Some people aren’t so stressed when they head to the airport or the hotel on their next trip because they have status as a travel VIP. Then there’s everyone else. The good news is, you don’t have to be a billionaire to have status in the travel world. There are strategic ways to earn it or to just buy it.
Are you always in the last group to board the plane, stuck in a middle seat, scrounging for an outlet in the airport waiting area? Do you stand in long lines at customs or security while others are done in two minutes? Do you spend $5 on overpriced coffee or bottled water in the airport? Do you have to settle for whatever standard room they give you when you get to the hotel?
Even if you only experience one or two of these things on a regular basis, you might start feeling like a schmuck instead of a travel VIP. You probably start harboring a little “us vs. them” resentment and feel like the deck is stacked against you.
“Status” is a funny word though because in most cases it is defined by perception: who has it and who doesn’t is often a matter of who is doing the judging. It can be based on who you know, what you’re wearing, the car you’re driving, or even the brand of the purse draped over your shoulder. When you achieve VIP status in the travel world though, it’s much more objective: the rules are clearly defined.
So it’s easy to change your status when you travel if you really want to. You don’t have to take the hand you’re dealt because you have the power to get a new deck, often just by spending a little money or charging things to the right credit card. You don’t have to be elite to join the elite. You just have to put a little effort into getting to that travel VIP status goal.
Here are some ways to move to the top of the priority rank with more comfort and airport speed.
Global Entry, Nexus, and TSA Pre-check
This one should really be a given if you travel more than once or twice per year. The cost-to-hassle-saving ratio is the best you could hope for. I would pay a lot more for Global Entry and TSA Pre-check if I were in danger of losing it, though actually I didn’t pay anything when I recently renewed the combo because I got reimbursed by my United Chase credit card. Several others I have would have done the same.
You can do a little research and get the low-down on any restrictions, but these programs are open to anyone who’s not on a watch list or has a criminal record. You pay some money, submit to a background check, and in some cases do an in-person interview at an international airport. After that, you’re good to go for five years. Global Entry automatically gets you TSA pre-check in the USA, so not only do you breeze through immigration, but you also get to leave your jacket, shoes, and belt on most of the time in the security line. You don’t even have to take out your laptop. Now that feels like having status!
Nexus is what to get if you’re Canadian or you travel to Canada a lot. There’s also something called Canpass Air for expedited entry in Canadian airports. Mexico has two programs. In Europe, many of the airlines have their own similar program for shorter lines. I saw it in action in Sweden and Denmark with a separate line for SAS members who have been checked out and Germany has something called EasyPASS. The UK has the Registered Traveller program.
Costs vary, but are $100 for Global Entry, which is good for five years. As I mentioned, a lot of credit cards include reimbursement for this as a perk. In some cases, this perk is worth more than the annual fee you pay.
When I was flying home from Europe a few years back I had a 3.5-hour layover in Copenhagen. This is an airport where a cup of coffee can cost you $8 and you don’t even want to look at the prices for food. Since I had a Priority Pass membership though, I just showed the QR code on my phone and camped out in the Aviator Lounge there. I had a couple cups of coffee, got a complimentary breakfast, and did a few hours of work in a comfortable environment with easy-to-reach outlets. I picked up a copy of the New York Times international edition on the way out. Had it been a bit later, I could have drunk a few Carlsbergs or glasses of wine on the house.
This option is much better than a pass from a single airline because you have access to 1,000+ lounges around the world. There are very few medium to large airports that don’t have at least one lounge affiliated with Priority Pass. Some have three or four to pick from. I haven’t renewed this program every year but when I’ve had it, I’ve used it in a dozen countries or more on four different continents.
My wife and I once had an eight-hour layover in the Madrid airport. We spent so long in the lounge there that we had two meals and a nap. I had to pay for her visit, but I think she got her guest fee’s worth. Go to the Priority Pass site to see the details, but as I write this the prices are $213 (on sale) for 10 annual visits, $469 for unlimited visits.
Some of the credit cards with high annual fees include this, though do the math to see whether it really makes sense. I used to have an Amex Platinum card but found that buying the lounge pass directly was a better value. The no-brainer option though that I really need to find a way to add to my stack is the Hilton Honors Surpass card from Amex. It only has a $95 annual fee, but you get 10 Priority Pass visits in a year if you have it. Score! Go here and click on “view all cards” to look for the Surpass deal.
Bump Up Your VIP Travel Status With Airline Cards
The most straightforward way to get to elite status on an airline, which comes with all kinds of perks, is to fly enough to reach that level. Since that is now determined by how much you spend though, not how many miles you fly, it’s very difficult for anyone besides business frequent fliers traveling on the company tab to get there. Even travel writers like me who are jetting off to somewhere new regularly rarely achieve the lowest elite status because we’re in the cheap seats, not in the front of the plane.
I did manage to get there on American this current year though thanks to a rule change they made in 2022. They started counted spending on their branded credit cards as status qualifying points. I threw a bunch of spending onto my two AA credit cards (one from Citi, one from Barclays) and now I’m Advantage Gold for the coming year. Too bad American is my least favorite major airline. We’ll see how much it gets me.
