Cards with cachet

Gold and platinum are devalued in the plastic world. Now it's black, says Isabel Berwick

You're no one if you haven't been asked to take out a credit card "by invitation only". And that doesn't include a junk mailshot offering a free clock. The seriously rich are approached by word of mouth or via carefully written, personalised letters. And the market is growing - the "by invitation only" World Signia (from Mastercard/Europay) and Centurion (American Express) cards are being joined by Visa's Infinite. The first UK bank to launch a super-premium card is set to launch its package within days.

So just how much money do you need for this plastic? "It's used for getting orchids flown in from Japan for your daughter's wedding," says Matt Sansom of Amex's Centurion card, citing a real case. These super- luxe cards are targeted at CEOs, top execs, the famous and sundry jetsetters - just 1 to 5 per cent of the market. And the marketing people want to encourage them to use the cards as a one-stop advice shop. All three offer a global concierge service to get you tickets to "sold-out shows", reservations at "hot" restaurants and tips on where to play golf. Visa even offers frequent flyers loyalty points on Infinite - without the petty restrictions that the rest of us face.

The new cool is (of course) black. Amex chose black for Centurion as the gold and platinum card market has been devalued: US card issuers have launched in the UK and offered premium cards to pretty much anyone who earns over pounds 20,000 a year. Some of the high-street banks persist in charging for their gold cards (HSBC wants pounds 35). They do give you some added perks - but you may not be too bothered about HSBC's personal liability insurance.

But many premium cards have the same interest rates as standard cards from the same firms. Capital One's Platinum has 11.9 per cent APR - just like its Premier Visa card. "By invitation only" Platinum comes from a giant mailing database and you don't have to be that special to get it.

Nevertheless, the credit card firms are using technology in increasingly sophisticated ways. Richard Cooper of Visa says: "The UK market is becoming a lot more segmented with small groups being targeted. "

Those who would like a cool black card, but aren't international jetsetters, can hope for an exclusive Goldfish black card. The company is issuing 100 black cards to celebrate its millionth customer by picking the lucky 100 at random from those who apply for Goldfish cards before Christmas. The perk is that Goldfish will pay all your household bills for a year, up to pounds 5,000. Three of the 100 will also get pounds 500 in Goldfish points to spend in Boots, Asda, Halfords and other stores. A more overt bid to woo young trendies comes from Amex's Blue card (see box). The company won't say how many it has issued, but it is being heavily advertised.

The first internet-only credit card, from Egg, is also targeted at the young, partly as most of those comfortable dealing on-line will be in their twenties and thirties. Egg has a different credit-scoring policy from most other issuers: you won't be refused if you're self-employed.

Many issuers refuse credit to young people. If you are struggling to get a card, put down your parents' address; their credit records are almost certainly better than yours. And apply for a card through your bank first; it is more likely to help you on to the credit ladder. Then you can swap it for Infinite when you have made your first million.

n Contacts: A&L Moneyback, 0500 838383; Amex Blue, 0800 700111; Capital One, 0800-952 5355; Egg, www.egg.com; Goldfish, 0345 609060; RBS Advanta, 0800 077770; Sainsbury's Classic Visa, 0500 405060.

WHAT DOES YOUR CARD SAY ABOUT YOU?

Fashion victim

If you aren't rich enough for an Infinite card then leading the pack is Amex Blue, aimed at affluent 25-35s. A typical Blue cardholder "works to live" not "lives to work". It looks good and gives you money back, but costs pounds 12 a year. If you can bear a duller card, A&L's Moneyback (see anorak, below) is a better cashback deal.

Finance anorak

You have any card giving you money back or points towards shopping vouchers, flights, cars, or goodies from a catalogue. A true anorak will pay off the bill each month to avoid any interest charges. The best overall deal here is Alliance & Leicester's Moneyback card, APR 17.4 per cent, no fee. Goldfish, offering money off shopping vouchers and household bills, has an APR of 18.9 per cent, no fee. Sainsbury's folks can get extra Reward points with a Classic Sainsbury's Visa - no fee but highish 20.9 per cent APR.

More flash than cash

In a misguided bid to impress the opposite sex you'll take any gold - or preferably platinum- card on offer. The bare minimum is a pounds 20,000 a year salary, and the easiest cards to get hold of are Capital One Platinum (APR 11.9 per cent), and RBS Advanta Gold Card, APR 17.9 per cent. And dream of owning a Centurion card.

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