It’s a well known fact that you don’t need to step onto a plane to earn miles and points. The credit cards you carry and what you use them to buy are just as important, if not more so, than how and where you travel. Making the most out of your everyday expenses is one of the best ways to maximize your points – and for a lot of people, eating out is an everyday expense. Whether you enjoy fine dining or fast food, there are four key ways both to save money and rack up points with dining.
1) Use the Right Credit Card
There are four key rewards credit cards that offer lucrative bonuses on dining spend:
Citi Forward Card / Forward for College Students: 5 points per dollar on dining, up to a total amount of 75,000 points earned per calendar year on all spend. ThankYou points can be redeemed for 1 cent apiece or 1.33 if you have a ThankYou Premier card. No annual fee. Net rebate on dining: 5-6.65%.
Chase Sapphire Preferred: 2 points per dollar on dining with no limit. This card also has a 7% annual dividend on all points earned, which means a net haul of 2.14 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on dining. I value Ultimate Rewards points at around 2 cents each (they can be redeeemed for purchasing travel at 1.25 cents each, but I get more value from transferring to partners like United, Hyatt and Southwest). $95 annual fee, waived the first year. Net rebate on dining: ~4.2%, more or less depending how you value Ultimate Rewards points and their transfer partner redemption opportunities.
Chase Sapphire: 2 points per dollar on dining and if you have an Ink Bold or Ink Plus card, you can transfer those points to Ultimate Rewards transfer partners, thus valuing the points at 2 cents each. This is an option for people who don’t want to pay the $95 annual fee on the Sapphire Preferred and instead leverage the strengths of Ink Bold/Plus. Net rebate on dining: 2%-4%.
Capital One Sony Card: 3 points per dollar on restaurants. No annual fee. Points earned are Sony Rewards points, which can only be redeemed for items from the Sony Rewards Catalog at 1 cent per point. Net rebate on dining: 3%.
Amex Blue Sky Preferred: 2 points per dollar on US restaurants and you can redeem points for travel purchases at 1.3 cents per point. $75 annual fee. Net rebate on dining: 2.6%
Hyatt: 2 points per dollar spent at restaurants and you can redeem points at 1.9 cents each. $75 annual fee. Net rebate on dining: 3.8%
Marriott Rewards Premier: 2 points per dollar at restaurants. $85 annual fee, waived the first year. I liberally value Marriott points at .7 cents a piece, so this is only a ~1.4% net rebate on dining, though the card comes with an annual free night at a category 1-4 property, which can more than cover that fee.
Overall winner: I put most of my dining spend on the Sapphire Preferred because it doesn’t have any foreign transaction fees (and I travel internationally quite a bit) and the sign-up bonus of 40,000 points after $3,000 spent within 3 months is the most lucrative out of any of these cards. That ~$800 in value from the sign-up bonus will pay for the $95 annual fee many times over and in the meantime I’m earning 2.14 Ultimate Rewards points on not only dining, but also travel (airfare, hotels, taxis, parking, etc).
2) Join the Right Dining Program
Even if you don’t have a credit card that gives you bonuses for dining (see below) you can still rack up miles and points for eating at hundreds of restaurants across North America. The main two dining programs are Rewards Network (stand-alone restaurants) and Thanks Again (mostly airport eateries). Both programs are free, so if you haven’t done so already, link all of your credit and debit cards to their programs so you automatically get miles and points for spending money at a participating venue. Here are links to the major ones: American, Alaska, Delta, Southwest, United, US Airways, Hilton, Priority Club and RBC Rewards
Restaurant.com sells gift certifcates to many restaurants, often at ridiculously cheap rates. So even though you won’t earn a dining bonus on a restaurant.com purchase (since it isn’t coded as a restaurant), you can click through a mileage portal to purchase your gift certificates and often at very lucrative earning ratios. The American AAdvantage shopping portal is currently offering 10 miles per dollar at restaurant.com. For example, you can purchase a $50 gift certificate for $20, earning 200 AAdvantage miles. The restrictions state that it can only be used on a purchase of $75 or more , so you can put the remaining balance on a dining bonus credit card to maximize both the discount and points/miles earned on the cash spend. Before you purchase a gift certificate, always check for discount codes – there are often codes for up to 80% off available – and also make sure that the terms of the gift certificate work for you- some are only good on Sunday-Thursday dines.
4) Make Reservations on OpenTable.com
Open Table is a free restaurant reservation website that gives points for each reservation you make, up to 1,000 points per reservation. You can then redeem points for gift certficates: 2,000 points = $20 off a future dine. It is possible to combine a Rewards Network restaurant that allows restaurant.com gift certficates and reservations over Opentable – and any balances paid on a dining bonus credit card for a nice quadruple dip! For more on maximizing OpenTable.com, check out this post.