As the gateway to Silicon Valley, Napa Valley – and for that matter, the United States in general – San Francisco is an apt place for an American Express Centurion Lounge. In fact, SFO is such a popular haunt for premium American Express Card Members that Amex recently doubled the size of its own-brand lounge here.

Its location, and the design of US airports more broadly, also make this space accessible before both domestic and international flights. You could equally stop by before a 90-minute hop to Los Angeles as you could before a 15-hour journey to Australia.

Wherever you’re headed, here’s what the American Express Centurion Lounge in San Francisco has in store.

Location, layout and seating

In San Francisco, the American Express Centurion Lounge lives in Terminal 3. It’s directly opposite gates F1 and F2. But for those not familiar with SFO, here’s a tip. You don’t need to be flying from the ‘F’ gates, or even from Terminal 3, to get inside.

San Francisco International Airport has many airside links between terminals. For instance, Terminal 3 is also linked with Terminal 2 after security – ditto, with ‘International Terminal G’. In effect, if you’re departing from a gate beginning with C, D, E, F or G, you’ll be able to walk to this lounge after security.

Today, I’m flying Air Canada from the D gates in Terminal 2, and the Centurion Lounge is about a 10-minute stroll from there. Its location also suits those flying United to Sydney, Melbourne or Brisbane. These flights normally depart from the G gates, being even closer.

It’s bad news if you’re flying Qantas to Sydney, though. Qantas uses ‘International Terminal A’ – in a separate security area. Amex suggests that if you arrive early enough, you may be able to clear Terminal 3 security to visit the lounge. But you’d have to allow plenty of time to make it back to International Terminal A, and to clear security again before boarding.

Wherever you’re headed, San Francisco’s American Express Centurion Lounge mirrors the style of many others I’ve encountered, including in Los Angeles and New York JFK.

This is a long, thin lounge, divided into various rooms. Different zones suit working, dining and relaxing. Pleasingly, this lounge has been expanded since it first opened. Several ‘new’ rooms are found by following the corridor adjacent to the windows, which overlook Terminal 3 check-in. Given the design, these rooms tend to be quieter than the rest of the lounge. Not ‘quiet’ – it’s still a busy space – but, comparatively, quieter.

American Express’ San Francisco Centurion Lounge opens daily between 5 am and 11 pm. Unless you’re connecting between flights or have the invitation-only Centurion Card, access is available from three hours before your flight’s scheduled departure time.

Lounge amenities

Beyond the typical seating, the San Francisco Centurion Lounge has a few tricks up its sleeve.

If you happen to have American Express’ invitation-only Centurion Card, you’ll find a couple of reserved spaces within the public parts of the lounge. It’s not that the Centurion-only zones are particularly different to the areas open to Platinum cardholders. But by being ‘reserved’, they’re just quieter in general – and mean that Centurion Members are always guaranteed a seat.

Beyond that reserved dining room and relaxation space, the lounge offers a handy phone room. By design, it’s provided for people to make calls, without disturbing everybody else in the lounge. But given how busy Amex’s lounges tend to be, I’ve seen the room often used just for its seating.

There are also two shower suites available. Staff at reception can help you book if there’s a queue. Fortunately though, when I enquire at around 5 pm – when the lounge is otherwise quite busy – a room is immediately available. Towels and amenities are provided.

You don’t see much of it inside, but there’s also a multi-storey ‘living wall’ near the entrance. Its location makes it difficult to appreciate, as it’s not somewhere you’d really spend any time. But if you do take a moment to peruse, a sign here claims that it’s comprised of 895 living plants.

On the more practical side, Wi-Fi is free and fast. I clock average downloads of 36.4Mbps and average uploads of 83.1Mbps. That’s zippy enough for video calls, video streaming, large cloud backups – you name it.

Food and beverage in San Francisco’s Amex Centurion Lounge

On the food and beverage side, the design of Amex’s San Francisco Centurion Lounge is a little unconventional. Rather than one main bar and one main buffet, there are two of each. There’s one pair in what was the ‘original’ Centurion Lounge space, and another pair in the extension.

