The hunt for perfect gift cards, part 2

Last week I described the beginning of my quest to find the perfect Visa gift cards (see “The hunt for perfect gift cards, part 1“).  As a reminder, here are the characteristics of the “perfect” gift cards that I’m searching for:

  • Low fee as a % of total value.  The ideal gift card would have a fee equal to, or less than, 1% or its maximum value.
  • Ability to earn credit card category bonus points (see “Best Category Bonuses“).
  • The ability to earn store reward points (such as fuel points) would be a big plus.
  • Ability to set the card’s PIN quickly and easily.  I would like to be able to pickup the gift card at one store and then drive over to Walmart to load it to my Bluebird account with minimal fuss in between.
  • High denomination.  Bluebird cards can be loaded up to $1000 per day (and $5000 per month) at Walmart.  If I’m going to visit Walmart anyway, I’d like to load the full $1000 each time.  The fewer gift cards it takes to do this, the better.  In other words, a $1000 gift card would be ideal (but I’ve never seen those in stores), and $500 gift cards are really good.  Cards with lower values are much less attractive.

In part 1, I visited Kroger, Speedway, OfficeMax, and Sears.  At that time I found that Visa gift cards from all four merchants worked fine to load Bluebird.  Overall, the gift card from Kroger was the best deal because I earned fuel points along with the purchase.  And, the OneVanilla card I bought at Speedway was the most convenient because it did not require a PIN to be set in advance.

In the comments of my previous post, a reader named Chris said:

I would like to add that you do NOT have to add a pin to the “Kroger” gift card. Just go to CS at Walmart give them your BB card and then swipe the card as debit, enter any pin and load. It sets up with the first pin too. It even asks if you want cash back!!

If that’s true, that would be huge.  Gift cards from Kroger would be both a fantastic deal and incredibly easy to use.  So, for the second part of this quest, I returned to Kroger to try this out.  I also bought $200 gift cards from Staples and Office Depot to see how those compared…

Kroger

I bought the same $500 U.S. Bank Visa gift card that I had bought before.  Again, I earned 500 fuel points for the purchase.

VisaGiftCard_USBank_thumb2

My goal was to see if I could use this card as a debit card at Walmart without first registering a PIN.  I went to Walmart’s MoneyCenter Express ATM (see “Bluebird swipe reloads via ATM“) to try to use the card to load $500 to my Bluebird card.  When it was time to enter my PIN, I made one up.  The machine tried to authorize the transaction, but it was denied.  I remembered that some gift cards use the last four digits of the card number as the default PIN so I tried again with those numbers, but once again the transaction was denied.  Ugh.  I then called Visa at 866-952-5653 to setup a PIN.  Once done, I tried again.  Again, the transaction was denied.  I then used my phone’s browser to register the card online.  And, I tried again.  Denied again.  Frustrated, I gave up on that card for the day.  I’ll try again this week.

Office Depot

My local Office Depot sells Vanilla Visa gift cards in denominations of $200 with a $6.95 fee.  I bought one and paid with a card that offers 5 points per dollar at office supply stores (see “Best Category Bonuses“). 

Visa Vanilla Office Depot

Since this was a Vanilla gift card sold by the same company as the OneVanilla card I had bought previously at Speedway, I thought that I would be able to use this card without first setting a PIN.  At Walmart, I went to the MoneyCenter Express ATM and attempted to load $200 using a PIN that I made up on the spot.  Success!

Staples

Just like Office Depot, Staples sells Visa gift cards in denominations as high as $200 with a $6.95 fee, but these are issued by MetaBank.  I bought one and paid with a card that offers 5 points per dollar at office supply stores (see “Best Category Bonuses“).

Visa_MetaBank_Staples

I wanted to see if this card could be used without setting a PIN in advance.  At Walmart’s MoneyCenter Express ATM I attempted to load $200 using a PIN that I made up on the spot. Denied.  I tried again, but this time I used the last four digits of the gift card’s 16 digit number.  Success!

Summary

My experiment to use the U.S. Bank gift card bought at Kroger without pre-setting a PIN was a failure, but I don’t know why.  Even after setting the PIN, I wasn’t able to use the card.  I’ll have to do more experiments with these cards to try to figure out what works and what doesn’t.  If you have experience with these cards, please let me know what you’ve found!

My experiments with gift cards from Office Depot and Staples were successful.  The gift card from Office Depot could be used with any made-up PIN (for the first time use), and the gift card from Staples could be used with the last four digits of the card number as the PIN. 

