Travel Hacking San Francisco: 5 Nights with $0 Instead of $2,543

How I paid $0 instead of $2,543 with credit card points.

Irtiza Hafiz
6 min readDec 11, 2023
Photo by Daniel Abadia on Unsplash

Instead of paying $2,543, I paid $0 for my 5-nights San Francisco trip.

Flying transcontinental routes — Atlanta to San Francisco in my case — in the United States can be very expensive.

You know what’s even more expensive? Staying 5 nights in downtown San Francisco.

When I got the chance to do both of those for FREE (almost!), while reconnecting with old friends and coworkers, I couldn’t just let the chance slip by.

In this blog post, I will show you how I redeemed my credit card points to book some free travel, and give you some overall San Francisco recommendations for your next trip.

Purpose

I lived in San Francisco for 3 years between 2019 and 2022.

So, I have already done most of the touristy things people do when visiting the Bay Area. I have tasted all the delicious food, done most of the hikes, and soaked in all the beautiful views Northern California has to offer.

In this trip, my goal was to mostly spend my time in downtown, reconnecting with old friends and coworkers.

As a bonus, the company I work at, has an office in downtown SF. It was a great opportunity to meet some new coworkers there and experience some of my old regular lunch spots in town.

All that and more were enough reasons for me to get a hotel in downtown SF. But more on that later.

Author flying Delta Airlines from Atlanta to San Francisco

Flight ATL → SFO

Okay, now let’s move to the fun part of the blog post — how did I get the free flights and hotel nights??!

We will start with flights.

I live in Atlanta — a Delta Airlines hub. So, most of my domestic flying is done on Delta.

Cash price to fly non-stop from Atlanta to San Francisco was $577.

Instead of paying cash, I spent 30,000 Virgin Atlantic points. For folks who care about cents per point or CPP, that’s 1.92 CPP.

Virgin Atlantic is a transfer partner of all major US credit card issuers — American Express, Chase, Capital One, Citi, Bilt, etc.

In my case, I transferred 30,000 Membership Rewards (MR) points from American Express to Virgin Atlantic.

All the points were earned through everyday spending on my AMEX Gold and Blue Business Plus credit cards.

Next to IHG Holiday Inn Express

IHG Holiday Inn Express (1 Night)

I recently got a Chase IHG One Rewards Premier credit card that came with a 140,000 IHG points sign up bonus (SUB) after spending $3,000. It also comes with Platinum Elite status, which is IHG’s second highest elite level.

Given I have never stayed at an IHG property before with my elite status, I wanted to give it a go.

Even though the cents per point (CPP) for one night in downtown San Francisco was low, I decided to give it a go.

Holiday Inn Express & Suites Fishermans Wharf is in a great touristy location. It’s right beside Pier 39, one of the must-see spots if you are in the Bay Area.

One night in this hotel was $216 or 32,000 points. I spent the latter, resulting in around 0.7 CPP.

If you are going to San Francisco for the first time, this is a great hotel! It’s in a much safer part of the city, and in closer proximity to Pier 39, Fisherman’s Wharf, Bay Bridge, and a short hike to the Golden Gate Bridge.

You also get free hot breakfast and quick access to the city’s public transportation network.

After I checked into the hotel, I went on the 45-minute hike to the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a great hike! I would highly recommend if you are in the area.

Upgraded corner room at Hilton Parc 55

Hilton Parc 55 (5 Nights)

I spent 206,000 Hilton Honors points to stay 5 nights in downtown San Francisco. That was the bulk of my stay.

Through my Hilton Honors American Express Business Card, I have Hilton Gold status.

This was one of my first Hilton stays where I saw the true power of holding a hotel status. What did I get?

  1. Upgraded to a top floor corner room
  2. Daily $50 food credit for the 2 on-site restaurants
  3. 5th night free, when booking 4 nights with points

All that for FREE.

Before elaborating on points earning and redemption, let me quickly talk about the hotel.

If you want the long version (with photos!), check out my Yelp review. Otherwise, here’s the quick TLDR:

  • Amazing location, closer to everything you will want to see
  • On the “safer” side of Tenderloin
  • You won’t run out of food options
  • Beautiful top floor corner room with sweeping views of downtown SF
Views from hotel room

Okay, now let’s talk point redemption.

I spent 206,000 Hilton Honors points, which, when taking in account the 5th night free Gold perk, gave me a CPP of 0.8.

Hilton points are valued at around 0.5 cents, so I was quite pleased with my 0.8.

Staying 5-nights in downtown SF with amazing city-views FOR FREE was one of the highlights of the trip.

I checked the cash price of that room over 5 nights — a whopping $1,750.

This is a great example of why I collect points. It lets me experience things I wouldn’t with cash. I would never pay cash for this stay.

If I didn’t have points, I would pick one of the cheaper hotels in the city. I might have even reduced the stay to something like 3 nights.

That’s why, even though the redemption wasn’t anything crazy from a CPP perspective, it was a memorable one from an experience perspective.

Points Redemption Summary

Okay, so there you have it.

This is how I stayed 5-nights in San Francisco for free.

  • Flight: Instead of paying $577 cash, I spent 30,000 Virgin Atlantic points.
  • 1-night IHG Hotel: Instead of paying $216 cash, I spent 32,000 IHG points.
  • 5-nights Hilton Hotel: Instead of paying $1,750 cash, I spent 206,000 Hilton Honors points.

Travel Credit Cards

If you have made it this far, thank you so much for reading!

I hope you found it valuable.

If you were inspired by this and want to do the same, consider using my links (or a friend’s) to apply for the travel cards that made this trip possible.

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Irtiza Hafiz

https://irtizahafiz.com Engineering manager who writes about software development and productivity.