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® from American Express OPEN, The Business Platinum Card from American Express OPEN, and so on, but for clarity’s sake we’ll focus on personal cards here.
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.
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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.
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The Platinum Card® from American Express: Occupying the second slot in the high-end tier is The Platinum Card® from American Express, which is far more accessible than the Black, though that’s not exactly saying much. It’s a huge step up from the American Express® Premier Rewards Gold Card and American Express® Green Card, 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 Platinum Card® from American Express, not least because the annual fee is all but wiped away with expensive perks. In fact, we prefer it to the American Express® Premier Rewards Gold Card (which has a lower annual fee) and the Delta Reserve Credit Card (which has the same fee but fewer perks).
*Note: As of October 2011, The Platinum Card® from American Express and Centurion cardholders won’t get automatic access to Continental and United lounges.
American Express® Premier Rewards Gold Card: The next step down from The Platinum Card® from American Express, the American Express® Premier Rewards Gold Card is the middle child of the AmEx family. It has a lower annual fee than The Platinum Card® from American Express (annual fee is waived the first year and $195 every year thereafter) and a higher rewards rate (3x on airfare, 2x on gas and groceries) than, 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 American Express® Gold Card has an even lower annual fee (Introductory annual fee of $0 for the first year, then $125) 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 Platinum Card® from American Express 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 Card: If the American Express® Premier Rewards Gold Card is the middle child, then the American Express® Green Card is the 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. Its annual fee is waived the first year and $95 every year thereafter 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 Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, 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 from American Express® and Blue Cash credit cards. The two Blue Cash cards, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express and the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express, give cash back on typical spending purchases. The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express gives 6% on up to $6k spent on groceries, unlimited 3% at gas stations and department stores, and 1% elsewhere, while the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express gives 3%, 2% and 1%. The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express 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 American Express Blue Sky Preferred’s annual fee is $75 but gives a $100 airline incidentals credit and 2x points on dining, hotels and car rentals. The Blue Sky from American Express® has an annual fee of $0 and gives the flat 1.33% rate all around. Should I get one? The Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express 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 from American Express® and Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express.
American Express Clear: The American Express 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 Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express (though we tend to favor the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express over the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express), which also has an annual fee of $0 but gives 3% on groceries and 2% on gas and department stores (everyday spending categories – targeted at the American Express Clear’s demographic). Should I get one? We don’t recommend it. The Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express is more family-friendly and gives better rewards.