The 4 Best Credit Cards for a San Francisco-Based Traveler

Jul 20, 2016

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There are plenty of great rewards-earning credit cards to choose from, but depending on where you live and which airlines best serve your hub airport, some of them are better choices than others. Below, TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen takes a look at the top options for travelers flying out of San Francisco.

There are many factors that should play a role in deciding which travel rewards credit cards to apply for and use on a regular basis. Some cards offer limited-time sign-up bonuses, while others offer lucrative bonus categories for everyday spending. Geography can also influence this decision-making process, and today I’ll continue my series that identifies the best cards for residents of certain cities. After covering New YorkAtlanta, ChicagoWashingtonLos AngelesSeattleHouston and Dallas, I’ll now head back west to the city by the bay: San Francisco.

To answer the question of which cards are best for a San Francisco-based traveler in today’s post, I’ll be following a straightforward format that looks at the following characteristics of a given card:

  • Sign-up bonus
  • Earning rates
  • Other benefits
  • Annual fee

I’ll then detail out why that particular card would appeal to Bay Area residents. Finally, I’ll note another one or two similar options any highlight the key difference(s) you’d notice.

Before getting into the analysis, a few disclaimers. For starters, this list is aimed mainly at leisure travelers who are interested in maximizing their rewards on credit cards. If you regularly travel for business and earn elite status, the calculus may change significantly, as you have additional ways to earn points and miles, and some of the benefits I tout below may be included. Fierce loyalty to a single airline may also lead you away from cards offered by a competitor, though I would strongly encourage you to diversify in the event of a mass-scale devaluation (like we saw with American in March).

In addition, this list represents just one way of looking at the situation and is geared mainly at free flights. You may simply want a card that offers solid everyday value for other rewards (like the Citi Double Cash Card for cash back or the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve Card for free hotel stays). As always, feel free to adjust the list based on your own situations.    

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, which cards are best for a San Francisco-based award traveler? In no particular order:

1. United MileagePlus Explorer Card

IMG United 737 on runway featured
United has the largest presence of any airline in San Francisco, making the Explorer card a great option.

Sign-up bonus: 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first three months your account is open plus 5,000 bonus miles when you add the first authorized user and make a purchase in the first three months
Earning rates: 2 miles per dollar spent on United tickets; 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases
Other benefits: Free checked bag; priority boarding; 2 United Club passes each year; no foreign transaction fees; 10,000 bonus miles when you spend $25,000 each calendar year
Annual fee: $95 (waived for the first year)

Analysis: San Francisco International Airport may not be United’s largest hub, but it still offers nonstop service to nearly 100 destinations around the world and is the carrier’s primary gateway to Asia. Its recent expansion has been quite impressive, adding flights to Auckland, Singapore and Tel Aviv, all within the last year. This is in addition to numerous Star Alliance partners that also serve SFO, including Air China to Beijing, SAS to Copenhagen, Singapore Airlines to Hong Kong and Turkish Airlines to Istanbul. While United did significantly devalue its award charts back in 2014, there are still some great ways to make the most of your redemptions, especially when you redeem on United flights. I sure am looking forward to trying out the carrier’s new Polaris business class!

The Explorer Card earned the top spot on Jason Steele’s post, The Best 5 Cards for Flying United, and for good reason. Your United travel experience is a bit easier and less costly thanks to priority boarding and your first checked bag free (as long as you purchase your ticket with the card). You’ll also get two United Club passes every year, and San Francisco boasts three different locations you can visit. You can also check out the city’s VIP lounge for the Olympics on August 7, a nice added perk for cardholders. However, one of the best benefits of the card for United travelers is the additional award inventory that you can access, expanding your ability to use your MileagePlus miles for future flights.

Other option(s): United MileagePlus Club Card (United Club access and additional perks but a $450 annual fee)

2. Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card

Southwest has maintained a nearly-perfect safety record over its 49-year history.
Southwest isn’t the largest carrier in the Bay Area, but it does offer service from all three local airports.

Sign-up bonus: 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months
Earning rates: 2 points per dollar spent on Southwest purchases and Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partner purchases; 1 point per dollar everywhere else
Other benefits: 6,000 points after your cardmember anniversary; no foreign transaction fees; 1,500 Tier Qualifying Points (TQPs) for every $10,000 spent in a year (up to 15,000 TQPs per year)
Annual fee: $99

Analysis: If the long-haul international flights of United and its partners aren’t of interest, Southwest can be a great option for Bay Area travelers. The carrier offers numerous nonstop flights from all three area airports, including 11 destinations from San Francisco, 15 from San Jose and 28 from Oakland. If you combine the three, Southwest serves 30 unique destinations, making it a nice alternative to United, especially since you can choose between the three airport options. As we’re written about before, Southwest is a terrific option for domestic travel, but it continues to expand internationally as well, and you can use the carrier’s no-fee change policy to maximize your points.

