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Author: Kendall Little
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What is American Express?
American Express began as a freight-forwarding business in 1850 and has since grown to be one of the largest credit card issuers in the world. As of 2018, American Express made up the highest purchase volume among issuers in the United States, according to Nilson.
Top card issuers, U.S. purchase volume in 2018 …
- $755 billion
- American Express
- $739 billion
- $410 billion
- $361 billion
- Bank of America
- $337 billion
- Capital One
Unlike many other banks, American Express is both a payment processing network and a credit card issuer. That means Amex issues credit cards to consumers and facilitates transactions with merchants through their network. Networks, which include Visa, Mastercard and Discover as well as American Express, make money by taking a cut of each transaction they process. Many, but not all, American Express credit cards are both issued by American Express and part of the American Express payment network.
American Express is one of the few credit card issuers that offers charge cards, or cards that require balances to be paid in full each month, but allows for potentially high charges. Many customers seek out Amex for its premium rewards offerings across both personal and business credit cards.
Amex’s premium rewards also often come at a premium cost. Not only do many of the issuer’s offerings have an annual fee, but Amex generally requires potential cardholders to have a good or excellent credit score to qualify.
International travelers and domestic buyers alike may find that their American Express cards are accepted by fewer merchants than Visa or Mastercard, historically due to their merchant fees surpassing those charged by other networks. Merchants ranging from popular retailers like Costco to small, local businesses may not accept Amex payments in their stores.
The issuer is working to remedy the gap, though. According to Amex, over 3 million more merchants have begun accepting American Express cards since 2017.
What does American Express offer?
There’s no shortage of benefits to having an American Express card in your wallet, even beyond the card’s individual rewards.
American Express is highly regarded for its customer service. In 2018, Amex ranked second in customer satisfaction among issuers in the J.D. Power U.S. Credit Card Satisfaction Study.
2018 U.S. credit card satisfaction survey …
- 836 (out of 1,000)
- American Express
- Barclays U.S.
- Capital One
The company’s Global Assist hotline provides travel assistance for any trips you take more than 100 miles from home and additional services like missing luggage services, passport replacement services and even medical prescription replacement assistance.
Many Amex perks are available to all cardholders and can go a long way in making your card’s annual fee worth the price.
If you’re looking to save money, keep an eye on Amex Offers. You can log in to your account to find active offers, then add them to your card and save as you spend across dining, retail and travel categories. Currently, Amex is also offering a complimentary ShopRunner membership for cardholders, a service which provides free 2-day shipping for over 140 online retailers.
Many Amex cards offer purchase protections like extended warranties and return protections. You can benefit from Amex travel perks like baggage insurance, car rental loss and damage insurance, roadside assistance and travel accident insurance. Not all American Express perks are included with each card, though, so make sure to read the fine print of your cardholder agreement to find which apply to you.
One of the best benefits of becoming an Amex cardholder is the issuer’s rewards redemptions on cards that come with access to American Express Membership Rewards.
Through the Membership Rewards portal, you can use your rewards earnings to shop for merchandise and gift cards, redeem for statement credits and use Pay With Points at participating online retailers.
A major bonus of the Amex Membership Rewards Program for travelers in particular is the option some cardholders have to transfer rewards points to American Express hotel and airline partners (often at a 1:1 value) or use points to book through AmexTravel.com.
Bankrate’s top picks for the best American Express credit cards in 2019
How we chose our favorite American Express credit cards
Bankrate’s team of credit card experts studied the gamut of American Express cards before evaluating each card against Bankrate’s proprietary scoring method. Each American Express offering was then given a rating on our 5-star scale.
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to credit cards but the good news is that we have investigated the fine print to help you to find the American Express card that suits your needs. The Bankrate team have identified the best cards for various scenarios.
Bankrate’s team of credit card aficionados have evaluated the various pros and cons of American Express cards. They have analyzed the details of card offerings from welcome bonus, travel rewards and perks, redemption, annual fees, and more, to determine the best card for different use-cases.
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
The Blue Cash Everyday card offers maximum rewards with high returns on your everyday spending for no annual fee. While it can suit anyone, suburban families may benefit most from the card’s 3% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (up to $6,000 a year, then 1%) and 2% at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores, plus 1% on other purchases. For those whose spending is concentrated in these categories, this card’s rewards and ease of use can make it a perfect fit.
- High cash back rates on spending at U.S. supermarkets, U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores.
- No annual fee.
- 0% introductory APR on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months (15.24% – 26.24% variable thereafter).
- $150 statement credit after spending $1,000 within the first 3 months of account opening.
