Rumors of Bluebird and Vanilla’s Death are Greatly Exaggerated

Several commenters have mentioned here on the blog, several folks have e-mailed me today, and I’ve also checked over at my local Office Depot which had Vanilla Reload cards yesterday, but it does seem like Office Depot is withdrawing those cards from sale. Even stores that still had some, many are removing the cards from their shelves.

And there’s much hand-wringing and teeth gnashing over it, of course. There’s no question that this was one of the great, albeit short-lived opportunities: to buy money with a credit card, earn points, and use that money to pay off the credit card. It was the U.S. Mint (buying coins by credit card, depositing the coins, paying off the credit card) without the hassle of physical coins which were heavy and required transporting.

Except… even if Office Depot stops selling Vanilla Reload cards, all that means is the quintuple points play is gone.

  • There are plenty of places that still sell Vanilla Reload cards
  • There are plenty of places that still let you pay for those cards with a credit card
  • There are plenty of places that sell Vanilla Reload cards, let you pay by credit card, and are in ‘bonus categories’ for certain credit cards.

Meanwhile, there are still gift card options at office supply stores.

Even if I can’t buy these cards at quintuple points, I can buy them wherever credit cards are accepted and use the spend to (1) earn credit card signup bonuses, and (2) earn miles paying bills that don’t normally accept credit cards, such as rent/mortgage.

Not every CVS carries Vanilla Reloads. Not every Walgreens will sell them for cash. So this is a little bit harder than before.

But Vanilla, still a new product, is getting broader and broader distribution. The American Express bet, even, is that the market for reloadable cash cards and especially those that double as a low cost bank account, have a bright future reaching a huge untapped consumer market. Products like these are hardly going away.

Vanilla Reloads aren’t dead. Bluebird isn’t dead at all. It’s just that the quintuple points leverage may be ending. Commenter Mileage Update offered some sage wisdom earlier today:

This isnt dead so no sense claiming it is. Vanilla and B[luebird] are big programs that just launched. IMO, its just starting not stopping you just have to be smart about it.

Many folks who knew about the opportunity to buy money with credit cards, earn 5 points per dollar in the process, and use the money to pay off the credit card wish that others didn’t know about the opportunity, too, so that they might have been able to take advantage of it longer.

And there’s a tendency to ascribe ‘motives’ to people who share deals, that it must somehow benefit the sharer. From where I sit, though, posts that are ‘complicated’ or ‘weird’ don’t appeal to a mass audience. You build readership, if you’re looking for page views, with generic and simple pieces. That’s why you see generic, simple, and mostly wrong articles on travel and miles and points in mainstream media.

I used to share a lot less details of deals than I do in recent days, and my motives have been to correct misinformation. When I started to see purposely false information getting posted on Flyertalk and in the comments of blogs, lots of scare comments meant to discourage readers from taking advantage of opportunities so that the commenters could selfishly hope to keep the deals for themselves, I wanted to make sure to correct that misinformation. That’s always been a mission of this blog, and it seems to have taken on much greater urgency in the past few months. I’m not proud of my fellow frequent flyers. Some of them just talk in code on Flyertalk. Others have created their own private forums. That’s their right. But when they come out and actually attempt to mislead other frequent flyers, I have a problem with that.

Is it possible I share too much? Sometimes, and in any given case it might be. I shared a Travelocity deal that Travelocity said caused an uptick in their bookings that they noticed and they decided not to honor it. On the other hand, I shared the Wyndham 16,000 point bonuses which my continued coverage after they indicated they weren’t going to honor likely helped get the deal honored for everyone. Similarly the Alitalia $300+ discount recently, they started cancelling tickets but I worked with some media and that seemed to influence them to go back and honor any ticket that cost at least one euro cent. Who knows, there’s a balance, and sometimes I am certain I get that balance wrong.

Which has very little to do with what happened here. What actually killed the leverage in this deal?

The Bluebird thread on Flyertalk has nearly 150,000 views and over 2000 posts. The Getting Spending Up Without the Mint thread has over 650,000 views and more than 2000 posts. It’s also been covered broadly. On this blog, on Frugal Travel Guy and the Points Guy and One Mile at a Time and Mommy Points and of courage on Frequent Miler.

Because it was an amazing deal. It still is an amazing deal.

