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How To Use a Commuter Check Card to Purchase a Caltrain Monthly Pass

Posted June 27th, 2011 in Observations and tagged , , , , by Greg Bayer
                                

Warning

Before I start, let me recommend that you don’t try this. The potential savings you gain from using pre-tax Commuter Check cards likely won’t be worth the pain of actually trying to buy something with them. Return the cards to your employer and ask them to enroll in another option for funding your commute costs pre-tax!

Update: The Autoload program via Clipper works great. Instead of buying a pass in person with a commuter check card, you tag on/off once at the beginning of the month to load a new pass.

Goal

Use two Commuter Check cards issued by an employer (each containing $100) to purchase a zone 1-3 monthly Caltrain pass on a Clipper card (for $179).

What Not To Do (Because It Doesn’t Work)

This section is intended to lower your expectations to the appropriate level. Almost all advice I have received on this topic has been either been out of date or blatantly incorrect, resulting in more wasted time than I ever thought possible. Please take my own advice with a grain of salt, as anything related to Caltrain or Commuter Cards is likely to change in unpredictable ways in the near future.

Walgreens

Since monthly Caltrain passes are usually purchased at Walgreens, this is a common first stop when trying to achieve the goal listed above. Unfortunately, although Commuter Check cards are labeled as credit card compatible, they dont work in the standard machines and cannot be accepted by Walgreens. This fact does not stop most Caltrain/Clipper/Commuter Check employees and random people on the street from suggesting this option every time you ask.

Online / Over the Phone

For some reason, probably related to the same reason Walgreens can’t accept them, Clipper’s online system does not accept Commuter Check cards. Again, this fact does not stop Clipper/Commuter Check call center employees from suggesting this option every time you ask. The Clipper call center will even try to process your Commuter Check card and tell you there is something wrong with it. This will result in you sepending another 20 minutes on hold with Commuter Check customer service just to be told that the card is fine and that you should purchase your monthly pass online (see beginning of this section).

In Person

Explaining all of this to a Clipper call center employee will sometimes result in them telling you that you can only use your Commuter Check cards at a Caltrain booth with a clerk (real person). In my case, they strongly suggested I go to the 4th/King Caltrain station before 7pm. While this advice is getting closer to the right answer, if you actually try going to 4th/King and asking around for a clerk or a booth, you’ll eventually discover that all of the Caltrain clerks in the entire system were laid off a few months ago. The remaining employees at the station fall back to the commonly issued advice above (see Walgreens & Online / Over the Phone).

What Does Work (Sort Of)

I’d like to credit the clerk at the Walgreens across from the 4th/King Caltrain station with the first halfway useful advice. Apparently, the Transit Store at the Powell street BART station accepts Commuter Check cards in exchange for Caltrain monthly passes!

BART Transit Store

Amazingly, the magazine stand style booths at some of the major BART stations along market do take Commuter Check cards. Unfortunately, some open late / close early and asking a BART employee for their hours results in very inaccurate information. Also, for some reason the Civic Center booth (where I was advised to go because it opens earlier than most others), does not take Commuter Check cards (anymore). Where can you use them? Based on my experience, I know for sure that you can use them at the Embarcadero BART station Transit Store booth and should be able to use them at the Powell street station if you can get there when they are open.

Bad Cards

When I finally reached a person with the ability to accept Commuter Check cards, I found out that one of my two cards was “malfunctioning.” According to the clerk, this happens all the time. I happily paid the remainder of my monthly pass with my own credit card in order to end the whole painful ordeal! I returned the bad card to my company and recommended that they no longer issue Commuter Check cards (see Warning). In any case, I won’t be using them again.

                                
  • Stuart Baker

    Corrections and Updates:

    Monthly Caltrain passes are no longer able to be purchased at Walgreens. Everything is done through Clipper now.

    You should make the distinction between a Commuter Check non-personalized Card and a re-loadable personalized Card. The personalized card works seamlessly with the Clipper program through Autoload; it can also be sued at any of the 400 retail outlets for Clipper. Commuter Check also now offers direct loading of Caltrain passes onto the Clipper Card.

  • Agreed! The autoload program via Clipper works great and is what I’m using now! The main problem I’ve seen with this system is you have to tag on & off the first time you ride each month. It’s easy to forget this seemingly pointless step.

  • Here’s a common question and my answer.

    “Do you know why my clipper card told me I have negative funds when I tagged on? Do I have to tag when I have a monthly pass?”

    Yes. It’s really dumb!

    Here are (some of) the rules:
    – You must alway have at leave $1.25 balance on your card, or your monthly pass wont work.
    – If you buy a monthly pass at somewhere like Walgreens, it loads onto your card right away and you never have to tag on-off.
    – If you get a pass via the online system, you must tag on-off one time at the beginning of each month to “load” the pass onto your card.
    – If you have a negative balance now, you will have to add money to bring the balance to $1.25 before you can continue to use your pass.

    Typical response: “None of this makes any sense!!”

  • Cris

    I’m wondering if I could use my commuter check for purchasing an airport shuttle service… is that something I should ask the shuttle service about?

  • I never tried using mine for anything other than Caltrain. Let us know what you find out.

  • Shira

    Hi Greg— do you happen to know if this is still current? Is it possible to use the commuter prepaid Mastercard on Clipper’s online system now? Also, is it possible to buy a commuter voucher and use this to pay part of the monthly pass at Walgreens, while paying the rest in cash? Thanks in advance!

  • I haven’t tried using a commuter prepaid card since I wrote this post, so I’m not sure what currently works.

    If you do learn something, please share it here.

  • I suggest you switch away from prepaid cards and to the autoload program. You’ll save yourself a lot of headaches.