Of course, it’s handy not having to walk from one end of the lounge to the other if you want a bite to eat. But on this visit, I find that the two buffet stations offer different food options – so you’ll probably want to explore both, anyway.

Across both stations, there’s a range of fresh fruit, ingredients to make salads, as well as light options like antipasto, hummus and pita. Add to that, cured meats, cheeses, vegetables and other hot food. For instance, the chicken is particularly juicy and the little pizza squares are tasty too. It’s also hard to pass on the cookies sitting right there.

Over at the bar, wine selections are aptly dominated by the Californian locals. Other than the (Italian) Prosecco, everything else comes from The Golden State. I’d love to try a few different drops, but I have two international flights ahead of me tonight. Next time, perhaps.

Instead, I peruse the cocktail menu for a single pre-flight tipple. This time, the gin basil fizz catches my eye. It’s mixed with a Californian brut, so I still get to sip on something local. It oddly comes served without the drink’s signature basil garnish, but it’s zesty and refreshing.

Given my early start today – being up before the sun for a flight across from San Antonio – my next stop is, predictably, the coffee machine. It makes a latte, and it’s okay, but nothing close to a barista brew. Oddly, I find the same machine at my next stop – one of San Francisco’s United Clubs – and the coffee there comes with much better crema. Go figure!

Accessing the Amex Centurion Lounge in San Francisco

One of the more pleasing aspects of Amex’s Centurion Lounge is that you don’t have to be an American Card Member to get inside. Having the right Platinum or Centurion Card, issued in any country, can be your ticket to the San Francisco Centurion Lounge.

Access rules can vary for cards issued in different countries. But here are the Australian cards that provide complimentary, unlimited entry:

Be aware that other premium American Express cards from Australia don’t qualify for lounge access overseas. For instance, this applies to cards like Amex Explorer, Qantas Amex Ultimate and Amex Velocity Platinum. These products, and selected others, include two complimentary Centurion Lounge visits in Australia. But those visits aren’t redeemable overseas, including in the San Francisco Centurion Lounge.

As with other Centurion Lounges, access at SFO is available to Platinum Card Members from three hours before scheduled departure. If you’re connecting between flights in San Francisco though, there’s no time limit. I put that rule to the test and have no trouble getting inside at 11 am before my 7:30 pm flight. I know the rules, so I hand over both my inbound and onward boarding passes at reception, and I’m in without a fuss.

It doesn’t matter that both flights are with different airlines and on separate bookings. All that matters is that 1), I’ve arrived at SFO on a same-day flight. And 2), that I have a departing same-day flight to a destination other than where I’ve just landed from. Centurion Members, on the other hand, can visit at any time before their flight.

Summing up

Even with these entry rules in place – and others that serve to limit guests for many US-based Card Members – the San Francisco Centurion Lounge can still be quite busy. With my early arrival and hours spent working from the space, I’m able to see the lounge when it’s a tad quieter. But before long, it’s busy again – especially by late afternoon.

When I enter, there’s pleasingly no line or waiting list – I’m straight inside. But when I depart, there’s a queue of at least 15 people waiting to get in. It’s not that every seat is taken: it seems Amex is just mindful not to see the lounge too jam-packed.

For this reason, though, I wouldn’t suggest making the trek here if you’re flying Qantas to Sydney. Given the need to wait until check-in opens, walk between terminals and clear security twice, it’s already not overly practical. Plus, the likelihood of encountering a queue for entry or a waitlist during the evening peak, and you may not get much time here even if you try.

But if you’re departing from somewhere more practical – the C, D, E, F or G gates, inside the same connected security area – a visit to the San Francisco Centurion Lounge is certainly worth the stroll. Have a glass of wine for me!

Also reviewed: American Express Centurion Lounge, Los Angeles

Feature image courtesy of American Express. Other photography by Chris Chamberlin, who accessed the lounge as a regular guest.

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American Express Centurion Lounge, San Francisco was last modified: August 14th, 2023 by Chris Chamberlin