American Express Manufactured Spending

Bluebird vs. Serve: Which Prepaid Card Should You Switch To?

It’s been three weeks since the demise of Redbird and already some people are switching back to the American Express Bluebird or Serve card. Up until recently, I had decided not to bother switching to either card, since I was content liquidating Metabank Visa gift cards through money orders, but with new gift card options becoming available, it’s going to be difficult liquidating them all via bank deposits and bill pay. As a result, I’ll be joining the mass exodus and picking up either a Serve or Bluebird.  

Bluebird Kiosk

Both of these prepaid cards can be loaded with PIN-enabled Visa gift cards, so it doesn’t make a difference which one you choose, right? Except it might, depending on how you use them. For starters, there are several versions of the Serve prepaid card to choose from. Shawn at FrequentMiler did a great analysis on the different versions of Serve and concludes that the One VIP card is the best, since it has no monthly fees (if you load at least $500) and can be loaded fee-free at Walmart, 7-11, CVS and Family Dollar stores. So how does the One VIP Serve card stack up against Bluebird? Below are the key points to consider as well as my analysis of which card wins that particular category:

Card Fees: Serve 

The American Express Bluebird has no monthly fees. Meanwhile, One VIP Serve has a $1 fee that’s waived as long as you load at least $500 every month. Most of you are planning on doing that anyway. The only other difference? A temporary Bluebird card will set you back $5 while a VIP Serve costs $0. If you’re picking up five cards like I am, that’s a saving of $25.

Loading Options: Serve

Both Serve and Bluebird can be loaded with Visa gift cards purchased from grocery stores. Serve has the advantage because it can also be loaded with Vanilla Visas (purchased at drugstores) at Family Dollar stores. The reason this is significant is because it opens up more than one manufactured spending source: Drugstores like CVS, RiteAid and Walgreens, which qualify for credit card category bonuses of up to 5% cash back or 3 points per $1 spent. Even if you’re using a non-bonus category earning credit card, having more than one place to buy gift cards is good for diversifying your credit card spending patterns. This ensures your statement reflects spending at a variety of different merchants and not just the same grocery stores. This is for security purposes more than anything else.

If you have a Fidelity 2% cash back card, you can also load the Serve card online with up to $1,000 per month. This would earn you $240 cash back every year (assuming it lasts through the next 12 months). So if you have an Amex Fidelity card or access to a Family Dollar Store where you can load Serve with Vanilla Visa gift cards, it absolutely makes sense to switch to Amex Serve.

Another advantage Serve has over Bluebird is the fact that it can be loaded with REloadIT cards, which can be purchased at grocery stores. Aside from being eligible for credit card category bonuses, ReloadIT cards have a low fee of just $3.95 per card. About a year ago there was a rumor floating around that grocery stores would start demanding cash only for REloadiT cards. As usual, this is a YMMV situation because about five months ago I managed to buy REloadit cards from a San Jose area Safeway store with a mile-earning credit card. Unfortunately they only carried them in $500 increments, but the fee was still cheaper than those imposed on most Visa gift cards.

Loading Limits: Tie

Both Bluebird and Serve have loading limits of $2,500 per day/$5,000 per month. The difference is that Serve allows online loads of up to $1,000 with an Amex credit card issued by another bank. This narrows it down to the Fidelity Rewards American Express card and U.S. Bank FlexPerks Travel Rewards American Express. I know a lot of folks out there like the Fidelity Amex card for the 2% cash back it offers on all spending. Being able to load $1,000 on Serve every month via this method generates an easy $240 in free cash every year. If nothing else, it means one less trip to a physical store for the purpose of loading your prepaid card.

Loading Locations: Serve 

Both Serve and Bluebird can be loaded at Walmart stores, at the kiosk and registers. Serve has the advantage here. Why? Because in addition to Walmart, the card can be loaded at 7-Eleven, CVS and Family Dollar stores. I’ve never seen a Family Dollar store, but we’ve all got access to 7-Eleven and CVS store. 

