Vanilla Reloadables

This is an update to a post of the same name published a year ago.  A lot has changed since then so I thought it would be good to create a new post rather than edit the old one.

VanillaReload_process_FrequentMiler

Vanilla Reload cards can be a terrific tool for increasing your credit card rewards: 1) purchase a Vanilla Reload card with a rewards credit card (to earn rewards); then 2) Load the value of the card onto a prepaid card; then 3) Use the prepaid card for expenses where credit cards are not usually allowed: bill payments, ATM cash withdrawals, debit payments, etc.

Vanilla Reload cards are not the only type of reload cards available.  There are also MoneyPaks, REloadit cards, PayPal load money cards and probably more (see “The reload game is on“).  This post, though, focuses only on prepaid cards that can be loaded with Vanilla Reload cards.

Amex vs. Visa/MasterCard

All of the cards detailed below are issued by American Express or Bancorp Bank.  Unlike the American Express cards, the Bancorp issued cards are either Visa or MasterCard cards, and can be used as debit cards.  The American Express cards are similar to debit cards in that they can be used at ATMs to withdraw cash, but they cannot be used in any other transaction where a debit card is required.

Two types of Vanilla Reload cards

VanillaReload_slanted_FrequentMiler

There are two distinct types of Vanilla Reload cards, but they look virtually identical.  With the most common type, you can purchase the card at a store, bring it home, and transfer its value to a prepaid card.  With the other type, you must bring the card to the counter in-store and use it in-store to reload your prepaid card.  This second type can only be used with true debit card prepaid cards (i.e. MasterCard and Visa cards).  For more details see “Pursuing the Other Vanilla Reload card“.

Many types of Vanilla

In addition to the fact that there are two different kinds of Vanilla Reload cards, it is important to understand that there are also multiple kinds of Vanilla cards.  Depicted below are a few varieties.  None of these can be used to reload other prepaid cards:

image_thumb OneVanilla image_thumb2
Vanilla Gift Card OneVanilla Prepaid MyVanilla Debit
Load once in-store. No fees after purchase. Load once in-store. No fees after purchase.  Acts like gift card, but looks like a debit card. Buy in-store and register with your name and address.  May be reloaded repeatedly.

 

Prepaid cards compared

The tables below summarize the fees and limits of each prepaid card that can be loaded with a Vanilla Reload card.  Note that most of the numbers below were taken from publicly available member agreements and FAQs.  In some cases, these online documents have not been modified in years and so may be inaccurate.  Please help me correct these tables if you have recent experience that contradicts these numbers.

Fees:

 

Credit transaction

Debit transaction

ATM withdrawal

Cash Advance

Foreign Xchange

Other fees of note

Amex Bluebird $0 N/A Free at MoneyPass ATMs*. $2 elsewhere N/A $0 $2 for online load from debit card (but free at Walmart)
Amex Serve $0 N/A Free at MoneyPass ATMs. $2 elsewhere N/A N/A No other fees
Amex Prepaid $0 N/A $2 (first per month free) N/A $0 No other fees
Mio MasterCard $0.50 $0.50 $1.50 $4 $2.50 per transaction ($3.25 per ATM use) Fees published online and in cardholder agreement are inaccurate.  $2.95 activation/purchase fee (in store).
Momentum Visa $1 $1 $2 ? $1 + 3% Optional $10 per month plan eliminates per use fees.  $10 Activation fee.
MyVanilla Visa $0.50 $0.50 $1.95 $1.95 3.5% $3.95 per month inactivity fee after 90 days;
NetSpend MasterCard or Visa $1 $2 $2.50 ? 3.5% Monthly plans available to eliminate per transaction fees.  $1 per check bill payment. Check refund: $5.95
PayPal MasterCard $0 $0 $1.95 $2.50 2.5% $4.95 mandatory monthly fee

* Free MoneyPass ATM use is supposed to be contingent upon setting up direct deposit to Bluebird, but I haven’t found that to be necessary in practice.  See “Bluebird: Are direct deposits necessary for free ATM use?

