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Credit card perks: when to give in to temptation

by Peter Andrew

Imagine the scene. You're getting together with a group of old classmates you haven't seen for 20 years. And there's a lot of bragging going on. Everyone claims his or her career has been meteoric. The houses are large and the cars are luxurious, while children are invariably perfectly behaved high achievers. You, however, talk about yourself little and modestly.

At the end of the evening, just as a rainbow of credit cards is produced to settle tabs, you're the least impressive person in the room. But, to the mound of gold, platinum and other brightly colored plastic, you quietly add an American Express Centurion (aka Black) card. The next morning, nobody remembers a single boast made by the others, and the only topic of conversation is you.

Credit card that is virtually unobtainable

Well, dream on. To start with, it's impossible to do anything quietly with a Centurion card, because its legendary exclusivity and titanium manufacture (plastic is sooo déclassé, darling) guarantee that its use is about as subtle as one of those giant 400-ton yellow Caterpillar trucks you see in quarries.

But, more importantly, your chances of getting your hands on one--short of swiping it while you're standing on the wrong side of a counter--are slim. American Express won't reveal the criteria it uses to decide who should get an invitation to become a Centurion cardmember (you certainly can't do anything so vulgar as request an application form), but MSN Money recently speculated that you probably should contain your excited anticipation as you approach your mailbox unless:

  1. You're already a cardmember
  2. You've spent at least $250,000 on your existing American Express credit card in a single year
  3. You're prepared to pay eye-wateringly high fees: $5,000 to join and then $2,500 a year

Rewards credit cards on steroids

It's not clear whether you receive traditional rewards (points, miles or cash back) on the Centurion card, but you can certainly get some seriously rewarding perks. You have access to a concierge service that claims to be able to get you sold-out tickets and restaurant reservations that are unobtainable by the masses.

And that service is also supposed to negotiate amazing discounts and upgrades for you. According to Forbes, earlier this year, the company unveiled some of its auto-related offers, which extend from handsome discounts on new Bentleys, Ferraris and other luxury marques to big savings on everyday purchases--you know, routine stuff, like renting a Formula One car.

So if your lifestyle is such that you frequently enjoy box seating at major sports events, then those sign-up and annual fees could look like a real bargain.

Travel credit cards with perks for frequent fliers

But you no longer need to have a nine-figure fortune to get serious perks. Airline credit cards in particular are now offering freebies that can be genuinely valuable to frequent fliers--and that's in addition to being worthwhile rewards credit cards in their own right. Look out for:

  1. Your first bag checked free
  2. Access to exclusive airport lounges at no cost
  3. Priority boarding, and sometimes priority check-in and security screening too

Some airline credit cards also offer a concierge service, although you might be wise not to expect this to rival Centurion's. With these, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for.

This was illustrated particularly well in July when two new travel credit cards were launched within days of each other. The snappily named Citi®/ AAdvantage® Executive World EliteTM MasterCard® card offers all the above perks, including a concierge service. But, with an annual fee of $450, you'd need to fly a lot to justify the cost.

The other new product, the United MileagePlus® Explorer Card from Chase, offers that free checked bag, but only occasional access to airport lounges through a limited number of vouchers. On top of that, you get priority boarding but not priority check-in or security screening. However, its annual fee is only $95, ($0 intro for the first year). You also enjoy $0 foreign transaction fees with this one.

Which is the better card? That will entirely depend on how much you fly, whether you love or hate either American Airlines or United, and how highly you value the perks on offer.

Credit card companies perking up perks

In many people's eyes, American Express remains the king of perks, and not just for the ultra-rich. Visit the company's Facebook page and you're likely to find a number of exclusive offers available to all cardmembers. At the time of writing, recent ones include:

  • 'Like' Glee? Here's an experience you'll LOVE--advance tix to Glee the 3D Concert Movie and exclusive song download…
  • Check out our top picks & exclusive offers to explore Spain, Turkey, Greece or Portugal this summer!

But other credit card companies are catching up. At the end of August, Chase began promoting that United MileagePlus® Explorer Card with a touring event that offers a whole host of prizes, ranging from a million bonus miles to digital SLR cameras and eReaders.

Let's face it, none of these are going rival flashing a Centurion card at a class reunion, And, frankly, you'd be crazy to sign up for any card solely because you stand a chance of winning a prize, attractive though those million bonus miles are.

But credit card companies do have a whole lot of perks on offer right now, not least those sign-up bonuses that are so common and attractive at the moment. By all means be influenced by them, but only to the extent that they represent real value for money, and truly enhance your life. In other words, credit card perks should only sway your choice of plastic (or titanium) if they genuinely complement your lifestyle.

Published 09/01/11 (Modified 07/18/16)


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