Dining Out? Don’t Leave Credit Card Rewards on the Table

When seeking the best credit card for restaurants, use 3% back as a benchmark and watch for spending caps.
Gregory Karp
By Gregory Karp 
Edited by Kenley Young
Dining Out? Don't Leave Credit Card Rewards on the Table

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If you’re not reaping extra helpings of credit card rewards for every restaurant meal you pay for, you’re probably using the wrong credit card.

After a 2020 of no indoor dining in most parts of the country, it may be time to revisit all the restaurants you missed during the pandemic. And while you're at it, make sure you're earning credit card rewards. Now more than ever, credit card issues re offering beefed-up cash back, points and frequent flyer miles for restaurant spending, from McDonald’s to Michelin-starred chophouses.

Some of the most premium travel credit cards offer the equivalent of 4% or 5% off each restaurant tab, although 3% is more common among most credit cards. A rewards card that pays 3% back returns a cool $144 a year in free money for four-person households that spend the U.S. average on dining out, $400 per month.

Here’s what to know about dining-out credit cards, a must-have for those who hand their plastic to waiters more often than they do to supermarket checkout clerks.

Use 3% back as a benchmark

The most lucrative dining-out cards offer the equivalent of 3% or more in rewards for restaurant spending. If it’s your go-to card for all kinds of expenses, make sure it has relevant perks and rewards beyond dining. Categories like supermarkets and gas will likely also come in handy.

Look in new, old places

Some of the best products for dining out are upgraded older cards, and they come with very different annual fees.

  • The American Express® Gold Card, revamped in October 2018, offers 4 points per dollar spent at restaurants among its perks and rewards. Terms apply (see rates and fees). Annual fee: $250.

  • Citi relaunched its luxury card, the Citi Prestige® Card, in January 2019 with 5 points per dollar spent at restaurants. Annual fee: $495.

  • The Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card is specifically geared toward dining out. It awards 4% cash back on dining, among other rewards and perks; it also carries an annual fee.

Look in unusual places

Warehouse-club shopping doesn't seem to have much to do with dining out, but a few of the best dining cards come from Costco and Sam’s Club.

Cards by Costco and Sam's Club each offer 3 points per dollar spent on restaurants, as do cards from AARP and PayPal.

Check your travel cards

If you have a credit card geared to travel, it might already offer outsize points for restaurant spending. The main credit cards for American Airlines and United Airlines recently added dining as a category of spending that yields 2 frequent flyer miles per dollar spent instead of the usual 1 mile. Considering we value some airline miles above 2 cents each, you may be able to effective earn more than 2% back on you dining purchases toward airfare.

And dining out is a popular category for general travel cards such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, a luxury card where you can get elevated rewards on dining — but you'll also pay an annual fee of $550.

Many travel cards also offer additional dining-related benefits such as Uber Eats credits, membership to DoorDash's DashPass program and more.

Use quarterly cards part time

A few of the most popular no-fee cash-back cards offer 5% back on spending categories that change every three months. Restaurants are often a featured category, making quarterly cards ideal for using part of the year.

Watch for spending caps

Some cards limit restaurant spending that earns accelerated points or cash back. If you’re a heavy restaurant spender, you might blow through those caps and be bumped down to a lower earning level for your dining-out tabs.

Know what ‘dining out’ means

Amped-up credit card rewards for dining out will be determined by the restaurant’s merchant category code. The code identifies what type of business it is, and credit card issuers use the codes to determine whether the food you bought qualifies as dining out. Typically, it’s what you would expect, including carry-out, delivery, fast food, fast-casual, bars and fine dining restaurants. However, some cards will offer high rewards for just a segment of those — fast-food restaurants only, for example.

Be aware that money spent on a meal at a hotel bar might not count if it’s classified as a hotel expenditure instead of a restaurant. And meal ingredient kits — think Blue Apron — may seem like food delivery but might count as groceries.

Of course, credit cards may not work for everyone. But if you regularly use them, and you’re the type who considers an oven just an extra kitchen storage cabinet, you probably need a credit card that specializes in dining rewards.

To view rates and fees of the American Express® Gold Card, see this page.

Information related to the Citi Prestige® Card has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card. The information related to the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card has been collected by NerdWallet and has not been reviewed or provided by the issuer of this card.

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