What Happens When Everyone Is Elite?

… and when everyone’s super, no one will be.” – Syndrome from “The Incredibles”

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Not the quote you’d think would inspire me to write a travel blog, is it? However, it popped into my head when reading Nick’s post on Frequent Miler about how having Diamond Hilton status may or may not have helped him out on a recent stay. He has top-level Hilton status because he holds the Amex Hilton Aspire credit card, with an annual fee of $450. He mentioned a comment from a reader introducing the idea that when everyone has access to something, be it status or superpowers, that thing no longer becomes important because anyone can have it.

There was a time, not too long ago, that to achieve top-level status with any travel company, like an airline or hotel chain, you actually needed to use their services and use them a lot. This meant you either had to be a true road warrior, spending much of your work time staying in hotels and flying from worksite to worksite, or a dedicated travel hacker who spent days or more likely weeks making mileage and mattress runs trying to rack up credits for the least amount of money possible.

Those days are gone.

You no longer have to make a tremendous effort to get many of the perks previously saved for only the best and most loyal customers of a company. Now you only have to be willing to fork over enough money to pay the annual fee for their “luxury” level credit card.

The system wasn’t designed to handle this. It makes sense for the banks and for the corporations involved to offer these perks for a price but we’re starting to see the system buckle from the pressure. Several recent events have shown the response that’s necessary to get the system back to equilibrium.

Airline Lounges Restricting Access

If you’re willing to pay the $450 annual fee for a club level credit card, the big three airlines are very willing to let YOU have access to their lounges:

  • American Airlines Aadvantage Executive Card – $450 Annual Fee
  • Delta Amex Reserve Card – $450 Annual Fee
  • United MileagePlus Club Card – $450 Annual Fee

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Delta was the first to announce that passengers who had access to the SkyClubs by means of holding a credit card would only receive access for themselves. In order to bring a guest, with a limit of 2 guests, they would have to pay a $29 fee. Delta said the change was because they were upgrading the clubs and wanted the experience to remain exclusive. Meanwhile, United and American still allow cardholders to bring two guests. Each of the three airlines now requires (or will require) that you provide a current boarding pass for their airline in order to gain entry into their respective club.

If you didn’t want to fork over the money for one of the club cards (which doesn’t make sense unless you’re loyal to a single airline), you could always get the American Express Platinum Card. For the $550 annual fee, you get access to the American Express Centurion Lounges, Delta Sky Clubs (when flying Delta), Priority Pass lounges and several other lounges worldwide. For a complete list check out this article.

However, Delta has already limited access to American Express cardholders to require being on a Delta flight and access is only for the cardholder. Guests have to pay a $29 fee and there’s a max of two guests.

Priority Pass clubs have been under the most strain, as seemingly every premium credit card now includes Priority Pass Select membership. For a full list, check out this article. In response to the influx of new guests, lounges have started to limit access to Priority Pass cardholders, even prohibiting access during certain hours.

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Even the American Express Centurion Lounges have felt the pressure of swelling hordes with access to the club and reports of overcrowding are all over the internet. They’ve had to expand the first lounges that were built but that’s still not enough. Just this week they’ve announced that visits to the club will be limited to three hours before departure and you will no longer be able to visit upon arrival at an airport.

Personally, I no longer look at going to an airport lounge as a perk I look forward to. Given, the staff at the lounges can come in handy in an emergency but I now look at the lounge as a place to hang out because I’m perpetually early to the airport out of fear of missing my flight, instead of a place I look forward to spending time in.

Hotels Cutting Back On Elite Benefits

The other place where elite benefits are being reduced is at hotels. We have IHG Platinum Status, Hilton Gold Status, and Marriott Platinum Status all with staying in hotels for all of 37 days last year.

Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what type of differential service I received over the last year for having these status levels, beyond hotels thanking me for my loyalty when I check in. We get free breakfast at Hiltons and Marriott hotels but I’m not a big fan of hotel breakfasts. Also, it seems that the declining quality of a hotel breakfast is exponentially related to the number of people eligible for the free breakfast

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IHG offers Platinum status for anyone who has the IHG Rewards Club Premier credit card. The AMEX Hilton Ascend card provides Diamond status once you pay the $450 annual fee and the AMEX SPG Luxury card provides Marriott Bonvoy Gold status once you pay the $450 annual fee and lets you achieve Platinum Elite status if you spend $75,000 on the card in a calendar year.

While it’s aggravating, is it that hard to figure out why hotels aren’t so quick to hand out suite upgrades anymore or why a “free breakfast” isn’t an entire breakfast?

Is It Our Fault?

Access to these benefits was largely desirable so companies used them as bait for us to pay for their luxury credit cards. Once we did, they realized there were way too many people in the programs to continue with the level of service they were previously offering. They only had two choices: lower the level of service offered or limit the number of people who have access. Right now we’re in the space where the companies are trying to figure out the balance between keeping people happy and keeping shareholders happy.

Where Are We Headed?

I think we see hints of where we’re headed. Some companies are creating even higher tiers for those customers who truly earn the status and don’t just buy access, such as IHG’s new Spire Elite and Marriott’s introduction of a Titanium Elite and Ambassador Elite levels. Delta’s crackdown on access to their Diamond level by increasing the spending requirement on the AMEX Delta Card needed to bypass the MQD (spending requirement) from $25,000 to $250,000 is just the start.

I can only think that the access to lounges and eligibility for loyalty programs at the levels accessible solely from having a credit card will continue to decrease. The benefits will keep diminishing until there’s a new program that costs even more than the $500 currently required, and offering the new highest level status that gives the level of service we were used to receiving at the previous level.

We’ve reached the point where no one is special anymore because it’s become too easy for everyone to become special. I think we all need Edna Mode to come and slap some sense back into us. Then maybe we’ll realize that everyone wasn’t meant to be a Diamond Elite member, even if we stay at a hotel twice a year and pay for a credit card.

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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary

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