Let’s look at how the office supply store gift cards rate with each of my criteria:

Low Fee

$6.95 for a $200 gift card is definitely not a low fee at 3.48%.  $500 gift cards have fees close to 1%.  However, $100 gift cards generally have 6% fees, so these are right in the middle.

Category bonus

With the right credit/charge card (see “Best Category Bonuses“), 5X at office supply stores is the best category bonus available.  This goes a long way toward making up for the relatively high gift card fees.

Store Rewards

Neither Office Depot nor Staples give rewards for gift card purchases.

Easy PIN setup

It doesn’t get any easier than this.  No need to register a PIN with either card.  With the Office Depot card, use any PIN you want.  With the Staples card, use the last four digits of the card number.  If you forget which is which, simply always use the last four digits of the card number and you should be good to go.

High Denomination

These cards are in the middle of the pack again on this score.  They’re not nearly as convenient as $500 gift cards, but they’re twice as convenient as $100 gift cards.

Relative value of office supply gift cards

If you don’t mind dealing with $200 cards, then the main problem with the gift cards from Office Depot and Staples is their relatively high fee.  Suppose, though, you use some of the points earned to pay yourself back at one cent per point.  Would these cards still be a good deal?  Here’s the math:

  • Buy $200 Visa gift card for $206.95
  • Earn 5X:  5 X 206.95 = 1035 points
  • Pay back fee with points: -695 points
  • Points remaining: 340
  • Points earned as a multiple of $200 spend: 1.7X

That’s pretty good!  This means that you can buy and liquidate Visa gift cards (through Bluebird) for free and still earn 1.7 points per dollar.  That’s a better earning rate than you would get from buying gift cards at a grocery store with most credit cards, but there are better deals (depending on how you value each type of point earned).  Here are a few examples:

  • Earn 5X at grocery stores (and drug stores & gas stations) for the first year with the special Citi ThankYou Preferred offer.
  • Earn 6% cash back at grocery stores with the American Express Blue Cash Preferred card (capped at $6K per year in spend).
  • Earn 2X at grocery stores with the American Express Premier Rewards Gold card.  This is only a better deal than the office supply options if you earn fuel points for your purchases (as I did at Kroger).

 

Conclusion

I have more work to do to figure out what’s going on with the U.S. Bank card from Kroger, so there’s really no news right now on that front.  As to the $200 gift cards from Office Depot and Staples, I found that they are quite easy to work with, and a really solid way to earn extremely valuable points if you don’t mind dealing with their lower denominations.

What have you found that works well or that doesn’t work at all? Please comment below.

Earn miles without flying—> Start Here

About Greg The Frequent Miler

Greg is the owner, founder, and primary author of the Frequent Miler. He earns millions of points and miles each year, mostly without flying, and dedicates this blog to teaching others how to do the same.

More articles by Greg The Frequent Miler »

Pingbacks

Comments

  1. Have you been to CVS? They have a ton of those Vanilla gift cards in $500 denominations. I believe the fee is $5.95.

    • Askia: Yes, CVS has a great selection. If your local store doesn’t carry Vanilla Reload cards, look for OneVanilla cards with $4.95 fees.
      Jason: I don’t know. It feels just a bit shady. I’ve never done it!

  2. Hey Greg…

    What’s your feeling on purchasing money orders and depositing them at your bank? I’ve read that this can be risky, although there seems to be very limited evidence of adverse action taken by banks.

  3. In reference to the 5% at groceries stores with the Citi Thank You Preferred, I thought Citibank processed gift card purchases as a cash advance, or am I mistaken about this.

  4. The other limit of low denomination gc is that bb charges $2 per load using debit card. So far, I haven’t been able to have several gc loaded as one transaction.

  5. @Tana – thats for purchases mainly online from gift card merchants (ie gift card mall or amex gift card website) it all depends on how your purchase is categorized. It usually doesn’t matter what you purchase at a grocery store as all transactions are categorized as groceries.

    @lunchex – the $2 fee is for online loads. At ww its free up to 1k a day

  6. BD
    Where I live, the only place I can get VR is Lucky’s and Foodmax and both only allow cash or debit cards not only for VR but also for all cash equivalentn the same as Walgreens. So the Visa gc is the best alternative.
    Anybody know a way to trick stores like those to be able to get VR using CC?

  7. @Jonathan – thanks for the answer, that makes sense. Luckily my CVS always has VRs in stock. I think I will stick with that for now. That is much easier than making multiple trips to Walmart, especially since I really cannot stand shopping in that store :).

