Don’t leave home with only an Amex card

American Express positions their card as the one never to leave home without, and that they are wherever you are around the world. But on a recent trip, they let me down just when I needed them the most.

As I boarded a plane a few weeks ago at LAX on my way to Rome, I received an urgent email from Amex asking me to call them about several recent charges to my American Express Platinum card, suggesting that my card may have been compromised.

I called Amex during a layover in Montreal and confirmed the charges were not mine. As a result, they said they would need to cancel my card and issue a new one.

They offered to send me the new card to my Rome hotel where I’d be for two days, and assured me there was plenty of time for it to reach me. I offered to visit their Rome office to pick up a card, but they said they no longer offer that service. They also assured me that my recurring monthly payments to about a dozen companies that are automatically billed to my Amex card would not be affected.

But on my last day at the hotel in Rome, I received an email from them with a DHL tracking number that took me to the DHL site saying that the card was just being shipped from the United States and its arrival date would be several days after I checked out.

I called Amex; they apologized and offered to deliver the card to me at my next hotel in Norcia, a small town in Umbria. I’d be there for a week and was assured there was more than enough time. Five days after I checked in, still no card had arrived. But Amex emailed me DHL’s new tracking number that said the replacement card would be delivered to the hotel fours days after my checkout date.

Another call to Amex; they told me that if the card didn’t arrive before I left Italy, they would send a third replacement card to me when I returned home.

The DHL tracking information proved to be incorrect, because the card arrived the next day. I called the number on the card to validate it and was assured it could now be used.

I made a charge with it that day and it worked fine. The following day I flew to London and went to pick up a rental car, but when I tried using the new card, it was rejected! A call to Amex and the agent said that card was invalidated because they were going to send me a card to my home. The new card that worked the day before could no longer be used, in spite of assurances I was given earlier.

(Just as background, I try to use a single card for all my expenses, so it’s easier to keep track of at tax season. The Amex Platinum has proved best for this. I carry a couple of other cards for backup, but use them much less often.)

I have rarely encountered an incident with such confusion and conflicting information, resulting in Amex being unable to get me a card I could use during my two weeks of travel.

The usually helpful customer service agents showed little knowledge of the replacement process and the time it would take for International delivery. Each time I called, they needed to connect me with their security department, and even on the same call, each person I spoke with asked me a slew of questions to confirm my identity.

While fraud is a big issue, Amex seemed to have shifted their balance away from providing the best customer service to protecting themselves against fraud, and that’s resulted in a less than stellar experience they are know for with this product.

I’ve used an American Express Platinum card for fifteen years. While its $450 annual cost may seem excessive, the excellent benefits actually net out at much less. Its benefits include free entrance to a network of airport clubs, payment for a Global Entry card, free Wi-Fi from Boingo and payment of up to $200 each year for airline charges such as baggage fees and seating upgrades each year.

They also do a great job in resolving merchant disputes, usually in the cardholder’s favor. But these perks are not useful if you can’t use the card for its primary purpose.

To the company’s credit, one of the customer service agents offered to credit the account for $150 for phone calls and the inconvenience of it all.

I asked American Express to comment, and they were very apologetic. They will be looking into DHL’s inaccurate tracking information and try to improve delivery reliability. They did note that overnight replacement is provided in the United States, but they need to do better outside the country.

Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments to Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.

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