10 of the most generous airline and hotel dining rewards programs

Jun 19, 2021

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Dining rewards programs have been around for years, yet they continue to be overlooked as an easy way to generate extra points and miles. I don’t know about you, but I’m spending a reasonable amount of time in quarantine cooking, butchering recipes and then ordering takeout to sustain myself. It’s a convenient option and helped sustain my favorite local restaurants during the pandemic.

I’ve earned thousands of miles from first-dine bonuses alone and you can too. With ten dining rewards programs out there, you may be wondering which one is the best. While that depends on your preferences, I’ve summarized each program and offered a ranking based on earn rate, first-dine bonus and value of points earned.

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How do dining rewards programs work?

Waiter picking up dishes in kitchen at restaurant
(Photo by Klaus Vedfelt/Getty Images)

All the major airline and hotel dining rewards programs are part of the same network, operated by the Rewards Network. All you have to do is sign up with one (or all) of these programs, register a debit or credit card and use it at participating restaurants. You’ll earn at least 0.5 points per dollar spent – more if you opt-in to receive email notifications and work your way up to elite status.

In many cases, you’ll earn a first-dine bonus as well as additional bonus point opportunities. The first-dine bonuses often require you to spend a certain amount within a specific period and submit a restaurant review. With all of these programs, you can achieve VIP status after 11 transactions within a calendar year. You’ll start earning more points and get access to a broader network of participating restaurants where you can earn points.

Participating restaurants include popular chains and independent eateries alike. You can find out what’s available in your area by visiting one of the dining program websites and entering your zip code into the location field.

Keep in mind that while you can join all of the dining rewards programs listed below, you can’t register the same card with more than one program at a time. Additionally, your membership expires if you have no account activity for 36 months.

With that being said, let’s dive into each option and figure out which one offers the most rewards.

Airline dining rewards programs

When it comes to dining rewards programs, you’ll get the highest return on spending through airline-affiliated programs. That’s because airline miles are worth more than hotel points.

American AAdvantage Dining

  • Earn rate: 1-5 Aadvantage miles per dollar spent
  • First-dine bonus: 1,000 AAdvantage miles when you spend $25 within 30 days.
  • Sweepstakes: Win 250,000 bonus miles
  • Join here

The great thing about the AAdvantage dining program is that members who choose not to opt-in for email notifications still earn 1 mile per dollar spent. Most other airline dining programs limit earnings to one mile per $2 in these cases. TPG values AAdvantage miles at 1.4 cents each, so you’ll earn a return of 1.4-7% on your spending. That’s pretty solid, especially when you stack with the 2x miles you can earn with the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®.

The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

If you opt-in for email notifications, you’ll earn 3 miles per dollar spent and if you complete 11 transactions in a calendar year, you’ll get upgraded to VIP status. At this level, you’ll earn 5 AAdvantage miles per dollar spent and earn miles at a wider network of restaurants. If you’re looking to earn AAdvantage miles, focusing your restaurant spending on the AAdvantage dining program is a great way to do that.

Alaska Mileage Plan Dining

  • Earn rate: 0.5-5 miles per dollar spent
  • First-dine bonus: Earn 1,000 bonus miles after you spend $30 within 30 days of joining and write a review within 30 days of your visit.
  • Join here

Alaska miles are the most valuable airline currency based on TPG’s valuations. Part of that is because of the program’s sweet spots and generous stopover policy on one-way awards. The fact that Alaska has no transfer partnerships other than Marriott Bonvoy also contributes to this. Alaska miles aren’t as easy as easy to come by as other airline rewards, making the Alaska dining program a great option.

Members who opt-in to receive notifications earn 3 miles per dollar spent. Those who earn VIP status by completing 11 transactions will earn 5 miles per dollar, starting on the 12th visit.

While American’s dining program offers a higher earning rate for those who don’t want to opt-in for notifications, Alaska miles are valued higher. Plus, if you want to earn more Alaska miles, this is one of the few ways to do it outside of flying the airline, the MileagePlan shopping portal and a cobranded credit card.

