I Visited the Best Airport in America, and Here’s Why I Loved It

Aug 7, 2019

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What does it take to be one of TPG’s best airports in the US?

San Diego is one of my favorite cities on Earth. With its chill, beachy vibe and abundance of fresh Mexican food, everything about the city screams, “Let’s just have a good time.”

So, when The Points Guy asked me to visit San Diego International Airport (SAN), the winner of our Best and Worst Airports in the US report for 2019, I jumped at the chance. The best airport in the best city? I’m in.

That’s how I found myself catching an early-morning flight from Chicago O’Hare (ORD) to San Diego. I arrived at terminal 2 (home of full-service airlines, with far more amenities than the budget-airline dedicated terminal 1) at 10am with plenty of time to explore.

Upon disembarking, my first though was, “Wow!” and my second thought was, “Ouch, my eyes!” Because San Diego International was full of light.

Literally
Literally.

That’s one area in which the airport performed best: It was all towering glass panels and silver metal, with funky sculptures and fountains thrown in for good measure.

Food court, terminal 2
Food court, Terminal 2

There were also palm trees, because Southern California.

In short, the airport was beautiful.

Although I landed before lunch, I was told I needed to try the food from Phil’s BBQ, an iconic San Diego staple with an airport outpost.

I wasn’t that hungry, so I ordered the small meal.

Small
“Small.”

With “just” three ribs, French fries, cornbread, onion rings and coleslaw before me, I was clearly showing pretty spectacular restraint.
With a drink, my total came to a cool $18, though two people could easily share the meal.

In addition to the oversized plates of barbecue, another thing I loved about this airport was that it was just not that crowded. Here was my seat in the terminal, just outside my gate:

The whole place was like that: Everyone just kind of sitting around and sprawled out, with no one fighting for elbow room. It was very pleasant.

Even more important was that the airport was phenomenally located — a mere four miles from San Diego’s lively downtown, which meant a commute would’ve taken a total of 10 minutes. The 992 bus runs direct from the airport and costs a whopping $2.25. Ride-hailing runs about $10.

It doesn
It doesn’t get much closer than that.

But how was the ambience? Since you know this is a best-airport review, I’m sure you know where this is going (hint: somewhere good).

What I didn’t know was that San Diego International was so cool and chill that even the TSA agents were cracking jokes over the loudspeaker. TSA! When is the last time you heard anything from TSA other than, “Do you have any liquids, laptops or metal in your pockets? If so, please remove them and place them in a bin ….”

You get my point. Even the understaffed and underpaid government workers were downright jolly.

Perhaps this had to do with the soothing music and free ballet performances in front of the terminal’s baby grand piano:

Meanwhile, volunteers canvassed the airport, looking for people who needed a little therapy-dog love.

Do you require snuggles?
Do you require snuggles?

And when I asked the volunteer-led information desk for help on how to get to the lounge, I was invited to hop into the old cart-mobile so they could take me there. How cool were these people?

Cruising in style.

Tucked in an odd back corner between east and west terminal 2, the Airspace Lounge had absolutely no signage and no obvious indication of how to get there.

However, since my buddy the cart driver knew where he was going, we arrived there in no time flat, where a small sign just outside the entrance let me know it existed.

As a holder of both the Platinum Card® from American Express and the the Business Platinum Card® from American Express, I had access to the lounge, which granted complimentary admission to holders of either card. In addition, entrants were given a card with a $10 credit to spend at the bar or on food.

The lounge was also open to business-class passengers of both British Airways and Japan Airlines, or anyone willing to pay the $40 admission fee.

This wasn’t your ordinary packed-solid Priority Pass lounge, either. Like everything at this airport, it was clean, spacious and mostly empty.

It also featured awesome tarmac views for excellent planespotting.

The lounge itself provided free, unlimited snacks and nonalcoholic drinks, much like any other lounge you’d see. However, Airspace did things a little differently, offering a selection of higher-quality food and beverages at the bar (for a fee).

However, the pièce de résistance of the lounge was its shower, which, while basic, was clean, large and totally empty (are you sensing the theme here?) when I arrived.

This was definitely one of the higher-end lounges I’ve been to, barring such outliers as United’s Polaris in San Francisco (SFO) or Cathay’s The Wing in Hong Kong (HKG), both of which require a premium business-class ticket.

Overall Impression

San Diego’s airport is one of the most pleasant I’ve had the opportunity to experience, far from the angry hordes of LAX and its nightmarish construction. Though the airport itself is gorgeous, where it really stands out is its unparalleled location, friendly staff and top-notch lounge. All in all, San Diego Airport is a winner and totally deserves its No. 1 Airport title.

All photos by the author except featured image by Dünzl/ullstein bild via Getty Images

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