Saturday, September 12, 2009

Credit Where Credit's Not Due 9/12/09

Here’s the dilemma. I can’t afford it, I don’t need it, and waving a bit of titanium around in Beverly Hills 90210 just because I can, won’t impress any of my friends.

So: do I shell out £1800 pa for the new, all-singing, all-dancing American Express titanium black card that I currently pay £650 pa (black plastic) for?

It’s a brilliant marketing ploy. Ever since I was promoted to be a holder of the exclusive black Centurion card over ten years ago, I have spent month after month whingeing that I don’t get my money’s worth from it.

Retailers in the UK don’t like Amex, anyway. Invariably, they charge customers 5% on top of what they purchase, as opposed to Mastercard’s 2%, because Amex charges them more in the first place.

When the Centurion book comes through every quarter, my friends and I spend hours on the phone, laughing about the dozens of things on which we have no intention of spending the hundred million points we have managed to accumulate.

The new deal arrived in a box the size of a multi-storey car-park, though a hundred times more beautiful. There were ribbons and recesses that kept me occupied for hours while I read through all the wonderful things that, as a Centurion card holder, Amex had decided to offer me.

Just off the top of my head: Gold membership to enable me to use the Virgin Atlantic lounge at Heathrow (which I get anyway, as I travel with them so much); Eurostar lounge access (which, again, I get anyway, with my Carte Blanche Eurostar card); Priority Pass membership to other lounges (which I get with my Coutts World card); travel insurance (ditto); Starwood Preferred Guest membership (free to anyone, online).

So many things I already had, or didn’t need, or want. And, here’s the rub: as a result of all these great new redundant services, Amex was putting up the price from £650 pa to £1800 pa. Disgraceful.

So, naturally, seeing no benefit whatsoever, but recognising that the card I didn’t want was suddenly even more exclusive than it had hitherto been (ie even fewer people wanted it than they did before), I had to have it.

I got in touch with some friends who had the old black card (plastic – so passé!) and discussed our options. We all spend a lot of time in the US, where you have to spend about a million dollars a year just to get a black Amex, so wouldn’t we be improving our social status on the other side of the Atlantic if we had the new one?

If we travelled Virgin Premium Economy, we could save about a grand a flight, and given that we only paid Upper Class in order to get the lounge benefits at Heathrow, wouldn’t the annual fee be cost-effective?

Then there was the automatic travel insurance: up to £5 million. So if you got too drunk in the lounge and wrecked it, injured a couple of passengers and hospitalised yourself in the process, the card would cover everything.

In southern California, the cards you carry mean far more than they do to people in the UK. I have it on good authority that Sir Richard Branson, for example, has only a green, no-fee Amex, but then he doesn’t have to lie awake at night worrying about whether he is going to make it past security into the Heathrow Virgin Upper Class lounge.

But when you produce any kind of credit card in LA (and the Centurion card isn’t even that – you pay up at the end of the month, or you’re out of the club), it is examined along with the rest of your attire.

Anything blue guarantees you mediocre service; gold means aspirational but unable to afford platinum (ie good service, but you are made aware of your relatively lowly status); platinum gets you terrific service, but is laughed at (everyone knows the benefits are no better than gold – except the platinum card holders, who live under the delusion they are going to the Oscars next year with 2000 points); and black gets you anything you want. In theory.

I am very grateful to the Centurion staff who have been counselling me through this difficult decision, and as I don't have to pay my new fee until March, they have managed to get me to book a flight that also provides a limo service from the airport the next time I fly into LA.

But will I have to tip the driver who, knowing he is picking up a TIT (Titanium Idiot Traveller), will be expecting ten times as much money in a tip as I would have paid in normal cab fare?

Who needs the stress. Who needs the card. Call me a TIT, but I do. The pain of knowing I wouldn’t have it is far worse than the pain of calculating how much I need to spend to make it pay its way. That’s why Mr Branson is rich – and green – and I’m not.

See you in the lounge, Richard. I'm the tit waving the £1800 bit of metal.

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