My Only Use For Bluebirds (or, Cash Abroad Via Amex When Your Bank Fails You)

as i discussed in an earlier post, i was forced by bank policy to be debit card-less during this past week in Riga, as it’s one of the countries on their block list.

i managed to survive, though, thanks to discovering that Bluebirds work in overseas ATMs as well! i only got a Bluebird in case i wanted to dip my hand in the points game, but it’s been sitting dormant in my drawer for months now. i’m glad i had it so i could use it for this, though! (google Bluebird points if you’re not familiar and aren’t afraid of diving into the deep end of a realm i never thought existed.)

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there are several points to keep in mind:

  • loading your Bluebird by transferring money from an existing checking account takes five business days, so you have to plan ahead (which i didn’t, so i had to move to the next plan of attack). the cheapest (=free) quickest (=funds available immediately) option is to add money at a Walmart Money Center, although at my local Walmart there was a fifteen-minute line when i went. of course, you can go the reload card route, but the fee involved (especially for a cheapskate like me who isn’t in the points game) makes that a last resort for me.
  • make sure you find ATMs at your destination that work with American Express¬†since they’re not as prevalent as your typical MasterCard/Cirrus and Visa/PLUS ATMs (though i would imagine all Amex ones support Cirrus and PLUS as well?). i don’t even think you need to call to alert Bluebird you’re traveling, although when i did, they told me to use a bank that didn’t appear on the ATM finder search results page. i ended up using what did show up (Citadeles Banka) and it worked great as you can see above. (there’s a Citadeles ATM in the Riga airport baggage claim.)
    • note that the above link supposedly only shows Express Cash (more about this below) ATMs, but those would by definition be American Express ATMs, so it should be reliable.
  • the $2 withdrawal fee¬†(pretty much the only fee you’re socked with using Bluebird like this) seems pretty reasonable! i don’t know what the foreign currency conversion rate hit is, but it seems decent as well.
  • the only problem is you have to plan ahead as to how much money you want available, since as mentioned above, adding money to your Bluebird via funds transfer takes a week, so if you’re somewhere and you’ve already depleted your Bluebird funds, you’re kind of SOL. it’s probably best to over-deposit money since you can always transfer the excess back out to your regular checking account for free. (moral of the story, have a backup plan — i brought cash in case the Bluebird didn’t work and also had Express Cash set up.)

so the other option i investigated (and learned about through that ATM finder page) is Express Cash, which lets you pull money out using your Amex card at an ATM (that supports Amex). for my Amex, since it’s not a credit card but a charge card, it will pull money right out of your checking account. for Amex credit cards, it will let you pull from your cash advance allowance. i called to set up the program with my checking account information, but it took a week or so for the PIN to arrive via snail mail (you cannot set it over the phone like an agent told me), and i was gone by that time, so i didn’t have a chance to try it out. (well, truth is i did get it emailed to me by my bf who i had open my letter, but didn’t use it because i knew Bluebird was working by that time.)

note that the withdrawal fee, however, is significantly more than with Bluebird. from the Cardmember Agreement for Express Cash that i’m looking at: “The fee for each cash transaction at a Machine using the Card is the greater of $5.00 or 3% of the transaction amount, with no maximum.”

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