VIP treatment: Your guide to invitation-only airline and hotel elite status
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with the latest program information.
Frequent travelers know that having elite status with an airline or hotel chain can go a long way. These companies want to make sure their most valuable customers receive the best treatment, from complimentary upgrades and bonus points to waived fees and better customer service.
All three legacy carriers have revenue requirements for earning elite status. So, in addition to flying, you’ll typically need to spend around $15,000 or more to earn top-tier American Airlines Executive Platinum, Delta Diamond Medallion or United Premier 1K.
While $15,000 might be a lot for an individual to spend in a year, it’s a drop in the bucket for frequent business and high-profile travelers. If your clients are constantly paying for you to take last-minute long-haul premium cabin flights, it’s possible to rack up a much higher tab over the course of the year. This is why each of these airlines have unofficial invitation-only elite status tiers as well.
Today we’ll take a look at some of the benefits and swag these programs offer. Perks range from private check-in areas, lounge-to-plane car transfers, generous upgrade benefits and much more. Note that most of the benefits here are not formally published online but rather have been collected based on firsthand reports from TPG staff and readers.
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American Airlines Concierge Key
American Airlines Concierge Key elites sit at the top of the food chain, earning those benefits typically by spending at least $50,000 Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) in a calendar year and flying more than 200,000 miles. You may be able to fast-track the spending thresholds by joining the AirPass program or being a large corporate account travel manager.
As American deals with an unprecedented amount of irregular operations, one of the most useful benefits of Concierge Key status is the dedicated phone line and email address with shorter wait times and more accommodating agents.
In some cases, agents will proactively monitor a Concierge Key’s travel and book them on alternate flights if they miss a connection or experience a delay. One reader even reported being squeezed into an oversold flight, though that doesn’t appear to be a guaranteed policy.
Some other benefits of Concierge Key status include the following:
- Access to Flagship Check-in where available: Chicago (ORD), London (LHR), Los Angeles (LAX), Miami (MIA), New York-JFK.
- Tarmac transfers: At American Airlines hubs, Concierge Key members with tight connections will be greeted on arrival and get a ride to the terminal (or to their next flight) in a private Cadillac or buggy.
- Admirals Club membership and access to Flagship Lounges: Concierge Key members will get an Admirals Club membership (a $650 value for general AAdvantage members) and access to American’s Flagship Lounges when traveling on any AA or Oneworld flight. They can even bring immediate family or up to two guests into the Flagship Lounge.
- Priority pre-boarding: American has nine different boarding groups, but Concierge Key members are invited to pre-board even before group 1.
- Additional Systemwide Upgrades (SWUs): In addition to having the highest priority for most types of upgrades, Concierge Key elites can earn additional SWUs upon reaching higher EQM thresholds.
While the perks listed above are the most valuable, Concierge Key members will also enjoy an all-around enhanced travel experience. This includes many service fees being waived and the guaranteed ability to purchase main cabin tickets, even on sold-out flights. From time to time, members also receive Flagship First Dining passes (temporarily closed). Some members have even been offered to gift Executive Platinum elite status to someone else.
Like other AAdvantage elite status levels, American extended all current ConciergeKey status until Jan. 31, 2022.
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United Global Services
United appears to have a broader range of requirements when it comes to qualifying for its ultra-exclusive Global Services tier. Some readers have received an invitation after only spending $28,000 Premier Qualifying Dollars (PQDs) and flying 200,000 Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs). Note, United has since replaced PQMs with Premier Qualifying Points.
However, this appears to be the low end, as most data points suggest spending of at least $50,000 to be tapped for Global Services. Alternatively, you may be able to earn it after four million miles on United-marketed and operated flights.
Like American’s Concierge Key members, United Global Services members have access to a dedicated phone line with highly trained customer service agents who may be able to bend the rules slightly to accommodate them. In addition, we know that Global Services members receive the following perks:
- United Club access: Global Services members have United Club access on all United-operated flights, including domestic flights. International travelers can bring one guest and paid United Club members, including those with the United Club Infinite Card, are allowed two guests.
- Create your own award availability: Most airlines designate specific fare buckets for their upgrade award inventory, and if those are empty, you’re out of luck. However, Global Services members can sometimes create their own saver award space when there’s space in the T (economy) and PZ (business class) revenue fare classes.
- Upgrade to a separate fare class: Global Services members have their own separate fare class for upgrade inventory – PN – which gives them a higher chance of clearing an upgrade in addition to their already elevated priority.
- Priority boarding
- Priority meal orders: In premium cabins, Global Services members are often the first to have their meal orders taken, guaranteeing that United won’t run out of their preferred dish.
- Mercedes-Benz tarmac transfers: In the event of a tight connection at a United hub, Global Services members will be whisked across the tarmac in a luxury vehicle to their next flight.
