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At $450 a year, an American Express card may be a bargain

I'm cheap.

That's not to say that I won't pay top dollar for the best. I will, sometimes. But not until I'm convinced that I'm getting full value for my hard-earned dollars.

With their high annual fees and percentage rates on unpaid balances, credit cards come in for special scrutiny.

All of which is to say that the pricier charge cards from American Express—the Platinum and Centurion cards—have always seemed the very epitome of conspicuous consumption. And irrational consumption at that.

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With an annual fee of $450, the Platinum card appears intent on establishing a record for high-priced cards. But then along comes the Centurion card, with a yearly price "around" $2,500, making the Platinum card look downright cheap. (American Express dissembles when asked to quote the price for the Centurion product, and the card is available only by invitation.)

But the Platinum card may actually be a bargain for consumers who travel frequently enough to make airport lounge memberships a reasonable expenditure.

With the recent addition of American's Admirals Club lounge network, Platinum and Centurion cardholders now have access to the airport lounges of four of the five largest U.S. airlines (American, Continental, Delta, and Northwest).

A basic annual membership in American's lounges costs $450. So the card's cost could be self-justifying on that basis alone. Factor in access to the lounges of the other participating airlines and the annual fee for the Platinum card begins to look like a real bargain.

You won't find a Platinum card in my wallet any time soon. But circumstances can change, and if my future work life were to require significantly more travel ... well, never say never.

As for the Centurion card, I'll say it now: Never!

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