Earning Miles in a Post-Bluebird World

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Yesterday the hearts of many miles and points junkies likely dropped to their stomachs, or perhaps even lower, when an email went out effectively announcing the end of “manufactured spending” as we know it via closed Amex Serve and Bluebird accounts. I had many Mommy Points readers reach out to me to make sure I knew (thanks!) and to get feedback on what to do next to earn enough points to keep traveling the world for much less.

 

Well, believe it or not, I did not get the email shown below (bolding mine) for my Bluebird or Serve account, because I don’t use it to load gift cards at Walmart and then liquidate them as many others did. I’m no angel or anything, it just isn’t my cup of tea and I didn’t have the time or energy to mess with that these days. You know, two kids, a job, a husband, and all…

We are writing to let you know that we have observed unusual usage patterns on your American Express Serve Account. Because of this, effective immediately, you will no longer be able to add money to your Account.1 We have made this change in accordance with Section 15.d of our Consumer User Agreement, which you can view here.

Please be aware that you continue to have full access to the funds on your Account and can withdraw them at any time. Any applicable monthly fees continue to apply.

Once your balance reaches $0, please close your Account online via your Profile page accessible here. Scroll down to the Close Account section and click “Close Account.”

If you have any questions or would like to inquire further about this issue, you may write to us at the following address:

American Express
C/O Customer Relations 02-04-40
4315 S 2700 W
Salt Lake City, UT 84184-0440

I am here to tell you (from experience) that while I know there are still some remaining (but dwindling) methods to earn miles and points in a manufactured type manner, you don’t have to do that in order to still afford to travel primarily using miles and points for much less. You can get back to earning and redeeming basics and still accomplish many travel goals, albeit perhaps in slightly different ways than you might have been with Serve or Bluebird.

Use Gift Cards Differently

For starters, when I read Frequent Miler’s post on how to liquidate some Visa or MasterCard gift cards you may have been stuck with when your Bluebird died, I couldn’t help but think that many of those tips aren’t just helpful for liquidating remaining gift cards, but you could still do many of those things going forward if buying gift cards is still your thing. I still jump on Visa or MasterCard gift card opportunities from time to time to earn some extra points, but I only buy what I can use for daily purchases, to pay bills, or similar.

Make Full Use of Category Bonuses

While I only dabble in gift cards, I go full force on category bonuses. I make sure to maximize almost every dollar we spend via having and utilizing cards that that provide category bonuses in categories we regularly use, the Chase Freedom for its 5x rotating bonus categories, the Citi ThankYou Premier for 3x on travel, and much more. When there is no way to earn a category bonus or use a gift card I bought while earning a bonus, to pay for the purchase, I use a credit card that awards the most valuable points for our travel goals – often the Starwood Preferred Guest® Credit Card.

Sign-Up Bonuses

Credit card sign-up bonuses are still very useful to getting quick injections of miles and points to your accounts. Many cards now only award a sign-up bonus once a lifetime or once every 24 months, but a few well timed sign-up bonuses each year for you and your partner (if you have one), can still be super helpful in getting your family the miles you need to go where you want.

Pay attention to when sign-up bonuses increase, check the CardMatch Tool to see if any increased offers are available to you there, or just be strategic with aligning the cards you get with the trips you want to take.

Switch to Cash Back or Fixed Value Points

Depending on your travel goals, with low airfares available, I really think many of us will currently do better with the fixed value cards (or even a 2% cash back card) and fixed value reward programs rather than the traditional airline mileage charts for some trips. Take for example being able to fly round trip to Cancun for less than 10,000 points as I shared here, or one-way flights for less than 1,900 points here, etc.

This method works best if you are okay flying economy and primarily take domestic or relatively close-in trips. If you are only in the miles and points world for international premium cabin trips then ignore this tip as it often won’t help you out, though every now and then discounted premium cabin trips do pop up.

Use Shopping Portals, Take Advantages of Bonuses, Etc.

Finally, don’t skip the “little” stuff that actually isn’t really little. If there is a bonus you can register for and earn additional points – do it. If you need to buy something, go through an airline or cash back shopping portal, etc. I earned thousands of airline miles during the holiday shopping season this year just by making my purchases online via the United or American Airlines shopping portals. Multiply that out over a year and that’s a pretty significant number of additional miles.

Learn How to Maximize Redemptions

This one doesn’t help on the earning side, but you don’t have to earn as many miles if you are smarter about how you spend them. For example, if you want to fly United BusinessFirst round trip to Europe it will cost you 115,000 United miles (or Chase Ultimate Rewards transferred to United). However, you can book the same flight via ANA for just 88,000 miles transferred 1:1 from the Amex Membership Reward program. In other words, don’t work harder, work smarter.

I also recommend getting away from taking multiple shorter trips and instead take fewer longer trips if you want to stretch your miles. For example, you will spend half the number of miles if you do one longer trip to Europe each year rather than go for two long weekends. I know that is a “duh” tip, but it is one that has helped our family as we move into the next phase of family travel.

How will yesterday’s Serve and Bluebird announcements impact your miles and points earnings going forward?

 

Editorial Note: The opinions expressed here are mine and not provided, reviewed, by any bank, card issuer, or other company unless otherwise stated.

Disclaimer: The comments below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  1. I got out of Bluebird when the Target Red card came along. Once that card got shutdown, I never bothered going back to Bluebird. As you so aptly point out in your post, I have a job, kids, life, etc. and it just wasn’t worth my time. I think signup bonuses are going to be the way to go.