- Most wholesale clubs don’t qualify for the 3% U.S. supermarket rewards.
- Redemption is limited to statement credits, gift cards or merchandise. Other cash back cards have greater flexibility.
- If you miss a payment there is a high penalty APR rate that lasts for six months.
Read our full Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express review.
American Express® Gold Card
Unlike many premium travel cards, the Gold card offers above-average rewards rates on everyday spending categories as well as on the high-value travel purchases you would expect. In addition to high rewards earnings at restaurants, U.S. supermarkets and travel, the card’s additional statement credit perks help to make up for the sizeable $250 annual fee. Other cards may serve you better if you’re looking for luxury travel benefits like lounge access or concierge service, but depending on your spending habits the Gold card may offer higher earnings potential.
- 4X points rewards on spending at restaurants worldwide, U.S. supermarkets (up to $25,000 per year, then 1x) and 3X points rewards on flights booked directly with the airline or through Amex Travel.com.
- 21 airline transfer partners for flexible redemptions.
- $100 annual statement credits for airline fees at one selected qualifying airline and up to $10 monthly statement credits for select delivery and restaurant purchases (enrollment required).
- No foreign transaction fees.
- $250 annual fee.
- No lounge membership, although you can obtain passes.
Read our full American Express® Gold Card review.
The Platinum Card® from American Express
The Platinum Card offers a high-value welcome offer and no shortage of perks for cardholders seeking luxury. Its annual fee ($550) is one of the highest around, but the benefits make it more than worth the cost for the right cardholder.
To kickstart your card ownership, you can earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after spending $5,000 within the first 3 months. The card’s premium rewards include airport lounge access, up to $200 in annual airline fee credits (at one qualifying airline), up to $100 annual credits for Saks Fifth Avenue purchases (enrollment required) and up to $200 in annual credits for Uber rides. The card also offers generous 5X Membership Rewards points for every dollar spent on eligible hotels booked through the American Express travel portal and on airfare (booked with the airline or through Amex’s travel portal).
- Access to Global Lounge Collection, which includes proprietary lounge locations around the world, and Global Entry or TSA PreCheck credit.
- Great airline and hotel rewards.
- 60,000 Membership Rewards points welcome offer.
- Annual statement credits on travel incidentals, shopping and Uber.
- $550 annual fee, though statement credits and rewards largely make up the cost for big spenders.
- $200 airline fee credit may not be used towards ticket prices.
Read our full review of The Platinum Card® from American Express.
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
The recently revamped Blue Cash Preferred Card is one of the best cash back cards for everyday spending. Rewards categories now range from 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets (up to a $6,000 a year limit, then 1%), 6% on select U.S. streaming services, 3% cash back on transit and at U.S. gas stations and 1% on all other purchases. These are some of the highest cash back rates on the market, making the $95 annual fee worth it for frequent spenders across these categories.
- $250 welcome bonus after spending $1,000 within the first 3 months of account opening.
- Generous rewards rates on everyday spending categories.
- Long introductory offer on both purchases and balance transfers.
- Many specialty grocers and wholesale clubs don’t count toward the 6% cash back category.
- U.S. supermarket rewards are limited to $6,000 per year in spending.
Read our full Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express review.
Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card
Relatively high spenders can rack up a lot of extra benefits from the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass card. You can earn 130,000 Hilton Honors Bonus Points after spending $4,000 in eligible purchases in the first 4 months of card membership. Plus, spending $15,000 in a calendar year makes you eligible for a Weekend Night Reward from Hilton Honors. Hilton loyalists will find a lot to love about this card for a relatively low $95 annual fee.
- Generous welcome bonus.
- Weekend Night Rewards (terms apply) and Hilton Honors Diamond status are great offers if your spending aligns with the required thresholds.
- In addition to spending with Hilton, you can earn rewards on everyday purchases: 6X points at U.S. restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations and 3x points for all other purchases.
- Very high late payment fee.
- If you want the flexibility to stay with different hotel chains you should consider a travel rewards card.
Read our full Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card review.
American Express® Business Gold Card
This card sets small business owners up for success in their spending. You will earn 4X rewards in the two categories where your business spends the most each month, plus receive extra benefits like one free year of G Suite Basic (for 3 users) and ZipRecruiter standard, adding a lot of value for growing businesses. Between this card’s easy-to-use rewards structure and added perks, the $295 annual fee may be worth it for your small business.
- 4X points on 2 select categories in which you spend the most each month (up to $150,000 in annual spending).
- 1 year free of G Suite Basic (for up to 3 users) and ZipRecruiter Standard.
