The Best Cards for Maximizing Your Employees’ Per Diem Meal Spending

Jul 9, 2018

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If you frequently send your employees on business trips — or if you take trips on behalf of your firm yourself — you know how quickly trip expenses can add up.

One recent travel survey found that a typical business trip costs $325 a day for meals, car rentals and hotels alone. A typical three-day trip, including airfare, could set a business back $1,400 or more. Meals aren’t the biggest expense for business travelers, but at nearly $100 a day on average, those costs do add up.

Even if you place tighter restrictions on your employees’ meal spending during business trips — the federal government recommends a daily per diem rate for food and incidental expenses of between $51 and $74 depending on the city — your company still may face a big bill for food, which is more difficult to pay for in advance with your company’s business credit card than other travel-related expenses.

That’s why you should consider handing out employee credit cards that offer top rewards on dining. You could recover 3% or more of your on-the-road dining costs. If you have five employees who make 10 business trips a year, that could generate $450 or more in credit card rewards for your business.

Here’s a look at some business credit cards that include restaurants as a bonus category in their rewards programs.

Category Bonus Value of the Points According to TPG Valuations Total Earned per Dollar Spent Annual Fee
Ink Business Cash Credit Card 2% cash back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases each account anniversary year at gas stations and restaurants 2 cents 4 cents* $0
The Blue Business®️ Plus Credit Card from American Express 2x on the first $50,000 in eligible purchases per calendar year; then 1x thereafter. Terms Apply. 2 cents 4 cents $0 (See Rates & Fees)
The Hilton Honors American Express Business Card 6x at US restaurants (among other 6x categories). Terms Apply. 0.6 cents 3.6 cents $95 (See Rates & Fees)
 Ink Business Unlimited Credit Card 1.5% cash back on all spending 2 cents 3 cents* $0
SimplyCash® Plus Business Credit Card from American Express 3% cash back at US restaurants on the first $50,000 spent (one of eight 3% back options); then 1% thereafter. Terms Apply. N/A (cash back) 3 cents $0 (See Rates & Fees)
Costco Anywhere Visa Business Card by Citi 3% cash back (on restaurants and travel) N/A (cash back) 3 cents $0
United Explorer Business Card 2x on restaurants (and on United purchases and at gas stations and office supply stores) 1.3 cents 2.6 cents $95
Bank of America Business Advantage Cash Rewards Mastercard credit card 2% cash back on dining (on the first $50,000 in combined choice category/dining purchases each calendar year, 1% thereafter) N/A (cash back) 2 cents $0
Capital One® Spark® Cash for Business 2% cash back on all spending N/A (cash back) 2 cents $95 (waived the first year)

*Cash back may be converted to more-valuable points only when paired with a card that earns Ultimate Rewards points.

Ink Business Cash Credit Card

This card is either on the top or the bottom of this list depending upon how you want to/are able to use it. Since TPG’s most recent monthly valuations peg Ultimate Rewards points at 2 cents each, restaurant purchases are worth 4 cents per dollar spent when you have a UR-earning card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred that you can transfer to. If you don’t, you’ll earn 2% cash back on dining purchases, which is a decent, though not great, return.

Restaurant spending isn’t the most lucrative bonus category on this card, though. You’ll earn 5% back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on cellular phone, landline, internet and cable TV services each account anniversary year. Along with restaurant spending, you’ll also earn 2% cash back on the first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at gas stations each account anniversary year.

Ink Cash includes a $500 welcome bonus when you spend $3,000 in the first three months of card ownership, which can be converted to 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points when paired with a UR card. With the program’s large selection of transfer partners, you could potentially find even more value than $500 if you transfer your points to book a hotel stay or flight award.

The Blue Business Plus Credit Card from American Express

Unlike with Ink Cash, there’s no need to transfer points to another card to achieve top value with Blue Business Plus. Along with being a part of American Express’ Membership Rewards program, this card also offers a no-fuss approach to dishing out rewards: You’ll earn 2x Membership Rewards points on all eligible purchases for the first $50,000 you spend each calendar year, then 1x thereafter.

That makes Blue Business Plus a top choice for everyday business spending. It also competes well against other cards in bonus categories like restaurant spending since its return is worth about 4% on all spending, according to TPG valuations.

The Hilton Honors American Express Business Card

This card pays big points on several different bonus categories, which makes the card look a tad bit more valuable than it actually might be. TPG values Hilton points at just 0.6 cents each, much lower than other rewards programs.

Aside from the 6x points you’ll earn at US restaurants, the Hilton Honors Amex also pays 12x points at Hilton properties; 6x on wireless services purchased directly from US service providers and on US purchases for shipping, on flights booked directly with airlines and through Amex Travel and on car rentals booked directly through select rental car companies; and 3x on everything else. You’ll also earn a free weekend night after spending $15,000 on the card in a calendar year and another after spending an additional $45,000 in the same year (so a total of $60,000 spent).

For the welcome bonus, you’ll earn 125,000 Hilton Honors points after you spend $3,000 in purchases on the Card in the first 3 months. That bonus is worth $750, according to TPG valuations.

