Is the Amex Centurion Card Worth The $2,500 Annual Fee?

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With all the recent changes to the American Express Platinum Card, including the loss of American Admirals Club and US Airways Club access in March, and restrictions on Delta SkyClub access to the cardholder only (no guests) starting May 1, premium Amex cardholders might be looking for a new product. Some of you may even be considering Amex’s highly-touted first-tier Centurion card (aka the Black card), so I put together a rundown of its benefits and an analysis of whether this exclusive card is worth it’s sticker price. Note: I haven’t been invited to be a cardholder, so if any existing cardholders want to comment on their experiences that would be greatly appreciated.

Getting the Card

Known as the “Black Card”, the Centurion gets its distinctive color from the anodized titanium used to make it. Unlike most credit cards, for which anyone can apply, to get a Centurion card you must be invited. Like the Platinum card, the Centurion earns Membership Rewards points, and includes a bounty of exclusive, concierge-style perks like guaranteed tables at three-star restaurants, priority bookings at luxury hotels, invitations to private cultural events, personal shoppers at major retailers, and the bling factor of slinging a heavyweight metal card that few people have ever actually seen in person. In order to maintain Centurion membership, a cardholder is expected to make and pay off at least $250,000 worth of purchases a year.

AMEX-centurion-black-card

According to some cardholders who have been invited to apply for a black card, being a responsible American Express Green Card member (that is, maintaining a high level of spend and paying your monthly bill on time and in full) can improve your chances of receiving an invitation, but the decision is ultimately at the discretion of American Express, and they provide little insight into the decision process and it appears to have tightened over the years.

Fees and Payments

With both personal and business versions, the Amex Centurion is a charge card with no interest rate (since you must pay off the balance in full each billing period), no pre-set spending limit, and no foreign transaction fees. It does not offer a signup bonus, but requires a one-time initiation fee of $5,000 and a $2,500 annual fee – the highest fees of any credit card on the market. To learn more about Centurion’s fees and payment policy, take a look at the Centurion cardmember agreement.

Benefits

Points: Centurion is part of the Membership Rewards First Program, and cardholders earn one point per dollar spent. You can transfer points directly to Membership Rewards transfer partners just like you would with other Amex cards such as the Premier Rewards Gold or Platinum cards.

Security: The Centurion card has embedded SmartChip technology, which many other countries already consider a more secure alternative to magnetic swiping, though you still need to sign for your purchases. The card does not currently have PIN capability, which reduces its usefulness, especially in Europe where some retailers require a min.

A Centurion card with an imbedded SmartChip
The Centurion card comes with Chip and Signature technology.

24/7 Concierge: Run by concierge and events management company Circles, the concierge benefit for Centurion is rumored to be able to arrange just about any service, perk, restaurant table, airline seat, theatre seat, hotel bed or outrageous purchase in the world. While some Centurion cardholders swear by this benefit, the service has increasingly earned less-than-stellar critiques for being unclear, slow, vague or otherwise lacking.

$200 Qualifying Airline Rebate: Like the Platinum card, Centurion cardholders receive a $200 qualifying airline rebate per calendar year on their airline partner of choice. This credit is supposed to apply toward baggage fees, seat assignment fees, in-flight food and drink, flight change fees, lounge day passes, full lounge membership and award ticket fees. The problem is that many elite travelers already get most of those fees waived, so cardholders often have credit left over at the end of the year. However, many people (myself included) are regularly able to apply the credit toward the purchase of $50 and $100 airline vouchers, so you can actually spend it on tickets. Comments from TPG readers provide plenty of anecdotal evidence and successful examples.

Delta Platinum Medallion Status: To access this benefit, call Delta at 1-800-323-2323, inform them that you have the Centurion card, and follow their instructions to provide proof of your cardholder status. Delta Platinum Medallion Status ordinarily requires a Delta Amex spend of $25,000 annually or a spend of $7,500 on Delta airfare, as well as 75,000 Medallion qualification miles or 100 segments. The status provides unlimited complimentary upgrades on various fares and award tickets (though no longer on premium transcontinental routes like JFK-LAX), as well as companion upgrades, preferred seating, Elite Plus boarding and baggage status, and Medallion Choice Benefits, like bonus miles or Silver Medallion status nomination for someone else.

