Q: Hey I’m looking to get a new credit card and want to know which is better, a MasterCard or an American Express?
A: It depends on what you consider “better” to be. Decide for yourself by seeing how they compare and contrast with these three criteria.
Round One: Rewards
First of all you need to realize MasterCard doesn’t actually issue credit cards.
Yes, you read that correctly. They are just a payment network for processing transactions. The actual banks which issue their cards to the public (like Chase, Citi, Barclays etc.) are actually the ones who determine the rewards, if any.
Since most banks issue the same card as both a Visa and MasterCard I think you’re probably already familiar with what’s out there.
On the other hand, American Express (a CreditCardForum.com advertising partner) acts as both a payment network and a bank. That means they process the transactions AND issue most of their cards, too.
Winner? In my personal opinion, AmEx is #1 for cash back, but for travel rewards there are some MasterCards which are at least a tie and sometimes better.
Round Two: Benefits
Unlike the rewards, most benefits are handled by the payment network. Therefore, this category is probably the biggest difference when it comes to MasterCard versus AmEx. Here are the basics that usually come with each.
- Purchase Protection/Purchase Assurance: This covers eligible purchases for the first 90 days against theft or accidental damage. Unfortunately the MasterCard version is inferior because of its many restrictions.
- Extended Warranty: This perk gives you automatic coverage on eligible purchases that come with a manufacturer’s US warranty. You get up to double the length of coverage or 1 additional year (whichever is less). With AmEx, manufacturer warranties of up to 5 years may be eligible, while MC only covers warranties of 1 year or less.
- Price Protection: If you find a lower price within 60 days of purchase, you can be reimbursed the difference under some very specific circumstances. Surprisingly, AmEx doesn’t offer this benefit.
- Return Protection/Satisfaction Guarantee: Let’s say you buy something, it’s still brand new and unused, but the store won’t take it back. When that happens within the first 60 days, using this benefit you can get your money back. MasterCard will refund up to $250, while American Express is a bit more generous at up to $300.
- Travel Insurance Coverages: Both are comparable.
- Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver: Both offer similar coverage. Here’s the nitty-gritty.
Winner? Not only is this my personal opinion, but just about everyone on the forum would agree that American Express offers better benefits and has a relatively painless claims process.
To give you an example, when I used the purchase protection for a broken blender, AmEx didn’t even bother to ask for me to mail in the defective product. Instead, they just issued me the statement credit. On the other hand, MasterCard is known to require products to be mailed to them, which is just a hassle and another added expense since you have to pay for the shipping.
Round Three: Acceptance
So how many merchants accept them for payment? This table should give you a good idea…
Something to keep in mind though is that while it’s true American Express doesn’t have the best acceptance in every region of the world, here in the US you can enjoy acceptance at the vast majority of retailers which accept credit cards. These days, it’s rare to run into a place which only takes Visa/MC and nothing else.
Winner? As we all know, MasterCard (and Visa) is the mostly widely accepted payment network.
MasterCard vs. AmEx: Who gets the trophy?
This is a battle that doesn’t have a clear cut answer, since the best one will depend on your circumstance.
Here are 3 circumstances where MasterCard will win:
- You frequently travel overseas
- You want the best acceptance, including those mom and pop drycleaners and hole-in-the-wall restaurants.
- You want the bank behind the card to be Chase, Capital One, or Citi.
Here are 3 circumstances where American Express will win:
- You want the most cash back on special categories of spending.
- You prefer having better benefit coverage.
- You want a card with more cachet to it.