Delta SkyMiles Dining

  • Earn rate: 0.5-1 mile per dollar spent
  • First-dine bonus: Up to 3,000 bonus miles for regular members and up to 3,500 for SkyMiles Medallion members who meet specified spending thresholds within 30 days of joining and complete an online review.
    • Earn 500 bonus miles after spending $30 on your first visit (1,000 miles if you’re a SkyMiles Medallion member)
    • 1,000 bonus miles after spending $30 on your second visit
    • 1,500 bonus miles after spending $30  on your third visit.
  • Join here

Delta’s dining program offers the most generous first-dine bonus of any airline, including an extra 500 miles for Delta elites. The program is also one of only three that offer second and third-visit bonuses.

If you decide to go for these bonus miles, you’ll also get closer to VIP status, which requires 11 transactions per calendar year. At this level, you’ll start earning 5 miles per dollar spent. In the meantime, you can give your earning rate an easy bump to 3 miles per dollar by opting in to receive email notifications from SkyMiles Dining.

Free Spirit Dining

  • Earn rate: 0.5-5 mile per dollar spent
  • First-dine bonus: Earn 1,000 bonus miles by spending $30 within 30 days of joining and completing a review
  • Sweepstakes: Win 50,000 Free Spirit bonus points
  • Join here

Spirit Airlines may not be the most popular carrier out there, but their low fares are pretty tough to beat. Free flights start at just 2,500 Spirit miles, so the first-dine bonus from Free Spirit Dining can go a long way. Beyond that, you’ll earn 1 mile per $2 spent if you opt-out of email communications, or 3 miles per $1 if you don’t. That means about $500 worth of qualifying dining charges during your first year will get you enough miles for a free Spirit flight.

If you manage to hit 11 transactions, you’ll earn 5 miles per $1 as a VIP member. With low redemption rates for free flights, the Spirit Airlines dining program is worth considering.

JetBlue TrueBlue Dining

  • Earn rate: 3 points per dollar spent
  • First-dine bonus: None
  • Join here

JetBlue’s dining rewards program offers 3 points per $1 spent to all members. On the flip side, the program doesn’t currently offer a first-dine bonus or the ability to earn elite status. With TPG valuing JetBlue points at 1.3 cents each, your return on spending isn’t quite as high as with the legacy carriers (assuming you opt-in for notifications).

JetBlue points are also easy to earn, thanks to transfer partnerships with every major transferable points program. While I wouldn’t recommend JetBlue’s dining rewards program if you spend a limited amount at restaurants, it’s fine if you want to earn TrueBlue points without thinking about it.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Dining

  • Earn rate: 0.5-3 Rapid Rewards points per dollar spent
  • First-dine bonus: Earn 1,000 Rapid Rewards points after you spend $25 within 30 days and submit a review.
  • First step bonus: Earn 500 bonus points after earning your first 1,500 points from dining and reviews.
  • Thank you bonus: Earn 300 bonus points each time you earn 1,000 points from dining and reviews.
  • Review bonus: Earn 10 bonus points every time you submit a review after a qualifying visit.
  • Join here

Southwest’s dining program is unique in that it offers additional points for every review you submit. While it’s only 10 bonus points, it certainly adds up. Members who opt-out of email communications earn 1 Rapid Reward point per $2 spent. Opting in gets you 3 points per $1, which is a solid return considering how cheap Southwest award flights can be.

Best of all, points earned through Rapid Rewards dining count toward the Southwest Companion Pass. That makes the Southwest Rapid Rewards dining program substantially more valuable and worth focusing on.

United MileagePlus Dining

  • Earn rate: 0.5-5 miles per dollar spent
  • First-dine bonus: Earn 1,000 bonus miles as a regular MileagePlus member or 1,500 as a MileagePlus Premier or cobranded United cardholder. After spending $25 within 30 days of joining.
  • Additional bonus: Earn 500 bonus miles on the next three visits when you spend at least $25
  • Join here

Like the Delta SkyMiles Dining program, MileagePlus Dining offers a bigger first-dine bonus to MileagePlus Premier members. Also, elites and cobranded credit cardholders get upgraded to VIP status, earning 5 miles per dollar spent. You must be an elite member or United cardholder when you register to qualify for VIP status. Eligible cards include the United Explorer Card and United Business Card.