Limits:

 

Max load via Vanilla Reload (day / month)

Maximum balance (from Vanilla loads)

Max ATM withdrawal (day / month)

Maximum debit transaction

Other limits of note

Amex Bluebird $1K / $5K $10K $500 / $2K N/A $10K per month spend limit except for checks
Amex Serve $1K / $5K $10K* $500 / $2K N/A $10K per month spend limit except for checks
Amex Prepaid $1000 $2500 $400 N/A  
Mio $2,500 $9,999 $400 $9,999.99  
Momentum $2,500 $10,000 $1000 ?  
MyVanilla $2,500 $9,999 $400 $5,000 $2500 max cash advance
NetSpend $7,500 $15,000 $940 $4,999.99 $4999.99 max cash advance
PayPal $2,500 $15,000 $940 ?  

 

A deeper look at each card

 

American Express Bluebird

American Express advertises Bluebird not as a prepaid card, but as a checking account alternative.  It is the only card in the roundup that not only includes free bill pay, but also provides an option for paper checks that cardholders can write out themselves (Unlike a regular checking account, though, each check must be preauthorized and results in an immediate reduction of available funds).  Another great feature of this card (and the Amex Serve card) is that funds can be transferred directly to your bank account for free.  This card is also the only one in the roundup that can be loaded for free at Walmart using debit cards or gift cards (see “Gift card PINs“).  Overall, Bluebird has an almost perfect combination of multiple load options, easy access to funds, and almost no fees.  Grade: A+.

American Express Serve

Serve is so similar to Bluebird that American Express only allows you to have one or the other.  One big difference between the two (that I’m aware of) is that Serve allows loads via credit or debit card for free (limited to $200 per day and $1000 per month).  Also, while Serve has the same bill pay feature as Bluebird, it does not have a paper check option for writing out checks yourself.  Overall, the two products are so similar that they’re hard to differentiate.  They’re both terrific products for loading up from Vanilla Reload cards.  Grade: A+.

American Express Prepaid

Amex prepaid cards are great in that they have virtually no fees, but unlike Bluebird and Serve, they are very limited in options for accessing your money.  The only options for accessing your money are to withdraw cash at ATMs or to use the card like a regular credit card (and therefore forego additional credit card rewards for those same transactions).  Grade: B-.

Mio

The Mio card is only available in certain regions of the country and must be bought in-store.  You can use this web page to search for availability in your area.  Mio charges fees for virtually all transactions so I don’t recommend it for daily use.  The best use for this card is for high value debit transactions (e.g. purchase money orders, pay federal taxes, Walmart bill pay, etc.).  I’ve used this card for over a year now, with no problems.  Grade: B.

Momentum

Like the Mio card, the Momentum card is only available in certain regions of the country and must be bought in-store.  You can use this web page to search for availability in your area.  Momentum charges fees for virtually all transactions unless you sign up for the $10 per month plan, which seems steep to me.  The best use for this card is to go without the monthly plan and use only for high value debit transactions.  Grade: B-.

MyVanilla

Unlike the Mio and Momentum cards, MyVanilla is available everywhere within the U.S.  You can buy the card at a store, or simply order one for free online.  Fees and limitations are very similar to the Mio card described above.  A number of people who have run very large amounts of money through these cards have had their accounts shut down.  When that happens, it can take a while to get your remaining funds back so beware of that.  Grade: B-.

NetSpend

NetSpend used to have the option to pay bills via mailed checks, but a reader told me that that feature has been discontinued (can anyone confirm?).  While the fees and limits of this card appear to be very similar to the others in this roundup, the NetSpend card has a major disadvantage: they eventually shut down the accounts of almost everyone who loads funds via Vanilla Reload cards.  You can read about my experience with this here: “We’re sorry, there is a problem with your account.”  Grade: C-.

