Microhacking: ATM fee refund edition

Even before most travel hackers' American Express prepaid cards were shut down last year, American Express had restricted Bluebird and Serve cash withdrawals to ATM's in the United States. That was a shame since they had previously worked as fee-free ATM cards around the world, and with reasonable exchange rates.

Fortunately, I have a Consumers Credit Union Free Rewards Checking account, which offers as one of its rewards "No ATM fees - CCU will reimburse all ATM and surcharge fees." I'd never actually made an ATM withdrawal with the card (I bank with a local credit union), so I was eager to see how this benefit works.

My experience withdrawing money in Europe

It works really well!

I made three ATM withdrawals during the two weeks we were in Europe, and incurred ATM fees on each withdrawal:

  • 30,000 Hungarian forint ($109.40), $0.87 ATM fee;
  • 200 Euro ($226.85), $1.81 ATM fee;
  • 200 Euro ($225.96), $2.26 ATM fee.

On the first of July, I received an ATM fee credit of $11.19. Since only $4.94 had been charged to my account in separate ATM fees, that leaves $6.25 in ATM fee refunds unaccounted for.

That $6.25 happens to be the sum of the difference between the first two ATM withdrawals in dollars and the next lowest multiple of $5 ($109.40 minus $105, plus $226.85 minus $225).

Now, maybe that's a coincidence ($6.25 is the sum of a lot of numbers, real and imaginary). But it's my current best hypothesis, although it doesn't explain why the odd $0.96 on my final ATM withdrawal wasn't refunded.

Microhacking ATM fee refunds?

If my hypothesis is correct, that means a simple hack is possible: intentionally make ATM withdrawals that are at least $1 more than a multiple of $5, getting the additional amount refunded the following month.

The only ATM's I've ever seen that allow such odd withdrawals are TD Bank ATM's, which allow you to specify the exact composition of a withdrawal, including $1 and $5 bills.

According to this CNN article, Chase and PNC were rolling out ATM's with this function back in 2013, but some light Googling didn't turn up any more recent information than that.

Have you tried this? Does it work? And do you have a better explanation for my mysterious $6.25 ATM fee refund?

Avoiding foreign transaction fees

Using rewards-earning credit cards for overseas purchases can incur foreign transaction fees which cost more than the value of any rewards you earn on your purchases.  To avoid these fees, it's best to use either cash, or a card that doesn't charge such foreign transaction fees.  Today we'll take a look at a few such cards.

American Express Bluebird

The Bluebird, which is technically a prepaid debit card, charges no foreign transaction fees on foreign purchases or foreign ATM transactions.  To earn rewards on your overseas purchases made with the Bluebird, you can load the card with Vanilla Reload cards purchased in the US, for example at drugs stores like CVS; you can load the card at Walmart using a rewards-earning debit card; or you can simply transfer in money from a linked US bank account.  However you choose to load the Bluebird, you won't pay foreign transactions fees when you use it overseas for purchases or ATM withdrawals.  You can also order a Bluebird card without any impact on your credit report, since it's a prepaid debit card, not a credit card.

Discover Cards

Since 2008, when Discover acquired the Diners Club overseas credit card network, Discover cards have had increasingly wide acceptance internationally, and all Discover cards have no foreign transaction fees.  I recommend the Discover it card (formerly known as Discover More) since it has no annual fee and potentially lucrative rotating 5% cash back categories.  For example, in the last quarter of 2012, Discover gave 5% cash back on all "online purchases," a very broad category!

Capital One

Like Discover, all Capital One cards have no foreign transaction fees.  These cards include the Capital One Venture Rewards card, which allows you to redeem your points for travel expenses.

Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Ink Bold/Plus

These premium credit cards, which earn flexible Ultimate Rewards points, incur no foreign transactions fees on purchases made outside the United States.  The Sapphire Preferred has a $95 annual fee after the first year, as do the Ink Bold and Ink Plus cards.

American Express Platinum

While this card with its $450 annual fee certainly isn't worth getting just to avoid foreign transaction fees, if you already have a Platinum card you can use it overseas and earn Membership Rewards points without incurring any additional fees.

Co-branded Credit Cards

If you're interested in earning points with a specific rewards program, the following cards also have no foreign transaction fees: