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Under Fire, CTA Revamps Fees on Ventra Transit Card

Credit Cards
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Following criticism from consumer groups, the Chicago Transit Authority announced changes to the Ventra prepaid debit card’s fee schedule that make it a far more affordable choice for Chicagoans. We wrote about the Ventra card when it was announced in March, noting that it lacked a surcharge-free ATM network and charged for basic services like withdrawals and customer service. The card simply couldn’t compete with other prepaid debit offers.

But now, new changes are afoot:

  • There is no withdrawal fee or surcharge for customers who use Allpoint ATMs
    • There are around 1,000 Allpoint ATMs in Chicago and 40,000+ nationwide
  • The $2 live customer service fee is eliminated
  • Paper statements will cost $1, down from $2
  • Check refunds will cost $5, down from $6
  • The CTA will waive the $5 purchase fee for this year; from 2014 onward, the fee will be applied toward future transit service if the owner registers the card.

These changes come at a cost. The CTA would have generated over $500,000 in Ventra fees; now, according to a CTA spokesman, they’ve “reduced the amount to zero.” Still, the CTA will receive revenue from Ventra-related advertising and from tax savings.

Ventra, redefined: Is the new version worthwhile?

According to our prepaid debit card fee comparison tool, the old version of the Ventra would cost the typical user $188 a year, primarily due to ATM fees and surcharges and the cost to reload with cash. That high cost earned the dismal ranking of 17th out of 60 cards ranked. An ATM withdrawal would cost around $4 – the Ventra card assessed a $1.50 fee, plus a surcharge of around $2.50 that goes to the ATM’s owner. The other main cost driver is reloading with cash, which costs $3.95 at Western Union and $4.95 with Green Dot.

And now? The card’s actually not bad.

Assuming 2 ATM withdrawals, 2 cash loads and 9 purchases, the Ventra card now ranks #8 of the cards we survey. The only cost for this use case is cash reloads – we assume that each one costs $3.95 at Western Union. And if you load the card with a bank account or otherwise avoid cash loads, shazam, the card costs nothing at all. This stands in contrast to the bank-issued prepaid cards like the Chase Liquid, BB&T MoneyAccount or US Bank Convenient Cash, which charge a low monthly fee but offer free ATM use and cash loads. Our verdict, then, is no longer an out-and-out no; it’s more contextual.

Who should use the Ventra as a prepaid card?

Remember that we’re looking at the Ventra solely in the context of prepaid debit cards. Ventra as transit card is a whole different ball game, as fares will rise 33% for single-use paper tickets. But using the Ventra as a payment method is only a good idea in certain contexts.

Use Case Get the card? Explanation
I don’t want to pay a monthly checking account fee. No You can find no-strings-attached free checking at many credit unions.
I want to avoid overdrafts… …and I’m fine loading the card through a bank account. Yes If you can avoid loading with cash, the Ventra is practically fee-free for basic services.
…and I’d have to load with cash. No You’re better off with a prepaid card that has a low monthly fee but lets you load cash for free, like the ones issued by US Bank, Chase or BB&T.
I lose things a lot. No The card has a $5 replacement fee, whereas the Amex Bluebird and Chase Liquid have none.

Basically, if you load with cash, avoid the Ventra; if you load via other means, go for it. Do note, however, that the Ventra is not fee-free, and the 18-month inactivity fee can sneak up on you:

  • $5 purchase fee (waived in 2013, and refunded as transit credit when you register)
  • $2 per month inactivity after 18 months of dormancy*
  • $5 replacement fee ($10 express delivery)
  • $1.50 out of network ATM withdrawal fee (plus ATM owner surcharges)
  • $3 international ATM withdrawal, balance inquiry and decline fee (plus ATM owner surcharges)
  • $2 bank teller over-the-counter cash withdrawal fee
  • 2% foreign transaction fee
  • $2 to transfer funds to a bank account
  • $5 check refund fee
  • $1 paper statement fee

*When you register the card, you can opt in to be reminded of the dormancy fee. Also, after 18 months of not using the transit side of the card, you’re docked $5 a month from transit funds. Full fee information is available on the Ventra card’s website.

It’s also worth noting that as far as features go, the Ventra isn’t ideal. While it does offer contactless transit – you need only tap the card against a reader to board – other prepaid debit cards offer greater control and more bells and whistles. For example, the American Express Bluebird offers mobile check deposit and sub-accounts for families (it has no fees except for a $2 ATM withdrawal charged, waived if you use direct deposit; it allows for free cash loads at Walmart and also has no foreign transaction fee). The Chase Liquid offers mobile check deposit and free paper statements.

Still – the new Ventra card is not bad at all. If you don’t load with cash, it’s a solid choice.