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Your Points and Miles Guide to San Francisco

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In the third installment of our “Points and Miles Destination Guide” series, TPG Contributor Whitney Magnuson explores the many different ways to maximize a trip to San Francisco using points and miles. 

Whether or not you choose to wear flowers in your hair, if you’re going to San Francisco, you’ll find plenty of sightseeing options and no shortage of great places to stay. However, as the City by the Bay is one of the most expensive spots in the country, travelers headed here can save a good chunk of change by redeeming miles and points to cover their flights, hotel and local transportation. Today, I’ll outline some of the best redemption options.

Alcatraz Island
Alcatraz Island. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Getting There

San Francisco is served by three main airports — San Francisco International Airport (SFO), Oakland International Airport (OAK), and San Jose International Airport (SJC). SFO is by far the largest of the three, with more than 45 million passengers passing through its gates each year.

Many of the flights out of SFO are operated by the three major domestic airlines, with American and United both offering zone-based travel, meaning you’ll pay the same number of points from any American origin city, even if you can’t fly direct. Saver Awards on United will run you 12,500 miles each way in economy, 25,000 miles in business or 35,000 in first (only on three-cabin aircraft, which are rarely used on domestic flights these days). American’s MileSAAver awards are priced similarly except at the first class level, where you’ll only need 32,500 miles each way.

Delta, on the other hand, now bases its awards in part on the cash price of the ticket; however, if you’re willing to be flexible on travel dates, you can usually find economy seats from most American cities for about 12,500 SkyMiles, or business/first class seats for about 32,500 Skymiles — similar award pricing to the other major carriers.

For those travelers coming from short-haul West Coast cities, you can also find an award sweet spot by booking American Airlines awards using British Airways Avios. Cities within 650 miles of San Francisco — including Los Angeles, Portland and Salt Lake City — qualify as Zone 1 awards, requiring just 4,500 Avios each way. Seattle and Phoenix fall within Zone 2, requiring a still reasonable 7,500 Avios.

JetBlue flies to San Francisco-area airports from five US cities, with its premium Mint service available on flights out of Boston and New York. These business-class seats start at $599 or 45,300 TrueBlue points — not a bad deal for a transcon flight in an upgraded cabin.

Virgin America flies to San Francisco from several US cities plus Cancun, for some of the lowest prices of any carrier. Seats on its daily nonstop Dallas-San Francisco flights, for example, go for as low as $106 or 4,233 Elevate points, while first class is available for as little as $388 or 17,349 points. Note that you can transfer American Express Membership Rewards to Virgin America at a 2:1 ratio. Even better, Virgin is currently offering Gold elite status to Amex cardholders who transfer 80,000 Membership Rewards points to Elevate — a good way to enjoy some premium perks while you travel.

Virgin America's first class seats
Virgin America’s first class seats

Of course, San Francisco is also one of the main US departure points for travel to Asia. These flights across the Pacific often feature truly remarkable service in upgraded cabins, far exceeding what you’ll find on the domestic carriers.

Singapore Airlines, for example, flies to San Francisco from both Seoul and Hong Kong daily, as well as from nine additional Asian locations. Since the Singapore KrisFlyer program partners with all four of the major transferable loyalty currencies (Chase Ultimate Rewards, Amex Membership Rewards, Starwood Preferred Guest and Citi ThankYou Rewards), earning enough points for a reward ticket is fairly easy. One-way tickets at the Saver level will set you back 29,750 miles for economy class, 68,000 for business or 91,375 miles for first, after the 15% discount for booking online is applied.

Similarly, Korean Airlines is also a transfer partner of the Chase and Starwood programs. While awards on Korean require slightly more points, award availability is quite good, making it a good fallback option if you need specific dates. Korean offers direct flights to San Francisco from Seoul and Singapore, with award seats starting at 70,000 miles for economy, 125,000 miles for business and 160,000 miles for first. Both the Citi Prestige Card and the Citi ThankYou Premier Card currently offer 50,000 points for spending $3,000 in the first three months, making either card a good tool for earning many of the above redemption options.

