A refresher on BlueBird and Vanilla Reloads

We have written a few times about BlueBird, the American Express banking product that essentially lets you earn miles and points for paying things you would normally not earn points for, such as your mortgate, rent, student loan payments, car payments, vendors who don’t take credit cards, etc. The key to earning points is loading your BlueBird account with Vanilla Reload cards, which you can buy at a handful of stores using your miles/points earning credit card. To open a free BlueBird account, you can do so online at www.bluebird.com.

BlueBird-account

How the product works:
BlueBird lets you load up to $5,000 per month to your account, which for most people is more than enough for “legitimate” spending like your rent or mortgage, etc. BlueBird, like most banks, has a free bill pay feature, so you can pay merchants directly online. You can also order and write physical checks, and use them as you would with any bank account, with the small difference that you must pre-authorize the check at the BlueBird website. By pre-authorizing a check, BlueBird deducts the amount from your available funds, and issues you a unique 8 digit preauthorization code which you must enter in the front of the check in the space provided. Other than that, write the check like you would with any other.

Loading money into your BlueBird account:
There are a couple of free ways to load money into your account, but in this article I will only cover those that let you earn miles and points for doing so. To load money for free, you can use your SunTrust Bank debit card, which earns Delta miles at the rate of 1 mile per dollar spent. Not everyone has access to SunTrust, as the bank doesn’t have branches in all states, and with Delta’s mileage devaluations, this isn’t my primary method of loading money into BlueBird, so I won’t cover it here for the sake of simplicity.

The primary way to earn miles and points is by buying Vanilla Reload cards at certain merchants by using your credit card. The Vanilla Reload card looks like this:

Vanilla-reloadThere are a couple of merchants that I use to purchase these cards:

Vanilla-reloads

Vanilla-reloads

The first merchant above I use in moderation, as it is a gas station and I have no interest in my account being flagged for purchasing thousands of dollars worth of “gas”, which is how the purchase rings up. When I do purchase reloads at this location, I use my Chase Ink Plus card, which earns two points per dollar spent at gas stations. There are reports of some stores not allowing you to buy Vanilla Reload cards with a credit card, but I have one right down the street from where I live that allows me to do so.

The second store is the one I use on a regular basis, and again, buying the cards there with a credit card is on a case by case basis. Fortunately in the area where I live there are two nearby stores that do allow purchases with credit cards, and they’re always stacked up. This drug store chain has implemented a new policy where if you buy more than $1,000 worth of cards at once, they actually swipe your drivers’ license into their system, and this isn’t something I’m comfortable with. You can get around this by simply buying one Vanilla Reload card per visit.

Cost:
Vanilla Reload cards can be purchased in $20 to $500 denominations, for a flat fee of $3.95. Obviously, to keep the cost down, you should always buy the maximum $500 denomination. Treat the Vanilla Reload card as cash, so as soon as I walk out of the store, I go home and load the funds right away to my BlueBird account. To do this, all you need is your BlueBird account number and the scratch off 10-digit pin in the back of the Vanilla Reload card.

Loading into your BlueBird account:
When you’re ready to load the amount of the card into your BlueBird account, have your BlueBird account number and Vanilla Reload card pin ready, and go to www.vanillareload.com. You will get to a screen like this one:

VanillaReloadOn that screen, you enter your BlueBird account number on the top line, and the pin from the Vanilla Reload card on the second line, and click submit. The website will take you through a series of confirmation screens which you just click through until you’re done. I like to have my BlueBird account open on a second screen just so I can refresh when done, since the money is loaded instantaneously. Once I verify it’s been done, I don’t need to print or save the confirmation screen, since now the money is loaded into my BlueBird account and it’s ready to be used like you would use any other bank account.

Using your BlueBird funds:
The rest is pretty simple and intuitive. From there you can pay merchants electronically and save them if you pay those merchants on a recurring basis (like your mortgage and car payments), or you can actually type up anyone’s name and address if the merchant doesn’t show up (for instance, to pay a handyman or someone who doesn’t take electronic payments) and BlueBird will mail them a physical check, which usually takes only a few days.

You can also cut checks on the fly. If you need to pay your landlord or anyone else relatively quickly, you can order a stack of physical checks, and write them as you would with any other bank. To do this, however, you will need to obtain a pre-authorization code from BlueBird, which you write on the space provided in the front of your check. You can do this directly online, it takes seconds,  and it allows you the flexibility of paying someone right away if you needed to.

In a later article I will go into more detail about what I do with BlueBird on a daily basis to use up the funds on the account. Stay tuned, and feel free to post any questions about this product on the comments section below.

Enjoy the extra miles and points!

 

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18 Responses to A refresher on BlueBird and Vanilla Reloads

  1. hungryForMiles says:

    Another method is to secure a domain name, hosting account and a merchant in another country..if you trust a family member or relative. Next build a website that sells products/services. Next use your miles card to purchase goods on your own website. The money directs into the foreign merchant account which can be withdrawn by relative/friend. Do not have the purchase shipped to you because its your own site…and repeat the process to earn more miles. This however, can be a costly process unless you take some steps to minimize costs. This is just a possible method that can work especially if you are acustomed to sending money over seas.

    • travelguys says:

      Interesting method, although I’d be inclined to say due to a lot of variables it’s a little risky.

      It could even be viewed as a money laundering or tax evasion scheme since you do have a bank account and are earning “revenues” in another country. Depending on the country you’d also have to worry about local reporting and tax laws and compliance, etc.

