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Reader mail: How can I upgrade flights using American Express?

Reader VJ writes:

I’ve heard that there is an American Express card that automatically lets you upgrade your flights on a bunch of airlines. Is this true? How do I get such a card, and what does it cost? I couldn’t find anything on the American Express website.

Such a card indeed exists, but you won’t find an application anywhere on the American Express website. The card you’re looking for is the Centurion Card, also known as the black card.

The black is the ultimate bling credit card. It offers an unlimited credit limit and promises all sorts of “concierge” services and perks, such as personal shoppers at luxury retailers. It’s not even made of plastic anymore: it’s made of titanium. Seriously. Other banks might offer a “titanium” card like they offer a “gold” or “platinum” card. This is really made of metal.

Membership qualifications vary by country, but you’ve got to be a big spender, reportedly as high as $250,000 charged in a single year. You don’t apply: They invite. And it comes at a stiff price: The annual fee is $2500 (for U.S. cardholders; more in some countries, less in others). Not to mention the initiation fee, reportedly at $5000.

So why would anyone spend that kind of money to have a credit card?

To show off, mostly. But the upgrades you mention might be a reason.

For several years, American Centurion holders received mid-tier elite status in several airlines: Continental OnePass Gold Elite, Delta Air Lines SkyMiles Gold Medallion, and US Airways Dividend Miles Gold Preferred. (US Airways dropped out after they merged with America West. Now, newly-invited cardholders also receive elite status in Virgin Atlantic’s program.) So if you were upgraded on those airlines, it’s a function of the elite status you gained because of the card, not thanks to flashing the black card at the gate.

Other travel benefits include free companion tickets on tickets booked through their staff, membership in the PriorityPass airport lounge network, and elite status in hotel loyalty programs (though many of these benefits are already available to Platinum cardholders, too, who pay “only” $450 per year.)

Benefits and elite memberships conferred will vary by country. For example, if you’re a Centurion cardholder in Germany, you’ll get elite status in KLM and at a basket of hotels. Or if you’re based in Australia, you’ll get membership in the Qantas airport clubs, which others don’t. Etc.

Since the Centurion site is off limits to non-members, curious gawkers can browse another site, which serves as on online museum of black card history.

I’m not expecting The Call from Amex offering me membership in the Centurion club anytime soon. And if asked, I’m sure I’d decline. Paying that kind of money for the privilege of spending more money just doesn’t jive with my way of thinking. If I’m going Amex, I’ll stick with the no-fee or low-fee cards that link up with Hilton or Starwood hotels and shower you with points toward free nights.