  8. Reasor’s sells $500 Visa GC’s with a $5.95 fee.

    You don’t earn fuel points (confirmed), but with the 2x AMEX PRG card, it’s still better than the Office Supply store options.

    2k UR points = $13.90 in fees ($6.95 x 2) vs
    2k MR points = $11.90 in fees ($5.95 x 2)

    You get 15k bonus MR points after $30k spend ($357 in fees), so after $357 in fees at each place you’d have:

    52 office supply gift cards ($10,400 refundable + $361.4 in fees) to get 53,807 UR points

    60 grocery store $500 Visa GC ($30,000 refundable + $357 in fees) to get 60,714 MR points + 15k bonus MR points = 75,714 MR points

    Unless you value UR points 30% more than MR points, grocery stores offering $500 cards seems like the way to go.

    The only edge for office supply stores is that with BB you could liquidate in under 3 months, while grocery stores would take 6 months.

  9. Anyone hear anything on the US Bank Mastercard front? I unluckily snagged a few of those a few weeks ago and haven’t been able to load @ WM even with pin set on them, doesn’t even give the systems an option for debit. No matter with 5/1 approaching I can always AP.

  10. The best use of VR’s that I have found for now is purchasing them at CVS using my new Citi TY card, earning 5x at pharmacies for the first 12 months. After this next year, I think that the best way of collecting the points for VR purchases would be using my Amex SPG. Assuming purchases of $5000 of VR, that would cost $39.50 in fees, and net 5040 SPG points. Do this for four months, and you now have 20,160 SPG points for $178. You can then transfer these points to your airline partner of choice for a R/T North america airfare, or two nights at a cat 4 SPG property. Take this example one step further to four months, and you now have enough SPG points for a 5 night stay at a cat 4 hotel, for $366. I would consider that good value.

  11. Has anyone tried buying GC at gas stations with the Chase Ink card? I have seen $500 cards with $4.95 fee. Ink pays 2X for gas, not sure if that applies to all purchases at a Gas station or not.

  12. Need to have “Visa” as one of the characteristics. I didn’t see the Visa at Kroger so bought the Mastercard. Couldn’t load it at Walmart. Fortunately it worked to purchase VR cards. So total cost was about $20 for $1k (2x 5.95 Mastercard + 2x 3.95 VR). If I bring a 5-gallon container I can at least break even with Kroger fuel.

  13. I think buying a $1K Visa GC on giftcardmall with 1.5% topcashback might be a better option. You can profit about $7 and 1,000 points. However, you have to be patient with TopCashBack. All of my TCB purchases have posted and almost all have been paid so far.

  14. @geoffrey – I have bought VR cards at gas stations using both Ink Bold and AmEx PRG and have received double points each time. YMMV. For me, buying VR at $500 each still works out cheaper than buying VISA gift cards at office supply stores. Everyone has to do their own math to see what is best.

  15. I bought $1500 on one chase cc and $1075 on the other of chase gc with waived fee. Can anybody tell me a downsize or problem by doing that. I am not going to do it to the point of abuse , probably just leave it there but , does it count as purchase? Would buying chase gc would make chase keep an eye on your spending patterns. ?

  16. Am I reading this wrong? Why would the payback with points be -695? Wouldn’t the payback for the fee only be -35? What am I not getting?

    Buy $200 Visa gift card for $206.95
    Earn 5X:  5 X 206.95 = 1035 points
    Pay back fee with points: -695 points
    Points remaining: 340
    Points earned as a multiple of $200 spend: 1.7X

  17. I purchased U.S. Bank Visa gift card today at Kroger $500 I set the pin over the phone. Successfully loaded BB at Wally. I bet that when you set the pin at the kiosk instead of over the phone, it caused the system to lock up your card. A call to CS is in order.

  18. I set up the US bank Visa gift card pin over the phone on Sunday. Today I went to my local Walmart and found out that their Money express machine is out of order. so instead I did a reload with PIN at customer service and it went through without any issue.

  19. I agree the Kroger cards from USbank are so unpredictable it comical. I bought a couple 2 weeks ago, set the pins went to walmart tried at least 5 times at both the money machine and the customer service center.. Always denied. Went back yesterday tried one 3 times at the money machine, went thru the 3rd try. The 2nd one still don’t work.

  20. @susan – 695 points figured at 1 cent per point = $6.95, the cost of the gift card. That is how he came up with 695.

  21. Funny you mention speedway. Just got my first miles card (Delta American Express) and reached the minimum purchase for bonus by buying two $250 speedway fuel cards. Got my miles and speedway gives 5000 speedy rewards points per card. Further, speedway does still give points for gift card purchases. I will continue to buy my gas this way.