- Upgrade companions on paid business-class tickets: While the PN fare class is normally reserved for Global Services members, if they’re on a paid business-class ticket and traveling with a companion in economy class, they can apply an upgrade to their companion, giving them access to this elite-only upgrade inventory.
- Access to dedicated check-in areas: Some major hubs have dedicated check-in areas for members, including priority security access.
- Access to arrivals lounges: Global Services members may access United, Lufthansa and Swiss’ arrivals facilities in London-Heathrow (LHR), Frankfurt (FRA) and Zurich (ZRH) when arriving on an intercontinental United flight.
These are in addition to the many soft benefits Global Services members receive, as United will go the extra mile for these valuable customers. If you complain about a gate or check-in agent, they will be addressed directly by HR. Unhappy with your seat assignment? Ask at the gate and they may move another passenger to accommodate you. If you have any complaints or concerns in general, United agents will be quick to offer compensation in the form of cash or miles when things go wrong.
Although last to announce it, United extended existing Global Services status through Jan. 31, 2022.
Delta describes 360° as “an annual, invitation-only program for our top SkyMiles Members, offering an exclusive suite of benefits and services even beyond Diamond Medallion Status. An invitation to Delta 360° is based on your overall investment with Delta. If you’re selected to join, we’ll contact you directly.”
Of the three U.S. legacy airlines, Delta 360 arguably offers the least-valuable benefits and requires the most to get in. While there’s no set formula for how much you need to spend or fly, several FlyerTalk readers reported spending nearly $90,000 and not receiving an invite.
Reports suggest Delta looks at more than just your individual spending, including how much control you have over corporate contracts that could funnel even larger revenue streams to the airline. Per Delta, “An invitation into Delta 360° is based on your overall investment with Delta. If you’re selected to join, we’ll contact you directly.”
Some of the benefits of Delta 360 status include:
Delta SkyClub Executive Membership
This is a nice perk for a frequent flyer, though not a huge value add given how easy it is to gain access to Delta SkyClubs with cards like The Platinum Card® from American Express, The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card and Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card.
Dedicated phone line
Like Concierge Key and Global Services, Delta 360 customers can look forward to 24/7 access to highly trained agents who are willing to bend the rules to get them out of delays and on to their final destination.
Greater chance of a Porsche tarmac transfer
Delta offers this perk to Diamond Medallion elites with tight connections through its hubs, but Delta 360 members have much higher priority. They may also receive a courtesy transfer even if it’s not necessary to make their next flight.
An annual gift
While it’s not a travel benefit per se, Delta has been known to send its Delta 360 members various high-end gifts. In the past, these have included a magnum of Louis Roederer Champagne and Tiffany & Co. flutes and Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses.
As with American and United, Delta has confirmed that it will be extending Delta 360 status through Jan. 31, 2022.
Marriott Bonvoy has worked hard to keep its invite-only Cobalt tier a secret, warning agents that “There are NO external Public Relations or communications about this program and associates should not discuss outside of work,” but that didn’t stop TPG from getting the full scoop.
There are no published requirements for earning Cobalt status, but Marriott employees can nominate members as they see fit. These nominations are then processed by Marriott’s President & CEO for approval. Unlike some of the other programs on this list, Marriott Cobalt comes with a more clearly defined set of benefits. These including Marriott Ambassador Elite status and the following at all properties:
- Upgrade to best-available accommodations, including suites
- A personalized note from the General Manager
- Personal meet and greet with the General Manager during your stay
At premium properties, Cobalt members receive all of the above, plus a personalized amenity. At luxury properties, they also receive “a distinctive on-property experience for member and a guest.”
Unless you place a high value on meeting the hotel manager during your stay, this doesn’t appear to be much of a value add over Marriott Ambassador status, though some of the member experiences at luxury properties are quite nice.
Membership in one of these invite-only programs can drastically change your travel experience. That said, there are certainly more airlines and hotels worldwide that shower their most profitable customers with unpublished gifts and benefits. For instance, Emirates is rumored to have senior airline executives hand-deliver membership cards to its invitation-only program.
Many of us might be able to adjust our annual travel plans to try and move up a rung on the elite ladder. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely you’ll ever receive an invite to these programs unless you’re spending in the mid-five figures each year with a single airline or hotel or have control over major corporate travel contracts.
For more on exclusive travel experiences, see:
- The cheapest ways to get the private jet experience
- What it’s like to fly BLADEone from NYC to Miami
- Flying (Almost) Private (Almost) to Telluride and Back: A Review of Boutique Air
- Inside PS (The Private Suite) at LAX
- You can now use your American AAdvantage miles to upgrade your airport experience
- The best cards for booking private jet travel
Additional reporting by Ethan Steinberg.
Featured photo courtesy of Andres Morales (Ajetsetter) for The Points Guy.
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