- 35,000 Membership Rewards points bonus after spending $5,000 on eligible purchases within 3 months of account opening.
- Airline bonus, expense management tool access and more perks to help your business
- Annual fee of $295.
- If you do a lot of business spending, the $150,000 annual cap on your 4X points rewards categories may be limiting.
Read our full American Express® Business Gold Card review.
The Business Platinum® Card from American Express
Like the personal version of the Platinum Card, this card is the top of the line for frequent business travelers. It offers premium travel benefits like access to American Express’ Centurion Lounges, Priority Pass Select membership, and up to $200 per calendar year in airline incidentals credit. Airport lounge access alone could be worth the steep $595 annual fee. The card’s rewards are also suited for frequent travel, including 5X Membership Rewards points on flights and prepaid hotels through the Amex travel portal.
- Tiered welcome offer totaling up to 75,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $20,000 on eligible purchases within the first 3 months.
- One Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check statement credit every 4 years.
- No foreign transaction fees (see rates and fees).
- Complimentary concierge service access.
- 50% rewards bonus on eligible purchases over $5,000 (up to 1 million extra points per calendar year).
- All purchases on this card have to be business-related.
- Not optimal for those who don’t travel enough to fully maximize all of the card’s travel benefits.
- High annual fee of $595.
Read our full The Business Platinum® Card from American Express review.
Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express
American Express offers a few cards in partnership with Delta, but the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Business is the best value for frequent Delta business travelers who can save with the card’s airline-specific perks. Priority boarding, 20% savings on eligible in-flight purchases (in the form of statement credit), and a free first checked bag on round-trip Delta flights all add convenience and ease for those who spend much of their time in the air.
- Earn 5,000 Medallion® Qualification Miles and 35,000 bonus miles after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months of card ownership, plus a $100 statement credit after making a Delta purchase in the same period.
- Earn 2X miles per dollar on purchases directly with Delta and 1X miles on everything else.
- Airline perks like priority boarding, 20% off eligible in-flight purchases and a free first checked bag on round-trip Delta flights.
- $195 annual fee.
- Other travel cards offer better rewards rates, especially if you don’t fly Delta regularly.
The Hilton Honors American Express Business Card
For a relatively low annual fee of $95, this card’s sizable welcome bonus and high 12X rewards on spending at Hilton Hotels and resorts make it a lucrative pick for Hilton fans. You’ll also earn 6X points on select business and travel purchases and 3X on everything else. What’s more, complimentary Hilton Honors Gold status and the ability to earn a Weekend Night Reward after you spend an additional $15,000 in purchases on your card each year really set this card apart for Hilton loyalist business travelers.
- 125,000 Hilton Honors Bonus Points welcome offer after spending $3,000 in eligible purchases in the first 3 months of account opening.
- Great rewards rates on spending directly with the hotel chain and other perks for Hilton Honors members, as well as bonuses on other business and travel spending.
- 10 free airport lounge visits each year once enrolled in Priority Pass Select membership.
- If you like flexibility in choosing which hotel chain you stay with, a different travel rewards card may suit you better.
What are charge cards?
Many of American Express’ card offerings are charge cards, making them unique from many other cards on the market. A charge card requires customers to pay balances in full each month (or take on penalty fees) instead of allowing the option to pay a minimum amount. They don’t have a set limit like other credit cards, but charge cards are not unlimited lines of credit; how much you can spend is based largely on your purchase and payment history.
If you’re worried about high interest rates (currently averaging near 18% nationally), a charge card may be right for you, since paying balances in full each month allows you to avoid interest payments. However, American Express now offers a Pay Over Time feature which can help you use your charge card like a credit card, by making smaller payments on eligible purchases over $100 while accruing interest.
Individuals or small businesses who have the cash flow to pay off balances each month and want a flexible spending limit may benefit most from a charge card, while those with less predictable cash flow who may need additional time to pay off larger purchases are likely better off with a regular credit card.
Which American Express cards are charge cards?
Currently, the following Amex cards operate as charge cards:
- American Express® Gold Card
- The Platinum Card® from American Express
- The Plum Card® from American Express
- The Business Platinum® Card from American Express
- American Express® Business Gold Card
- Business Green Rewards Card from American Express
Can you get an American Express card with bad credit?
American Express has a reputation for premium card offerings, which, subsequently, means they prefer cardholders with an equally premium credit score. Most American Express credit cards require good or excellent credit scores for approval.
There are a few options available to you if your credit score is keeping you from opening an Amex card, though.
