Putting credit card concierge services to the test
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Dear Cashing In,
I noticed that the marketing materials on one of my credit cards lists a "concierge" as one of the features of the card. I have never heard of that. What is that feature and how does it work? Does it cost money? -- Carlos
I didn't know that much about credit card concierge services, either. So I did some digging and put them to the test.
I was surprised to find that these services -- which are included in a lot of travel reward cards -- are actually easy to use, prompt, courteous and free. On the downside, they didn't always find quite what I was seeking, and the cost of the items that they found for me tended to be more expensive than what I could find on my own. But maybe that's an issue any time you rely on others to perform tasks you can do yourself.
These services can save you time, but you wind up forfeiting some control over the process.
The most common concierge services I encountered come standard on the World Elite MasterCard and Visa Signature cards. MasterCard bills its concierge as a "complimentary 24/7 travel card concierge service that acts like a relentless personal assistant." Visa says its concierge service "can handle life's details, so you don't have to." A number of leading airline, hotel and other travel credit cards are designated as World Elite or Visa Signature, so check on your card for those words. If you see them, you should have the concierge service.
You might not know you have the service and your bank might not, either. Following the directions on the MasterCard site, I called the number on the back of my Barclaycard US Airways MasterCard and asked about the World Elite MasterCard concierge service. The card services agent transferred me to a US Airways representative, who transferred me to the US Airways Chairman's Preferred desk for the airline's elite frequent fliers, but none of those people seemed to have any idea what I was talking about. "We don't have a concierge service," the Chairman's desk agent told me. The card's website lists concierge service as a feature.
For busy people who use concierge services, time is precious, so rather than sort that out, I switched gears to Visa Signature. Unlike MasterCard, it has a handy online form that requires you to enter some personal information, including a card number, to ensure you qualify. You can submit requests online, and they reply to most requests within four hours.
I put in four requests: tickets to the upcoming weekend's sold-out Carolina Panthers-Pittsburgh Steelers football game; Saturday night reservations for four at a popular restaurant at a busy time; hotel recommendations in Carcassonne, France; and birthday gift ideas for my 2-year-old niece. Here's how the concierge fared:
• Football tickets. Within about three hours of my request, the concierge told me that tickets to the game were sold out, but that he would continue seeking tickets in resale markets. About 24 hours later, he sent me a list of about 50 available seats with prices and a stadium map. The least expensive were $125 apiece for upper-level seats in the corner of the end zone. By contrast, I had found upper-level seats starting at $74 apiece at ticket reselling site StubHub.
• Dining out. Hotel concierges are known for being able to score reservations at popular restaurants, and I wondered if a credit card concierge could do the same. I asked the concierge for a table for four at 7:30 p.m. on a Saturday night at Osso Restaurant & Lounge in Charlotte, a trendy spot where "Bachelorette" Emily Maynard took one of her dates on the ABC reality show two years ago. Restaurant reservation site OpenTable had said there was no availability between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. -- but the concierge apparently pulled some strings and landed a 7:30 reservation. (In my experience with OpenTable, restaurants sometimes have additional availability not listed on the site if you call, but I still count this as a win by the concierge.)
• Hotel recommendation. I sought an obscure destination -- Carcassonne, France -- to see what the concierge would recommend. I asked for a spot in the center of the city somewhere between $100 and $250 a night, and not at a chain hotel. The concierge sent three recommendations, including brief descriptions, photos and room rates. However, one of the recommended hotels included was in Soreze, an hour northwest of Carcassonne. The other two seemed nice enough: One was ranked No. 17 of 42 hotels listed on the travel site TripAdvisor. The other was a pleasant-looking apartment rental TripAdvisor ranked No. 13 of 26 for specialty lodging options in Carcassonne. All were in the requested price range.
• Birthday gift. I forwarded the concierge several gift ideas my brother had sent me for my niece, who turns 2 next month, and said I wanted a price limit of $35. The list included a knit hat, a winter jacket (size 2T), dolls, a plush chair and a stuffed Olaf from the Disney movie "Frozen." The concierge came back with four recommendations, three from Toys R Us: a $35 doll house, a $35 Snow Glow Elsa doll from "Frozen" and a $45 quilted jacket. The fourth recommendation was a $12.50 fox hat from AnimalHeadGear.com that was described as a "perfect costume accessory hat." These were close to what I was hoping for. But I thought I could do better searching e-commerce sites on my own.
My conclusion: People who are pressed for time and are ambivalent about the results should consider a concierge. Those who have time and enjoy discovering precisely the results they want want, outsourcing shopping or travel arrangements to someone else might not be the best idea.
If I wanted to make a purchase on my requests, I could have directed the concierge to do so using my card, but I passed. I decided to get the stuffed Olaf for my niece, which I found myself for $23 on Amazon.
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