But the leverage that came from using cards which bonus office supply spend with quintuple miles? That was really really expensive for the card issuer. The offer is meant to entice people to get the card, and to offer the bonus only on a limited amount of a cardholder’s expenses. But this wasn’t just a way of getting quintuple points on all spend, it was a way of doing it quickly and on a bigger scale than ever before. It was inevitable that the card issuer would notice and wouldn’t be keen on it. And with the scale of purchases on their cards, they did notice I’m sure.

I don’t know the economics of Vanilla Reload cards but I have to imagine that Office Depot made out fine with them or else they wouldn’t have agreed to carry them, so the massive sales there must have been fine by the corporate office. Certainly the Vanilla folks had to be happy with their product’s uptake.

And American Express, they probably don’t like cards being used for nothing but bill payments and cash withdrawals, but these are features built into their program and the phase they’re in is pushing out the Bluebird card, there’s been huge attention to that card and potentially even greater uptake than they could have even hoped for at this stage.

The biggest costs were being borne by paying out 5 points per dollar on all of the spending, so I have to think that it’s the bank that worked with Office Depot to discourage the sale of these cards, much easier for them to do that I’d imagine than to change the marketing and benefits of the cards themselves (and end quintuple points on office supply purchases).

Of course, and it isn’t just Office Depot, but office supply stores continue to sell gift cards — including gift cards which with some effort can be turned back into cash (including by buying gift cards at an office supply store and using those cards to buy Vanilla Reloads elsewhere to load onto Bluebird if you must). And if you’re willing to pay shipping (in some cases) then you can even going through a shopping portal to buy those gift cards and earn a cash rebate or points for the purchase in addition to the points from the credit cards.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community Milepoint.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. When something is too good to be true, it comes to an end quickly. The mint took forever to die because, well, it was the US government. Corporations don’t usually take this long to come to their senses but at least they are quicker than the government. Imagine how inflated the revenue numbers for ODP must have been for the last few months and the margin compression due to the fact that the margins on VRs must be nil. Gary, love the blog and assign no blame whatsoever to you for keeping your loyal readers well informed. Looking forward to a vacation in the coming days that is in some ways thanks to you and all of the great info and inspirational trip reports on this blog. Thank you!

  2. I’m thinking about ACTUALLY posting under the radar deals. The more bashing gregorygrady or his alter ego does, or that abcx does, the more I ‘out’. Want to see which credit unions allow credit card funding (as purchases) of new accounts on this blog? Or which frequent flyer programs allow free award flights with every new signup? Just keep coming back. I use a tremendous amount of discretion here in what I write. I don’t ever share anything given to me in confidence. I don’t break ‘grey area’ stuff first. But I know more about this game than probably 85% of the folks on the private forum that gregorygrady is a part of. GIVE IT A REST.

    Hopefully that can be more effective than an IP ban (across all of the various IPs the trolls have used).

    Oooh.. A how-to guide on fuel dumps, complete with city pairs.

    Or, y’all can give it a rest.

    Are we cool?

  3. “Want to see which credit unions allow credit card funding (as purchases) of new accounts on this blog? Or which frequent flyer programs allow free award flights with every new signup?. . .Oooh.. A how-to guide on fuel dumps, complete with city pairs.”

    Yes?

  4. Ultimately, the idea of buying cash on credit is not something that I imagine any of the commercial parties involved want to see. Any instances in which it’s possible ought to be considered temporary mistakes on the part of someone along the line.

  5. “Want to see which credit unions allow credit card funding (as purchases) of new accounts on this blog? Or which frequent flyer programs allow free award flights with every new signup?”

    Yes, that is the kind of information I would like to see you blog about in the future. Thanks.

  6. How long is blame the blogger going to go on? If I remember correctly it was Frequent Miler who first published this opportunity and a lot of people made a LOT of miles from HIS experiment. Funny thing is when I go to his online comments this morning I see little gratitude from the commenters.
    I never bought a single VR. Got the Ink in September and just hit the 10K spend the old-fashioned way, by using it for my business expenses.
    Gary, let me chime in with Adam2: your blog is a pleasure to read which I do every morning. I’ve gotten far more value from it than just the latest scheme. Don’t listen to the haters.

