Best options for flying from Sydney to San Francisco

By John Walton, January 18 2011
Best options for flying from Sydney to San Francisco

With Qantas cutting its flights to San Francisco, business travellers from Australia to the Bay Area have been left scrambling to find decent alternatives.

Although Qantas is pushing flights via Los Angeles on its partner American Airlines, anyone who has connected through LAX -- voted world's third-worst airport in the Zagat 2010 airport rankings -- will agree that it's an airport to avoid.

Australian Business Traveller has been poring over route maps and flight schedules to find the best options for you: direct from Sydney to SFO on United, or connecting on other airlines via Auckland, Honolulu or Vancouver. 

We did also look at connecting via Asia, but it takes significantly longer. A more comfortable seat -- even Cathay Pacific's new business class -- isn't enough to keep us on a plane for an extra ten hours compared with United, eight hours more than connecting in Hawai'i, or six hours more than via Auckland.

The difference in distance between connecting in Auckland, Honolulu or Vancouver is less than 650 km, so the connection times and service levels will be key to picking a route.

United (direct Sydney-San Francisco)

The only direct flight from Australia to San Francisco will now be on United Airlines. UA870 leaves Sydney at 1445 and arrives in San Francisco at 1101 the same day (thanks to crossing the International Date Line). In the other direction, UA863 leaves SFO at 2250 and arrives into SYD at 0625 two days later.


  • direct flight: faster, less connection hassle and no connection unreliability
  • United's business class seats are good


  • Flying economy? Too bad -- United's own CEO admits his 747 economy class between Sydney and San Francisco is "unacceptable".


Connecting on Air New Zealand via Auckland is our best recommendation for anyone not flying from Sydney, for premium economy and for business class.


  • flights to Auckland from Adelaide, Cairns, Gold Coast, Melbourne, Perth, Sydney
  • Air New Zealand's new long-haul seats are fantastic, although they'll be rolled out to SFO when older aircraft are refurbished
  • Even the older seats are great in business and pretty good in premium economy
  • Koru Lounge in Auckland is excellent
  • two backup options via LAX if the SFO flight is delayed


  • Air New Zealand's trans-Tasman service on A320s has no business class 


Connecting via Honolulu on a handful of airlines is our best recommendation for anyone heading for Silicon Valley, Oakland or the East Bay area.


  • flights to Honolulu on Hawaiian, Jetstar and Qantas
  • direct flights to San Jose (for Silicon Valley) and Oakland (for East Bay) on Hawaiian can cut travel time in SFO
  • connection time on Hawaiian in Honolulu is two hours or less
  • flights to San Francisco on American, Hawaiian, Delta, United
  • multiple onward connection options give some schedule redundancy
  • layover in Hawai'i -- aloha long weekend!


  • layover in Hawai'i -- apart from Hawaiian, connections aren't planned, so timings aren't particularly convenient
  • flights to Honolulu only depart from Sydney, and not all airlines fly to Honolulu every day
  • Honolulu-US leg on US domestic aircraft with domestic seats and service

Business travellers not familiar with Hawaiian Airlines will be interested to learn that they can earn miles on American Airlines, Continental, Delta, United, US Airways, Virgin Atlantic and Virgin Blue by flying on Hawaiian.


Connecting on Air Canada via Vancouver is good for business class seats and miles better than going via LAX, but is otherwise firmly in third place.


  • Air Canada has good business class seats (in diagonal pod style)


  • no faster than going via LAX
  • the flight to Vancouver only departs from Sydney
  • only one daily flight to Vancouver with no backup option


The extra time to connect through East and Southeast Asian hubs is a dealbreaker for us, since options with less flight time are available.

However, connection options are available through major Asian hubs:

  • Beijing: Air China
  • Hong Kong: Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines
  • Manila: Philippine Airlines
  • Seoul: Asiana, Korean Air, Singapore Airlines
  • Singapore: Singapore Airlines
  • Taipei: China Airlines, EVA Air
  • Tokyo: ANA, Japan Airlines

Which of our options would you pick? Or would you pick United, or even choose to travel via LAX?

John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Jan 2011

Total posts 28

I would never fly international economy on United - it's a dreadful product that I've only had to experience once, on a flight from Sydney to Nadi when Air Pacific were wet leasing United aircraft while their own aircraft were undergoing checks. For the return leg I paid the difference at check in to upgrade to business.

Another option that was missed is SYD-DFW-SFO on Qantas/American.

Having said that, even when going to San Francisco I still choose to fly via LAX so I can take the A380 plus in my experience LAX isn't as bad as people make it out to be (my experience is however limited to terminal 4 and Tom Bradley TBIT). The combined Qantas/American lounges in terminal 4 (Admirals/Qantas Club for Business/Qantas Gold/Qantas Club/Oneworld Sapphire and Flagship lounge for First/Qantas Platinum/Oneworld Emerald) certainly beat what's on offer in Dallas Fort Worth.

03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

Personally speaking, United has very rarely impressed me. (Big delays out of Dulles were the exception.) And most of my United flights have been transatlantic, so on their slightly less ancient aircraft.

I purposefully skipped Dulles on American, because presenting that as a connection for SFO (or anything west of Texas/Chicago) is kind of crazytalk for me. Why fly nearly four hours east of SFO just to fly those same four hours west after connecting in DFW, which doesn't even have a Flagship Lounge? Pretty much any Asian hub is a better connection option at that point.

Sure, LAX isn't as awful as it was. But it's still notably less pleasant than SFO. (I always find the staff at LAX noticeably less helpful...but perhaps that's just confirmation bias? I don't know.)

You're right that the A380 is a huge draw to LAX. But A380 plus connecting in LAX plus whatever ancient plane AA is flying LAX-SFO adds up to something that's roughly equal to an Air NZ transit via Auckland.

Thanks for commenting -- we're always happy to hear what you think, to consider any feedback and to let you know why we've said what we've said!

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 Jan 2011

Total posts 28

Hi John,

Just to clarify - Dulles (Washington, DC - code IAD) is a different airport to Dallas (Dallas, TX - code DFW).

The Qantas flights are to Dallas, and not to Dulles.

While the Qantas site won't provide it as an option without some coaxing, flying SYD-DFW-SFO adds an extra four hours as opposed to SYD-LAX-SFO if you were really set on avoiding LAX.

But for me, I'll just keep flying via LAX.

FWIW - all my recent flights between LAX-SFO on AA have been on reasonably new Boeing 737-800s. No complaints there. I'd take them any day over the ancient 737-400s with the horrible convertible business class that I always seem to get on Qantas domestic.


03 Jan 2011

Total posts 665

Ha! Well spotted, and don't worry -- I grew up in NY, so I know the difference between Dallas and Dulles. Apparently my fingers don't, though!

Good to know that the 737-800s are of a decent standard, though, although I do miss the Super-80s with 3-2 seating, especially back when AA took their More Room Throughout Coach gamble.

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