Life is full of choices that shouldn’t be taken lightly: “Where should I go to college?” “Is this the person I should marry?” “The American Express Platinum or Centurion card?” Fortunately, we’re here to help – with the Amex question, at least.
For most people, this isn’t much of a decision, because only the biggest of spenders will receive an invitation from American Express (AXP) to apply for the Centurion (aka, the black card). You won’t find an official Amex webpage devoted to the card so the qualifications are mostly a guess. In order to receive an invite, you probably have to spend at least $250,000 each year. Some reports say you also need at least $1.3 million in annual income, although other reports speak of black card holders who merely make mid-six-figure salaries.
The only official word from Amex about the Centurion is the required card member agreement disclosure page that lists a $7,500 initiation fee and $2,500 annual fee. Most of the high-end benefits are travel-related. You get platinum medallion status on Delta Air Lines, 24/7 concierge service, President’s Club status at Avis (entitling you to upgrades), a $200 airline fee rebate and access to various airport lounges (including Amex's own Centurion Lounges), to name a few. If you use membership rewards points for travel, you get 20% back, according to one card holder.
You don’t have to be nearly as much of a big spender to apply for the Platinum card. In fact, Gold cardholders who spend a reasonable amount and pay on time will likely receive applications regularly.
American Express isn’t as secretive about this card. You can go to the Platinum card webpage that lists the 40+ perks you receive in exchange for the $450 annual fee, including access to Centurion, Delta and Airspace lounges; benefits at fine hotels; free Boingo Wi-Fi; car rental privileges and concierge services. Currently, Amex is offering 40,000 points if you spend $3,000 within the first three months.
The Right Choice for You
First, congratulations on having the choice. Second, bear in mind that both are travel cards. There’s little reason (other than a status symbol) to hold either of these cards if you’re a homebody. The high annual fee on the Platinum and the obscenely high fee on the black card won’t pay for themselves unless you’re a frequent traveler.
If you do spend a lot of time at 36,000 feet and spend a lot of your nights in hotels, the Platinum card offers most of the perks of the Centurion. The benefits that set the black card apart, at least according to cardholders, are diminishing. Since it merged with American Airlines, US Airways is no longer part of the perk packages, for example. Services and reservations arranged by the concierges are reportedly sub-par and overpriced, and the customer service is slow, some complain.
Of course, the status symbol of holding the card has its advantages. Some people say that simply using the card has secured them upgrades they weren’t necessarily entitled to. If you received an invitation for the black card, you have the opportunity to speak to an Amex representative before signing up. Ask him or her about the benefits and then ask yourself: Will you actually use the added benefits? Are they – and the prestige of having this card – worth the high cost?
The Bottom Line
As one cardholder pointed out, “Just because we’re rich doesn’t mean we want to waste money.” The fees that come with the black card are considerable, so unless the perks will pay for themselves (and then some), you might prefer to politely decline Amex's invitation to join its Centurion ranks. You may not even need the Platinum card if you don't travel frequently. For many, the Gold card – or, for small-business owners, the Plum card – may be more than enough.