PayPal

This card has a mandatory $4.95 monthly fee, but then free credit and debit transactions.  This card belongs to the Allpoint Network so while the card itself charges $1.95 for ATM withdrawals, you won’t get another fee from the ATM operator if you go to an Allpoint Network ATM.  Note that the PayPal card is administered by NetSpend so this card may be just as likely to be shut down as the NetSpend card (but I don’t know that for sure).  Grade: D (I don’t like mandatory monthly fees!).

Summary

Bluebird continues to be my favorite Vanilla Reloadable.  You just can’t beat its perfect combination of almost no fees, easy load options, and easy access to your money.  I expect that if I had a Serve account I’d be just as happy with that too.  If you want a debit card for occasional high value transactions, then look for one with no monthly fees and with low per-transaction fees.  Mio and MyVanilla are two good examples.  If you want a debit card for frequent use, then look for one with no per-transaction fees.  For example, the PayPal card offers free transactions but charges $4.95 monthly.


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Comments

  1. Thank you for a great article. It seems there is really no good card to add to the Bluebird for Vanilla Reloads. I hope you will do a Green Dot article also. Additionally, do you have any other ideas for paying very large bills, up to $20,000 per month for a married couple?

    • Phillip Davis: I haven’t experimented much with MoneyPak reloadables but I’m sure you’ll find the same issues as with the Vanilla cards (other than Amex). If your big bills can’t be paid by credit or debit then the best you can do is spread out the payments across cards that offer bill pay

  2. Do you know if Chase, Amex, Citi, Barclay, or other banks charge cash advance fee for loading from their credit cards? Below is an answer from Amex Serve.

    Will I be charged fees for adding money to my American Express Serve Account?
    We will not charge you a fee for adding money to your American Express Serve Account from your linked bank account, credit card, debit card, direct deposit, or Green Dot MoneyPak and Vanilla Reloads.

    Please note that your credit card company may charge you a cash advance fee for loading money from your credit card. Please check with your credit card issuer for details. Additionally, Green Dot MoneyPak and Vanilla Reload fees of up to $4.95 will apply for cash reloads.

    • HN: I don’t have a Serve card so I don’t have direct experience with it. There is a large thread on FlyerTalk where I’m sure your answer (about which banks charge cash advance fees) can be found.
      .
      PA: The $2500 limit with the Amex prepaid cards is per rolling 28 days (whereas Bluebird is by calendar month). You can only load it up once per that time period.
      .
      Nic: Thanks for the caution

  3. Is the $2500 per Amex Prepaid a monthly limit or is it just the limit for how much can be on it at any given point in time? So could you load an Amex Prepaid with $2,500, spend the money, then reload another $2,500 within the same month?

  4. A word of caution on VR, they still having trouble with digits missing on the PIN. It takes alot of time to get a new pin. Your money will be tied up for 7 days, while they investigate.

  5. My problem with using Bluebird is that AMEX knows I’m using it. It just seems likely that using Bluebird to pay off credit cards, especially AMEX credit cards, would vastly increase the chances of a financial review. Does anyone have a knowledgeable opinion either way about this?

    And since I’m in and out of the country for months at a time sometimes, there are periods where having an AMEX financial review would be a terrible inconvenience. Especially since in my next app-o-rama, I’m consider getting an AMEX that has a high monthly spend requirement.

    • levander: Simply transfer funds to your bank account and then pay off your credit card bills from there. I can’t guarantee no financial review though.
      .
      Alvin Ch: The A+ grade is based on using Serve for loading Vanilla Reload cards. Since the funds can be transferred directly to your bank account, it is terrific for that purpose.

  6. @HN, one trick people do is call the credit card company and have their cash advance limit set to zero. The cash advance limit is different than the credit limit. But I have no idea if anyone’s ever bought a gift card and had their credit card company treat it as a cash advance.