You have a variety of ways to redeem the 50,000-point sign-up bonus on the card, and the 6,000 points you’ll get when you renew cover most of the annual fee (worth $90 based on TPG’s most recent valuations). In addition, every point you earn on the card (including the sign-up bonus) counts toward the Companion Pass, one of the most lucrative perks in the frequent flyer world. This card can put you well on your way toward earning the pass, and if you time it right, you can wind up with a pass valid for almost two years. If you’re a resident of the Bay Area, be sure to check the promotions section of your Rapid Rewards account to see if you were targeted for a Companion Pass after just five round-trip flights!

Other option(s): Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card (same sign-up bonus and lower annual fee, but no TQPs and smaller anniversary bonus)

3. Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card

Alaska is rebranding in 2016.
Alaska’s decent presence across the three Bay Area airports makes the Alaska Visa a great option, especially given the annual companion fare benefit.

Sign-up bonus: 30,000 bonus miles after you make $1,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days
Earning rates: 3 miles per dollar spent on Alaska tickets; 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases
Other benefits: Free checked bag; annual companion fare; no foreign transaction fees
Annual fee: $75

Analysis: The third entry on the list may come as a bit of a surprise, given that Alaska Airlines’ main hubs are in Seattle and Portland, but you actually have a decent number of options from the Bay Area airports. When you combine Alaska’s service from all three airports, you can actually reach 17 unique destinations, including all four major Hawaiian Islands (from both San Jose and Oakland), Los Cabos (from both SFO and San Jose) and Puerto Vallarta (from SFO). You’ll also be able to earn and redeem miles on Alaska’s varied partners, including American, Cathay Pacific and Delta.

Alaska miles are among the most valuable out there based on TPG’s monthly valuations, pegged at 1.8 cents apiece in his most recent version. As long as you take one or two Alaska trips in a year, the card will easily pay for itself thanks to the checked bag fee waiver for you and up to six travel companions on the same reservation. However, my favorite card perk is the annual companion fare. You’ll get this when you open the card and in each subsequent year after renewal. This allows you to book a paid coach ticket on an Alaska-operated flight and bring a companion for just $99 (plus taxes and fees). You’re also not restricted to simple round-trip flights, as you can build in a stopover, utilize an open jaw or even just take a one-way flight. Since both Oakland and San Jose offer nonstop flights to Hawaii, you could view this perk as close to a Buy 1, Get 1 Free discount on flights to Hawaii every year.

Other option(s): n/a

4. Chase Sapphire Preferred Card

Sign-up bonus: Earn 50,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening. That’s $625 in travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards.
Earning rates: 2x points on travel and dining at restaurants and 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases worldwide
Other benefits: $0 in foreign transaction fees; primary car rental insurance
Annual fee: $0 for the first year, then $95

Analysis: If you’re looking for added flexibility when it comes to your redemptions, another great option for Bay Area residents is the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. Ultimate Rewards points are worth even more than Alaska miles thanks to the valuable transfer partners. If you can’t commit to any of the above airlines, don’t fret; you can transfer to both United and Southwest, and if you want to snag award flights on Alaska, you can transfer your points to British Airways. While you’d need to call to book these awards, you’ll enjoy some great value thanks to the carrier’s distance-based award chart. Round-trip economy flights to Hawaii from either Oakland or San Jose are just 25,000 Avios (compared to 40,000 – 60,000 when booked through Alaska). That’s also to say nothing of the valuable hotel partners as well; my personal favorite is Hyatt Gold Passport.

While these redemption options should appeal to anyone living in the Bay Area, the Sapphire Preferred also offers one of the best all-around value propositions of any card out there. The travel bonus category is quite expansive and includes things like Uber and street parking, and I’ve even earned double points on drink tabs when I’m out with my wife or friends. I also use the card whenever I rent a car thanks to the primary car rental insurance that guards against loss or theft without worrying about deductibles or reporting it to your own insurance company. Just remember that Chase recently imposed application restrictions on Ultimate Rewards-earning cards when deciding to pull the trigger on an application.

Other option(s): Ink Plus Business Card (higher sign-up bonus and 5x bonus categories, but the 2x category only applies to gas stations and hotel accommodations)

Bottom Line

Many things can come into play when choosing which credit cards belong in your wallet, and where you live should be a part of this, especially when you’re looking to redeem your points and miles for free flights. The San Francisco area is a bit unique in that you have three different airports from which to choose and no single dominant carrier. As always, be sure to evaluate your own spending habits and consider your desired redemptions to inform your credit card application strategy, but hopefully this post has given you some suggestions of which cards would work best for you!

For the San Francisco-based TPG readers out there, what’s your favorite credit card for award travel?

Featured image courtesy of Shutterstock.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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