Today we are talking about how to get to California Wine Country, specifically the Central Coast area. Below are the best airports for Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo and the Santa Ynez area. Please note that affiliate links are used in this article.
I don’t know how it is when you plan a trip, but in our house we have one person who is an uber-planner and one person who is…not an uber-planner.
My husband is the Chief Travel Planner and I am the Chief Trip Enjoyer. I like to have a general plan for a trip of course, but hubby goes so far as to create excel spread sheets and he checks every possible flight and hotel option before settling on a final plan. It ensures an amazing trip every time, but his level of detail is pretty intense.
Whether you are here to get information for your spreadsheet, or just want to pick an airport and let the good times roll, we’ve got you covered!
When deciding on an airport for any trip, our Chief Travel Planner has saved you time by investigate things like:
- What airports are closest to California wine country?
- Which airport best suits our budget and schedule?
- Which airports will require us to connect versus take a direct flight?
- Does the car rental desk at the airport close before our flight arrives? (The Chief Trip Enjoyer would never have thought of this.)
- How far from the airport is the car rental area, and how do we get there? (Walk versus take a tram or bus.)
- How long of a drive is it from the airport to our hotel, and is that a reasonable drive at the hour we are arriving?
- How much time must we allow to clear security and all that malarky?
Below we cover the answers to these questions to help you pick the best airport to get to Paso Robles, Solvang, San Luis Obispo and other Central Coast Wine Country towns.
Best Airports for Central Coast Wine Country
What airports you take to get to the Central Coast will vary depending on your travel style, cost and where you are flying from.
First, let’s be clear that when we are describing the Central Coast, for wine, at least, we mean the area ranging from Santa Ynez Valley at the south, just north of Santa Barbara (think, Sideways country) and Paso Robles at the north.
To fly to the Central Coast you have several options, from small local airports, to major airports which are a little farther away.
The closest three airports to the Central Coast Wine Region, from North to South, are:
-San Luis Obispo (SBP) (or “SLO” if you want to sound like a local) which is about twenty-five (25) miles south of Paso Robles
-Santa Maria (SMF) which is nearly half-way between Paso Robles and Santa Ynez Valley
–Santa Barbara (SBA) which is approximately 30 miles south of the Solvang/Buellton hub in Santa Ynez Valley
Pros and Cons of Flying Into Small Airports
We’ve personally flown into both Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo and what they really have going for them is convenience. Santa Maria is also convenient- we just haven’t caught a flight there yet!
Time and Convenience
These local optoins are generally small airports and handle mostly regional planes. Given their size though you rarely run into delays with respect to security or rental car agencies. We often arrive to drop off our vehicle an hour or less before our plane is set to take off (~30 minutes before boarding) and have never really had a problem getting to our gate. :-O Crazy, right?
Car Rental Proximity
The rental car agencies are where, I think, one of the real advantages to flying into a local airport lie. San Luis Obispo has Avis, Budget, Enterprise and Hertz and Santa Barbara has Alamo, Avis, Budget, Dollar, Enterprise, Hertz and National.
The desks for the car rental agencies are located within the terminal (right by baggage claim) and have their vehicles in a lot adjacent to the terminal.
That means that, from picking up your luggage to leaving in your car, you are looking at less than 10 minutes in most cases.
Compare that to the shuttles/trams, etc. you have to go through at larger airports and you are probably saving yourself over half an hour (both arriving and departing). Also, if you happen to travel with kids (yes, we’ve brought our kids and other family with us before), the sanity saved by not having to deal with the car rental shuttle and baggage with kids is well worth it.
We typically fly out of Chicago and the time saved with returning your car, not having to account for big city traffic and getting through security quickly are really well worth it, especially when flying back (and losing two hours due to the time change).
The last time we went to Central Coast we flew home out of Santa Barbara, connecting through Los Angeles. We did the math, and if we had driven from Solvang to Los Angeles to catch the same flight that we ended up connecting to, we would have had to leave our hotel in Santa Ynez at least an hour earlier.
The big lesson is: The time you spend in traffic, rental car returns and security lines really add up!
The photo above (taken with our favorite compact travel camera) shows just how close the baggage claim carousel is to the rental car agencies at San Luis Obispo Airport.
Cost and Connecting
The downsides to flying into a local airport are sometimes cost (although I’ve seen flights go for only $40-50 extra than a direct flight to a connecting airport which is, to me, well worth it) and the fact that you may have to connect (more on that below).
The big exception is for those of you lucky enough to fly out of one of the airports with direct flights. Currently, the major airports with frequent direct flights to Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo are Denver and Phoenix, plus LA and San Francisco (but you are likely driving from the latter two).
Otherwise for the rest of us, if you want to take advantage of the local airports, you are connecting, most likely through one of the aforementioned direction airports (DEN, PHX, SFO or LAX).
The plus is these are all large hubs and allow several flights from across the country to connect (typically on American, United or Alaska).
Compare Flights & Fares with AirfareWatchdog.com.
Rare Flight Changes
I will say the one thing we have run into is that some of the regional flights into SBA and SBP are sometimes not that full.
While this is normally great and relaxing, out of the 11 years we have spent traveling to California Wine Country, we have had one instance where our airline cancelled our small connection flight because it was relatively empty and we had to take another earlier flight.
They had no issue getting us on another flight and we made it home fine but just note that this can happen.
Getting to Central Coast Wine Country from Major Airports
If you don’t like the idea of connecting or can’t get a flight to one of the small local airports, get ready to drive a fair amount on top of that flight.
The nearest major airports to the Central Coast are (drive times below are estimates of the quickest route and do not account for traffic or lines at the airport):
-Los Angeles (LAX) – 3 Hours to Santa Ynez Valley and approximately 3.5-4 hours to Paso Robles
-San Jose (SJC) – 2.5 hours to Paso Robles and 4 hours to Santa Ynez Valley
–San Francisco – 3+ hours to Paso Robles and 4.5 hours to Santa Ynez
–Oakland – 3+ hours to Paso Robles and 4.5 hours to Santa Ynez
Pros and Cons of Flying into Major Airports
We’ve flown into the major airports several times, often you are going to find the cheapest fares doing so and also more flight times.
We typically fly out of Chicago and there are usually 1-2 direct flights to San Jose and ten or more to LAX.
As such, if budget and schedule are your biggest factors, you may want to look into flying into a larger airport, however, as noted above, definitely budget a good hour or more to get your bags, shuttle to your rental car, pick up your rental car and deal with traffic (especially in Los Angeles) as well as whatever time your airline recommends for checking bags (assuming you check).
As noted above, if you are flying to the Midwest or East Coast, also don’t forget the drive times on your way back. A flight to Chicago is typically scheduled for around 4 hours and you lose 2 hours on the way so, to catch a noon flight out of Los Angeles from Santa Ynez you are probably leaving your hotel by 7:30 am (and expect your plane to land around 6 or later).
As noted above, where you travel into is largely a personal decision and, as is often the case, flying into the Central Coast is largely a matter of cost and convenience vs. price. While I definitely have my opinions, the important part is to get yourself there and start enjoying things (everything else tends to work out just fine).