  7. I have a paypal card that does not have a mandatory monthly fee, can be reloaded with a paypal reloadable card bought from 7-11 or CVS for a $3.95 fee and does not have any additional fees. I have bought money orders with it for no fee and also used it as a regular CC for signature based purchases and infact earned 1% cash back for the signature purchases. Are we talking about different paypal cards?

    Also, I have bought the onevanilla prepaid and cashed out by buying a MO however was planning on trying to load a Bluebird with it. Are you saying it wont work? If so, I could save myself the trouble of trying it. :)

    • Unclesam: That’s right, we are talking about different paypal cards. PayPal conveniently has three different cards all with similar names. See “An Experiment in Progress” for details. Also, regarding using a onevanilla card: you can use it to load bluebird, but only by taking it to Walmart to do so. You cannot load it only via the VanillaReload.com site.

  8. I’ve had great luck with the NetSpend card loaded with the $950 RELoadIt packs ($3.95 fee, same as Vanilla Reloads) that I purchase with a CC at my local grocery store. The same grocery store allows up to $300 cash back with I use the NS with a pin. Pretty easy to load it up and drain it, and with the $3.95 fee for a $950 ReloadIt the cost per point is quite reasonable.

    • Aaron: I’m glad to hear that its working for you, but I’ll be surprised if you do not get shut down eventually. You’re also very lucky to have found a grocery store that will let you pay with a credit card for Reloadit cards. That’s great!
      .
      AwardChaser: I haven’t dealt much with Green Dot, but yes I’ve heard more bad stories about GreenDot than InComm so I’m not surprised.
      .
      Phillip Davis: You can do Bluebird for $5K per month per person (maybe you have relatives who can sign up for Bluebird for you?), then use reloadable debit cards to buy money orders for paying your mortgages. You won’t be able to get away with very large payments, though, so you’d have to do several smaller payments. You’ll have to decide if its really worth the time and effort.

  9. Green Dot is much worse to deal with comparing to InComm with my personal experience, while it takes IC days to send refund check out, GD can hold fund forever despite of repeated calls and CSR’s requests, they held my $5K for more than two months and only released it when I filed complain with AG/FDIC/BBB.

    Stay away from Green Dot!

  10. Do not buy Vanilla cards at all. I’ve been fighting with them for a week and filing a complaint with the States of Texas and the FTC today. They are known to screw up activations and keeping your money.

    In my case I bought 4 cards from CVS and put $500 on each. Three of the cards are fine but the 4th won’t work. IT shows up as an invalid card number on their site so I called them and they told me that the card I have was purchased and used a few months ago and no longer valid. I explained to them I just bought it and just opened the sealed package. They told me the card I have is not the one for the barcode on the package that’s used to activate it and my $500 activated a card somewhere but they don’t know where. I was basically told I’m out of luck.

    I am not alone! Read this http://www.consumeraffairs.com/credit_cards/vanilla-visa-gift-card.html or just google vanilla complaints.

    They apparently screw alot of people out of their money with these cards. CVS will not help saying once they’re activated it’s out of their hands and you have to deal with Vanilla which has been zero help.

    I will also attempt to dispute the charge but from what I hear I’m probably out of luck on that since also CVS has to do is provide Chase with a copy of the receipt with my signed signature.

  11. I think you’re skipping over a very important detail here: the ability to find Vanilla Reloads at a place that will sell them via CC. Yes, we know one well-known chain that mostly allows that. But there are vast stretches of the country where these stores do not exist. In those areas, VRs are literally impossible to buy with a CC. Your ratings seem to assume that VRs are available everywhere. I’d suggest that before users start drilling down into the finer distinctions, they figure out whether or not they can actually get VRs in their area. If they ca not, your “ratings” would need to be adjusted tremendously.

    • Bobo (and others who can’t find a place to buy Vanilla Reload cards with a credit card): This post was focused only on Vanilla Reload cards, but there are other types of cards out there worth looking into. Do you have RiteAid stores in your area?

