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Navigating the American Express Four Credit Card Limit

As you think about the best American Express credit cards to apply for to help you travel the world on points, it’s important to be aware of a certain limitations on the number of different products you can hold concurrently.

In particular, while there’s no limit to the number of American Express charge cards you can hold, you are in fact limited to having four credit cards at any given time.

And since there’s quite a handful of American Express credit cards that are worth your attention, you’ll have to think carefully about which quartet of American Express credit cards you’re most interested in – and whether to swap a few of them around over time.

American Express Charge Cards vs. Credit Cards

American Express is the only major credit card issuer to offer charge cards in addition to credit cards:

  • Charge cards do not come with a pre-determined credit limit, although you must pay off the balance in full every month
  • Credit cards come with a credit limit and allow you to make minimum monthly payments and carry a balance (not that that’s ever a good idea).

You can hold unlimited charge cards, which means that you can collect the welcome bonuses on all of the Gold Rewards Card, Business Gold Card, Platinum Card, Business Platinum Card, and Aeroplan Card without worrying about running into card limits.

But the four-card limit makes things more interesting in terms of American Express’s revolving credit products.

The following American Express credit cards are generally considered to be the most powerful for elevating your travel (as you can see, there’s already more than four):

Meanwhile, the following products might also appeal to those who’d prefer more low-maintenance points strategies, or even cash back:

Clearly, there’s a pretty big list of possible options to whittle down to just four, so what are some strategies you should have in mind as you choose the right American Express credit cards for you?

Basic and Advanced Strategies

Since we’re talking strategy, let’s start at the more basic and more advanced ends of the spectrum.

If you’re a beginner credit card user or someone who’s looking to keep things simple, then you’re unlikely to run into the four credit card limit in the first place.

You might be content with one or two American Express products as a whole, between charge cards and credit cards. For example, you might choose the Cobalt Card as an all-round spender with unmatched strength in the 5x food and drinks category, and perhaps pair it with the Gold Rewards Card to earn 2x MR points on travel and drugstores.

If you prefer a simple credit card strategy, you’re unlikely to run into the four-card limit.

On the other hand, if you’re a credit card whiz who’s comfortable taking a chance on pursuing repeat welcome bonuses, then you might find yourself cycling through credit cards quickly enough that you also don’t run into the four credit card limit.

Even if you’re at the maximum, by the time you’re looking at your next welcome bonus, you might naturally feel ready to cancel one of your existing four.

Of course, this is high-risk high-reward behaviour: you might make off with a fat stack of points in the short-term, but you do run the risk of damaging your relationship with American Express in the long run.

Therefore, I think most individuals would be well-advised to go with a strategy in the middle ground: keeping cards open and paying some annual fees in exchange for their ongoing benefits where it makes sense, while picking off specific high-value welcome bonuses when they’re on the market.

Which Four American Express Credit Cards?

In implementing this strategy, then, we’ll need to trim down our list of American Express’s six best travel credit cards (i.e., the first set of six credit cards listed above) into four – or perhaps less than four, since you might want to leave a slot open for whenever an attractive new welcome bonus becomes available.

(What about the second set of six credit cards listed above? Well, these are generally less useful products in the overall Amex lineup. If you want to collect Air Miles, it’s worth exploring BMO’s Air Miles credit cards instead to avoid taking up a more valuable slot among Amex credit cards. And if you’re swayed by the lower-end SimplyCash or Choice cards, then you probably aren’t too interested in juggling four credit cards in the first place.)

Slot #1 and #2

From the list of six major credit cards, we can instantly tell that a key determinant in the optimal strategy is whether or not you’re interested in maximizing Marriott Bonvoy hotel loyalty points.

If chain hotels aren’t a part of your travel style, then you can simply skip the two Bonvoy co-branded cards, and there’s no further worry – you can load up on the four credit cards in the Aeroplan and MR Select families, or perhaps even squeeze in an Air Miles credit card in there if it piques your interest.

But for most travellers who are looking to maximize their credit card points and benefits, the personal and business Bonvoy cards will probably play a fairly significant role.

After all, you always need a place to stay, and these cards are some of the most accessible ways to save money and unlock greater upside for your accommodations.

By holding onto both the personal and business Bonvoy cards in the long run, you’re earning:

  • An initial welcome bonus (currently at a record high of 65,000 Bonvoy points)
  • An anniversary Free Night Award every year worth 35,000 Bonvoy points
  • 15 elite qualifying nights that will help you get closer towards Platinum Elite status and all of its associated perks

Taking only the Free Night Awards into consideration, a reasonable target valuation when redeeming these certificates would be around $300–350 (CAD), which would outstrip the value of your annual fees by up to $200 (equivalent to a $400 gain across two cards).

Under the right circumstances, this figure could be even higher. It’s primarily due to this potential upside that the Bonvoy cards are among the best American Express credit cards for keeping in the long run. 

Slot #3

In terms of long-term hotel strategy, then, the two Bonvoy cards already take up half of the total limit of four credit cards. That leaves us with two slots remaining.

Among the remaining four options, the Cobalt Card should absolutely be next in line.

With its much-celebrated ability to earn 5x MR Select points on food and drinks (including anything you can buy at the grocery store), the Cobalt Card is a trusty points-generating machine and a core component of any optimal points strategy.

Better yet, the MR Select points you earn from the Cobalt Card can be converted to Marriott Bonvoy at a 1:1.2 ratio (with transfer bonuses every now and then), thus pooling into the same ecosystem as your existing two Amex credit cards and getting you even closer to the next big hotel redemption.