    Note speedy rewards include gift cards, for points.

  22. (Sorry for double posting this, but it fits better here.)

    Success! Went to Staples and used my Ink Bold to buy two $200 Visa prepaid cards and one $100 card (Staples: so, MetaBank cards). (Also a $50 Amazon card and a $200 AMEX prepaid card, which I tried to put on my Costco Cash Card about 20 minutes later, but it was too quickly after purchase (apparently) and it wouldn’t go through. The Amazon card, of course, loaded easily onto Amazon.)

    Several hours later, I went to my local (North GA) Super WalMart’s ATM and picked WalMart Money Card and Reload. Did a $200 card, then the second $200 card, then the $100 card — as three separate transactions. On the first card, when it asked for a PIN, I tried making one up, which didn’t work, so I canceled the whole transaction. Then, remembering reading somewhere — maybe here? — that the last four digits might be the PIN, I tried that and it worked. No fee, of course.

    I just got home, and there were three emails waiting for me from Bluebird, saying my “bluebird POS Reload was Successful” with complete records (amount, confirm. no., and so on).

    After each transaction, the machine spit out a “debit load” receipt for each card. Oh – and the machine DOES say a lot out loud, but it didn’t say anything about amounts or anything – just stuff like: “Do you want cash back?” and “Please choose your method of reload.” (No, I didn’t want cash back – I’m loading for my mortgage payment!)

  23. FYI – DO NOT BUY THE MASTERCARD – DEBIT GIFT CARD!
    It says debit which is a complete joke. I registered it and thought I could set a pin, but it said this has no pin and you can’t access atm, etc, etc. It says when making a purchase select CREDIT. So, obviously it is not a debit card if they tell you to select credit. UHHH. Not sure what I am going to do with this. Glad I just bought (1) $100.

  24. saw offer in CVS for $5 off next purchase when you buy a paypal reloadable debit card or netbank card…they both looked like reloadable prepaid, not worth bothering with. My local (Fort Worth) Kroger has a promotion for $10 off if you buy 2 visa or mastercard gift cards….going back tomorrow to check the fine print and buy a couple of $500 cards to see if they get the discount and earn fuel points.

  25. I’ve been doing gift card searching the bay area, anyone else have tips on this location? I’ve gone to half a dozen CVS stores and found them not accepting credit for gift card purchases. The Targets on the peninsula I’ve been to so far have only had 100 dollar visa cards as their highest denomination, same at walmart. I tried a 500 dollar vanilla mastercard at walmart, but the clerk at the register told me I could not pay with credit. I’ll keep searching…

  26. I’m frustrated and in need of HELP BADLY!
    I purchase $5K worth of visa gift card from giftcardmall.com hoping that I will be able to load it to bluebird.

    I went to walmart today and I was not able to do so.
    The cashier swiped my bluebird, rang the transaction as debit and asked to enter my pin. So I did.
    After that the transaction was declined.

    The cashier (and 2 other cashiers) went on three times with different denominations to load to bluebird and we still got the same result.
    So I called the number listed on the back of the card and the customer rep told me I can’t do that. I even called three times and spoke to a different customer reps and they told me the same thing.
    Basically what they said i can not “transfer fund to another account”

    Anyone can help please?
    Thanks!

  27. Try to use the automated machine. Select ‘Green Dot’ on the first screen, then just swipe Bluebird when it tell you to swipe.

    You did setup a pin on giftcardmall, correct? It’s a button at the top if the screen. You pick your own pin.

    I’ve had no problem using visas purchased at my grocery store then setting the pin on giftcardmall

  28. Went to Kroger, bought a visa GC (with Amex gc), set pin, loaded at walmart just fine, and got the points. Went back to a different kroger, this one had signs up that stated that the below gift cards (all visa/amex/mc and kroger cards) did not earn points. I didn’t try to buy one and didn’t go back to the other kroger to see if they had the same signs, i figured it was hard wired into their systems at this point. Checked online and it seems the terms have been updated as they say Amex/Visa/MC gc’s do not earn fuel points.

  29. @Adam: The walmart I went today – their automated machine was not working. So I had to go to the cashier.
    and yes, I did set the pin online at giftcardmall.

    I even called to reset the pin and entered the new pin when I tried it the second time around. Still doesn’t work. Should I try at different walmart maybe?
    mine was in Long Island City, NY.

    Anyone has tried using the visa gift card pruchased at Giftcardmall.com for USPS money order by anychance?

