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Flying today: private lounges are more crowded, the priority check-in lines longer.

These days, though, the advantages of being an elite frequent flier are harder to gauge. The private lounges are more crowded, the priority check-in lines longer. And on some flights there are so many elites that it's become almost a joke: "Never go to check-in at the elite line; it's way too long," said Randy Petersen, the founder of frequent flier Web sites like FlyerTalk.com and MilePoint.com.

Most frequent fliers, including Mr. Petersen, agree that, despite the erosion of many benefits over the years, elite status still comes with a few perks worth striving for -- including faster security lines; free checked bags, allowing elite passengers to avoid the overhead-bin scrum; rebooking priority when a flight is oversold; and often better access to award seats. And there is no doubt that traveling as an elite is better than the alternative. Though lounges may be more crowded, there are still free snacks and private bathrooms. And lower-ranking elites still have a decent chance of scoring an upgrade on flights that are not so popular with business travelers.

In 2010, Southwest moved from a system that awarded participants credit for flights to one that awards points based on the amount of money spent. And airlines have long offered invitation-only programs like United's Global Services and American's ConciergeKey, which lavish perks on those who spend the most on flights.


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