The hunt for perfect gift cards, part 1

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Early this week I set out to find the perfect Visa gift cards.  Now that Visa gift cards can have PINs (see “Gift card PINs“), they are once again a great way to buy points cheaply and/or run up spend to meet minimum spend requirements or big spend thresholds.

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.

I visited Kroger, Speedway, OfficeMax, and Sears.  I expect to do more exploratory trips to other stores in the near future, but for now let me describe what I found…

Kroger

At my local Kroger grocery store, I found a Visa card from U.S. Bank loadable up to $500 with a $5.95 fee.  Even though I could have paid with a card that earned a grocery store category bonus, I paid with a generic Amex gift card just to see if it would work (it did).  I was happy to see that I earned 500 fuel points from the purchase!  Each time I fill up my tank at a participating gas station, I can spend 100 fuel points to save 10 cents per gallon.  I tend to fill about 12 gallons at a time, so I would save $1.20 per fill-up.  With 500 fuel points, I could fill-up my tank 5 times, so the fuel points earned are worth $1.2 x 5 = $6 to me.  That’s pretty convenient since it exactly cancels out the $5.95 card fee!  If you have a larger fuel tank, you could save even more.

VisaGiftCard_USBank

This was my first time setting a PIN on a gift card, so it took me quite a while.  First, I registered the card online using my iPhone’s browser.  I hoped that there would be an easy way to set the PIN online, but if it’s there, I didn’t find it.  Next, I called the number on my gift card activation receipt, but I was told to call Visa at 866-952-5653 instead.  At that number, after navigating through a few voice prompts, I was able to set my PIN over the phone.  If I had started with the correct phone number from the get-go, I could have set the PIN in two minutes altogether.

Later in the day, at Walmart, I used this gift card to load $500 to my Bluebird card without any trouble.

Speedway

After Kroger, I stopped at at a Speedway gas station.  They had several reloadable prepaid cards on display, but I believe those require setting up an account in order to get the PIN.  I didn’t want to do that.  The best non-reloadable I could find was the OneVanilla Prepaid Visa Card.  This one is loadable up to $500 with a $4.95 fee.  I paid with a credit card that earns bonus points at gas stations and was asked to show both my credit card and my driver’s license.  Sadly, I did not earn Speedy Rewards for this purchase.

OneVanilla

Again, I used my iPhone’s browser to register the card online.  This time, there was an option to manage the PIN, but when I clicked it, it simply said that the PIN would be set the first time I made a PIN based purchase.  In other words, whatever PIN I type in when I first use the card would be the PIN that could be used from then on. 

Later in the day, at Walmart, I used this gift card to load $500 to my Bluebird card without any trouble.  I wondered, though, if the card would work without registering it online at all.  So, the next day I bought two more of these cards and visited Walmart again, but this time without registering the cards.  Both cards worked perfectly!  As far as ease in setting the PIN, it doesn’t get any better than that!

OfficeMax

I used to occasionally buy $200 Visa gift cards at OfficeMax (with $6.95 fees) using credit cards that earn category bonuses at Office Supply stores.  However, when I visited OfficeMax on Monday, the highest denomination cards they had were $100 Visa cards from MetaBank (with $5.95 fees).  Since it is sometimes possible (but not always!) to buy gift cards at OfficeMax with OfficeMax gift cards, it was worth finding out if these cards were any good.  So, I bought one.

VisaGiftCard_MetaBank

Even though I didn’t think it would work, I tried to register this card’s PIN with the same number I had called earlier to register the card from Kroger (866-952-5653).  Not surprisingly, it didn’t work.  The automated system did not recognize the card number.  So, instead, I dialed a number that I found on the paper insert inside the gift card package (888-524-1283).  As with the Kroger experience, the system was fully automated, and after navigating several prompts I was able to set the PIN.  At Walmart, the card and PIN worked perfectly.

