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

Aug. 07, 2019
8 min read
I Visited the Best Airport in America, and Here’s Why I Loved It
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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.

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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't get much closer than that
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

Featured image by ullstein bild via Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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TPG featured card

Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards

2 - 10X points
10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day

Intro offer

75,000 bonus miles
Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

Annual Fee

$395

Recommended Credit

740-850
Excellent
Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,300+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and the Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023
Best card for premium perks while traveling
TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
Go to review

Rewards Rate

10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
2X2 Miles per dollar on every purchase, every day
  • Intro Offer
    Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel

    75,000 bonus miles
  • Annual Fee

    $395
  • Recommended Credit
    Credit ranges are a variation of FICO© Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit card application.

    740-850
    Excellent

Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,300+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and the Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023