  12. Bobo, thanks for your reply. I live in a state that doesn’t have the three letter drug stores(very jealous). The numbered store will only take cash or debit for both VR and PP. The closest two Walmarts don’t have the kiosk and haven’t gotten anyone to take my Mastercards as debit cards with pins. Hoping to make a break through soon.

  13. Larry- I’m encountering the same problem with a $200 vanilla visa that I purchased at Office Depot. I’ve talked to them numerous times and have emailed a picture of card and receipt. Hopefully it will be fixed in the next couple days

  14. [Quote] Serve allows loads via credit or debit card for free (limited to $200 per day and $1000 per month).[Quote]

    I believe Serve only allows for $250 per month free credit card load.

  15. Frequent Miler, I’m confused about the monthly fee with the Mio card. It says in the FAQs on their site that there’s at least a 4.95 monthly fee, but you’re saying in your blog post that there’s no monthly fee. Also, can you please do an overview of where to buy Vanilla Reloads, and which places have the highest chances of successfully buying them? The end of Vanilla Reload availability at many 7-11 stores is disappointing.

    • Brandon: The Mio website is about 75 years out of date. There is no monthly fee.
      I tried previously to keep a page with known Vanilla Reload card locations but it changes so quickly that it became impossible to maintain.

  16. Previously VR did not charge a fee when used at a moneypass atm but they recently started charging $2 (not linked to my bank account).

      • I have transferred Serve directly to checking account but I logically didn’t consider that as finical review defendable………now buying Green Dot and loading into Serve and transferring to Bluebird and writing a mortgage payment I consider defensible before any review or Congressional committee! Would you be willing to just mention cities where VR can be found and I would take it from there……….so folks where is the nearest city to San Francisco where you have a VR location scoped out?

  17. I’ve paid my mortgage with bb but has anybody paid taxes (state or federal)with the bb bill pay feature? Any problems with the state or fed not getting the check? Mary Jane

  18. It’s a great start but the comments on VR availability is right on target. I would be interested in knowing where you can actually buy these with a credit card as that might qualify for a VR run………….
    As for SERVE I haven’t been able to transfer more than $2,500 per month………but my wife’s SERVE transfers to my Bluebird where I write the checks……….loading a SERVE is a lot easier than loading a Bluebird on the West Coast………….
    I’ve had great luck with Green Dot and also good luck with PayPal but it is steady as she goes without anything more than 2k in a week……….
    But I’d love to see a Vanilla map…………….

  19. And your color photo of the VR is perfect……..View from the Wing doesn’t think about these logistical nuances so he steers people into buying the “other” VRs and then they are stuck trying to drain them………….good show on this point…that’s why you are the pack leader Skywalker!

  20. Thanks for another informative writeup. Would I be crazy to simply sign up for Serve and fund the account with a card that didn’t charge cash advance fees if I were interested in paying smaller monthly bills such as condo fees?

  21. Saying these cards focused on VR but not where to find them is like comparing the sexiest movie stars in LA with no intention of providing phone numbers or addresses therefore highlighting it is not about consummating the relationship but discussion more of possibilities for these honored with the religious gnostics powers. that believers display. Members seek these elusive goals with a somewhat authoritarian scorn with perennial failure part of the script.

  22. Like your metaphor there, JustSayin.

    @ FM: yes, I’m intimately familiar with what is available in that particular chain store. There are indeed ways to utilize the more obvious instruments there, but only up to a point. The GD folks will absolutely, positively, 100%-sure, no kidding shut you down after a certain point, even if you attempt to play really nice with them. I played nice with them for a few months, was VERY careful to do the things that should keep them happy, but at some point they simply closed me down, as they recognized that I was not the target market. At the time I only had a small amount in their system, so it wasn’t a disaster, and I did eventually get my money out, but they are a real nasty bunch to deal with and it was a pain.

