One day, when class participation was particularly poor in my eighth grade U.S. history class, my teacher told us that “Opinions are like belly buttons. Everyone has one.”
Nowhere is this more true than in the blogosphere, where my teacher’s claim might better be stated as, “Opinions are like belly buttons. Everyone must have one.” That being the case, here’s mine:
Serve and Bluebird died. So what?
~ Daniel Tahara, 2016
For those who are unfamiliar, Amex Serve (like Bluebird and the aforementioned Red Card a.k.a. Redbird) are prepaid debit products issued by American Express that, to varying degrees of simplicity, allowed you to fund your balance using a credit card (thus earning points) and then unload your balance via bill pay (often to the very card you loaded with). This past week, Amex shut down numerous accounts for this behavior, leading to cries that we have witnessed the end of travel hacking as we know it.
I want to contend that while the fears may be accurate (travel hacking, or at least manufactured spending, is going to be very different going forward), the loss of the products themselves are not that big a deal. I’m going to focus on Serve since that’s what I have and since that’s what most people switched to after the death of Redbird, but the logic for Bluebird is roughly the same.
So, what did we lose?
- $1000 in monthly credit card loads online ($1500 for SoftServe). At best, this is $20/month since you would either be using a 2% cash back card like the FIA Amex (or a grandfathered Citi DoubleCash, etc), a Flexperks Amex (the redemption value of which is capped at 2 cents/point), or a cobranded Amex like the SPG card. The SPG card excepted, almost all points are purchasable outright at around 2 cents per mile once or twice a year, so your value per point is capped at that.
- $1000/month in debit card loads ($1500 for SoftServe). If you have a 1% cash back Debit card, this is $10/month.
- $5000/month in free debit card unloading, if you live near a Rite-Aid and have cashiers who allow you to liquidate ‘debit cards’ without your name on them. There are plenty of ways to unload Visa gift cards at 1.5% or 2% that don’t involve purchasing money orders, so let’s call this a $75 monthly lost (for a total of $900/year).
Most people I know were just doing online loads, so for them, they lost $30/month for a total of $360/year. Even if you add in the debit card loads at Rite-Aid, it’s only $1260/year.
So, what did we actually lose?
In the extreme case of maximizing both online and in-store loads, three domestic round-trips per year. In the average (i.e. more likely) case, about one. Yes, Serve, Bluebird, and Redbird were a great source of easy spending, but frankly it’s more a symbolic loss than a practical one.
As travel hacking becomes more and more mainstream (which is good, remember? everyone should get a chance to travel!), the size and duration of loopholes will become smaller and smaller. I haven’t figured out my next source of monthly spending, but I’m not going to worry just yet. We’ll make it work.