Showdown: American Express Centurion vs. Visa Black Card
January 25, 2012
By: Ellen Cannon
Like a heavyweight fight in Las Vegas, the newest entrant in the super-premium credit card arena, Visa Black Card, challenges the defending champion, the American Express Centurion Card.
Last year, CardRatings.com talked with two entrepreneurs who carry the Centurion card to find out how they use the most exclusive credit card to manage their lives. One of these, Centurion member Don Sabatini, founder and CEO of Secret Entourage, a website devoted to entrepreneurship, decided to also get the Visa Black Card and compare the two. He shares his findings with us in an exclusive interview.
CR: What prompted you to get the Black Card?
DS: First off here is some background on why we got the card. Secret Entourage had been invited by the Centurion program to try the card at no cost, which made sense from a status standpoint and made sense to be able to review the card. When we received the call from Visa, we were actually shocked that they considered giving Secret Entourage the card, as we had heard tons of negative feedback from others as well as noticed poor reviews. We decided to try it…
CR: Is the card by invitation only or can anyone apply?
DS: I was invited by being given a code and once I entered it, all my info was already there, outside of my Social. It asked me to verify and submit. Three weeks later, the card arrived.
CR: What does the card look like? Does it come in the fancy casing like the Centurion card does?
DS: The card is a thin and lightweight carbon fiber but the worst part of it all is that it says "Black Card" on it in large orange letters and looks so cheesy. Every other person keeps asking if it's the American Express Centurion and I end up pulling out both to show the difference. The Centurion is black and heavy, which impresses by its attributes and doesn't try too hard to make it obvious. This Black Card screams, "Look at me."
The packaging is also nothing like the Centurion: it comes in a cardboard box with a small reward catalogue and all those ugly disclosures on the front as if it's a manual on how you can use a credit card.
CR: The fees on the Visa Black Card seem high -- $495 annual fee, 3-percent foreign transaction fee, 4-percent balance transfer fee. How do these fees compare with those on the Centurion card?
DS: Fees are high, the interest rate is ridiculous, especially as it's geared towards that 1 percent of the population that has flawless credit. Fees can't really be compared to the Centurion as that is ultimately a charge card and this is a credit card. The initial cost is 10 percent of the Centurion, which makes it an interesting proposition until you actually use the card and see how pointless it is.
My understanding, having been in finance for a major part of my younger years, is that Visa is trying to make this used like a charge card despite the fact that it is a credit card. The other fees are similar except the foreign transaction fee, which is nonexistent on our Centurion card.
CR: We see there is 1-percent cash back on all purchases. Does Centurion offer cash-back rewards?
DS: No, this is one area where there is a benefit over the Centurion. We do not receive cash back on that card and do receive actual cash back on the Black Card, which is OK but nothing to get excited about as Chase and Capital One offer more cash back without the $500 annual fee.
The rewards start at 10,000 points, but it's hard to use the card for anything because, unlike the Centurion, it has a limit as to what you can spend and a credit line max. In other words, my Black Card cannot have a purchase over $20,000 without a phone call and the max line is $50K.
CR: How is the concierge service? You said that was the big attraction of the Centurion card.
DS: Here is the huge disappointment. The concierge, reward and convenience programs on this card are no different than a cheap Visa card, which makes no sense at all. The concierge service requires you to go through a menu to get to a person, which almost defies the point of having that high-status Black Card. The Centurion hotline gets you a person immediately -- this is the biggest disappointment.
The rewards are also no different and the gifts are no better than a regular card you can apply for, which once again defies any reason you should pay $500 a year. The airport lounge access is $99 a year as an add-on and grants you access to limited airline lounges in various major airports.
The restaurant access is nothing a normal concierge couldn't do and nothing like the Centurion card offers. You can call the concierge on New Year's Eve and get restaurant reservations with the Centurion, even though some restaurants are booked. The Black Card simply does footwork but doesn't influence things like the Centurion can.
CR: Overall opinion of the Black Card?
DS: I am highly disappointed in the Black Card and unfortunately cannot recommend the card to anyone, even those that feel like they'll never qualify for the Centurion. It's almost like a fake Centurion without any of the benefits.
About the Author
Ellen Cannon is editorial director of CardRatings.com. She has covered personal finance for nearly 20 years at Bloomberg and at Bankrate.com, where she specialized in credit cards.