    Honestly, I believe that the obsessive focus on VRs is completely misguided. Sure, if you happen to live somewhere that they’re available by CC, they work well. But there are vast swaths of the country where they simply can not be had anywhere – there are none available within 800 miles of me, and I do not live in an empty corner of Alaska. They *were* (up until the time of the Great Hitler Video of October 2012), and I enjoyed them as much as anyone, but they vanished at the end of last year.

    As I said, I think the obsession with VRs is woefully misguided, and probably stems from the (now lost) opportunity to get them at OD with Ink. That’s long dead, but the obsession lives on.

  23. Jeez, all the bitching. He’s doing you a service people. Read. Read. Read some more. Nobody is going to do all your homework for you. Jeez, I’m going to turn into a cranky FlyerTalker soon.

    @justSaying You can certainly buy Vanilla Reload cards at CVS stores in Northern California. If you have had trouble you aren’t trying hard enough. Hint: Try the Pharmacy.

    @FM Still seeing lots of Walmarts in Northern California with their MoneyCenter ATMs shutdown, generally with an 8×11 sign taped onto them saying they are out of service. At least 4 or 5 of them now over a period of a month, both in San Jose and north of San Francisco. Is this just this area or is there something more global going on here? The ATMs were so damn convenient when they were working. Some of the Walmarts I’ve hit take just ages to work through the line only to get to the cashier who says it won’t work, can’t work etc. Meaning you have to try another line or another store or another time. Is it just me?

    • @Glenn You are just too funny and I am singing your praises brother! Soon as I saw your post I got up and went 1 mile to my Charlie Victor Alpha store and was going to walk to the back and check the pharmacy. But I said “No, let’s stop at the rack I have checked 50 times over the past 50 days and see if they are here”. A miracle transpired and there were probably 20-25 on the rack………I lost my air and grabbed 2 and then after a delayed checkout from a rookie clerk learning the system I was out the door with 2 shiny new cards……..it’s easy to be patient when it’s Christmas in September……..I thanked the manager who said he noticed they had just come in and told him he would be seeing me more often in the future………..already dumped and ready to write a check………even my wife is excited and she never touches the checkbook……….I just have love in my heart for everyone right now…………there is hope for the world!

    • Now that VR have miraculously reappeared at Charlie Victor Sierra stores it seems the right time to contemplate where manufactured spend should go on an “annual basis”. I already am well on my way to Hilton Diamond with the Citi card………..and am somewhat started on the United Explorer that gives 10k bonus after 25k spend making that card worth 1.4 miles per dollar which beats the Sapphire as long as its’ not restaurant or hotel spend………now I am wondering if Delta should be part of the picture as their status can be obtained via this approach? Is there a past post I missed that would compare the options to use that spend on other than minimum spend requirements?

  24. So I’m curious. Why don’t you have a Serve card? Will American Express only let you have either a Bluebird or a Serve card? I’d think having both would be a good way to buy twice as many reloads.

  25. Thanks for the post. I do not pay any Amex or Chase with my BB. I used other methods to transfer funds out to my checking account. The rest ( Citi , Barclays, US Bank) I dont care much. Granted Amex can FR anybody, but my rule is not to pay any AMex with BB.

    To those complaining that this post did not help cause you live in a state that does not have the three letter chain or something else, or that CGC can’t be shipped to your state. Maybe it is time to move to a different state !

  26. Bobo: Certainly 5X UR with Vanilla was too good to be true, but there is no reason to give up on VR. VR (and similar products) have continued to be a huge part of the miles and points game for many good reasons. For those who do not live near a store where they can be bought I can understand the frustration.

  27. Glenn: I’ve certainly heard from many people who have had trouble with broken Walmart kiosks, but I haven’t tried to figure out if it is nationwide or not. I hope they’re not trying to “fix” the ATMs :)

    • Exactly what I was looking for…..at least I have the top two and four of the top ten…….but I didn’t realize that the AMEX Gold had that bonus……….just a great article that ties into the VR and other manufactured spend programs…………

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