If you fret over the cost of filling a vintage Rolls-Royce with petrol, don’t have one. If you’re going to complain about an annual fee for a credit or charge card, bin it.
A few years ago, I wrote about my “by invitation only” American Express Centurion card. Despite the hefty £2,200 annual fee, I concluded that if you use its services, it can make sense.
Now, just as the cost of living crisis bites, Amex has announced that the annual fee for its flagship Centurion is rising to an eye-watering £3,400. Before I do the equivalent of throwing a bag of banknotes out of my bedroom window, should I jettison my beloved titanium “blamex” card?
As the economic headwinds strengthen, conspicuous consumption becomes more insensitive. We all now know how much trouble you can get in for wearing an expensive pair of shoes. And, for some, paying for a charge card is wastefulness personified. But one person’s waste is another person’s pleasure. Car boot sales and a good brocante are testament to that.
But with a hefty annual cost for a card that others provide for a limited fee or free, am I paying for the emperor’s new clothes?
Even the Amex Platinum card, which shares some of the same benefits of the Centurion and scaled down offerings, is £575 per annum. According to Hannah Lewis, American Express UK country manager: “Centurion is more than a card. It’s a way of life.”
Is she right to treat it like a club not a card? Soho House’s “all-house” membership is £2,500 a year and offers access to venues, discounts, deals and experiences for your fee. For both, there is a certain cachet.
Other charge cards merely have services attached. Coutts customers can have a somewhat oddly named “Silk” card with a range of lounge and insurance benefits for “free”. However private banking costs £900 a year, if you’re a UK resident, and the travel insurance is £400 per annum. There is no kudos, these days, no one is particularly impressed by anyone with a Coutts account.
It’s not as if Amex has designed the perfect product. It isn’t accepted everywhere, so you’ll need alternative cards. And there’s a “daylight robbery” 2.99 per cent foreign exchange fee on every non-sterling transaction. And the concierge service can be hit and miss. If you aren’t careful, you can end up paying more for flights and hotels.
Gone are the days when you walked into a shop, waved your black card in the air and miraculously, as in the Pretty Woman film, shopkeepers fawned over you. Now, they couldn’t care less. In fact, many traders beg you not to use your Amex because of the high transaction fees.
But am I missing the point? A fanfare announced a relaunch of Centurion to members. Instead of the standard black card insignia, you could choose from designs by Rem Koolhaas or Kehinde Wiley. (No, me neither.)
And there is a “free” Prada-designed wearable payment device. Nice idea, but not great in execution. It looks like a piece of bondage gear, and it’s a bit tight on a standard wrist, proving there’s no such thing as one size fits all.
Also, it doesn’t work well on the Tube. Multiple taps are required, provoking other passengers’ ire. And a lot of tutting. Perhaps the way of life Hannah alludes to doesn’t include using public transport? If you want wearable payment devices, an Apple Watch is far better. So far, not so good.
But there are some interesting bells and whistles they’ve added with the price rise. Every quarter you can spend £125 at Harvey Nicks and another £125 at LVMH’s Clos19 website, receiving credits of up to £500 a year at each establishment. That’s £1,000 of “value”.
I’ve already stocked up on a few designer items and some unnecessary bottles of fizz. There are free airport transfers up to eight times a year to and from your home if you book a flight via the concierge travel service. The travel insurance is top notch and a free upgrade to Virgin Gold accesses the lounge and “fast track” skips the queues. This is surprisingly important in this age of zoo travel.
The deals tend to be with bigger operators. If you’re after bespoke or classy, forget it. But if you like a Mandarin Oriental or equivalent, this is for you.
Every three months, Centurion presents a range of dining, visitor experiences and access to “must see” cultural events such as Glyndebourne or the National Theatre. There’s money off with partner retailers. And they’ll hold tables at swanky restaurants. Meaning you’ll nearly always get a reservation if you book through the concierge.
I recently took advantage of one of the perks, a complimentary me-plus-one Tuscan vineyard trip, by private jet, all pick-ups included, reduced accommodation charges, a vineyard tour and a few top-end meals thrown in for good measure.
Strangely, they didn’t offer to fly us home. But the trip must have been worth a few thousand and we ended up going to Florence for a few days and asking the concierge to tag on a fancy schmancy hotel.
We got a free room upgrade and a late checkout too. Sadly, however, the $150 towards food and beverages was wasted as the hotel in question served the most horrendous dinner which, in Italy, is blasphemous. But they organised the itinerary, pick-ups and took care of all the details.
But is this kind of one-upmanship, this pre-paid luxury worthwhile in this day and age? After all, my card hardly sees the light of day. Not because I’m tight, but because I use it via my phone and no one sees how you’re paying. But perhaps that’s the way it should be. Value for a service should be received by the payee rather than showoffability?
When I had a real job, I had a wonderful PA. She organised my lunches and got on the case to sort out personal plans. Now I’m freelance, I appreciate a concierge service that does the legwork.
This card certainly isn’t for everyone, given its “invite only” status. For me, it works. With the deals offered, freebies included and the time saved, this rarefied status symbol is worth the money. This also explains the Rolls. The £192.60 to fill it up is worth it. Well, you’re a long time dead. And one compensation is I’ll receive Amex Rewards on the fuel purchase. And we all know points mean prizes!
James Max is a TV and radio presenter and a property expert. The views expressed are personal. Twitter: @thejamesmax