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SFO United Club and Long Layovers

I got the bad news that United has changed our flight, leaving on March 20. Our itinerary is Sacramento-San Francisco-Frankfurt. Our original flight had us with a 3 hour layover at SFO. Now we will have to leave SMF at 6:46 a.m. and have a 7 hour layover at SFO. Our flights were reserved using United miles. I looked for another option with a shorter layover somewhere else and the only possibilities are to change in Denver or Chicago. Dealing with a location that could be having severe winter weather concerns me. We do have United Club passes and I see there is a Club that’s open in terminal 3. I’m assuming our flight from SMF would arrive there. Has anyone used that Club? Are there time limits for how long someone can stay in there? Do they have food and beverages? Would we go through security to get to International terminal for our flight to Frankfurt?

What would you do, change to a flight that could have delays for weather or suck it up and deal with the long layover?

Posted by
5406 posts

Have been through SFO more than a few times on United and partners, I think I've been to all the United lounges there.

I don't suppose you have a business class ticket on this trip? If yes, then you get to enjoy the United "Polaris" (business class) lounge there, which is surprisingly awesome (free food, which is quite good, in their sit-down restaurant section, showers, very comfy seating area, bar, and more). If you have a business class ticket, the SFO Polaris lounge is a wonderful place to kill time (only available if you have an outbound business/first class ticket from SFO on United or one of their partners, and they are strict about entry requirements, so there's no chance of trying to sneak in if you don't meet their criteria).

If you're not on a business class ticket, then it'll be the "United Club" lounge for you. It's perfectly adequate, though a far cry from the Polaris lounge. The United Club has some food (typically a limited menu of serve-yourself options, which are reduced/simplified during the pandemic), fairly decent stuff but nothing to gush over. There's also a bar, multiple seating areas, it's not a bad option. 7 hours would be a long time there, but it beats sitting at a gate for that long. I would probably take breaks, wandering around the airport, shopping and people watching (at least I would if a pandemic wasn't raging). There should be no time limits that I'm aware of, you have passes, they should be good for the whole day, and killing time there between your United flights is the reason it exists.

Not sure about having to re-clear security, you might. You will be coming in on a domestic flight, departing on an international one, and I believe United's domestic and international gates are in different wings of the terminal, so don't be shocked if you need to go through security again. You certainly have enough time to do that.

One last suggestion: since your flights changed (and significantly), you do NOT have to simply accept the options United has offered you (it was picked by a computer). If you haven't yet, give United a call. Explain the situation, ask (nicely) if they can accommodate you with a better option (be prepared to suggest what a "better option" means to you - eg shorter connection, maybe leaving a day earlier or later, flying to Frankfurt on a partner -- Lufthansa flies from SFO to FRA but check details like seat dimensions before committing). Though you booked with miles, you're still a paying customer, and they can (and often do) bend the rules somewhat, to get you a better flight. Sometimes, after a schedule change you can end up with a much better option than you originally had, so it's always worth trying.

Hope that helps. Good luck.

Posted by
430 posts

Having dealt with odd connections and schedule changes through SMF, we often just chose to stay at an SFO airport hotel the night before. There are several that do park and fly packages. United has an obligation to change your flight because of the schedule change. They might even get you on a later flight from SMF that day with another airline. Worth a try.

Posted by
61 posts

I was scheduled on the same routing this coming April but was able to change it yesterday. If you are in business class on the international leg, you'll be able to use the Polaris Club, if not then the UC in terminal 3 is not a bad spot to spend the time. It is relatively large, has a full bar and assorted food options (nothing grand but lots of nibbles). There is also a pretty good view of the runways. It's definitely more comfortable than the main terminal. Don't make a ruckus and you shouldn't have any problem staying there until your TATL leg.

When you leave the club for your flight to FRA, turn left and take the long walkway to the main terminal. There's usually an interesting art or museum display along the way. When you get to the Yankee Pier restaurant turn right and follow the signs to the "G" gates of the international terminal. There is a secure bridge and you'll be able to stay airside the whole time.

BTW-I totally agree with your thinking on avoiding ORD/DEN.

Posted by
2404 posts

also check into other ways to get into lounges, like credit cards or day passes

Posted by
1294 posts

Based on your departure time from Sacramento you’ll be at SFO between roughly 8 am to 3 pm.

I’ll suggest an alternative. If it’s a nice day hop an Uber to downtown Burlingame. It’s a quick 10 or 15 minute ride. There’s apparently a public bus option too. Burlingame Avenue has lots of shops and restaurants. When I was last there the street was closed to traffic and restaurants had outside dining parklets. Very pedestrian friendly. Not sure if it’s still closed to car traffic. Have a nice breakfast or lunch. Stroll around. If you have a sweet tooth stop by Copenhagen bakery for some treats for the flight to Frankfurt. Get back to SFO early and you can still spend some time in the lounge.

Posted by
161 posts

David above was being too nice, the standard United lounge at SFO sucks. Will United let you turn your ticket into an open jaw and fly directly out of SFO and return to Sacramento. Then just bribe someone to drive you down for your departure flight with a time cushion but not 7 hours. Killing a shorter period of time in the Club lounge would maybe become tolerable.