You can get a bump up in how you’re treated though just by getting the airline’s credit card. I’ve got a whole stack of them, so I know. I have credit cards from United (Chase), Delta (Amex), and American Airlines (Citi and Barclays). I don’t have all these because I love these airlines and am loyal to them. I have the cards because they give me points and status. When I buy the ticket with the appropriate card I also get to board in group one or two, right after the elite-status people. So I never have to worry about finding overhead bin space.
The best is the United one because it gets you a free checked bag on all flights, not just domestic ones like you get on Delta and American. You also get two free lounge passes a year, which makes the $95 annual fee a wash. I’m about to use one of those during a four-hour layover in Houston. I’ll be able to work, charge the gadgets, and get some food and drink without spending a bunch of money. You currently get 50,000 miles for signing up and meeting the minimum spend requirement, no annual fee for the first year, so a good deal.
The Delta one doesn’t give you many perks beyond a free domestic bag check, but they do give you various discounts when cashing in miles or spending money in-flight.
I also have the basic level Southwest Chase card, mostly to get free flights on a regular basis, but if you pay a higher fee you can get one that bumps you to the front of the line two times a year. That would get you an exit row or bulkhead seat if you want some extra legroom. Plus under the current offer with the $69 annual fee card, if you spend $4K within a designated time on the card, you get a free companion pass good for close to a year. How much status would you gain if you said, “Honey, I’m bringing you along on this trip for free!”
Naturally, if you’re based in another country you probably want to get the card affiliated with whatever airline flies out of there the most, like Air Canada’s if you’re Canadian. Otherwise start with the airline you’ll be flying with soonest: you’ll probably get enough points with the sign-up bonus to get you a free flight, on top of the perks.
Hotel Credit Cards With Instant VIP Travel Status
The right hotel credit card can give you instant elite status that can lead to room upgrades, lounge access, and late check-out. You won’t be stuck in the worst room next to the elevator that looks out at a brick wall. Instead you might get a room like this:
I especially like the Chase one from Intercontinental Hotels Group. If you get the version with a $99 annual fee it gives you instant elite status for room upgrades when available, which often puts you in a suite instead of a noisy standard room by the elevator. It also provides a free hotel stay when you pay your annual fee, which saved me $120 in Anchorage, $180 in Buenos Aires, $145 in Santiago, and is about to save me more than $200 for an airport Crowne Plaza in Geneva, Switzerland. IHG also seems to have the lowest point levels of any of the major chains when redeeming. I’ve gotten many rooms for just 10,000 or 15,000 points.
At the time I’m writing this, they were handing out 80,000 points for the basic card that gives you Silver Elite status (you still get a free room each anniversary year) and an amazing 140,000 points for the one that gives you Platinum Elite status. That’s enough for a whole week’s vacation somewhere nice.
I also have the Wyndham credit card from Barclays, which has occasionally gotten me an upgrade, like a nice suite I scored when I cashed in points for Espendor El Calafate in Argentina. Point redemptions with Wyndham are refreshingly straightforward and reasonable (15K points for that one), topping out at 30,000 points for the best properties. Compare that to Marriott, which has a dozen different point levels, some topping 100,000 per night. You could use up the entire sign-up bonus on one room after getting the Marriott card and not even be at a Ritz-Carlton.
The Amex Hilton card gives you silver elite status, which is not as generous as IHG’s, but it does ensure free internet access and late check-out. They won’t put in writing that you get a room upgrade, but there’s a much better chance you’ll get one by asking nicely if you have this status and the hotel is half empty. They’re currently giving 80,000 points when you get the card if you spend $1,000 on it in the first 90 days. Even better, this card has no annual fee! I’ve cashed in points for more than 10 hotel nights by having this card and have gotten a few upgrades here and there. Here’s the view from where I stayed for free in Medellin, Colombia:
Other Ways to Buy Elite Status When Traveling
When you think about travel, the main expenditures in money and time are flights, lodging, and meals/recreation. The first two offer straightforward paths to VIP status, but that’s a little tougher to achieve when it comes to how you spend your time having fun in the destination.
There are some instances where having the right credit card can help you though, such as with concert/event tickets, access to an event with a celebrity (if that’s your thing), or sports tickets. Or you can get an upgraded experience by checking local coupon sites like Groupon. Sometimes you can get a VIP pass to a music festival, for instance, at a discounted rate if it’s not sold out.
Also look for perks that are included with specific hotels. I once booked a bargain room in Playa del Carmen after seeing that it included access to one of the nicest beach clubs in town, just a few blocks from the otherwise inland place to stay. I spent hours at the beach club, with someone fetching me drinks and a nice bathroom to use, and didn’t have to pay extra.
When you get to the luxury level, hotels often have access arrangements that can make you feel like a VIP, like getting you into a museum or attraction
What about you? Where have you ponied up some cash in order to move up your travel VIP status or save time?