Platinum Cards: Move Over, Amex

During the waning days of his marriage to Princess Diana, the future King of England left little doubt as to who had become the object of his affections. The London tabloids were abuzz with rumors that Prince Charles presented Camilla Parker Bowles with an American Express Platinum Card and instructed her to charge up a storm. That she did, the papers claimed, for a new wardrobe.

You don't have to be a royal to troll around with American Express Platinum, but it helps to have a few pounds--or dollars--in the bank. Annual membership for the decade-old platinum charge card is $300, plus $150 for supplemental cards. The plastic is aimed at the top-spending 1% of AmEx's 36 million charge-card customers, many of whom use the elite card for business.

TEASER RATE. Now two large credit-card issuers are trying to penetrate that prestigious platinum territory. MBNA America Bank and First USA Bank recently unveiled no-annual fee platinum MasterCards and Visas with credit lines of up to $100,000. The MBNA Platinum Plus starts off with a teaser 5.9% annual percentage rate for purchases, cash advance checks, and balance transfers through your first five monthly statements, after which the rate climbs to the current fixed 16.9%. In some cases, MBNA Platinum cardholders can get a variable rate tagged to the prime. You can do even better with the First USA Platinum Card, which rises from the same 5.9% to a fixed 12.99% rate in February.

The new cards have other features in common. Both provide $1 million in travel-accident insurance, as well as emergency cash and airline tickets, yearend summaries of all your charges, and registration of all your credit cards, allowing you to report lost or stolen cards with a single toll-free call.

MBNA cardholders are enrolled in Platinum Passage, a travel service that promises its customers the lowest airfare at the time of ticketing, with agents on hand 24 hours a day to make changes to your itinerary. For an extra $35 a year, customers can accumulate points toward free airline travel. MBNA also will give a yea or nay on increasing your credit line within 15 minutes. First USA has a value-mile program in which points toward free travel are awarded each time the card is used. The $24 annual fee is waived the first year.

Despite these benefits, industry watchers believe that American Express still outshines the competition. (In fact, an AmEx spokesperson says the company holds a trademark on the term "platinum card" and is investigating possible misuse of the name.) "I see the new cards as a marketing gimmick," says Robert McKinley, president of Ram Research Group, a credit-card market-research firm. Adds James Daly, editor of Credit Card Management: The MBNA and First USA cards "are more like souped-up gold cards rather than something along the lines of American Express Platinum."

Indeed, whatever prestige its wealthy platinum customers derive from flashing the card, the fact is the AmEx card is a good deal for those who take advantage of its loftier services. Members who buy a full-fare business or first-class international ticket on China Airlines and other carriers can get a companion ticket at no cost. Those who sail on certain cruise lines can earn either a two-category cabin upgrade or a $300 shipboard credit.

TENNIS ANYONE? AmEx Platinum customers also receive invitations to exclusive events, such as a recent concert rehearsal by The Three Tenors and a wine tour of Bordeaux. (Members pay handsomely for such privileges--$1,500 for dinner and the tenors.) They also get dibs on courtside seats at the U.S. Open Tennis Championship and earn access to special Mardi Gras parties.

Platinum holders can have American Express put a reminder in their statement of important birthdays, anniversaries, and meeting dates, and a personal 24-hour concierge can arrange for the delivery of hard-to-find gifts, with 15% discounts at such merchants as Alfred Dunhill and Hammacher Schlemmer. The personal consultant can help businesspeople traveling overseas locate a meeting room or arrange for an En-glish-speaking secretary. Small-business owners who opt for the corporate version of the AmEx Platinum Card, which also costs $300 a year, receive quarterly management reports categorizing expenses.

Such royal treatment will cost you plenty. But when it comes to living like a king, not all platinum is created equal.

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