Jaci Stephen: 'Expensive, with no benefit whatsoever – I had to have a Centurion'

Way Out West
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The Independent Online

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 £1,800 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 10 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 per cent on top of what they purchase, as opposed to Mastercard's 2 per cent, 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 spectacular Virgin Atlantic Upper Class lounge at Heathrow (which I get anyway with my ticket); Eurostar lounge access (which, again, I get 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).

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 to £1,800 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 still be able to use the lounge with the Centurion card.

Then there was the automatic travel insurance: up to £5m. 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 Virgin lounge. But when you produce any kind of card in LA, 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 2,000 points); and black gets you anything you want. In theory.

Centurion staff have been very good in counselling me, but really: Who needs the stress? Who needs the card? Call me a TIT (Titanium Insane Traveller), 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 £1,800 bit of metal.

To read Jaci Stephen's blog in full, go to LAnotsoconfidential.blogspot.com