Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with the latest information.
Airline and hotel elite status offers numerous perks for frequent travelers but comes at a cost. To achieve the highest-tier status with American Airlines, Delta Air Lines or United Airlines, you generally need to spend around $20,000, and you may need to have extensive flying as well. However, for frequent business and high-profile travelers, this spending requirement is relatively small compared to the expenses they incur throughout the year.
These airlines also have unofficial, invitation-only elite status tiers that provide even more benefits and privileges. These perks include private check-in areas, transfers from lounges to the plane in luxury cars and generous upgrade opportunities. Many of these benefits are not officially published online but have been gathered from firsthand reports by TPG staff and readers.
Here’s a complete overview of these secretive tiers.
How to earn invitation-only status
The high-end tiers generally require major spending each year, although there’s no guarantee you’ll unlock these status levels by reaching certain thresholds. However, past experience and current anecdotes can shed some light on what may help you qualify.
Invest in the business program
Although reports indicate American Airlines isn’t taking new applicants for its AirPass program, you might be able to lock in invitation-only status by making an initial investment in a pre-paid business travel service. For example, if you invest $50,000 annually in United’s PassPlus, the airline typically gives you a Global Services nomination.
Your location and the type of tickets you buy are important
Your likelihood of earning invitation-only status is not solely based on the total amount you spend but also on the type of tickets you purchase, such as full-fare or business- and first-class tickets. While flying does matter, spending remains the primary factor in earning invitation-only status.
Additionally, the city you fly from typically plays a role. Airlines often require a higher spending threshold for travelers from major hub airports compared to non-hub airports like Albany International Airport (ALB), Portland International Airport (PDX) and Tampa International Airport (TPA).
Hold a key role
Airlines always seek individuals who can influence others to spend with them. Those who control others’ travel decisions, such as corporate travel managers or those with corporate accounts, may be rewarded with invitation-only status. This status incentivizes these individuals to choose their airline for their employees’ travel needs.
This can also extend to politicians and celebrities.
American Airlines Concierge Key
American Airlines’ Concierge Key is an elite status program for top-tier customers who spend at least $50,000 a year and fly over 200,000 miles (though these aren’t hard-and-fast requirements). The program offers various benefits, including a dedicated phone line with shorter wait times and the best phone agents.
Concierge Key members enjoy perks such as access to Flagship Check-in at select airports, tarmac transfers in private vehicles, Admirals Club membership with access to Flagship lounges, priority preboarding before Group 1, the highest upgrade priority and additional systemwide upgrades. They also receive waived service fees, guaranteed ability to purchase tickets even on sold-out flights, occasional Flagship First Dining passes and the opportunity to gift Executive Platinum elite status to someone else.
One of the best benefits is that Concierge Key members get waived copays on all upgrades. If they use American Airlines miles to upgrade a ticket, they won’t have to pay the usual cash supplement. This perk can result in substantial savings, particularly on international flights — though it’s important to note that using miles and cash or a systemwide upgrade will have the same upgrade priority.
Delta 360 is an exclusive, invitation-only program for top SkyMiles members that offers additional benefits beyond Diamond Medallion status. The program’s invitation is based on your overall investment with Delta. If selected, a representative with the airline will contact you directly. Delta 360 arguably offers the least valuable benefits of the three U.S. legacy airlines 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.
Delta 360 offers benefits such as Delta Sky Club membership, a dedicated phone line with 24/7 access to helpful agents, a greater chance of a Porsche tarmac transfer and an annual high-end gift. In the past, these have included a magnum of Louis Roederer Champagne, Tiffany & Co. flutes and Ray-Ban aviator sunglasses.
United Global Services
United’s ultra-exclusive Global Services tier has varying requirements, with most data suggesting minimum spending of $50,000. However, there is also one published way to earn it — by reaching 4 million lifetime flight miles on United-operated flights.
Like many of these tiers, Global Services status provides much more than extra miles on paid tickets or free checked luggage. Instead, Global Services means an entire United team looking out for you to ensure you have the best experience.
Global Services members enjoy a dedicated phone line with highly trained customer service agents who can provide personalized assistance. They also receive several perks, including United Club access, the ability to create their own award availability, a separate fare class for upgrade inventory, priority boarding, priority meal orders, Jaguar tarmac transfers, access to dedicated check-in areas and access to arrivals lounges.
Hyatt Courtesy Card
Hyatt Courtesy Card is an exclusive invitation-only status level that offers undisclosed benefits and recognition. The requirements to earn this status are kept confidential by Hyatt, but there are four potential ways to qualify: owning a Hyatt hotel, being nominated by a general manager and reviewed by World of Hyatt, spending a significant amount at Hyatt properties and staying frequently or having control over major corporate travel accounts that bring substantial business to Hyatt.
The benefits of the Hyatt Courtesy Card mainly revolve around exceptional treatment and recognition during your stay, including priority for upgrades and the best available suite, a welcome amenity and personalized recognition varying by property.
Hyatt typically sends out Courtesy Card nominations in late February or early March, coinciding with the end of the previous year’s status. The number of Courtesy Card members is uncertain, but it is estimated to be under 1,000 individuals through hotel ownership and a few thousand through other means.
Marriott Bonvoy has worked hard to keep its invitation-only Cobalt tier a secret, warning agents, “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 a few years ago.
According to the information we received, 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 and CEO for approval. Unlike other programs on this list, Marriott Cobalt has a more clearly defined set of benefits. These include 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. However, some of the member experiences at luxury properties are quite nice.
It’s worth noting that this information was shared in 2019, so some of it may have changed.
Being a member of exclusive, invitation-only elite tiers can significantly enhance your travel experience, and the above programs are among the most well known in this area. However, other airlines and hotels around the world may provide undisclosed gifts and benefits to their most lucrative customers. For instance, Emirates is known for having senior airline executives personally deliver membership cards for their invitation-only program.
While some of us may be able to modify our yearly travel plans to aim for a higher elite status, it’s improbable to receive an invitation to these programs unless you spend a substantial amount, typically in the mid-five figures annually, with a single airline or hotel. Alternatively, having influence over significant corporate travel contracts can also increase your chances of receiving an invitation.
Ultimately, it’s probably not worth going out of your way to try to get an invitation given the lack of clear qualification criteria — though if one comes through your normal travels, get ready for a good year.
For more on exclusive travel experiences, see:
- The 8 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
- Everything you need to know about LAX’s secret VIP terminal PS
- 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 and Benji Stawski.