    With Y flights being so cheap to buy with cash now and J flights increasing difficult to get with miles at reasonable rates, cash back may be the future.

    • Manufactured spending to meet bonus spend requirements on new cards takes more and more effort and time as the required spends get larger and the easy manufactured spend opportunities dry up. Good deals on flights in coach are plentiful nowadays. I agree with cash back credit cards being the sensible choice going forward. You can use the cash back to buy the cheap flights and use something like priceline for the hotels and rental cars.

  2. Unfortunately I am in the miles game for first class flights. Don’t want to fly economy when I visit my family in Europe.
    Otherwise cash back is the way to go if you are just interested in economy flights.

    • Paul, it’s not bad to know your goal and go for it. First class is tough – business class isn’t as bad. Key to know award chart sweet spots depending on where in the US you are flying from.

  3. I never loaded one gift card or money order onto my serve card ever. I previously funded it with a rewards credit card until they ended that. After that I still put some cash onto it at 7-11 once in a while as a convenient way to pay bills or send my girlfriend money to her serve when she needed it. Thought thats what the card was for. I got the letter too. I followed all their rules. It makes little sense to me and have no idea what reason they decded to shut down the funding to my serve account.

  4. I’ve been loading with a Co branded amex cc and so far my account is still open and active. Haven’t loaded visa gift cards In a few months FYI.

  5. One of my accounts that was closed never had any loading of cash, vgc or debit. Rather, it was only used for loading with my FIA Amex. Basically every data point regarding the Serve account closures has been given that just shows whatever they did was not done so under manual review (a lot of inconsistencies).

  6. Good of you to disclose up front that you have a relationship, financially, with AMEX. That is, they butter your bread.

    And this post reads like it. You’re in effect telling us to “get over it,” that never mind you were NOT engaged in “unusual activity,” and never mind that AMEX secretly (without notice) changed the terms & conditions…. so that they could with a (lying) straight face tell us were were engaged in “unusual” activity (that wasn’t)….

    Ah, but going forward, you’re in effect saying, forget about manufactured spending, keep doing business with AMEX, be grateful for the little crumbs they throw us once in a while.

    Yup, a real shill of a post. You’ll not doubt also be fortunate to maintain your relationship with AMEX…. along with those other bloggers who are linking to your post. (you know who you are Dan)

    • and of course, my comments were not paid for by AMEX….. question is, will you then reveal my email address to amex so they can further besmirch my heretofore spotless credit standing.

      Ah, never mind…. you’re with the AMEX program, and in the end, you want us to “move along,” there’s nothing to see, remember, or learn from here.

      • You have lost me with this one, but sorry you are upset. The thing to learn here is that no one opportunity lasts forever.

    • I can guarantee my take on ms would be the same regardless. It’s not for me and yet I still travel quite a bit using miles and points, so my message is that others still can too. Now, for those who were making a part time income ms that may not apply, but if your goal is occasional travel that is still quite achievable.

  7. Never loaded a gift card on to Serve, but was still shut down. Definitely inconsistent since my husband was not and we have virtually identical patterns of loading and unloading since I handled both of them. Sorry, but your thoughts on why people were shut down are not correct.

    • I don’t doubt that some were included in the shutdown that don’t make sense, but many included were self-described manufactured spenders that loaded the cards with gift cards or credit cards and then drained then funneled that money through the account to cashout. I can’t begin to speculate on why some were included that weren’t and it certainly stinks if you were using the card for “legit” purposes and now can’t. My point in the post is that you can still earn enough miles and points to travel without those cards, but if you were using them for other purposes that is outside my arena.

  8. We’re retired now and not raising a family, so we don’t have the expenses we used to. I only did ms at times to meet spends on a few of my new cards, so will miss not having my bluebird. Maybe I should have pushed it harder while I could!!

  9. Thanks for the post MP. This is a big blow though, especially for enthusiast who like to travel in premium. Using a combo of BB and Ink, one could max out the monthly limit, and generate 25K UR points, with about $170+ cost. Considering that UR is convertible, that’s not bad IMO.

    Using gift card to cover everyday spend is fine, but some of us are used to have 2 path of point generation, if you will. The everyday spend w/ gift card, and MS-ing with BB, especially for us who are close to a WM. Portal utilization is good, but I can’t see utilizing the portal generating 25K UR points per month. In other words, in the past, every month we could generate 10K points from using gift card for day to day spend, and another 25K from MS-ing. Now it would be just the 10K points

    There are 2 other methods that I am aware of, might worth mentioning. Square and Plastiq allow payments using credit card, but the fees are a bit high. I think Square charges 2.75%, and Plastic charges 2.49%. I used Plastiq in the past, just to meet a high min spend threshold and use it to pay mortgages. The catch with Plastiq is that you have to set off the payment early to account for them sending a check through snailmail. So depending on one’s cash flow situation, Plastiq may not work. I do think that card min spend is a good candidate for Plastiq if the bonus is large enough.

  10. I used to use Vanilla reloads when we could get them at CVS with our cc’s, but I only got about $2000 every month which was enough to pay our mortgage, cars, & student loans. It’s been nearly 2 years since I last used that method at which point I’ve been loading my BB card at Walmart with my debit card ever since. Even then, that’s when we sold our house and I’ve only the 2 cars to pay for which amounts to loading $680 each month. That’s all! I’ve always used the bill pay feature through the BB site/app and never withdrew from an atm. I actually used the service for it’s intended purpose! Yet, I got shut down.

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