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Yes, Napa Valley, but Which Airport?

Mar 10, 2008
You want to go to California wine country--and for good reason. Not only will you see the scenic splendor of soft hills covered with vineyards, but you'll also have the opportunity to enjoy the history, architecture, and some of the best restaurants in the U.S. However, since Napa and Sonoma Valleys don't have their own commercial airports, you will need to select among airports nearby, including the Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa, and the airports in Sacramento (SMF), San Francisco (SFO), and Oakland (OAK).

Picking the right airport can definitely impact your costs and enjoyment of the California Wine Country. Here I'll review the pros and cons of each airport so you can pick the one that suits you best.

Oakland Airport (OAK)

Can we talk? Oakland Airport is my least favorite choice because its highways are congested, and the drive to Napa passes through urban sprawl.

If you do select this airport, be especially careful with timing. You won't want to mix rush-hour traffic with trying to make a flight.

On the other hand, Oakland Airport offers the most budget airfares in Northern California.

San Francisco International Airport (SFO)

If you are visiting both the Bay Area and Napa Valley, this airport is a good choice.

The San Francisco Airport offers the most non-stop flights into Northern California. And, with Southwest, AirTran, and Frontier serving SFO, you can get airfares as low as Oakland's.

However, just traveling toward Napa, you can get stuck in traffic congestion, or even worse, rush-hour slowdowns.

Here's a route that cuts down on congestion by avoiding downtown San Francisco: From the airport, take westbound Interstate 380, which starts just north of the rental car terminal. Then take the northbound I-280 freeway, northbound Highway 1, and then the Golden Gate Bridge for better scenery, even though you'll encounter some stop and go driving on Highway 1 in San Francisco.

Beyond the Golden Gate Bridge, your route will depend on your first stop, but see the link at the bottom of this article for instructions on locating the most scenic drives through Napa and Sonoma Valleys.

Sacramento Airport (SMF)

The Sacramento Airport is probably used least for access to the Wine Country, and yet I often prefer it.

With a population nearing 2 million, Sacramento benefits from extensive air service, including budget airlines, such as JetBlue and Southwest, which help to keep the fares down of all the airlines serving this airport.

In addition, you don't have to drive through dense urban areas to get to Napa Valley. In fact, you don't have to drive through Sacramento at all, which allows you to avoid rush-hour congestion.

Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport (STS)

Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport reopened to commercial flights in 2007. It is often called the Sonoma County Airport, and also referred to as the Wine Country Airport or Santa Rosa Airport.

(The airport is named for the famous Charles Schulz, creator of Charlie Brown and his pals. Charles Schulz lived in Santa Rosa and nearby Sebastopol for more than 30 years.)

Commercial airlines serving the Sonoma Airport include Alaska Airlines' Horizon Air arriving from Seattle, Los Angeles, and Portland. Delta may also begin service to Sonoma Airport.

With little airline competition and few commercial flights, the biggest disadvantage to choosing this airport is high prices for flights and rental cars.

However, you may very well balance these higher costs with excellent deals on hotel rooms in Petaluma, Rohnert Park, and garden-filled Santa Rosa (my favorite), all near the Sonoma Airport. For extra savings, you may wish to use Priceline's "name your own price" bidding, available for these cities.

The strongest reasons to select the Sonoma Airport come down to beauty and proximity. Using scenic Highway 12 from Santa Rosa, a route lined with wineries--some world-renowned--you're one hour from Napa and 45 minutes from the Sonoma Plaza. St. Helena in the upper Napa Valley is approximately 30 minutes from the airport.

And, on top of breathtaking beauty, this choice can steer you clear of Bay Area congestion.

You Pick

As you can see, if you want to see California's gorgeous wine country, you CAN get there from here. I've told you my preferences--San Francisco Airport if I'm visiting the Bay Area too, or Sacramento Airport if I'm just going to the Wine Country. And, nonstop flights to Sonoma County Airport will certainly appeal to travelers who live in Los Angeles, Portland, and Seattle.

But of course choose according to your own needs and preferences. I hope my summary of pros and cons has helped you decide which airport will work best for your next trip to Napa and Sonoma Valleys.
About the Author
An extensive world traveler, Don Nadeau, president of BidonTravel.com, loves helping people travel on the cheap. Click to see instructions on locating the most scenic drives through Napa and Sonoma Valleys.
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