      Not sure what you would do to eliminate or reduce the credit card swipe fees. Most credit card swipe fees make it essentially not worth it to manufacture spending this way. Why does the “merchant” has to be in another country?

  2. Spring says:

    Thanks a lot!
    But I still don’t understand how the extra points will be earned. For example, in this quarter citi card has 5% that can be used in a drug store, I use it to purchase Vanilla card in CVS, does it mean if I use the blue bird card (reloaded from Vanilla card) to pay the car payment, I will get 5% points for this? I was also wondering if I need to use up all the amount in bluebird within this quarter so that to get the 5% cash back.

    • travelguys says:

      Spring, think of BlueBird as a checking account. You don’t earn any miles or points for using BlueBird. Where you earn the miles/points/cash back is by purchasing the Vanilla Reload cards at CVS and paying for them with your credit card. So if you can take advantage of bonus categories on any of your credit cards at the point of sale at CVS, then yes, you would earn cash back, but again, on the CVS purchase. BlueBird is just a vehicle to spend your money.

  3. spring says:

    Ok, I finally understand. Thanks.

  4. lb_atx says:

    Just getting into this. Have met min spend on 1 card using regular spending and 1 Vanilla reload/Bluebird, now working on Barclay Arrival and Chase Sapphire Preferred. Barclay spend is low so I’m not using Vanilla for this. Have purchased 3 VR cards for for Chase and using those funds thru Bluebird to pay car payments, Verizon, and hopefully my mortgage soon. My local store says they can now sell up to $5000 in VR. Last time I bought 2 and they scanned my drivers license.

    My question is, is that a bad thing over time showing multiple VR purchases at the store? If I’m going to pay the majority of the bills (hopefully thru Bluebird) earning points and just pay the CC bills thru my checking account then I don’t want to have to buy 1 VR card each visit. My monthly nut will be around $3000.

    Am I doing this right?

    • travelguys says:

      It’s all about going at your own comfort level and it really depends on each person’s situation. The purchases at CVS do not show as VR purchases. They simply tell your CC company that you spent $503.95 at CVS. Could be for prescriptions or anything else. It depends how much you put as income on your credit card application and does it make sense that someone spends $3,000 a month on credit cards? It depends if you’re using your credit card for other purchases or if you’re just using a single card only at CVS for $3,000 a month (red flag), and I would even recommend mixing up the $3,000 between different credit cards from different banks so you’re not showing as many purchases to one bank. The name of this game is to go at a pace that you’re comfortable with and just use the VR cards for legitimate reasons like you’re doing just so you don’t raise any flags, and mixing things up. I assume you’re also using Amazon Payments for additional spending, correct?

  5. Nan Kaye says:

    I can’t find the Vanilla Pre-paid card wit the scratch-off strip on the back of it. I’ve tried 7-11, Walgreens, Office Depot, Ralph’s, and CVS. DO YOU KNOW OF ANY LOCATIONS EITHER IN IRVINE, CA OR NEWPORT BEACH, CA that carry them? Thanks!

    • travelguys says:

      Nan, I’m not familiar with the area, but I know there are threads on Flyertalk and Milepoint where people post locations available. I would start a search there.

  6. Joe says:

    Thanks for the helpful post. Can I do direct debit with Bluebird? My landlord company will only allow me to pay rent by setting up direct debit from my bank account – it can be a Savings or a Checking account.

    • travelguys says:

      Joe, that’s a good analysis, and I agree that the best use is for credit card minimum spending, although don’t forget that there’s other factors to consider. For instance, in my case, I like to use the SPG example. There’s SPG properties that are perfectly fine for stays and they are available for 3,000 points. That’s six $500 vanilla reload cards, or $23.70 in VR fees. I’ll pay $24 for a free SPG night all day long, especially since they count towards status and they’re just good hotels overall. You also have to factor spending bonuses and other perks. Some cards like the Amex Gold pay you 15,000 bonus points after spending $30,000 in a year, so while I agree that the math is not as enticing as hitting a minimum spending, there’s still plenty to gain out of this game by simply buying VR cards and paying the fee. Of course, I always say everyone’s goals are different and everyone should play the game as it’s best for them. Thanks for weighting in!

    • travelguys says:

      Joe, I don’t think you can do this, as BB is a banking product, but there’s really no routing number as far as I’m aware of, and you would need this to do a direct debit. However, I’d be VERY skeptical about a landlord who only allows this and only take this form of payment, and it’s something I’d personally not be comfortable with doing. It’s all fine when a credit card company or another bank goes into your account and pull whatever money is needed, but other than companies like that which are heavily regulated, I won’t let anyone else go into my bank account and withdraw money as they please without some sort of federal regulation watching over them.

      • Joe says:

        Pity that BB doesn’t allow a direct debit but I can see what their product is and why they don’t offer this.

        (Un?)fortunately Aimco is a rather large company and have a secure login site set up where I have to go and input the details. I really really wish there were some way for me to just pay by a card but there isn’t one.

      • Joe says:

        Hi,

        So it turns out that there is check payment option that Bluebird offers – and if so, won’t the checks have the account number and routing number just printed on it? If so, what do you think? Reckon I could use it for a direct debit instructions?

  7. Joe says:

    Sorry but I had a follow-up though: I can see how this strategy would be helpful in meeting spending goals on new cards. And when the store one is buying the Vanilla card from is a 5% bonus category card in the quarter. But otherwise the marginal value of points/cashback gained by spending a fee of $3.95 on $500 of purchases is really very small. Assuming a 1.5% return on the credit card, every $500 earns only $3.55 net of the fee. Not worth the hassle in my humble opinion.

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