US Airways Platinum Status: Though Amex is ending its relationship with US Airways in terms of lounge status due to the airline’s upcoming merger with American Airlines, Amex has told Centurion cardholders that the automatic US Airways Platinum status that they have received as a cardmember benefit since 2007 will be extended through February 28, 2015. However, Amex has not specified what will happen after that, and I suspect 2014 will be the last year that cardholders receive this benefit. Platinum status normally requires flying 75,000 miles or 90 segments, and includes the following benefits: First class upgrades, checked bag fee waivers and priority baggage handling, bonus miles, preferred seating, Preferred Access (with priority check-in, security line access, and boarding), guaranteed seating, Star Alliance Gold status, priority standby, MoveUp and Mileage Upgrade fee waivers, award processing and quick ticketing fee waivers, and US Airways Club membership discount.

Cathay Pacific's First Class Lounge in Hong Kong
Cathay Pacific’s First Class Lounge in Hong Kong

Cathay Pacific’s The Marco Polo Club Diamond Status: This top-tier status on Cathay Pacific usually requires 120,000 Club miles or 80 Club sectors. Perks include First class check-in, priority waitlisting, guaranteed seats (including business class), and access to all Cathay Pacific lounges (see Airport Lounge Access below). Additional benefits include room upgrades at Fairmont, Hyatt, Langham, Peninsula, Ritz-Carlton and more. Centurion cardholders receive a letter informing them of membership, and again when/if they’ve been renewed; automatic renewal has not been a blanket benefit in the past.  Note:According to FlyerTalkers, this benefit will be discontinued on November 30, 2014.

Delta SkyClub Lounge at LAX
Delta SkyClub Lounge at LAX.

Airport Lounge AccessWith a valid ticket for same-day travel, Centurion cardholders receive complimentary access to Cathay Pacific lounges (including First Class and Dragonair), Delta Sky Club lounges, Airspace lounges (found in JFK, CLE and BWI airports), and Centurion lounges, which are presently found at Las Vegas (LAS) and Dallas (DFW) airports, with new lounges planned for San Francisco (SFO) and New York City’s LaGuardia (LGA). Additional benefits at all of these lounges include the ability to bring up to two guests and any children under 21.

The Centurion card also confers Priority Pass Select access to over 600 airport lounges in 100 countries. However, note that this particular benefit requires cardholders to call their Centurion customer service line, request enrollment, and wait for physical receipt of a Priority Pass card; this card must be presented in order to gain access to member lounges. Guests are allowed in for a $27 fee.

Centurion members still must present a Priority Pass card in order to gain lounge access
Centurion members must present a Priority Pass card in order to gain lounge access.

Complimentary access to all of these airport lounges represents a potential savings of up to $500 annually for each separate program, taking some of the edge off  Centurion’s initiation and annual fees. 

Global Entry Refund: Global Entry qualifies you for TSA PreCheck and allows you to skip lengthy customs and immigration lines when you return from traveling abroad. When you charge the $100 Global Entry application fee to your Centurion card, you get a $100 statement credit, making  your Global Entry membership free.

globalentry
Reimbursement for Global Entry membership is a perk of the Centurion card.

Avis President’s Club Membership and Hertz Platinum: The Centurion card confers automatic Avis President’s Club and Hertz Platinum elite status. President’s Club benefits include two-class upgrades on intermediate or higher car class rentals,  guaranteed availability and dedicated customer service. Hertz Platinum includes guaranteed vehicle availability worldwide, guaranteed vehicle upgrades, personalized concierge service on every rental, private car service back to your departure terminal, a four-hour grace period on returns, and a 25% points bonus among other benefits.

Cruises:  When you book a cruise on Crystal Cruises, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn Cruise Line, and Silversea Cruises using the Centurion card, you receive a shipboard credit of $500 per stateroom or a 2-Category Stateroom Upgrade (depending on the cruise line and stateroom category booked). Exclusive amenities vary by cruise line, but include complimentary dinners, bottles of Champagne, special packages and ship tours.

Luxury Hotel Perks and Upgrades: Centurion cardholders receive priority booking, check-in and amenities at luxury hotel chains. For instance, at most Amanresorts, Centurion members receive a candlelit dinner for two prepared by the property’s executive chef. Orient-Express properties offer a complimentary dinner (alcohol not included) for two for a three-night-minimum stay. At Mandarin Oriental, cardholders receive one free night per year at any of the chain’s global properties (with a minimum stay of two consecutive nights). Additional Centurion hotel-partner chains include Raffles, Peninsula, Ritz-Carlton and St. Regis.

Starwood Gold Status: Once you have a Centurion card, call Starwood at 1-888-625-4990 and tell them you want SPG Gold Status. After you fax in proof that you are a cardholder, they’ll upgrade your Starwood account to Gold status. Starwood Gold (normally attained after 25 nights or 10 stays) gets you a 50% bonus on Starpoints (so you earn 3 points per $1 spent at Starwood properties), room upgrades, 4 pm late checkout and overall better customer service. Centurion cardholders in some countries also get Hilton Diamond fast track (you just need to stay 2 stays or 4 nights) and IHG Rewards Platinum status.

Starwood Gold Status: also included with Centurion
Starwood Gold Status: also included with Centurion.

Fine Hotels & Resorts Program: The Fine Hotels and Resorts program for Centurion cardholders includes Centurion Travel Service, Centurion’s dedicated travel agency.  Agents are well-versed in the travel benefits of the card down to the fine print, and booking travel with them will ensure that you receive expert advice on your chosen destination as well as all possible travel perks of your membership, such as availability-based room upgrades, free night offers, complimentary breakfast, early check-in and guaranteed 4 pm check-out, resort credits for expenses like restaurants or spa treatments, and sometimes even free WiFi. Centurion members can book up to three rooms per cardholder, per stay at each property. Room rates are typically about the same as those being offered on a hotel’s website, but these perks can add up to thousands of dollars of extra value per stay. Though you normally have to book a room directly through a hotel or loyalty program’s website in order to earn points and elite credit from your stay, booking via Centurion Travel Service will in some cases allow earned points, elite credit and elite status benefits as well as value-added FHR perks like on-property credits.

Benefits of Centurion Travel Service
Centurion Travel Service can raise your hotel game to the next level.

Companion Ticket Benefit: Like the Platinum card, the Centurion card comes with a benefit that entitles cardholders to bring along a single companion on premium international itineraries. The catch is that you must purchase a refundable full-fare ticket, so this benefit does not always offer savings. There is no limit to the number of Companion Tickets available through the program, and there are no blackout dates—if you can buy a ticket on an eligible flight and there is space, you can get a Companion Ticket. In order to score a Companion Ticket, you must book through Amex’s Platinum Travel Service by calling 1-800-443-7672 or 1-800-525-3355. You cannot earn a companion ticket by booking anywhere else–and remember they can only quote you refundable ticket prices if you are going for the Companion Ticket.

Car Rental Perks and Upgrades: Centurion cardholders receive fast-track service and model upgrades at leading auto rental outlets like Hertz and Avis. Cardmembers receive preferred pricing on performance vehicles like Ferraris and Lamborghinis, or luxury cars like Mercedes, Lexus and BMW, as well as the high-end electric Tesla.

Purchase Protection: Amex’s purchase protection program offers coverage for up to 90 days after the date of purchase (though reportedly protection is actually extended beyond that) in case your merchandise is lost, stolen or damaged, and includes purchases made all over the world for you or someone else up to the cost charged to your card with a limit of $10,000 per purchase and $50,000 per card per year. Amex also has return protection where, if you change your mind and want to return an item, they’ll refund the charge even if the merchant won’t take it back, up to $300 per purchase and $1,000 annually. Amex also offers extended warranties for up to 1 year on purchases where the manufacturer’s warranty is 5 years or less. Using your Amex Platinum card could end up saving you a lot of money if your purchases don’t work out as well as you’d like, or if they are lost, stolen or damaged.

Travel Accident Insurance: Travel accident coverage for death or dismemberment up to $1.5 million – which is likely by far the highest of any card that offers this benefit. Insurance applies when traveling on a plane, train, helicopter, ship or bus when the entire fare has been charged to your card. Covered persons include the cardmember, each additional cardmember, and each of these cardmembers’ spouses or domestic partners and dependent children under 23 years of age.

Verdict

These aren’t all of the benefits associated with the Centurion card – Amex releases very little information about this exclusive card to non-cardholders, so if you have more concrete information, please feel free to share and we’ll add it to the post – but the fact remains that its benefits as a whole can hold a ton of value for some cardholders. Namely, this card is most useful to big spenders who are traveling regularly and taking full advantage of benefits like the Delta, Cathay and US Airways elite status (that is, if you don’t already fly private), the Fine Hotels & Resorts, and even the Companion Ticket if you’re required to buy refundable full-fares for some reason. However, you’d be hard pressed to make up for the $7,500 in fees the first year and the $2,500 annual fee thereafter and cards like the Premier Rewards Gold with the 3x points on airfare and 2x on gas and groceries and 15,000 bonus after $30,000 spent within a year are more lucrative for actually accruing points.

The main benefit of the card seems to be the status symbol of having the card. Unless that status is compelling to you personally, or you find it beneficial to your business, to impress at this exclusive level you’re probably better off with the Platinum Card. As detailed in this recent post, you’ll see that it offers many of the same perks for the relative pittance of a $450 annual fee.

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