Hotel dining rewards programs

(Photo by Getty Images)
(Photo by Getty Images)

There are currently three major hotel programs that offer dining rewards programs. While the earn rates are higher, you should keep in mind that TPG values these currencies lower than airline miles. I wouldn’t recommend earning hotel points over airline miles unless you need a way to top off your account for a high-value redemption or to keep your points from expiring.

Hilton Honors Dining

  • Limited-time earn rate: 10 Hilton Honors points per dollar spent
  • Normal earn rate: 2-8 Hilton Honors points per dollar spent
  • First-dine bonus: 5,000 Hilton bonus points when you spend $25 on your first dine within 30 days of joining and complete a review
  • Sweepstakes: Win 250,000 Hilton points
  • Join here

TPG values Hilton points at just 0.8 cents each, so you won’t get a massive return on your Honors Dining rewards spending – even as a VIP member. Instead, I would recommend signing up for a higher-value dining program like Alaska MileagePlan Dining. Then register your Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card or Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card to get the best of both worlds.

The Aspire card earns 7x points at U.S. restaurants, while the Surpass card earns 6x, along with extra perks if you met annual spending requirements. For Surpass cardholders, that translates to an annual free weekend night after spending $15,000 in a calendar year. Using the card at restaurants can help you get there faster.

The information for the Hilton Aspire Amex Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

IHG Rewards Club Dining

  • Earn rate: 1-8 IHG points per dollar spent
  • First-dine bonus: 1,000 bonus points after $30 spent within 30 days of joining
  • Join here

IHG’s dining rewards program doesn’t offer the best return on your spending, but that shouldn’t stop you from signing up for the first-dine bonus. If IHG Pointbreaks ever makes a comeback, the first-dine bonus will get you one-fifth of the way to a free night. It’s also worth noting that IHG points expire after 12 months of inactivity and rewards earned from the dining program can keep your account active.

Other than those two reasons, I wouldn’t recommend using IHG Rewards Club Dining as your main program for maximizing restaurant spending. You’ll get a much higher rate of return through airline programs and Hilton Honors.

Marriott Eat Around Town

  • First-dine bonus: Earn up to 6,000 Marriott Bonvoy points:
    • 1,000 bonus points the first time you spend $30 or more
    • 2,000 bonus points the second time you spend $30 or more
    • 3,000 bonus points the third time you spend $30 or more
  • Earn rate: 4-6 Marriott Bonvoy points per dollar spent
  • Join here

Marriott has no shortage of ways to earn Bonvoy points and Eat Around Town is one of them. If you want to earn Marriott points on autopilot, signing up for Eat Around Town is a great way to do it.

Which credit cards to use with dining rewards programs

(Photo by Matt Dutile/Getty Images)
(Photo by Matt Dutile/Getty Images)

You can register as many cards as you want with these dining rewards programs. Ideally, you should focus on the ones offering bonus points on dining at restaurants.

The information for the Citi Prestige and Capital One Savor has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

The Amex Gold Card is popular because it earns 4x points on dining at restaurants and comes with up to $120 in annual dining credits. While these apply to food delivery apps, you can also use them at popular chain restaurants like  Grubhub, The Cheesecake Factory, GoldbellyWine.com, Milk Bar, and select Shake Shack locations. Enrollment is required.

Through Dec. 31, 2021 Amex is also offering $20 back at U.S. restaurants every month. Qualifying cards include the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card, Marriott Bonvoy Business® American Express® Card and Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card.

The best card for dining rewards programs comes down to the currency you value most. My recommendation, especially during these uncertain times, is to choose a card like the Citi Prestige, which earns transferable points. You won’t be tied down to one currency and will have flexibility when it comes time to redeem them.

Related: 10 restaurant loyalty programs that are worth joining

Bottom line

Dining rewards programs are a great way to earn extra points and miles with minimal effort. Between the first-dine bonus and ease of earning points, it makes sense to sign up and earn points passively. Remember to use a credit card that earns bonus points on dining and time your registration so that you’ll meet the spending requirement to earn the first-dine bonus.

Featured photo by Alexander Spatari/Getty Images

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.