  7. Having been a member of the FF bulletin board communities for thirteen years (and now mostly sticking to reading and responding to blogs), many of the comments here make me laugh. Sure I’m sad that I only got in on this deal for maybe 60K UR points before it died. But, like every other deal, especially the most lucrative ones, it had to end. It was only a question of how soon. I know there will be other equally lucrative deals, that’s why I am still in this game. I can be patient and will certainly continue to read some of the many excellent blogs out there, including of course, Gary’s. I only have 24 hours in my day like everyone else here, and I have many, many other obligations, but this crazy pursuit of points and miles is worth it to me, as long as I keep it all in balance/perspective. Thanks for doing what you do Gary. Keep up the fine work!

  8. Guys, there is no point in bickering here. It’s beneath you all (on both sides), plus it’s actually counterproductive.

  9. Just out of curiosity- Called a local Office Max and they told me they carry Vanilla Visa cards. Are these the same as Vanilla Reload?

  10. Keep up the good work and keep sharing those deals! I have had 3 of ‘my deals’ killed by bloggers but participated in a half a dozen I wouldn’t have known about (although I read FT every day). So for me sharing comes out ahead and I like your mature analysis and up-to-date reporting. You still write the best ‘general’ travel blog IMHO.

  11. Here’s my theory:
    1. Vanilla Reloads, OD and Ink Bold/Plus have been doing just fine until…
    2. Bluebird came along.
    3. Amex had to have foreseen the high demand for Vanilla Reloads.*
    4. Chase scrambles…and asks OD to stop carrying the VRs because:
     – people stopped putting all other spend (less than 5pt. category) on their Ink Bold/Plus cards – why would they, when all spend on the Bluebird has effectively become 5pt-accumulating spend?
    *Amex has effectively diluted Chase’s Ink Bold/Plus appeal.

  12. Gary,

    I enjoy reading your blog, keep it up.

    @EasyVictor: No they are not the same.

    @SGMF: I agree completely with what you are
    saying. I try to keep up on FT threads, but it can be a daunting task to say the least.

  13. post 54 was ridiculously cool. gary, i always thought you were kind of a wuss, but you’re a bad man.

    …i just wish you could share that info you mentioned :)

  14. The best deals are the ones that are a bit more complicated. Way too easy to do Ink/OD/VR and it was abused mercilessly as soon as BB was released. Thankfully, few are running the second/third tier churns – they occasionally get mentioned on the blogs but few pay attention because they aren’t flogged mercilessly with pictures and posts with a dozen referral links every day – because there aren’t referral bonuses to be had :)

  15. “Yes, ‘Brian’ has commented here before. You’re not very careful with IP addresses, either. Stay classy, gregorygrady.”

    @Gary: LOL, you fell hook, line, and sinker for that one McFly. ;-)

  16. If Office Depot stops selling Vanilla Reload cards but continues to accept credit cards for buying $500 financial gift cards for purchase feels of $4.95-5.95, then the Chase Ink family’s 5% rebate will still be one of the bigger opportunities out there (albeit nowhere near as much $/hour as the Chase Ink –> Vanilla Reload at Office Depot –> Bluebird billpay loop).

  17. [Removed personal attack and mention of my wife]

    BTW, I’m still waiting for you to post that private forum screen shot you promised me where you swear I “work to keep info off FT”. Oh yeah, it’s because there is no such thing you lying dolt.

    Finally, if you know all the above things and you DON’T share them with your blog readers, then that just proves that all you care about is lining your pockets with CC affiliate referral kickbacks. Because if any of those things above made you a dime in referral money, everybody knows you would have already pumped them left and right until they were dry, just like with all the other CC referral links that you incessantly pump these days, which has turned your blog from the darn good blog it used to be into 50% rubbish now. You should be ashamed that you have allowed all those affiliate commissions/dollars to slowly ruin your views/thinking/blog. Pathetic!!!!

  18. And as folks can see I try to allow people to call me nasty names if they wish. I do not relish editing comments, I can count on one hand the number of times I have done it in 10 years of blogging. I will no longer respond to uncivil comments. Or uncivil commenters.

  19. And now back to the subject: I went to CVS last night and they wouldn’t sell me ANY reload or gift card with a credit card. I then went to a grocery store and bought a $500 MasterCard debit card. CVS said cash or debit to buy Vanilla Reload, but still wouldn’t sell me a VR with the MC debit card. Seems the deal is completely locked down where I live.

  20. I’m surprised that Chase didn’t just lower the 5x Office supply store bonus. It really is one of the best full time bonuses out there (compared to 2x gas or groceries or dining). In fact, it seems like it’s the 5x bonus that might end sometime because it’s expensive for the bank to keep paying it out.

