Breakdown: American Express Card Benefits

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American Express benefits rightfully give the issuer a reputation for high-end, high-cost credit and charge cards. But as AmEx expands from its Platinum and Black roots to everyman credit cards and even prepaid debit cards, benefits have begun to vary widely based on the card. Here’s a comprehensive breakdown of the most popular American Express personal charge and credit cards, their associated benefits, and any fees, rewards and signup bonuses that we think should inform your decision.  Note: There are also a number of business American Express credit and charge cards, like the Plum Card, the Business Platinum, and so on, but for clarity’s sake we’ll focus on personal cards here.  Happy nerding!

Membership Rewards: a tier-based rewards program

American Express’ rewards cards pay out in Membership Rewards points, which we value at the standard 1 cent per point and which are generally pretty easy to redeem in small amounts. We won’t go into the details of the program; for a full review, check out our review of the Membership Rewards points. The salient information is that the program is divided into three tiers: Membership Rewards Express, Membership Rewards, and Membership Rewards First. The tiers offer different benefits, detailed below. All three provide a “points advance” system, where you can spend your points before you actually earn them. You also earn 2x Membership Rewards points when you book travel through AmEx.

Tier Cards Benefits
MR Express All credit cards
  • 5,000-point advance
  • Can redeem for hotel/airline gift cards, no “top up”
Membership Rewards Green
  • 15,000-point advance
  • Can transfer any number of points to hotel/airline loyalty program and “top up” existing miles
MR First Platinum
  • 60,000-point advance
  • Top up
  • Dedicated concierge line

AmEx Centurion (American Express Black): Applications for this card are by invitation only, and apparently the NerdWallet invite got lost in the mail, so unfortunately everything we’ve got is hearsay. We can tell you that the annual fee is $2,500, and there’s a $5,000 application fee. Benefits include a concierge, complimentary companion tickets on some international flights, personal shoppers, lounge access, hotel stays, and free enrollment into the Hertz Club Gold and Avis Presidents Club. Also, according to Wikipedia, the card itself is made of anodized titanium and has been known to set off airport metal detectors. Should I get one? If you have to ask, the answer is no.

American Express Centurion
Annual Fee Benefits
$2,500 + one-time $5k
  • Concierge
  • Companion tickets
  • Lounge access
  • Personal shopper
  • Membership Rewards First
Rewards Rate
If only we knew

American Express Platinum: Occupying the second slot in the high-end tier is the AmEx Platinum, which is far more accessible than the Black, though that’s not exactly saying much. It’s a huge step up from the Gold and Green cards, and despite the high annual fee, we think it’s worthwhile given the extensive perks. You can recoup the $450 fee in any number of ways, starting with a $200 airline incidentals credit, a $100 credit to the Global Entry program that lets you skip customs lines, and access to select Priority Pass, Delta, Centurion and Airspace lounges,. You get access to by-invitation-only events, companion tickets, and better rental car coverage than the other AmEx cards. Should I get one? We think that high-rolling, frequent international travelers will like the American Express Platinum, not least because the annual fee is all but wiped away with expensive perks. In fact, we prefer it to the AmEx Gold (which has a lower annual fee) and the American Express Delta Reserve (which has the same fee but fewer perks).

*Note: As of October 2011, AmEx Platinum and Centurion cardholders won’t get automatic access to Continental and United lounges.

American Express Gold: The next step down from the Platinum, the Gold Card is the middle child of the AmEx family. The AmEx Premier Rewards Gold has a lower annual fee than the Platinum ($175, waived the first year) and a higher rewards rate (3x on airfare, 2x on gas and groceries) than the Platinum, but has far worse benefits. It’s not a MR First card, so while you can top up your points, you don’t get the concierge service, airline credit, signup bonus, lounge access or companion tickets. The regular AmEx Preferred Gold has an even lower annual fee ($125, again waived the first year) but its rewards rate is a flat 1%, so if you spend a mere $2,000 on gas/groceries and $1,500 on airfare a year, you’ve nixed the difference. Should I get one? We’re not in love with it. If you’re willing to pay a higher annual fee, the AmEx Platinum returns the extra amount and then some with its killer perks. If you’re unwilling, AmEx has a lot of cheaper cards with better rewards and only marginally less attractive benefits.

American Express Green: If the Gold Card is the middle child, then the Green is the Gold’s kid brother who tries to play basketball too but doesn’t realize that he’s only 4’3. The benefits are pretty mediocre: it has the standard travel perks, return/purchase/warranty protection, and so on, which you see on almost every AmEx charge or credit card. It has a $95 annual fee (waived the first year) which doesn’t make up for its equally yawn-worthy rewards rate. The one advantage it has over the AmEx credit cards is that it lets you top up your rewards points for existing hotel/airline loyalty programs. Should I get one? If you’re going to go for a $75+ annual fee, we suggest going with the American Express Blue Cash, which at least will give you better rewards without that big of a step down in perks.

American Express Blue: AmEx’s blue cards include the Blue Sky and Blue Cash credit cards. The two Blue Cash cards, the Preferred and the Everyday, give cash back on typical spending purchases. The Preferred gives 6% on up to $6k spent on groceries, unlimited 3% at gas stations and department stores, and 1% elsewhere, while the Everyday gives 3%, 2% and 1%. The Preferred has a $75 annual fee offset in the first year by $100 cash back. The Blue Sky cards give a flat 1.33% rewards rate (we value it at 1.33% because though you get 1 point per $1, the Blue Sky lets you redeem 7,500 points for $100). The Blue Sky Preferred has a $75 annual fee but gives a $100 airline incidentals credit and 2x points on dining, hotels and car rentals. The Blue Sky no annual fee and gives the flat 1.33% rate all around. Should I get one? The Blue Cash Preferred is one of the best cash back credit cards around, and a pretty good choice for suburbanites who spend on food and gas. We tend to think that the better rewards rate puts it ahead of the Blue Sky and Blue Cash Everyday.

American Express Clear: The AmEx Clear has its uses, mainly, that you can have multiple cards across the family but receive one consolidated statement and automatically receive a $25 shopping card when you rack up 2,500 points. But besides that, the rewards rate is a flat 1% across the board. You can even do better with the AmEx Blue Cash Everyday (though we tend to favor the Preferred over the Everyday), which also has no fee but gives 3% on groceries and 2% on gas and department stores (everyday spending categories – targeted at the Clear’s demographic). Should I get one? We don’t recommend it. The AmEx Blue Cash is more family-friendly and gives better rewards.

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    Are you saying that the American express clear card is no good to those people without any siblings yet? Meaning to say, bachelor should not get one?

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