Your guide to invitation-only elite status tiers

Oct 5, 2019

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Frequent travelers know that having elite status with your preferred airline or hotel chain can go a long way towards making your time on the road more comfortable. From complimentary upgrades and bonus points to waived fees and better customer service, it’s no surprise that these major companies want to make sure their most valuable customers receive the best treatment.

In the last few years we’ve seen the three legacy U.S. airlines institute revenue requirements for earning elite status. Now, in addition to flying, you’ll need to spend $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, for some frequent business travelers it’s a drop in the bucket. 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, and a number of other airlines and hotel chains, also have unofficial invitation-only elite status tiers as well.

A status match or challenge is an airline
Invitation-only elite status comes with red-carpet perks like upgrades, priority service and private tarmac transfers. (Photo by FoxPictures/Shutterstock.)

Today we’ll take a look at some of the benefits and swag these programs offer. 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.

American Airlines Concierge Key

American Airlines Concierge Key elites sit at the top of the food chain, earning those benefits by spending approximately $50,000 Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) in a calendar year. As American deals with an unprecedented amount of irregular operations between the grounding of the 737 MAX and a prolonged battle with its mechanics union, 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 even proactively monitor a Concierge Key’s travel and book them on alternate flights if they misconnect or experience a delay. One reader even reported being squeezed onto 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.
  • Private 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 vehicle.
  • Admirals Club membership and access to Flagship Lounges: Concierge Key members will get an Admirals Club membership (a $650 value for general AAdvantage members, $450 if you have membership through the Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ Mastercard®) and access to AA’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: AA currently has nine different boarding groups, but Concierge Key members are invited to pre-board even before group 1.
  • 2 additional Systemwide Upgrades (SWUs): In addition to having the highest priority for most types of upgrades, Concierge Key elites will get two extra SWUs to use each year, for a grand total of six.

While the perks listed above are the most valuable, Concierge Key members will also enjoy an all around enhanced travel experience with many service fees being waived, and the guaranteed ability to purchase main cabin tickets, even on sold-out flights.

Related: Choosing the best credit card for American Airlines flyers

United Global Services

United appears to have a broader range when it comes to qualifying for its ultra-exclusive Global Services tier, with some readers having received an invitation after only spending $28,000 Premier Qualifying Dollars (PQDs) and flying 200,000 Premier Qualifying Miles (PQMs). This certainly appears to be the low end, as most data points suggest a spending range of $50,000 or more to be tapped for Global Services.

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 these passengers. In addition, we know that Global Services members receive the following perks:

  • 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, United Global Services members can create their own award space when there’s space in the T and R revenue fare classes (though this isn’t guaranteed to work 100% of the time).
  • Upgrade to a separate fare class: United 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 transfer: 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, they can apply an upgrade to their companion, giving them access to this elite-only upgrade inventory.

These are in addition to the many soft benefits that 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.

Related: The 8 best credit cards for flying United Airlines

Delta 360

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 to get an invitation, a number of FlyerTalk readers reported spending nearly $90,000 and not receiving an invite. According to a number of reports, Delta looks at more than your individual spending, including how much control you have over corporate contracts that could funnel even larger streams of revenue to the airline. 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 Reserve® Credit Card from American Express and Delta Reserve for Business Credit Card.
  • Dedicated phone line: Like Concierge Key and Global Services, Delta 360 customers can look forward to 24/7 access to a suite of 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 if the car fleet is at maximum utilization and may receive a courtesy transfer even if it’s not necessary to make their next flight.
  • A champagne gift: While it’s not a travel benefit per se, Delta has been known to send its Delta 360 members a magnum of Louis Roederer Champagne and Tiffany & Co. flutes.

Related: Choosing the best credit card for Delta Flyers

Marriott Cobalt

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 before approval. Unlike some of the other programs on this list, Marriott Cobalt comes with a more clearly defined set of benefits including Marriott Ambassador Elite status and the following at all properties:

  • Upgrade to best-available accommodations, including suites
  • Personalized note from General Manager
  • Personal meet and greet with the General Manager during your stay

At premium properties, Cobalt members receive all the above plus a personalized amenity, and 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.

Related: Which Marriott Bonvoy credit card is right for you?

Bottom line

There are certainly more airlines and hotels around the world that shower their most profitable customers with unpublished gifts and benefits (including Emirates, which is rumored to have senior airline executives hand deliver membership cards to its Invitation Only program). While many of us might be able to readjust our yearly travel plans to try and move up a rung on the elite ladder, 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.

Featured photo by Zach Honig/The Points Guy.

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