Where To Stay

The Westin St. Francis San Francisco on Union Square
The Westin St. Francis San Francisco on Union Square

There’s no shortage of great hotel properties in San Francisco among all the top hotel chains, and my personal favorite, Starwood, stands out with several solid options in the City Center. The best redemption value in the Starwood chart can usually be found at the Le Meridien San Francisco, a Category 5 property located in the Financial District that’ll run you 12,000 Starpoints for a free room with a great view of the city. As nightly rates hover around $312, you’d manage a redemption value of 2.6 cents per point; that’s favorable given TPG’s latest valuation of 2.5 cents apiece for Starpoints.

The Westin St. Francis San Francisco, also a Category 5 property requiring 12,000 points per night, comes in a close second for Starwood award redemption value; the average nightly rate of $285 works out to 2.4 cents per point. Starwood travelers looking for more luxurious options could also explore the W San Francisco for 20,000 points per night, or the St. Regis San Francisco for 30,000 points per night.

One note for those hoping to cash in their Starpoints: Due to limited award availability across Bay Area Starwood properties, you should book early when possible, especially if you’ll be traveling during a holiday or big event. Still, with the recently increased sign-up bonus on the Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express, any of these options are easily within reach.

Hyatt also offers good value both within the city and close to the SFO airport. The Hyatt Regency San Francisco, located just across the street from the Ferry Building, offers rooms for about $400 or 15,000 points per night. Meanwhile, the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport hotel requires a mere 8,000 points or about $180 per night for a room.

As Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer 1:1 to Hyatt, a traveler hoping to stay at either of these options might want to consider the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. By spending $4,000 in the first three months and adding an authorized card holder, you’ll earn 45,000 UR points — easily redeemable for a three-night stay.

The stunning lobby of the Fairmont San Francisco.
The stunning lobby of the Fairmont San Francisco

If you have Hilton points burning a hole in your travel wallet, never fear — the chain is also well represented in ‘Frisco. Visitors headed to a convention at the Moscone Center should check out the Hilton San Francisco Union Square, with average rates around $399 — or between 50,000 to 60,000 Hilton points — per night. In fact, the hotel is so popular with travelers, it’s the third most frequent hotel redemption among Hilton Citi cardholders. Fair warning, though: The hotel is undergoing a lobby renovation through fall 2015.

A slightly less expensive option can be had at the Doubletree by Hilton SFO North, which runs guests roughly $260 or 40,000 Hilton points per night. These awards can be particularly useful if you have an early morning flight out of SFO.

Finally, if historical landmarks are more your thing, consider a stay at the Fairmont San Francisco. The 108-year-old Nob Hill neighborhood property is dripping with high-end touches like marble columns and gilded mirrors, and average room nights often soar over $600 a night. With two free nights available from the Fairmont Visa Signature Card for spending $3,000 within three months, this high-end property is also within reach.

Getting Around

With Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar all headquartered here, San Francisco is a mecca for ride-sharing services. The competition among the companies, as well as from regular taxis, means rates and wait times are both generally low. An UberX from SFO to the Moscone Center will run you $28-$36, while an UberBlack averages about $68. Cab rides from SFO fall between the two, at about $45 per trip.

One of San Francisco's famous cable cars
One of San Francisco’s famous cable cars. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Still, you can just as easily jump on a BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) train just outside the SFO International Terminal for $8.65 one-way into the Embarcadero. SamTrans buses also service the airport, with a one-way local fare aboard route 292 costing just $2.

Once you’ve made it into the city proper, the Muni system, comprised of buses, light rail and the beloved cable cars, can deliver you to just about any destination you desire. A three-day visitor pass can secure you unlimited rides on the Muni for $26.

Alternately, if all those notoriously steep and curvy hills don’t scare you, you can explore San Fran on two-wheels with a Bay Area BikeShare rental. Rent one of the teal and blue bicycles ($9 for a 24-hour rental or $22 for three days), and you can navigate the 68 miles-and-growing of streets via dedicated bike paths and bike lanes.

So there you have it. For more tips about where to go and what to see in the City by the Bay, check out TPG’s previous destination guide for San Francisco.

Share your favorite points and miles tips for visiting San Francisco in the comments below!

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