The Plastic Ceiling: Credit Cards You Can't Have

MainStreet

Consumers generally accept that the best credit cards are reserved for members of the credit elite, but there are some cards that even a perfect credit score can't guarantee.

"There are cards that are invitation only," Beverly Harzog, an expert with Credit.com, tells MainStreet.

The most widely known of these elusive credit cards is the American Express Black Centurion. Amex (NYSE: AXP - News) refrains from formally disclosing the terms and conditions of the card; the only thing that a curious visitor can learn from perusing the issuer's website is that the Centurion is "rarely seen, always recognized."

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But experts have gleaned, largely through interviews with the cardholders they could find, that the Centurion is generally awarded to existing cardholders who have charged $250,000 or more onto their credit cards in one calendar year. These big spenders pay a $5,000 initiation fee, with a $2,500 annual fee after that if they choose to add the card to their already fat wallets.

While less is known about the particular perks these cards net for their holders, it is generally accepted that they receive some pretty swanky travel perks, including exclusive discounts and free upgrades on all sorts of carriers. "The concierge will basically do anything for you," Tim Chen, CEO of NerdWallet.com, says.

Curtis Arnold, founder of CardRatings.com, adds that the card doesn't only offer travel benefits. A current cardholder recently told the website about a dinner Centurion hosted at Bergdorf-Goodman in which the free meal came with a complimentary gift bag full of personalized swag.

Of course, the Centurion isn't the only invitation-only card out there. Chase offers the Palladium card, which Harzog says carries a much lower annual fee (around $595) than its Amex counterpart, but requires an equally full private Chase bank account, believed to be around $20 to $30 million.

Additionally, Chen says, to remain competitive "a lot of financial institutions have cards that they will only offer to customers who use their private wealth managers." This includes Smith Barney and Merrill Lynch, which both have their own cards tailor-made for their wealthiest consumers.

"There are probably a few others that we don't even know about," Harzog adds. "They're very secretive about these cards because that's part of the allure."
While the specific perks associated with these cards are guarded and can vary widely in terms and perks, there is one factor that seems to universally define them.

"They have a totally different look and feel from regular cards," Arnold says. The Centurion, for instance, is made of titanium, while the Palladium is made of the precious metal that shares its name and has the cardholder's signature permanently etched into it.

"They all have what I call a 'plunk factor,'" Arnold explains. "You're likely to get somebody's attention when you put it down."

"You've still got to look under the hood," Arnold cautions. He points out that Visa's Black Card, for instance — which touts limited availability and is largely considered to be Visa's answer to the Centurion — actually has more in common with cards in the tier below its billing. 

Arnold says that there are plenty of top-tier cards that you don't need to be rich and/or famous to snag, and that offer stellar rewards for average consumers.

American Express Platinum Rewards Card

This Amex card carries a $450 annual fee in exchange from some pretty sweet travel rewards and is geared toward affluent consumers, but isn't closed to those who aren't in the highest income bracket.

United Mileage Plus Explorer Card

One of Arnold's new favorites, Chase's recently released United Mileage Plus Explorer card, lets cardholders book their first checked bag on United Flights for free (an estimated $50 savings per trip) and also lets them board their flight ahead of general seating passengers.

"I particularly like the Priority Boarding benefit," Arnold says.

You also get two passes to visit the United Club each year, which will gives you at least of taste of the high life.

Cardholders also earn and two miles per $1 spent on tickets purchased from United or Continental and one rewards miles for each $1 spent one everything else. The card has a $95 fee that is waived during the first year and carries a 14.24% annual percentage rate (APR).

Citi Thank You Prestige

One of Citi's elite cards, the Thank You Prestige carries a $500 annual fee, but "comes with a lot more travel perks" than other options, Chen says. This includes 24/7 concierge services similar to that of the Amex Platinum, though not quite in the class of the Centurion card.

Cardholders also receive unlimited access to swanky airport lounges, one complimentary ticket on a domestic flight per year and automatic gold status in the Hilton HHonors program. They also aren't subject to the pesky foreign transaction fees charged on purchases made abroad.

The card's APR is around 15.24%, depending on creditworthiness.

The Ritz Carlton Premium Rewards Card

Another new offering from Chase, the Ritz Carlton card offers 24-hour concierge services and exclusive discounts and upgrades at the well-known hotel chain it's affiliated with. This includes an automatic $100 credit to the hotel's restaurants or spa with each two-night stay.

Additionally, cardholders get five rewards points for every dollar spent at Ritz-Carlton hotels, two points for every dollar spent on airfare and one point on all other purchases. They also get admittance into airport lounges and a $200 credit for airline incidentals. The card has a $395 annual fee and variable interest rates around 15.24%.

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