Slot #4

With one final slot left, here’s where the strategy branches out a little, depending on your specific travel needs and goals.

If you’re heavily invested in Aeroplan and fly often with Air Canada, then the Aeroplan Reserve Card makes a lot of sense to hold in the long run, despite its $599 annual fee.

The card has seen very frequent annual credits and statement offers that effectively reduce the annual fee, all while carrying some excellent benefits like Maple Leaf Lounge access, Air Canada priority services, and eUpgrades rollover.

(The Visa Infinite Privilege cards by TD and CIBC could play the same role, but their $200,000 minimum income requirements can be prohibitive, and those two issuers have been far less generous than American Express in terms of ongoing engagement offers.)

I’d say the Aeroplan Reserve Card makes more sense to hold than the Aeroplan Business Reserve Card, as the two products are very similar and it doesn’t make sense to pay two annual fees here.

If you’re looking for a strong Amex card for your business, use the Business Platinum Card instead – it’s a charge card, so it doesn’t count towards your four card limit, and the earn rate is higher at 1.25x compared to 1x.

An Optimized Four Credit Card Portfolio
Credit Card Best Offer Value
150,000 Aeroplan points $2,551 Apply Now
50,000 MR Select points $743 Apply Now
Up to 105,000 Bonvoy points $690 Apply Now
Up to 105,000 Bonvoy points $660 Apply Now

Just keep in mind that picking up the Aeroplan Reserve Card would complete your set of four credit cards – and thereby lock you out of the Business Edge Card.

This may not be a great loss, as the Business Edge doesn’t offer too many meaningful ongoing benefits that make it worth keeping. However, its value proposition as a one-time signup bonus is undeniable – 55,000 MR Select points for a $99 annual fee is an outstanding return, especially if you convert the points to Bonvoy under a transfer bonus.

American Express Business Edge Card
Welcome Bonus
Up to 67,000 MR Select points
Annual Fee
$99
First-Year Value
$801

Therefore, it might make sense to incorporate the Business Edge Card as a temporary “step” into your four-card strategy. You could nab the Bonvoys, the Cobalt, and the Business Edge as you’re starting out, and then swap out the Business Edge for an Aeroplan Reserve instead.

Finally, what if the Aeroplan Reserve doesn’t sound interesting to you? Maybe you’re happy with the core tier of Aeroplan co-branded cards, and you don’t need the premium benefits?

In that case, I’d recommend picking up the Bonvoy cards and the Cobalt, and then simply leaving the fourth credit card slot open for your short-term holdings.

Perhaps you’ll want to pick up the impressive Business Edge bonus while it’s at an all-time high. Or one of the Air Miles cards puts on a higher bonus that you find tempting. Or maybe you do feel like dabbling with the Aeroplan Reserve, but you like the look of its 75,000-point welcome bonus better than its long-term benefits.

While the other Bonvoy and Cobalt cards make a lot of sense as long-term keepers, the fourth and final credit card slot can be a flexible one, allowing you to snap up any attractive bonuses that catch your eye without necessarily committing to the card year after year.

What About Two-Player Mode?

If you’re playing the game in two-player mode, then there’s a little more leeway for expanding your strategy beyond what we’ve discussed above, once we consider the fact that some of the credit cards can be held by one partner, but maximized by both.

Give some thought as to how many Bonvoy cards – and their associated Free Night Awards – makes sense for your household to keep in the long run.

Some households might be able to maximize all four Bonvoy cards and Free Night Awards every year. But others might not travel enough to justify holding all four – rather than fitting those certificates into their organic travel plans, they might have to go out of their way to stay four nights at the 35,000-point level, and that defeats the purpose. 

If that’s the case for you, you’d want to drop the Bonvoy Business Cards first after collecting their welcome bonuses, since their annual fees are higher at $150 compared to the personal card’s $120.

Keep in mind, four Free Night Awards could combine into a single free four-night stay.

The Cobalt Card is another interesting one. Supplementary cards are free, so there’s little reason for both partners to get a Cobalt of their own – you can simply share the same account and earn 5x points on all of your household’s food and drinks purchases.

The only exception is if you tend to rack up huge bills at your local grocery checkout, and you find yourself running up to the $30,000 annual purchase limit in the 5x category. In this case, you could bypass the limit by having your partner open a Cobalt Card of their own and then adding you as an authorized user.

As for the Aeroplan Reserve, the partner who travels more frequently could pick up the card, sharing the benefits with the other partner when you travel together. 

That would leave 2–4 open slots between the two of you for any other attractive welcome bonuses that pop up on the remaining credit cards. By pooling your efforts in two-player mode, you’re able to capture more ongoing benefits and one-time bonuses alike through your combined credit card portfolio. 

Conclusion

Here in Canada, American Express limits cardholders to four revolving credit cards at any given time.

While you can load up on as many of the charge cards in the Membership Rewards family as you’d like, it’s important to give some thought as to which products to keep in your four credit card slots. 

In my view, the twin Bonvoy cards and the Cobalt Card make the most sense to keep open in the long run, with the final spot either dedicated to the Aeroplan Reserve Card or kept flexible for the purposes of strategically snagging signup bonuses. 

What does your optimal portfolio of American Express credit cards look like? Do you value the Bonvoy cards for their ongoing free nights, and is the Cobalt locked-in? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.