Sunday, October 07, 2007

Living with an American Express card

Everyone has heard of American Express, and as a company they have an image of providing exceptional quality services to the wealthy. Upon looking at their product range in more detail they have a number of services targetted at the average consumer.

In terms of payment cards, their top of their range product for new customers is the Platinum Charge Card. A charge card works very similar to a Visa or Mastercard credit card used by nearly all consumers. The only difference between a credit card and a charge card is you must pay off the full balance of your account each month. It is not possible within the terms and conditions to make a small payment and defer paying the outstanding balance in return for paying interest.

What's the benefit to that? If you can get a credit limit on your credit card that is suitable for your needs there is no benefit. But the point is the American Express does not have a credit limit. I don't think Victoria Beckham would cope for a month with a £20k credit limit. This is the market for the charge card. Want to buy a house this week, no probs - pay with Amex (if the agent accepts it)!!

Being a sucker for carrying flash plastic in my wallet I applied for one of these Platinum Charge Cards to find how good their service was. At the time I saw a TV campaign promoting their concierge service. It showed someone working flat out who was able to call the card and ask them to track down and send a gift to someone important. I liked the idea of having an American Express personal assistant at my beck and call.

Once I received the card it was very traditional looking. It wasn't a particularly impressive looking piece of plastic compared to some of the better designs of credit cards at the time. The best thing about it was presenting it for payment in the big department stores like Selfridges or Harvey Nichols. You immediately got a look of respect from the cashier. The worst thing about it was being rejected in 30% of stores 'Sorry we don't take Amex - have you an alternative card?'

This is the main reason I no longer have the card. If I am having to pay a Visa bill I got sick of paying an Amex bill as well. Another reason is chip and pin. The cashiers no longer see your card. You just put it in the machine, enter your pin and remove it to your wallet. Call me a poser, but that is why every card is now platinum, because at the launch of the idea they were a status symbol. Everyone wanted one.

Now i've covered the day to day aspects, I will detail the services included with card membership. These can be divided into three categories:

Travel benefits include a travel booking service. Whatever you need, be it a last minute flight or a bespoke holiday of a lifetime the service will take your requirements and arrange everything for you. Problem is in most cases you could save plenty of money by spending 10 minutes searching the internet. You got the offer of 2 for 1 flights but these apply to a very restricted list of airlines. Don't expect to get the offer flying Manchester to London, to New York or to Ibiza or Greece. You get membership to premium hotel schemes but all these provide is complimentary benefits on staying like a massage or an evening meal. In my two years as a member I never booked with them. I did use my access to airport lounges a few times.

Protection benefits or specifically travel insurance for your family and supplementary card holders. They also offer purchase protection and emergency assistance but this is common on most free credit cards.

Lifestyle benefits are basically the concierge service I mentioned I saw in the TV advert. I note that on the Amex website this has now been described much more accurately. This service can send a gift, book a restaurant or special event for you. When I used it to book a restaurant I had to give my full card and security details, and was then asked for nearly the full address of the restaurant I wished to use and details like the time and number in the party. By the time I had done this and waited for a callback in most cases it would have been easier to call the restaurant direct!

These benefits were so restricted as to be nearly useless. I called the travel service to book a ferry to the Isle of Man. They refused saying they only deal in travel by flight. I needed to take my car. I wanted a plumber in Manchester. They refused to help because they didn't have a fully vetted list. Reading their separate insurance I thought they had! I asked for an executive lounge in Greece or Ibiza. Out of a list of 500 there wasn't one. A local worker at the airport told me 'we don't have many executives in Ibiza'! You do but they are hard to spot in shorts!!

There is a loyalty point scheme. I struggled to find anything in their list of rewards that I actually wanted. In the end I settled for Molton Brown vouchers. I also havn't mentioned that there was an annual fee. A very big annual fee of (cough) £275. This has now gone up to £300!

To conclude the overall membership experience was disappointing, especially if you take the charges into account. Except food supermarkets and petrol stations, acceptance of this card is poor. Most stores at the Trafford Centre in Manchester refused it. BMW dealers and service centres do not accept it. Most stores in foreign airports refused it. Don't think of using it abroad as the foreign conversion fees are extortionate. The service was poor, refusing to book anything but run of the mill requirements. The Membership Rewards couldn't be redeemed for anything one would actually want. It was hard to save for them with card acceptance being so poor. If you can find a free credit card for your needs get one instead!


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