 Ink Business Unlimited Credit Card

Rewards you earn using the newest addition to Chase’s small business card portfolio work similarly to the setup with Business Cash card: The value increases when you pair Business Unlimited with an Ultimate Rewards card in Chase’s lineup and convert the cash back to points in that other card’s account. Suddenly 1.5% cash back becomes 1.5x Ultimate Rewards points worth 2 cents apiece. Your return on dining purchases is worth up to 3%. If you don’t have another UR-earning card, though, using Business Unlimited for your employees’ restaurant purchases is not the best option.

The  Ink Business Unlimited also comes with a nice welcome bonus: Earn $500 after you make $3,000 in purchases within the first three months after account opening. That cash back becomes 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points you can transfer to another card. Based on TPG’s valuations, those points are worth at $1,000.

SimplyCash Plus Business Credit Card

Amex’s SimplyCash Plus Business Credit Card is a straight cash-back card. It is not part of the issuer’s Membership Rewards program, but if you’re looking for a straightforward way to accrue top rewards on dining, this card is a solid choice.

As with the Hilton Honors card, dining purchases are not the most lucrative bonus category SimplyCash offers; you’ll also earn 5% cash back on wireless telephone services purchased directly from US service providers and on purchases at US office supply stores. If you don’t want 3% cash back from purchases at US restaurants you can instead choose to earn that rate from one of seven other categories:

  • Airfare purchased directly from airlines
  • Hotel rooms purchased directly from hotels
  • Car rentals purchased from select car rental companies
  • US gas stations
  • US purchases for advertising in select media
  • US purchases for shipping
  • US computer hardware, software and cloud computing purchases made directly from select providers

Just remember, there’s a cap on bonus earnings. You’ll only earn bonus cash back — meaning both the 3% and 5% categories — on the first $50,000 in purchases in a calendar year, after which you’ll earn 1% back. You’ll also earn 1% cash back on non-bonus category purchases. This card doesn’t offer a welcome bonus.

Costco Anywhere Visa Business Card by Citi

(Photo by Shutterstock)

Costco Anywhere Business doesn’t charge an annual fee, but you have to be a Costco member to be eligible to apply. Redemption also is a bit wonky, as you can’t earn statement credits or redeem your rewards at any time. Instead, you’ll receive a reward coupon annually, redeemable for cash or merchandise at US Costco warehouses.

Still, outside of the 3% cash-back return on restaurant purchases, you’ll also earn 4% cash back on eligible gas for the first $7,000 per year (1% thereafter), 3% cash back eligible travel purchases, 2% cash back on all other purchases from Costco and and 1% cash back on all other purchases. There is no welcome bonus.

United Explorer Business Card

This is the first of our cards on this list to fall below a return of 3 cents per dollar spent on dining purchases. United MileagePlus points are worth about 1.3 cents each, but you’ll earn 2 miles per dollar on United purchases and at restaurants, gas stations and office supply stores, and 1 mile per dollar on everything else. Receive priority boarding and a free checked bag for you and one companion on the same reservation. Plus, get two, one-time United Club passes each year.

The current welcome bonus is up to 100,000 bonus miles after qualifying purchases: 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open and 50,000 bonus miles after you spend $25,000 total on purchases in the first 6 months your account is open. That bonus is worth $1,300, according to TPG valuations.

Bank of America Business Advantage Cash Rewards Mastercard credit card

This card offers 2% cash back on restaurant purchases, but you can boost that return to as high as 3.5% if you have other assets at the bank. Bank of America offers tiered relationship bonuses based on the amount of money you have on deposit in your Bank of America business deposit and/or Merrill Edge or Merrill Lynch business investment accounts. Grab that top return once you have a combined balance of more than $100,000.

The standard return with this card also pays 3% cash back on purchases in the category of your choice (choose from gas stations, office supply stores, travel, TV/telecom & wireless, computer services or business consulting services) and 1% on all other purchases. However, you can only earn bonus points on the first $50,000 in combined choice category/dining purchases each calendar year; you’ll earn 1% on all subsequent purchases. As for the welcome bonus, earn a $300 statement credit when you make at least $3,000 in net purchases within 90 days of your account opening.

Capital One Spark Cash for Business

Both Spark Cash for Business and its travel rewards twin — Capital One Spark Miles for Business — pay a flat return on all spending. You’ll earn 2% cash back with the Spark Cash card and 2 miles per dollar with the Spark Miles Card. Along with the Bank of America card, that’s the lowest return on restaurant spending among cards on our list. Still, these cards may be worthwhile if you value simplicity in your business rewards program.

The Spark Cash card is offering a $500 cash bonus after you spend $4,500 in the first three months. The Spark Miles is offering a bonus of 50,000 miles after you spend $4,500 in the first three months.

The Bottom Line

When you send your employees on a business trip — and you arm them with employee credit cards from your business — there’s no reason for them (and you) to earn 1% back on restaurant spending. If your firm travels frequently, you otherwise may be losing out on hundreds or thousands of dollars worth of rewards annually. Look to what other bonus categories the cards on this list offer. You may find a card that offers top rewards in one of your biggest expense categories. If that’s the case, don’t feel bad choosing a card from this list that may offer a slightly lower return on restaurant spending.

For rates and fees of the Blue Business Plus Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Hilton Business Card, please click here.
For rates and fees of the SimplyCash Plus Business Card, please click here.

Feature image by Daria Shevtsova via Unsplash. 

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