  30. Hi, FM,

    Have you figured out the Kroger US bank gift card loading issue you had? I had exactly the same issue today and could not load it to BB, even at the register….:(

  31. Last week I bought onevanillas in cvs . Today I went to a diferent cvs and told me I cannot buy using CC. NEW RULE SINCE LAST MONTH. Darn !! Gift card-wwise California sucks. I may have to move to the east coast.

  32. when a deal dies feels like the end of the world.
    I’ve only seen low denomination gc at safeway,7/11 and all the office stores. I guess the only way is online using TCB and GCM.

  33. Shanz: That’s strange! I tried the giftcardmall Visa with no problem. I activated it, but did not set the PIN. I just used the last 4 digits and it worked. On the other hand, I still haven’t gotten the 2nd gift card from Kroger to work (yes, i tried again). I plan to use it to buy gift cards that will work.

  34. hunter: Nope. I tried again with the Kroger card, but no luck. I did successfully use it as a Visa card though. I have no idea what’s going on.

    Wise2U: Make sure to buy Visa gift cards if you go for the Kroger deal. Many have reported problems with MasterCards. Or, if you try MasterCards, let us know how it goes!

  35. you guys definitely have it the worst on the west coast, as thats where it seems most travel hackers are. im in dc and although the crackdown isnt as fast here, the game gets harder over time (just slower then there). most cvs in my area will now only allow 2 vr per day. 1 cvs has completly pulled vr. if i get lucky though ill get a cashier who either doesnt know or doesnt care about the 2 a day limit.

  36. Hi FM,

    I guess we conclude that the US bank Visa gift card from Kroger is dead deal now, I mean it could not be loaded to blue bird……

  37. Why did you get only 500 fuel points for the purchase? I was under the impression that Gift card purchases earn 2 points per $. On the other hand the Kroger site says all amex, visa and mc gift don’t earn fuel points. i was going to give it try but if you know the answer it will help

  38. No go on Kroger Card and Walmart transactions, tried every which way. No more Walmart trips for me too Frustrating.

  39. After buying the Visa Debit Gift card from Kroger, I tried calling 1-866-952-5653, to set up a PIN, but the rep said that these type of gift card cannot be set up with a PIN number. The only difference I can tell between the gift card that you showed above and mine is that mine has a different design and has the word “Celebrate” on the card. Did I get the wrong card?

    I did get 500 fuel points and not 2X like what Unclesam suggested.

  40. @FM.Same issues on Kroger visa gc. Always rang up as the credit card. I guess the bank has reset the bug so that the reload on these gc are classified as credit card payments.

  41. I’ve been buying a lot of Visa lately from Staples through Discovercard. 5% + 5x UR – 7% fee. I’ve been using coupons to reduce the fees. But not using coupons too much due to scarcity. Only unique coupons work.

  42. Y tried to buy dc at staples in the bay area and I got the cash or debit reply. I’ll try other stores. I wonder if California has extra taxes that make it not profitable to sell gc using cc?

  43. A couple of data points. I had an issue with one of my Visa Gift Cards from Fry’s (Kroger) loading to BB . I believe that was the card I had first tried to not set the pin on the phone and use the last 4 digits as a PIN but was not successful. Even after later setting the PIN and trying to load to BB I keep getting a failure. I wlll have to unload that card on AP. However, every other instance of Kroger Visa GC’s including 1 purchased today which I set the pin right away on the phone and went to Wal Mart a few minutes later was a success.

    I also stopped by Staples to pickup a couple of Mastercard GC’s issued by Metabank. This was to take advantage of the $15 easy rebate Staples GC with $150 MC GC purchase. I was planning to unload them with AP but I set the PIN on the phone and hit up Wal Mart again on a whim and sure enough even the MC version worked loading to BB. Previous reports as far as I know only indicated the Visa issued Metbank card PIN worked for BB load.

  44. Data Point: I got my $500 GC purchased a Kroger (actually Ralph’s) and issued by US Bank (same as the one pictured in the post) to finally load to Bluebird using the WalMart ATM after many failed attempts. I found that you need to 1) Register the card online, then 2) Call 866-952-5653 to setup a PIN, and finally 3) wait about 30 minutes before going to WalMart. In my experience you must register the card online AND set the pin, otherwise your reload will be declined.

    I got fuel points too 🙂

  45. Does the metabank gift card from staples take 24 hrs to activate? That’s what it says on receipt and I don’t have any activation code. Called in and said card not active.

    Thanks

  46. My experience is right away with any other gc too. Anyways, for a datapoint: those staples metabank $200 cards were activated ranging 3-5 hrs.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *