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Friday, July 8, 2011

Akit Says: Skip Autoload on Clipper

There's a lot of heat coming towards Clipper these days, and that anger is coming from their Facebook page where many are arguing about the annoyances of the autoload program.

One person argues that it's another layer of annoying bureaucracy he has to mess with when making changes to his Clipper card account and reducing the amount being loaded for the next month due to a planned vacation. Another argues that his credit card has been rejected. And many others have been angry with the up to five day delay to switch their credit card accounts or their account has been blocked and will take days to get it fixed.

Going devil's advocate, there's no way to get around that five day delay. If someone wants to activate autoload when their pass expires or their e-cash balance gets low, that takes up to five days; when someone wants to alter or end autoload, that can also take up to five days. Even if someone's card gets blocked because of some funky autoload problem, that takes up to five days. That's a technical limit of Clipper because not all mobile Clipper readers (e.g. buses and Muni metro vehicles) may not get their update for a few days until they return to a yard that can connect to the Clipper server. Read more about the "five day rule."

But there's a very easy solution that can get you away from this entire wreck... just don't sign-up for autoload.

I've never been a fan of autoload, and with concern that my credit card could accidentally be rejected and my e-cash and pass (funded from pure cash or a different source) being suspended for days on end until the problem can be resolved, that's something I just don't want to touch. When you get into a problem with autoload, you have to mess with Clipper customer service, and that's just another layer of bureaucracy you need to fight with.

Here's what I do, and it works very smoothly without any hiccups throughout the time I've been using Clipper:
  1. Since I use commuter benefits, I only request for one of two options: Paper vouchers or a reusable debit card with the credit value reloaded to it every month.
  2. When using a paper voucher, I just go to an in-person retailer that accepts the vouchers and get it converted into e-cash or to a transit pass. When using a debit card, I go to a self-service machine and swipe the debit card to buy the e-cash or transit pass. Either way I pay for the e-cash or pass, it is available for use INSTANTLY or valid for the first day of travel for the new month.
  3. If I ever need to add additional e-cash value, I just go to a vendor or self service machine and just pay cash or use my personal credit card. It's still available instantly for usage.
By following the steps I mentioned above, you'll never have to encounter the mess with the automatic loading process or working with customer service when your account goes awry.

About Commuter Benefits and What Your Choices Are:
If you use commuter benefits and instruct the company to automatically load it to your Clipper card, it's not worth the $2 monthly surcharge and the hassle of communicating with both your benefits company and Clipper when your e-cash or pass(es) does not get loaded on-time or goes missing.

If you went with automatic loading (via commuter benefits), you have to plan further in advance prior to the benefit company's deadline (around 15-20 days before the commuter benefits company sends the data to Clipper). If you decide to switch at the last minute (after the deadline), it would be up to Clipper if they will allow you to cancel the pass and get the e-cash value instead.

At least with a paper voucher or debit card, you are in full control of how you want to spend your commuter benefits and you get about 16 months to decide how to spend the amount (Commuter Check vouchers expires 16 months from date of issue); for example: If I go on a 10 day vacation, instead of using the voucher to get a pass, I'd instead ask for e-cash.

There are some challenges with not using autoload...
  1. If you use BART's high value tickets on Clipper, autoload is a mandatory option. The only way to go around is to go back to old school high value tickets. BART has a mail-in form you can use and you can pay with commuter vouchers, personal check, or combination of both.
  2. Since you don't have the ability to automatically reload e-cash upon reaching the balance threshold or a new pass on a monthly basis, you need to keep careful track of your e-cash balance or keep reminders to buy your new pass at an in-person vendor or self-service machine.
Just a last piece from me, Akit:
There's probably many of you who hasn't experienced any problems with autoload, and I congratulate you for being able to work within the system. One thing I've learned is that 99% of people will always be okay, but there's always that 1% who will yell, kick, and scream that their problems are bigger than the 1% out there, and when they do kick and scream, it's gets peoples' attention and it's worse than they are meant to believe.

My point is, if it works fine for you, keep doing what you are doing. This blog piece is to make it as hassle free as I can make it by avoiding the bureaucracy known as Clipper as much as possible. I use automated machines because they don't mess-up and I don't have to interact with possible human error at Walgreens. Plus, if my commuter benefits debit card gets rejected at the machine for some odd reason, at least my Clipper card isn't also going to be suspended; unlike others who uses autoload, gets their debit card rejected, and gets their Clipper card suspended.


BBnet3000 said...

I use autoload for BART HVD tickets, but i also get transit vouchers from work (limited to $70/mo unfortunately).

What im doing is putting on transit vouchers until I hit max e-cash, then turning autoload off and drawing it down, then turning autoload back on (the important part is to do this with time to spare).

Its a wierd system that needs to be improved (for instance, you really should be able to add an HVD ticket to your clipper card that isnt an autoload)

I could do the form and get the HVD discount with the transit voucher i guess, but thats more work than I feel like doing, and i dont want a regular BART ticket.

Akit said...

BBnet3000: I'm just waiting for the day when us passengers don't need to sign-up for autoload and we can just go to any BART ticketing machine and purchase a HVD ticket for Clipper cards.

Anonymous said...

One of the weak spots is how they handle it when your credit card company randomly declines the charge.

I'm an occasional user of clipper -- we take caltrain to Giants games every week or three during the summer.

I had signed up for autoload. For the first game we went to, my balance hit the reload threshhold, and, as best as I could tell, my balance went positive.

But the credit card charge was declined.
They claim they send email when this happens. I never got it. I would have expected the "your charge failed; want to try again?" to appear when I logged into the web site.

I checked my balance before the second trip, and it was good (over $40.00). But, unbeknownst to me, the card status was "blocked", and the reader didn't like it when I got to the station.

I then wound up in the kafkaesque bureaucratic hell of trying to reenable the card. I re-entered my credit card information, then waited for a charge to show up on my credit card online statement. Nothing. A few days later, after a couple phone calls, it emerges that, apparently, they were something like a week or two behind in submitting the charges -- there was some sort of manual paper shuffling step in the middle that wasn't automated.

It eventually got straightened out.

I agree with your recommendation to not bother with autoload; the recovery path is too annoying.

RPiffingtonshire said...

I had the same decline problem mentioned above; I never received an e-mail and -get this- they shut down my clipper card on something like the 20th after they said my credit card had declined THE MONTH PRIOR.

Now, I do blame myself for not being diligent when reviewing my bank statements and noticing the lack of charge to clipper but it was frustrating to deal with and even more frustrating when they sent through 2 charges- one for that month and another for the month prior- at once. When you live paycheck to paycheck like I do, that stings!!

Anonymous said...

One more problem with autoload - Clipper randomly switches its merchant name between "CLIPPER SERVICE" and "TRANSLINK SVC CENTER". This confounds secure credit card systems like ShopSafe which allow you to create a number unique to each merchant. Also, when you register a new card, Clipper runs a $1 charge and allows it to expire (rather than just running an authorization). This also confounds ShopSafe.

I actually think autoload is OK for all the systems except Caltrain... but for Caltrain I do wish they'd reinstate monthly ticket sales in their vending machines.

lhw said...

I would have to second the comments above. I initially had my autoload payment for the munipass declined by my credit card for whatever reason. Upon realization, I opted to change payment to bank rout. After the 10 day bank route requirement elapsed, I was immediately charged for the pass. Too bad for me, my card was locked during this time so I could not use it. So, I could not get around town during this time. Additionally, such terms are apparently is in the Clipper Card "user agreement" so I had to pay the $72. My fault and lesson learned for using a credit card... To make matters worse, this month's autoload has not registered and I have not gotten resolution from Clipper. Their email support is not responsive. It has already been 5 days. Unfortunately a call to a Clipper Card could help either. I think I will pay in cash each month now..

Addie said...

Someone AT Clipper Customer Service specifically informed me not to use autload. I had a mix up one month and it took them nearly 30 days to fix, yet they still charged me the $64 to use my Clipper for all of two days that month.