Posted by
2064 posts

Hi Andrea, I too was thinking that maybe it would be easier and nicer to just drive to SFO preferably that morning but the night before if it's just too early a flight. In the olden days, (like way olden!) we frequently had to drive the 2+ hours but we didn't drive ourselves. If it were for me, I'd probably try to get the multi-city ticket and return to SMF.

Posted by
8684 posts

Thanks everyone. Sadly no business class for us. I looked at flights the two days before and the day after our scheduled flight and there was nothing better than what they changed us to on our original day of travel without risking adverse weather conditions at the connecting airport. Apparently they aren’t doing the late morning flight from SMF to SFO any longer. We don’t want to drive to SFO and return there because I don’t want that long drive home after a transatlantic flight. We could drive to my brother’s house in the East Bay and take BART from there, but then we would have the same long drive. Parking at any airport is a big no. We will be gone 6 weeks. I already miss our free airport parking in the employee lot when hubby worked there. I have thought about taking Amtrak/BART to SFO, and I suppose it could still be an option. I would have see the timing for the train. dpl, are you offering to drive us to SFO? I’ll pay you. That’s the bribe you’re talking about, right? :-)

Edit: The Amtrak schedule doesn’t work for us.

Posted by
2543 posts

How about open jaw booking a town car to SFO, returning to SMF? Yes, it’s costly but you’ve saved a lot on airfare by using miles so maybe splurge?

Posted by
3584 posts

I wouldn't worry about O'Hare in the second half of March. Gosh, doesn't SFO have more delays from fog and low clouds than snow airports have delays from, well, snow? March 20 is getting late for snow anyway, although there may be that 1 March storm that coincides with your trip. Note that Denver is more likely to have a snowstorm than Chicago in March and April. The snow season in Chicago ends earlier.

FWIW: I think the summer thunderstorm delays at O'Hare are a bigger deal than the snow delays. Also note that airlines put major hubs in airports like Denver, Chicago, Minneapolis, and Detroit so the snow can't be a big deal or they wouldn't do it.

I had a pretty awful United flight in September with delays and reroutes totaling about 7 hours for a domestic flight. The club passes from the United credit card came in handy, free wine and quiet space to deal with a trying day. The only hot food was burritos in a plastic wrapper but free is good.

Posted by
8684 posts

Thanks Tom. There is a decent flight with a change in Chicago I would consider. There’s a 2 hour layover and I wonder if that would be sufficient. If the flight from Chicago was delayed it wouldn’t be a big deal, but I would just hate to miss the connection.

Posted by
1916 posts

Would you consider a Southwest flight to SFO, especially if you could pick up a cheap fare?

I'd advise checking out your new flight- and other possible flight options- on Flight Aware, to see if the flights are currently flying, and what the dependability has been. When our British Airways flights were canceled for Sept 2021, we discovered that the flights sold to us hadn't been flown for 18 months. Also, some of the flights they changed us to weren't even flying. We had 6 flight changes, and then our evening connection in Chicago was completely canceled, after a 4 hour delay. The airlines did put us up in a hotel, but the next flight was the next evening.

I would avoid Chicago airports at all costs. I can't remember my last good experience transiting through Chicago.

It takes nerves of steel to fly right now, and deal with all the changes, but getting to Europe is so worth it. Good luck!

Posted by
5406 posts

A 2-hour connection in Chicago is in the gray area for me, for that airport. It's probably do-able, but if your inbound flight is delayed significantly, look out. I've done shorter connections there (in fact, on my last trip, about 1.5 hours) and made it, but it was very tight, with clearing passport control, claiming then re-checking bags, bus from arrival terminal to departure terminal. I'm OK rolling the dice a bit, with a tighter-than-I-wanted connection at a huge, chaotic airport like ORD, but only on my return flight, not on the outbound.

I figure if I miss a connection on the way home, worst case I spend the night in a motel and get home the next day. But if I misconnect on the outbound, the dominoes start falling on my trip plan, and that's a lousy way to begin a trip. If your trip is tightly scripted, the stakes go up fast.

Is your potential connection in Chicago on the outbound, or the return?

Posted by
836 posts

T3 and the G gates are linked via a longish walkway. The UA lounge is ok, but not great for 7 hours, unless you bring your laptop with some work/project to do. If you do spend time in this lounge, you will find it crowded. To reach a more peaceful zone, walk past the bar and find the work stations in the very back. There are also some chairs with coffee tables.

If you have a credit card that gives you Priority Pass, then you can go to the two designated restaurants. Their menus are not bad (food quality is higher than at the UA lounge), but killing seven hours may be difficult.

Posted by
3584 posts

Andrea: check if the departure is from the international terminal 5 or not, 5 involves a train and security. My recollection is both United and American try to keep European departures to be from the domestic terminals. Lufthansa would require the terminal 5 trek (I think).

I had 3 flawless transits at OHare in the last several months, it usually works. American connections are closer proximity, if regional jet to regular jet on United it’s a hike, 2 were like that recently (Albany, Richmond) but I doubt SMF to ORD is a regional jet.

