully, all gates can be reached without having to leave the secure area.


Skyway shuttle trains run along the north side of the complex, with one station in Terminal A, B, and C, and a station between Terminals D and E. These trains are quick and frequent and afford a pretty good view of the runways and ramp on the north half of the airport. From one end to the other is about a 5-minute ride.

Corridor connecting the E-gate concourses

Corridor connecting the E-gate concourses

However, even using the Skyway train, there is still considerable walking needed along the C and E gates. And if you are using United Express service leaving from the B gates (especially B1-B31), those are also a long walk from the Skyway station. For domestic-domestic, or domestic-international connections, we would advise using no less than a full hour and preferably 90 minutes between flights.

The one case where you won’t have too far to walk is if you are being dropped off on the ground floor of Terminal D to check in for your flight – in that case the gates are immediately above the ticket counters and security checkpoint.



Family-friendly amenities and hidden gems

IAH has no children’s play areas and no consistent safe stretches of space where kids can run around to burn off steam while waiting for boarding. Even open gate areas in the C14-C15 or D1-2-3 stretches will see a steady stream of cart traffic and just enough people trying to sleep to keep them “no fly zones” for children.


The international gates east of the small food court, D7 – D12, have several interesting child-height art installations and occasionally someone playing the grand piano.


Over in Terminal A, the Skyway train station is full of eye-catching star sculptures, and the walkway between the north and south gate areas holds many sculptures under Plexiglas at kids’ eye level.  There are also musical performances scheduled in the north-side food court. (And here is a link to the full portfolio of artwork)


Mindworks, near gate E9, is a small but well-stocked kids’ shop with toys and aerospace / NASA gear; well worth a visit if you are in the E gates or even the C30-C40 area.

Surprisingly missing is any exhibit from NASA/Johnson Space Center – in contrast to the two locations Kennedy Space Center has in the Orlando terminal. There is plenty of open-air space in the E gates, the C-North gates, and the ticket hall of Terminal D for them to mount full-sized spacecraft replicas!




Just as the gate areas are being progressively torn down and rebuilt, so are the restrooms. The newest parts of the complex (A-gates, E-gates, B1-B31 United Express holdroom, and the C-North gates) have been built with conveniently-located family restrooms.

The C-North / E / new B mens’ and womens’ lavatories also have more stalls and more room in each stall for stowing carry-on bags up off the floor (or for managing children if need be.)

D-gate restroom entrance

D-gate restroom entrance

The restrooms in the international D-gate areas are adequate in periods of average traffic, but starting to show their age and not up to the same standard as the ones in the E-gates, plus there are no family facilities in that stretch. This could lead to long waits if several flights are leaving around the same time.

Typical stall in the E-gates; note the small shelf above the toilet for storage.

Typical stall in the E-gates; note the small shelf above the toilet for storage.

Restroom repair and cleanliness is also uneven across the terminals – the newest are simply built better for the traffic they get, so they are easier to maintain.



Food and Shopping

Thankfully, great food options for any palate or food requirement are available throughout the complex, and since you’ll be walking anyway, you’ll get to see a wide spectrum of choices. The local cuisines of East Texas and the Gulf are well-represented, from steakhouse to Tex-Mex, Cajun/Creole, Vietnamese, and seafood.


National chains are well-represented, and the airport is rolling out many sit-down restaurants that use the popular order-from-iPad service format. There are also several shops to pick up fresh fruit and deli sandwiches.

Shopping options include the usual newsstand, electronics, cosmetics, sunglasses, and luxury-goods choices, but you’ll also find more than the usual number of clothing stores.

IAH is piloting an interesting twist to shopping: certain merchants will let you use your MileagePlus points toward payment!

IAH is piloting an interesting twist to shopping: certain merchants will let you use your MileagePlus points toward payment!



Wi-Fi is free and strong throughout the airport.

Houston has a metro rail system, but has not extended it out to IAH – it might get there by 2035, according to the latest long-range plan. There is a bus route to downtown, but it does not go near the Convention Center or main bank of hotels. SuperShuttle, taxi, or private car are the only realistic options for fast ground transport.




If you need to stay overnight before or after your trip, the Houston Airport Marriott is located between Terminals B and C, and can be reached from any terminal via underground Subway (catch it on level LL below baggage-claim). Many rooms have a good view of the ramp! For its convenient location, it does claim a premium price.

Lower-priced national chain locations with family-friendly amenities and free shuttles to IAH would include the Spring Hill Suites by Marriott, DoubleTree by Hilton, Country Inn & Suites, La Quinta Inn, Hampton Inn, and Courtyard by Marriott.


See also…

Houston George Bush Intercontinental Airport official website

IAH Wikipedia entry

Seattle/Tacoma - SEA

This traditional Pacific port of entry is easy to use.

Seattle’s historic ties of trade with and immigration from Asia, its many technology and service companies, and its relatively short flying times have attracted many airlines to start Transpacific service here.

Delta Airlines has built up a strong Asian operation out of Seattle with nonstops to Beijing, Hong Kong, Seoul-Incheon, Shanghai-Pudong, and Tokyo-Narita. 

Fellow SkyTeam carrier Xiamen Air has started a 3-per-week service from Seattle nonstop to Shenzhen in the Pearl River Valley, continuing on to Xiamen on China's southeast coast.

Korean Air offers 5-per-week nonstop service to their massive hub at Seoul-Incheon. Some same-day connections are available to interior Chinese cities and other Southeast Asian destinations; many more can be reached with an overnight stay (Incheon has a hotel inside the terminal for just this reason.) 

