Aspirational Travel: My (Short) Time Beyond the “Velvet Rope”
These days, it seems that people are traveling more than ever. However, the experiences they have while making their way to their destination can vary greatly. For those in the “main cabin” (aka “coach”) part of the plane, seats seem to be shrinking while nickel-and-diming fees grow. Meanwhile, those upfront are seeing more lavish perks and a greater share of available service.
In his new book, author Nelson D. Schwartz profiles a number of examples of what he calls The Velvet Rope Economy that finds companies catering more to their wealthiest and more profitable customers — often at the expense of everyone else. While this practice is perhaps most evident in the travel industry, Schwartz also notes how it’s affecting more essential areas such as health care. As you can imagine, the book isn’t so keen on the concept, taking some brands to task and calling for customers to “vote with their feet.” However, until things do start to change, how can you get so much as a glimpse beyond the velvet rope?
At the risk of turning this into an extended Instagram post, I thought I’d share a few times I’ve had the chance to enjoy some elements of “aspirational travel” — for however briefly — and, more importantly, look at how I was able to obtain these experiences for a reasonable price.
My Delta One Experience
A few months ago, I had the opportunity to visit one of my favorite places in the world: Tokyo, Japan. Making the situation even better was that my wife and I would be flying to Tokyo in Delta’s Delta One suites. While I’ve flown in first-class domestically a time or two thanks to my father’s road warrior status when I was young, I had never been in anything but Economy for our international travels. Needless to say, this was quite a treat.
This actually came about not because I had diligently been saving up my Delta SkyMiles (I mean, I have… but my bank is only about 70K at the moment) but because a friend of mine happens to run travel for his entire company. Somehow this resulted in him having vouchers good for two free tickets to Asia. As luck would have it, he already had a trip to Japan planned so he tapped us to make use of these vouchers, meeting us in Tokyo Disneyland for a theme park adventure.
But enough about Disney — how was the flight? Pretty darn nice. Sure, I could nitpick some things like a lack of storage space for my bag or the fact that, despite the closing suite door, you can still easily peer over the walls, but the overall experience was fantastic. I also appreciated the ability to pre-order my meal so I knew exactly what I was getting (much better than the generic “chicken or pasta?” you typically get in economy).
Besides the lay-flat seat that allowed me to get some truly restful sleep while crossing the Pacific, perhaps the best part of being in a cabin with just a few dozen other souls was that I could access the restroom with ease. As someone who typically hates to even get up during a flight, this was a real luxury. Add in the readily available snacks and I may have been spoiled from here on out.
With that said, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to fly Delta One again. Looking at the five-figure retail value of our tickets, there’s no way in hell I’d ever pay that. Plus, although these suites are bookable with miles, they seem to be far pricier than other business class products. Still, it was oh-so-nice while it lasted.
While my Delta One flight was not the result of points and miles (or at least not mine), my travels have recently benefitted from a premium points-earning card. Just a few months ago, my wife and I decided that the American Express Platinum card might actually be worth the $550 annual fee. A big part of that assessment was that the Platinum not only offered access to Priority Pass lounges but also Amex’s own Centurion Lounges as well as Delta SkyClubs if we’re flying Delta — which we usually are.
I assume that what most people enjoy about airport lounges are the complementary foods and beverages. While I do love grabbing a free cup of coffee and a Rice Krispie Treat during my visits, I’ve found that these lounges allow me to be far more productive than I would be if I were sitting at the main gate area. Getting more work done before departure means less to do upon arrival at my destination and, thus, I’m able to better enjoy my trips overall. Elsewhere, I can’t tell you how great it was being able to catch a nap at Minute Suites thanks to my Priority Pass or take a shower at a SkyClub after a long flight.
Speaking to Schwartz’s book, I’ll acknowledge that the accessibility that premium cards have brought to the lounge industry means that there are now more exclusive enclaves for the truly elite. Obviously that’s not me so perhaps I haven’t really seen the other side of the velvet rope in this case. Regardless, I’m more than happy to have this benefit at my disposal.
Hotel and Casino Status
Finally, another perk my expensive credit card has bestowed upon me is gold status at two major hotel chains: Hilton and Marriott. Most recently, I leveraged my Hilton status to get a small upgrade on my Chicago hotel room and, more importantly, score free breakfast for each morning of our stay. Similarly, I breathed a huge sigh of relief when I realized that my Bonvoy Gold status got me out of paying $15 a night for WiFi in L.A.
But it turns out that there’s actually a hidden benefit to these statuses as well. With just a couple of steps, I was able to obtain Diamond status at Caesars — as in Caesars Palace. This is actually far more powerful than either of the hotel statuses as it includes such VIP treatment as dedicated lines at buffets, check-in lines, cashiers, etc. Interestingly, being a “high roller” also means getting free stuff, so you won’t have to pay resort fees with your Diamond status but you’ll also get a $100 dining credit and free show tickets. It’s like Ben Folds sang, “Now that I’m rich I get free coffee.” C’est la vie.
Again, while being a Diamond status holder makes me feel hella fancy, the truth is that this treatment is nothing compared to what real high rollers receive. Trust me — I’ve seen first hand the magic and comps my friend’s casino host is able to manifest. However, as someone who loses $20 at a slot machine and feels bummed about it the rest of the day, I’ll happily keep my gamble-free mid-tier status.
Regardless of what you think of The Velvet Rope Economy overall, there’s no question that being on the right side of it feels pretty great. Luckily, in some cases, getting a taste of this good life doesn’t cost as much as you might assume. At the same time, if you’re a Frasier Crane type who sees an off-limits door and won’t settle until you’ve made it in, pursuing these “aspirational travel” perks may actually only serve to bring about more frustration. Meanwhile, if you’re like me and just want a little extra comfort or special treatment once in a while, perhaps a premium credit card or other loyalty perks can help make that a reality.