Unloading Options: Bluebird

The primary way most of us unload prepaid cards is via online bill pay. This is a feature both Bluebird and Serve have. Another option is ATM withdrawals, online bank transfers, and sending money to others. Bluebird comes out ahead because cardholders also get checks, which they can make out to others or themselves. So if you have some legitimate spending you’d like to earn miles on (i.e. landscaping services, daycare providers, contractors, etc.), then you can do that conveniently with Bluebird. However, if you don’t care about having a checkbook, then this point is obviously irrelevant. 

Prepaid Card Perks: Tie

The great thing about both Bluebird and Serve is that they give cardholders access to Amex Offers and Small Business Saturday. This can translate to significant savings, not to mention free money just for being a cardholder. Bluebird offers cardholders exclusive deals from time to time. Back when I had a Bluebird card, I got a preview of these discounts and wasn’t particularly impressed. If you think you’ll stay at a La Quinta hotel and that 10% saving matters to you, then you may want to go with Bluebird. Meanwhile, the One VIP Serve card gets cardholders access to One VIP Access, which is useful for those who want premier tickets to concerts and other events. I personally don’t care about either of these perks. But you might factor them into your decision over which card to choose.

Serve comes ahead in most of the above categories. However, you should really make your decision based on which criteria matters the most to you. I plan to replace my five Redbird cards with five Serve cards. Mainly because I’ll have more options for loading the card – both in terms of gift cards that I can use and locations where I can unload them.

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  1. I went to every Walmart down 880 from Oakland to Milpitas and the Walmart Neighborhood off 101 in Santa Clara trying to load Bluebird with a VGC. Every single place ask to see the card and refused gift cards. Is it just my bad luck or that’s how it is in the Bay Area. Good thing my PayPal Business Debit card works fine though.

    • No unfortunately the Bay Area (especially Santa Clara/San Jose) is terrible in terms of Walmart stores. I haven’t seen a working kiosk in over a year and just recently began buying money orders again after the cashiers kept shutting me down.

  2. This is very useful. Thanks. Question: can you reload VIP Serve with Vanilla at CVS? I thought that was cash only.

  3. I believe you may sign up bluebird online free of charge .

  4. Is the 1k loadable to serve via online with fidelity Amex part of the 5k monthly total or is that an extra 1k you could load after loading 5k at Walmart?

  5. How does one reload Serve at CVS/7-11? Is it the same as doing it via Walmart?

  6. Does anyone know the answer to this? Although the Bluebird daily load limit is $2,500, you can only load up to $1,999.99 per day at Walmart registers. I’m not sure where/how else I can load to reach that daily $2500. Maybe the kiosk? (all the ones in the Walmarts near me tend to be out of service, so it’s not a reliable option).

    • The consensus is that there is no $1999 limit at registers (and that the associated text on the Bluebird site is erroneous). There IS however a $1999 per rolling 10-minute period load limit at the kiosks. If you attempt to do more than that, the machine locks up as a fraud-prevention method.

      • Ah-hah! Bingo. Thanks for confirming, Radster. I went back to Bluebird after Redbird died and I did read the small print carefully on the Bluebird site. So glad I asked. Since I still have a bunch of GCs left to reach my $5K, you just saved me an extra trip to WM. Thanks you!

  7. Haven’t been having much luck trying to load serve on the machine, keeps asking for a 9 digit pin? How has everyone been doing loading it at the register? Haven’t tried yet but might give it a go tonight.

  8. This week Walmart said you can only buy money orders with one swipe and the Kate doesn’t work.

    • Really? and where did “Walmart” say that? Perhaps your local store?

      as for Kate, yes, critics often complain about them being chronically down. (I’m suspicious though of the claim. Ariana not all that long ago said she was forever “done with Walmart,” as like most of us, dealing with the long lines, the glares of irate customers behind her, is not … pleasant. As such, I much prefer going out of the way to find Kate… I don’t have any nearby, yet over the past two years, every time I’ve gone to one (dozens of times), they’ve always worked, including late last night in Richmond, Va near the airport. Perhaps I’ve been lucky.