Sears

At Sears, I visited the secret gift card rack and picked up a $100 Visa card with a $5.95 fee.  This card looked almost exactly like the one from OfficeMax, except for two differences.  One difference was that this card was issued by University National Bank (as opposed to MetaBank).  Another difference was that the packaging on this card advertised the ability to manage the card with GoWallet (see my post “GoWallet.com simplifies your gift card life“).

I took the card to the register and tried to pay with my ShopYourWay Rewards points.  The cashier was happy to try it, but the system didn’t allow it.  I know from past experience that Sears’ gift cards do work, but I didn’t have any with me so I paid with a credit card that is offering me bonus points this quarter at department stores (hopefully this will qualify).

VisaGiftCard_UniversityNationalBank

I started up the GoWallet app on my iPhone and I registered my new card.  I tried to use the QR code scanner to register automatically, but it didn’t work.  I had to type in the numbers.  I had hoped that the app would let me set the PIN, but I couldn’t find that option anywhere.  Instead, I tried calling the number I used with the OfficeMax gift card (888-524-1283).  It worked!  I successfully set the PIN.

Walmart

At Walmart, I used their ATM to swipe reload my and my wife’s Bluebird cards (see “Bluebird swipe reloads via ATM“).  I tried to use more than one gift card in a single transaction, but that attempt failed.  Instead, I successfully loaded each gift card to my Bluebird cards one at a time (with a completely separate transaction each time).

Summary

Each of the options I tried have their pros and cons, but overall I’d say that the cards from Kroger and Speedway were the best.  Let’s look at each characteristic:

Low Fee

The OneVanilla card from Speedway had the lowest fee (1%).  The Visa gift card from Kroger was very close behind with a 1.2% fee.  The cards from OfficeMax and Sears trailed way behind with their 6% fees.

Category bonus

5X category bonuses are available at all of the locations I visited except for Sears, but it is possible to buy Sears’ gift cards at other locations in order to get 5X bonuses, and then use those gift cards at Sears to buy Visa cards.  So, I’d say that all options are roughly equal here, with the caveat that the best category bonus depends on which types of points you prefer and which credit cards you have.  For example, I’m a huge fan of Ultimate Rewards points, so, all else being equal, I would always opt to earn those over Citi ThankYou points.

Store Rewards

In all of my purchases I presented my store loyalty card, but only Kroger rewarded me with points (fuel points, in this case).  Since the points earned are worth at least the amount of the card fee (to me, anyway), the rewards make a big possitive difference in the value of shopping for gift cards at Kroger.

Easy PIN setup

The easiest PIN setup by far was with the OneVanilla card from Speedway since it required no setup at all!  I was able to use the cards at Walmart literally right out of the box.  Awesome.  With the other 3 cards, setting the PIN required the following: dialing the correct phone number; following voice prompts to enter the card number, expiration date, and security number; wading through menus for the option to set a PIN; and then entering the PIN twice.  It sounds worse than it is.  My phone records show that I spent only 2 minutes on each call.  So, none of the options were terrible, but the OneVanilla card was the best.

High Denomination

Kroger and Speedway sell gift cards with denominations as high as $500.  This is a convenient amount since it only requires two transactions to load a Bluebird card to $1000 at the Walmart ATM.  Dan’s Deals says that at the checkout lane you can use up to 3 cards per transaction, so it’s possible to fill up a Bluebird card with one transaction and two swipes by going to a live cashier.  With the $100 cards from OfficeMax and Sears you would need to do four separate transactions in the checkout lane, or ten transactions at the ATM.  Either way, that would be painful.

Conclusion

The Kroger and Speedway stores near me offer $500 Visa gift cards, and I consider each to be good deals.  The OneVanilla option at Speedway (and also at many other stores) is better if your main goal is convenience.  Being able to skip the step of registering a PIN is great.  If overall cost is your main concern, then the Kroger option is better as long as you can make good use of the awarded fuel points.

There are many other gift card options out there, including $1000 Visa gift cards from GiftCardMall.com, $200 gift cards at Staples and Office Depot, and more.  I’ll continue to investigate and report on other options, but I welcome reader contributions as well!  What have you found that works well or that doesn’t work at all?  Please comment below.

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