If you have a thin credit profile or are working to rebuild subpar credit, you can become an authorized user on someone else’s American Express account. This allows you to build your credit and have access to American Express cardmember perks even if your credit alone doesn’t qualify. Just be sure to pick someone trustworthy; although you can remove the information from your credit report, someone else’s bad credit habits may affect your score as long as you’re still an authorized user on their account.
Another option is to open an Amex card without premium rewards that can simply help you build credit, like the Blue from American Express® Credit Card. You’ll only earn 1X Membership Rewards points for each dollar spent, but it has no annual fee and a lower credit requirement than other cards.
If you’re worried about being denied a line of credit with American Express, check to see which offers you pre-qualify for on the issuer’s website before submitting an application and agreeing to a hard inquiry on your credit report.
What is the best American Express card?
Any of the American Express cards listed above can add value to your wallet, but deciding on the very best American Express card for you requires some investigation into your spending habits and the benefits that you’re looking to get out of your card. Here are some things that are important to consider:
Personal vs. Business
This should be the easiest factor in your decision. If you’re looking for rewards that you can earn on your own everyday spending or any personal traveling you do throughout the year, then a personal card is the way to go. Small business owners, however, will benefit more from a small business card that offers rewards tailored to the categories in which their business spends the most.
You can check out Bankrate’s guide to the Best Business Credit Cards for 2019 for more information on when to make the switch to a business card and how to decide on the best rewards for your business.
Membership Rewards points vs. miles vs. cash back
Next, you should evaluate your spending habits to determine which card offers the highest rewards in the categories in which you already frequent. For instance, a suburban family of four will likely benefit more from the Blue Cash Preferred® Card’s U.S. supermarket, select U.S. streaming service and U.S. gas station rewards than a jet-setting world traveler, who may see more value in the premium travel rewards offered by The Platinum Card®.
Similarly, you should determine which types of rewards will bring you the most value. Some people may prefer the simplicity of cash back, while others will benefit most from miles they can put towards travel purchases. Perhaps the most flexible option (and most protected from devaluations) is a card that earns Membership Rewards points, which can be redeemed for travel and statement credits or transferred to partners, among other options.
Fees, earnings rate, spending
In addition to determining what you spend your money on, you should narrow down how much money you spend annually and whether that makes up for the cost of card ownership.
American Express offers great cards that range from no annual fee to more than $500, and you don’t want to find yourself paying for a card that you’re not at least getting an equal amount of value from. Look at your spending over the past year to determine what fee you’re willing to pay and calculate your estimated rewards earnings so you can make an educated guess on whether the card is worth it. Don’t forget to factor in any ancillary fees, like balance transfer fees or foreign transaction fees, if you may be affected by those as well.
Big spenders should also make sure the rewards cap on their card doesn’t hinder their rewards. Many Amex cards have annual caps on their top-earning rewards, and if you surpass that cap every year, compare and see if another rewards card on the market may offer more value. This may be especially important for small business owners who have high operational costs.
Who are American Express cards good for?
Once you’ve considered the above options to find which rewards and card details matter most to you, it’ll be easier to narrow down which American Express card will bring you most value. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to finding the best credit card, which is why it’s important to have an idea of exactly what you’re looking for.
The following profiles are just a few examples of the types of consumers who may benefit from specific American Express cards, but may help you in determining your perfect match.
Many families will be hard-pressed to find any card on the market that can bring them more value on everyday spending than the Blue Cash Preferred® Card. Its rewards categories align with the everyday purchases that are important to parents and kids on-the-go, whether they’re in a bustling city, rural America or anywhere in between. Its reasonable $95 annual fee also doesn’t put it out-of-reach for families on a budget.
Anyone looking to travel in style and with convenience (and who can afford the $550 annual fee) can find their ideal card in The Platinum Card®. As one of the most high-end cards on the market, it offers benefits and perks with some of the top airlines and finest hotels around the world. If you’re willing to pay, and can maximize its benefits, this card can set luxury travelers’ experiences apart and even make it easier to travel more with rewards.
Not everyone can justify The Platinum Card® or even needs its premium rewards. Those looking to redeem rewards less regularly but still earn on their everyday spending will find much more value in the Gold Card. You’ll still earn rewards on travel purchases, but the card’s highest-earning categories are restaurants and U.S. supermarkets, meaning you don’t have to be a world traveler to maximize your value (but you’ll still get plenty of premium perks).
Like its personal card counterpart, The Business Platinum® Card is ideal for business travelers looking for luxury (and willing to pay for it). Anyone who spends much of their time in airports for business will likely find the experience much more enjoyable after gaining access to the benefits and services the Platinum Card offers. The business version also includes business-specific perks, like WeWork membership, which can improve productivity as well as comfort.