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American Express offers some of the most valuable credit cards on the market — no doubt. They have a wide selection of cards that come with great welcome bonuses so typically to get the most value you want to apply for a new card offering you a sweet new bonus.
But on occasion American Express may offer you the opportunity to upgrade to a new card and earn a bonus while doing so. When this happens, there often is one easy strategic move that you can utilize to optimize your earnings.
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Once per lifetime rule
One of the most important things to know about upgrading American Express cards is that upgrading can trigger the once per lifetime rule. This rule states that you can only receive a bonus for a American Express card once per lifetime.
The good news is that there are exceptions to this rule.
For one, sometimes you can receive an offer that does not contain the once per lifetime language which means you will likely be able to still earn the bonus.
Also, some people are having success at earning a bonus again after waiting around five years from the time that they closed the card.
While these exceptions do happen not everybody is able to get around the once per lifetime rule. For that reason, it is highly recommended that you only seek out American Express cards when you can earn an optimal bonus. (Use WalletFlo to help you find the best offers.)
As mentioned above, when you upgrade to another American Express card that upgrade automatically triggers this once per lifetime rule, regardless of if you actually received a bonus for the card.
So let’s say that you upgrade from the Amex Gold Card to the Platinum Card. You will then be ineligible for a Platinum Card bonus — even if you never earned that bonus.
This is why it is typically only recommended to upgrade when you receive a very nice upgrade offer or when you have already opened up the card before (and hopefully received the bonus).
American Express upgrade strategy
If you ever receive an upgrade offer to an Amex card that you have never opened before then you are an ideal candidate for the upgrade strategy.
How does it work?
First, let’s say you receive an upgrade offer to upgrade the Amex EveryDay to the EveryDay Preferred.
Assuming you have never opened the EveryDay Preferred, the first step will be to apply for the EveryDay Preferred (ideally for one of the best bonuses). Once you are approved for the card and on your way to earning the bonus for that card you would then accept the upgrade offer to the EveryDay Preferred.
This means that you will end up having two EveryDay Preferreds. In the process you will earn the welcome bonus for the new card and also earn the upgrade bonus. As long as you can meet the minimum spend for these two bonuses you should be good to go.
This type of thing might be YMMV in some cases so it may not always work 100% of the time but this has been the established method for optimizing bonuses when presented with upgrade offers for a while.
Upgrade offers with no lifetime language
In some cases you might be offered an upgrade offer to a card that you already had a bonus for. You might be worried that the once per lifetime language will disqualify you from earning that bonus but that is not always the case.
Be sure to read over the language of the upgrade offer very closely because sometimes the upgrade offer will NOT contain lifetime language.
For your reference, the lifetime language usually looks like this:
Welcome offer not available to applicants who have or have had this Card
Here is a full example of an upgrade offer with no lifetime language:
You must charge $2,000 (the “Threshold Amount”) of eligible purchases on the American Express Gold Card within the first three months of Card Membership to earn the 40,000 Membership Rewards® points starting from the date your account is approved. Points will be credited to your Program account within 8–12 weeks after you have met the Threshold Amount. If we in our sole discretion determine that you have engaged in abuse, misuse, or gaming in connection with the welcome offer in any way or that you intend to do so (for example, if you applied for one or more cards to obtain a welcome bonus offer(s) that we did not intend for you; if you cancel or downgrade your account within 12 months after acquiring it; or if you cancel or return purchases you made to meet the Threshold Amount), we may not credit Membership Rewards® points to, we may freeze Membership Rewards® points credited to, or we may take away Membership Rewards® points from your account. We may also cancel this Card account and other Card accounts you may have with us. Eligible purchases can be made by the Basic Card Member and any Additional Card Members on a single Card account. Eligible purchases are purchases for goods and services minus returns and other credits and do NOT include: fees or interest charges; purchases of travelers checks; purchases or reloading of prepaid cards; purchases of gift cards; person–to–person payments; or purchases of other cash equivalents. Some American Express® Cards are not eligible for enrollment in the program. Your Card account must not be canceled or past due at the time of fulfillment of any offers.
If you had already opened the Gold Card before and you received an upgrade offer from your Green Card to the Gold Card with the same language as above you would actually be eligible to receive a bonus for the Gold Card a second time (this has been confirmed with multiple data points)! So it really pays to read these offers closely!
American Express upgrade offers can be very enticing and often can be worth it under the right circumstances. But if you receive an upgrade offer to a card that you never had before you should highly consider applying for that card first so that you can optimize both bonus offers. And even if you have had the card before you should check the upgrade offer for the once per lifetime language because it might not be there.
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Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.