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The Centurion® Card from American Express remains one of the most exclusive and hard to get credit cards around. There are all kinds of urban legends surrounding it, like having it delivered to you by a security guard, being able to flash it at the world’s hottest restaurants and clubs for entry, and being able to buy anything at any time.
The reality is a little more mundane though.
It earns 1 Membership Rewards point per dollar spent with no bonuses and will cost you $7,500 to get one the first time (call it the anti-bonus offer – nearly every other card tries to pay you to join via points or cash back) plus a $2,500 annual fee.
You can’t apply for one outright – American Express needs to invite you, or you can ‘ask’ Amex to invite you based on your spending habits. An alternative is if you have very high deposits with a private wealth bank that partners with American Express your private banker can request an invitation.
But like all credit cards whether a Centurion® ‘black card’ is worth it often boils down to some pretty specific benefits that drive value, some of which are disappearing in 2014.
Here is a selection of the benefits American Express offers to U.S. based holders of the elusive Centurion® Card as of the writing of this article:
But thanks primarily to two airline mergers – United and Continental in 2010 and American and US Airways this year, The Centurion® Card has lost and will lose a number of benefits important to members.
Some of the losses aren’t all that great. For example Virgin Atlantic Gold status was really only useful for access to its Upper Class lounges when you flew with them. But thanks to a new joint venture between Delta and Virgin Atlantic, all Delta Platinum Medallions get access to Upper Class lounges when flying on Virgin Atlantic or Delta on flights to and from London Heathrow, so really there’s not much of a loss there as all Centurion® card holders retain Delta Platinum Medallion status.
Others will set up some embarrassing situations. For example, Delta announced it would no longer allow people who access its Sky Clubs with a credit or charge card like the Centurion® Card to bring in guests for free. It’s a sure thing not every Centurion® Card holder will be aware of this by the time the new rule is in place in May, and will lead to disappointment when card holders try to enter Sky Clubs with associates or family only to be told it will be an extra $29 per guest.
And if you were a cardholder who joined in the early to mid 2000s and got used to having 1) access to nearly every domestic US airline lounge but pre-merger United, 2) having top tier status with Starwood, and 3) elite status on 3 different US airlines, then you’re just not getting the same value you got back then if you traveled with those brands.
Delta Platinum Medallion status is probably the most unique tangible benefit of the card, which offers complimentary space-available first class upgrades at the 2nd highest priority on most domestic flights.
It’s harder to upgrade as a Platinum than it used to be, but next year the ranks of Platinum fliers could be smaller as Delta imposes a requirement you need to spend $7,500 in tickets each year on top of flying 75,000 miles. So you might find getting upgraded is a bit easier. If you get upgraded on 5 flights then you’ll save about $2,500 right there versus paying in cash for the upgrades.
If you fly Delta frequently, say 30-50,000 miles a year, but don’t want to pay for $7,500 worth of tickets each year then the Platinum status can be very useful.
But unfortunately Delta has no real guaranteed advance upgrade method for Platinums other than 4 ‘regional’ upgrade certificates valid on most domestic and Hawaii flights though the premium Business Elite flights from JFK to San Francisco and Los Angeles are excluded.
Or you can buy a full fare ticket and get an instant upgrade if upgrade space is available. But full fare coach tickets are often more expensive than a discounted first class ticket. So it’s hard to ascribe cash value to an upgrade you get solely based on chance.
You also get free access to Economy Comfort seats at the time of booking with extra legroom, so that can save you $9 – $180 each segment depending on how long the flight is.
Delta Platinum status also entitles you to no change fees on award tickets. While it’s hard to rack up $2,500 worth of change fees, let’s say you save about $300 a year with that.
The card also offers confirmed advance hotel upgrades at some luxury chains, which can be worth hundreds or thousands of dollars depending how often you would have booked those hotels, but that number has fallen over the past year.
Some people also value the extended warranty benefits. Doubling a warranty up to 5 years is a huge perk of The Centurion® Card, and if you keep track of your receipts and spending it can save you hundreds of dollars if something goes wrong.
Other benefits like free breakfast at hotels, access to Delta Sky Clubs, and Priority Pass lounges, along with the $200 annual airline fee credit are already available on the les expensive Platinum Card.
You can also enjoy many similar hotel upgrade benefits without a card via Virtuoso travel agents. One agent you can search and book online is Classic Travel.
Some just like the prestige factor. While it’s rare you’ll get special treatment just for flashing the card (maybe you did back in 2003), there will always be a market for products that display a level of success, wealth, exclusivity to others. The titanium construction is unmatched and no one can mistake it is a sign of privilege (or at least the ability to charge a lot on your card regularly). Centurion® is the designer label of cards and makes a statement.
It’s also a convenient card if you put through a lot of large purchases. No one likes having a purchase declined, especially if you can afford it, and while no card is immune from this, The Centurion® Card gets extra attention. You’re probably less likely to face the embarrassment of having your card declined due to the size of a purchase or an inaccurate fraud alert.
Others really do use the concierge. Centurion® members get better attention and theoretically more tailored help. If it’s reliable and useful to you as a member, why risk switching, particularly if your spouse or loved ones rely on it? But it’s hard to say the service itself is worth it for a brand-new member. There are lots of dedicated concierge services that could serve you well.
Other people are just loyal to American Express. Their charge cards are a good way to get started building credit for yourself or your business, as they are not revolving loans. You have to pay them in full each month. So a lot of people just getting started build a relationship from the ground up with Amex and when they reach success feel very loyal to the way American Express treated them through all of their ups and downs.
But the fact of the matter is, what used to be a real value some members could justify with real cash savings is less of a value than it once was, with a tangible reduction in perks offered. And other Membership Rewards cards can offer many of its benefits, including the purchasing power American Express offers its best customers.
But maybe that’s okay as fewer members could mean more exclusive benefits for those who stay.
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