By Jeanine Skowronski  Fri Apr 13, 2012

Prepaid Travel Debit Card Provider Eyes U.S.

Prepaid debit cards have long come under fire for their high fees and low value to customers. But naysayers may want to check out Rev Worldwide’s Air New Zealand Travel card to get an idea of what types of innovation the payment method affords.

The ANZ Travel card is a prepaid rewards card that offers frequent fliers of Air Zealand the opportunity to earn miles, avoid foreign transaction fees, carry multiple currencies and lock in exchange rates before they leave the country. And the card is expected to debut in the U.S. soon.

The product essentially functions as a digital wallet for multiple foreign currencies. Cardholders can load up to four of 10 potential currency options, U.S. dollars included, before traveling. The card contains an EMV chip, programmed to change its verification value each time a purchase is made, to ensure worldwide acceptance. It also doubles as a boarding pass. Cardholders can swipe it at kiosks throughout the airport to check in upon arrival.

An additional loyalty component is provided through a local merchant discount program called FlyBuys, which allows cardholders to receive and subsequently apply coupons at participating retailers.

The card, launched in late 2011, is currently only available to Australia’s Air New Zealand frequent fliers, but Rev Worldwide, which owns U.S. company Mango Financial, sells similar prepaid travel cards in the U.K. and Mexico.

John Mitchell, chief executive officer of Rev Worldwide for Europe and Asia-Pacific, says the company is shopping versions of the card around to domestic airlines and expects one to hit the U.S. in the near future.

“The U.S. is the ideal market,” he says. “I do believe we will [have a partnership with a U.S. airline] in the next year or so.”

Mitchell says U.S. versions of the card could feature multiple purses, frequent-flier programs and other loyalty components, depending on what the partner was looking for. They’re also likely to include an EMV chip, which, although widespread in Europe, have yet to catch on in the U.S.

“We’re considering making all of the cards chip cards, because of the transition we expect moving forward,” Mitchell says.

The additional services aren’t entirely free. Like many of its prepaid counterparts, the Air New Zealand card has charges associated with it, including a US$11.40 card issuance fee, a US$3.12 monthly inactivity fee and a US$36.38 card replacement fee.

ATM withdrawals in the U.S. cost $2.50 each. Reloading the card costs 1.1% of the value the cardholder is purchasing.

Still, the product represents the latest extension of a growing trend in the payment methods space. Many issuers are adding mobile capabilities, rewards programs and other bells and whistles to their prepaid offerings.

American Express, for instance, has paired prepaid products with its digital Platform Serve, which is expected to have a loyalty component later this year. The BET Network and NetSpend launched a full service prepaid card last week that features, among other things, an online FDIC-insured savings account with a 5.00% APY, a merchant-funded rewards program and a $10 “Purchase Cushion”.

The pairings give the underbanked access to digital wallets. It also reintroduces the opportunity to earn rewards points without having to use a credit card. Debit card rewards programs were rendered largely defunct after the Federal Reserve issued a 21-cent swipe fee cap per transaction last year. Prepaid products, incidentally, were exempt from swipe fee reform.

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