ANA - All Nippon Airways, in the Star Alliance with United, has a daily nonstop to their big Tokyo-Narita hub; many Southeast Asian cities can be reached same-day.

Asiana Airlines - in the Star Alliance with United - runs a 5-per-week nonstop to Seoul-Incheon. A few interior Chinese cities can be reached same-day; otherwise an overnight stay is needed. 

Hainan Airlines, an independent Chinese carrier, flies nonstop 5 times a week to Beijing, where they offer excellent same-day connections to many interior cities. They have also started a 3-per-week nonstop to Shanghai-Pudong.

EVA Airways flies daily nonstop to Taipei. Airlines from Taiwan have only recently been allowed to fly into mainland China; your best connections on EVA are to Fujian and Guangdong provinces. The return flight into Seattle arrives too late in the evening to make same-day onward flights, and the departure from Seattle leaves well after midnight.

Domestically, Seattle is the headquarters and main hub for Alaska Airlines and their commuter arm, Alaska Horizon, as well as a major base for Delta, who has its own commuter services too. Sea-Tac is also an important focus city for United. These networks link Seattle to every major city in the Pacific and Alaska time zones, and every second-tier city in the Pacific Northwest.

Every major US airline serves SEA, including the low-cost carriers Southwest, JetBlue, and Spirit. No matter which frequent-flyer program you’re on, or part of the country you’re from, you’ll have numerous options.

Customs Arrival

All international flights arrive at the South Satellite. As you deplane, you’ll be directed along ramps to the level below the gate area. Even though many overseas flights arrive midday, waiting time for passport checks and luggage retrieval usually takes between 30 to 60 minutes. (Even on domestic flights, Sea-Tac’s baggage delivery is super-speedy; your suitcases will be at the carrousel before you can get there.)

After clearing Customs, if you have an onward flight, stop at the baggage re-check counters, then go through security screening, and walk over to the underground tram stop (for Delta flights, head upstairs; for all other carriers, take the tram to the main terminal, where you can access all other gates.)

If Seattle is your final destination, after you’ve picked up your bags and gone through the declaration line, you’ll set your bags back down on a high-speed conveyor belt which will zip them over to Baggage Claim carrousel #1 in the main terminal. Meanwhile, you and your family will bypass security and get on an isolated tram car which will take you to the Baggage Claim exit. (You don’t want to cram that car full of everybody’s bags...)

Navigating the Airport

Click on image to access airport maps (Port of Seattle)

Click on image to access airport maps (Port of Seattle)

The Sea-Tac complex uses an X-shaped layout: Concourses A and B extend south of the central terminal, while Concourses C and D run north. There are two satellite gate areas, South and North.

Image courtesy Port of Seattle. Click on image to see more about the expansion project.

Image courtesy Port of Seattle. Click on image to see more about the expansion project.

Thanks to robust growth of international service, Concourse A and the South Satellite are being linked by a skybridge, and a number of A-gates will be able to handle overseas arrivals.

The North Satellite is also being expanded to handle Alaska Airlines' hearty growth.

Concourse A houses United, Air Canada, and Sun Country, as well as many Delta flights. On Concourse B you’ll find Southwest, Spirit, and Frontier, and also Delta. Concourses C and D are the heart of Alaska’s hub operation, as well as the North Satellite. American and JetBlue also run out of Concourse D. The South Satellite is Delta territory.

While Sea-Tac is spread out, walking times are quite short thanks to three underground tram lines, all inside the security zone. Using the trams, you can move from the South Satellite to the North Satellite in less than 15 minutes. Concourse A is the longest, but has been equipped with moving sidewalks for speedy transit.

The entire complex has been freshly renovated with wide corridors, expansive windows, and engaging art. On clear days you can see the Cascade Mountains and islands in Puget Sound. Even on overcast days the terminal is filled with natural light.

Family-friendly Amenities and Hidden Gems

A large play area is located between the central food court and the beginning of the A-Concourse. There’s also plenty of seating for parents, too.

If you have several hours between flights, and children who want to stretch their legs, the far end of the A-Concourse (gates A11-A14) has great views on a sunny day, and you can often have the entire area to yourselves.

Local artwork permeates the terminal, often with an aviation or Native American theme, giving great opportunities for kids to ask questions, look for patterns, and inspire their own creativity.

The Pacific Northwest music scene also resonates at Sea-Tac as they have created an ambient music stream for the terminal featuring local artists.

Another semi-secret gem is the Atrium at the south end of the ticketing counters. This area is outside security (so you’ll need to be screened again to get to your flight), but the open space, rocks to clamber over, and seating outside for fresh air are worth a visit if you have time.


Several family restrooms are available on every concourse and satellite. In addition, the stalls in regular restrooms incorporate several sturdy coathooks, plus a shelf above the toilet, making it much easier to manage your cargo and children. Cleanliness is very good, and the facilities are uniformly in excellent condition.

Food and Shopping

SEA_South Satellite Kobo.JPG

Sea-Tac offers some gift/newsstand options on each concourse and satellite, at least one sit-down restaurant and several fast-food counters; often one will feature Asian cuisine. And coffeeshops, lots and lots of coffeeshops (and not just Starbucks.)

For the most diverse selection of gifts, a good-sized bookshop, numerous sit-down restaurants, and additional fast-food options, go to the central food court, where all four concourses converge and the view is amazing. There are several shops here with kids’ sections, as well, including the awesome Planewear - gear, gadgets, and gifts all about aviation!


WiFi is available throughout the terminal and gate areas at no charge!

Seattle’s light rail line allows access north to Chinatown / International District (about 25 minutes) and the central Downtown corridor (about 30 minutes.)

Also see:

Our Pinterest board on Seattle