  21. @Gary – You don’t have the balls to post one tenth of what you pretend to know. I am calling your bluff. Put up or shut up!!! Your true colors like every other blogger on this site is starting to show.

  22. Commenter “Wakeup” above said it perfectly. gleff, you really are a softie/wuss if you consider a well-known comment about a member of your family wearing combat boots to be a personal attack. You really should man up a little bit.

    You gave me the bait I needed in Post #54 above when you said if I keep bashing you would “out” all this super secret info that I supposedly have access to. So I put in a very mild bash for each of the bits of info you tempted all us readers with, and asked that you please post this info for all of us to see and learn from. And then you go and delete half my post and pretend like it’s a personal attack? Get real and grow a pair.

    And for a third time, I urge you to please post this screen shot you claim to have of me working to keep info off FT. Either post it or my hypothesis that you are a liar will have to be assumed to be true.

  23. Though I am done responding to trolls I will clarify my own comments.

    I did not say I have screen shots of you working to keep info off Flyertalk.

    You said that you “participate in no private forum that works to keep .. ANY other info off FT”

    So my comment was, “do you and your private forum friends want me to get some of your members to give me screen shots of your posts there? if not, stop claiming you don’t participate in private forums whose purpose is to keep information away from Flyertalk.”

    My claim was simply that you participate in a private forum, the purpose of that forum being to keep information off of Flyertalk and other public venues and discuss that information only amongst its members.

  24. Comment by Gary: “I will no longer respond to uncivil comments. Or uncivil commenters.”
    “Though I am done responding to trolls I will clarify my own comments.”

    @gleff: How convenient. You are so paranoid and you continue to insist on something that is not the case. Now you realize you are wrong so all of a sudden you are “done responding to trolls”. How extremely convenient my friend.

    Again, for the 4th time on both counts below:

    – I PARTICIPATE IN NO PRIVATE FORUM WHOSE PURPOSE IS TO KEEP INFO AWAY FROM FT!!!!

    – YES, I WANT YOU TO “GET MEMBERS TO GIVE YOU SCREEN SHOTS OF MY (supposed) POSTS THERE.” PLEASE POST THEM FOR ALL TO SEE IF YOU FEEL LIKE IT.

    It’s time to put up or shut up my paranoid friend.

  25. I am so very bored and tired of reading comment drivel from gregorygrady. Life is too short- Gary, please do all of us a favor and SHUT HIM DOWN!

  26. LOL @ Comment #83 (a completely different gregorygrady than me for the record). I didn’t know that a person can input any name they want as the commenter. I could really start to have some fun with this function if you can’t get this under control gleff.

    BTW, I’m still waiting for those screenshots you promised gleff. Your silence is deafening, and I will take that to mean that you finally admit you are wrong……….but not man enough to officially admit it with a response.

  27. I’d like to offer a truce to gleff. He emailed me the goods about my private forum, and let’s just say I don’t want them shown here.

  28. @ the gregorygrady in Comment #85. From the “real” gregorygrady: I received no such e-mail from gleff. If you read above, I would like that info posted here or FT/MP if gleff prefers, but he cannot produce it as I said in Comment #84, therefore obviously he is full of hot air as I am in no such private forum that tries to keep things off FT. Half of me thinks Commenter #83 & #85 is in fact gleff. If not, I’d suggest he look into it and ban e-mail addresses impersonating other commenters, otherwise I myself will take full advantage of this in the future as well.

    Sigh……………maybe it’s time to start yet another blogger rant thread on FT………………….

  29. I wish I could edit my post #86. I’m an idiot for thinking gleff would stoop low enough to impersonate me. I’m also an idiot for thinking that someone can “ban email addresses impersonating other commenters.”

    Arggh. It’s one thing to argue with people on the internet, it’s quite another to troll one’s own self. Gosh, I need another hobby.

  30. @ “fake” gregorygrady: He could certainly ban the e-mail address (or IP address) that posted those 3 idiotic Comments (#83/85/87).

    Don’t worry though, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. So I’m actually honored that you’d take the time to try to pretend to be me while commenting. ^^^ ;-)

  31. @Gary – I am glad you came to realize it was not a bright idea to threaten private forums. You are talking about some of the most creative and brightest minds FT has seen. Their IT skills are out of this world. Just as bloggers stick together so do ALL private forums.

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