Unfortunately things will likely change again so probably not worth too much fretting now.

Edit: Checking today the United FRA flight left from C18, which is pretty central to the domestic regular jets, likely just minutes from where the SMF flight arrived.

Posted by
8684 posts

Thanks everyone. The flight to Chicago from Sacramento is on a 737. No immigration needed. I’d prefer more than 2 hours for a layover, but I would not only like to avoid a 7 hour layover, I would like to avoid such an early departure time from Sacramento. The flight from Sacramento to Chicago departs at 10:59 instead of 6:46 to San Francisco. The flight from Chicago to Frankfurt arrives a little earlier than the flight from SFO, but I’m fine with that. I’m starting to lean towards the flight that changes in Chicago. Decisions, decisions… I need to decide soon so we don’t end up with the worst seats. The planes are filling up.

Posted by
1916 posts

Note: In Chicago, you will most likely have to get to the International Terminal [O'Hare, I assume] which involves a bus.
Safe travels!

Posted by
3055 posts

We used the United lounge for our international flight in 2020. We thought it was crowded and pretty basic in terms of amenities, comfort and food. For our April 30 flight to Germany we are going SMF-DEN-FRA going over with a 2h 35min layover in DEN. I always hate the wind gusts coming off the Rockies but we didn’t want to backtrack to potentially foggy SFO. There are always trade offs. I hope you can find a routing you like or take a good book/kindle to the hopefully not too crowded lounge.

Posted by
21662 posts

What about the Denver option? The clubs are nice. Weather at that time of year has high probability of being good BUT one of our worst blizzards was St. Pat's day about 20 years ago. So far this year, no snow. I would not worry about the weather.

Posted by
61 posts

Andrea--Don't know if this helps, but United's schedule adds a 9:45 am SMF-SFO flight starting 3/27.

Posted by
8424 posts

What would you do, change to a flight that could have delays for weather or suck it up and deal with the long layover?

If it were my trip I woud consider the routing through IAH with the one hour layover

Posted by
1504 posts

Andrea, my flights have been changed and I will miss my second flight. I’m on hold with the airline now. I couldn’t get the call back option to work. It’s been over two hours. Supposedly I have to wait less than 1 to two hours. Uggh!

Posted by
3584 posts

routing through IAH with the one hour layover

We all have our different likes but the United gates at IAH spread the farthest apart of any airline at any airport I know, sometimes over 30 minutes walking and tram to get from one United gate to the other, and that is if you know where you are going and walking with purpose. IAH has a linear "pearls on a string" design with terminals scattered down the roadway (like PHX) so the distances are large and United gates are in all the terminals (unlike PHX where American is in only one terminal, and Southwest in only one terminal). The farthest apart United gates are at O'Hare is a 15 minutes brisk walk, except international arrivals to domestic departures which is a slog.

I have been in 2 (of the 5) United clubs at IAH if that is what happens and can give my preference.

Posted by
8684 posts

Thank you all for your suggestions. There’s no way I would entertain a one hour layover at IAH. Our first trip to Europe had us changing there with a 1.5 hour layover. Hubby and I were with my brother, sister and her husband. Our flight was delayed and there was no time to waste getting to our next gate. Hubby and I ran through the airport like OJ and got to the gate on time. They waited for the rest of my family, who moved more slowly. We were the last to board. I don’t need that kind of additional stress.

Using miles, we can’t utilize all the flight options that people purchasing tickets can. Thankfully our good friend dpl, who suggested above that we could bribe someone to take us to to SFO and fly from there has generously offered to drive us. He’s the best. I will be calling United today to have them change our outbound flight. After reading a new thread about a long layover and Covid safety at the airport I’m even more determined to minimize our time there.

Fingers crossed we won’t have any more changes.

Posted by
3055 posts

That sounds like a good solution for your long layover time and you’ll get to visit with that very nice neighbor on the drive in to the city. Good luck with your United phone call today!

Posted by
8684 posts

It took 2 calls to United this morning. Call #1 I was able to speak to someone immediately and I explained I only wanted to drop my flight from SMF-SFO and keep the flight from SFO-FRA. She still insisted on reciting my itinerary. Yes, please just drop the one flight. I will get myself to SFO. She asked me to hold for a few minutes. After being on hold for an hour I hung up. Call #2 the recording told me there was a 10-15 minute wait and would I like a call back. Yes please. When I received the call back that agent insisted on reciting the itinerary. Yes, please just cancel the first leg of the flight. Hold please. Ten minutes later it was done. I don’t know why the first person had such a difficult time.

Diane, I’m sorry to hear about your flight change and hope you were able to work it out.

Posted by
1504 posts

It took 2:1/2 hours but I won’t miss my last flight. It isn’t a direct flight but it is what it is. They wanted to charge me 150 more but they changed the flight. I said no!

Now I have to get home without catching the virus.
Glad you found a ride to SFO.

Posted by
8684 posts

Diane, even though your new routing isn’t ideal, I’m happy to hear you were able to work it out without additional expense to you. Enjoy your trip!