      • It’s definitely a regional thing. In the Bay Area, for example, it’s very rare to find a working kiosk. In fact, a while back they had pulled them altogether. However, I know people in Southern California who have no problems finding working kiosks. I just ran into what I thought was a working BB kiosk but it wouldn’t dispense money orders.

  9. Happen to have one of each in my family, and you’ve given a nice run-down of the two, though with a few dated points:

    1. In case you missed the recent news, new SERVE & BLUEBIRD accounts going forward will no longer be linkable to your personal checking accounts….. this is huge if you’re planning on doing the rinse & repeat routine along the way. (e.g., use cc to buy the gc, load bb via Kate, then withdraw to checking account, then pay off the cc.) That withdrawal to checking functionality remains with old accounts, (and it is extremely slow — sometimes a day, sometimes a week to 10 days)

    2. Small business saturday is no more…. surely you knew that? (though amex apparently is dolling it out selectively and at greatly reduced levels to newer customers — I went 0 for 5 w/ my family’s amex accounts, incl. Serve & BB)

    Laughed when you used the reference to “legitimate” spending…. and the alternative is? (surely you don’t mean to characterize what you do at such “exceptional” levels to be…..)

    • Will – I believe you are mistaken on Point 1.The change only effects the ability to fund your BB/Serve from a checking account (withdrawals are unaffected).

      From the email notification:

      “As of October 28, you will not be able to link a new bank account to your Bluebird Account to add funds. However, you will still be able to add funds out of your Bluebird Account to a bank account.”

      That said, I’ve had no need to test the system, as I already had my checking account linked to my BB. So its possible I’m the one who is mistaken.

      • Thanks for the correction Radster…. though as you note, this needs further testing/clarification. Had read some interpreting the change as preventing linking of bank accounts… period. Now, I see it’s no new bank accounts for purpose of funding bb or serve…. whew. (further confusing matters, I saw this still on the bluebird web site, under ways to add funds to your account: “Bank Transfers
        Link your bank account and debit card to easily transfer funds to Bluebird.”)

    • Small Business Saturday is still around and will be held on November 28 this year. You can get a $10 statement credit for purchasing $10 or more at a small business.

  10. How do you manage to get 5 Serve cards? My understanding it’s EITHER Serve OR BB, and only one per person. If you open more (under relatives/friends’ names) – what if they ask you for ID when you load, etc. ? Is there a trick to having more than one?

    • Friends and family is the “trick”.

      That and the fact that WM cashiers very rarely ask for ID (or in my experience, have never asked for ID).

    • I haven’t switched yet, but I have four family members who will let me use their cards. In the past, I’ve had multiple Bluebirds and Redbirds and cashiers have never cared that I was loading someone else’s card.

  11. Machines here in the bay area have either been removed, turned off completely, never reset by the Walmart employees or most recently I have seen lane closed as early as 5:30pm. The kiosk options in this area are a joke. One day I see that they are on and the next day it looks abandoned. I recently was in Temecula between San Diego and LA trying to unload and was surprised not to see the flashing red light. I walked up to the machine ready to unload my cards when it asked for a secondary pin. I read about this issue in other blogs but never experienced it first hand. The most frustrating thing in the world.

    • I’m curious as to what the various error messages on the kiosk mean. Do you know what the “Lane Closed” message is a result of?

  12. seeing breathless (e.g. quick deals) reports that office max has gone “cash only”…. though unclear if this is local or national… or false alarm (again)

    • It should be national. I was able to purchase some GCs till Tuesday (11/3) night. The cashier who was checking out for me this morning showed me the “Cash Only for Variable Load GCs” message on screen. The corporate memo was out over the weekend stating it’s effective 11/1/15. Looks like they just get registers hardcoded last night. Miles to memories and FrequentMiler blogs also just confirmed this sad news. Pity.

    • If it hasn’t gone national yet, it probably will eventually. Usually when a memo is sent out, it’s sent out nationwide.

  13. Hi Guys – Where can I currently use my AMEX Platinum Charge card to buy Visa Gift Cards and load them to my Serve Account? I want to earn points for some bills I will owe in the next few months and the contractors don’t accept AMEX, only check. I know Serve allows you to issue a check so this would work perfect. Thanks!

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