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Dining out has almost always been more expensive than cooking at home, and the recent inflation surge hasn’t helped make it more financially appealing. On the bright side, there are multiple avenues for saving money at restaurants or earning rewards on your spending.
You could collect bonus points by charging your bill to a credit card that earns extra points on dining. You could collect free food for birthdays and national food holidays. You could pay using discounted gift cards.
But one of the most overlooked ways to capitalize on eating out is by participating in dining rewards programs. Simply sign up for an account, link a credit card and earn rewards by spending at a participating restaurant. The rewards can be put toward your future travels to make your next vacation a little cheaper.
How dining rewards programs work
Most dining rewards follow a similar formula: Create an account with that dining program and link one or more credit cards. Whenever you pay at a participating restaurant using that registered credit card (takeout and delivery usually count, too), you’ll earn points.
Some dining rewards programs are tied to specific airline and hotel brands, with which you’ll earn frequent flyer miles or hotel points. Other programs are more generic, earning you rewards like gift cards.
Dining rewards programs are usually free to join, so there’s almost no reason not to participate. By and large, these are “set it and forget it” rewards programs. Some programs even offer rewards rates of more than 6%, making them an excellent way to earn rewards with very little effort.
You can almost always double dip on rewards earned by paying with a dining rewards credit card. If your credit card earns bonus points for spending at restaurants, you’ll be able to collect those and the rewards you’d earn through your dining program.
Additionally, some programs allow you to earn extra points by completing other tasks like writing a review or taking surveys.
However, because most dining rewards programs are administered by the same parent company, you usually cannot link the same credit card to multiple dining programs to earn miles for multiple airlines.
What restaurants are eligible for dining programs?
Most dining rewards programs have thousands of eligible restaurants, and big cities have hundreds. In the Delta SkyMiles Dining program, there are more than 650 participating restaurants located within 30 miles of San Francisco. Popular tourist destinations usually have some options as well. Honolulu, for instance, has more than 30 restaurants participating in the Southwest Rapid Rewards Dining program.
Participating restaurants typically range from national chains to locally owned spots, but it varies by program and city. Major names that frequently appear in many dining rewards programs include full-service spots like Buca di Beppo and Outback Steakhouse, and even fast food joints, like Jack in the Box. You can usually find a restaurant for every budget.
Local gems might also participate. If you’re in Washington, D.C., you could dine at the famous Taberna del Alabardero near the White House and earn points through IHG Rewards. Go for a famous Irish coffee at The Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, and earn bonus points through Marriott's Eat Around Town.
Perhaps even more fun are the complete entertainment experiences. Family vacationers in Orlando can earn bonus points at the Pirate's Dinner Adventure through Southwest’s program. Head to Ohio’s capital with a strong arm and competitive spirit to earn points at Columbus Axe Throwing, which also serves food.
So if you’re ready to sign up, here are the best dining loyalty programs.
Best airline dining programs
Many airline loyalty programs have a dining component, allowing you to earn additional miles for restaurant spending near home or while traveling.
Because every airline’s miles can differ in value, it’s tricky to say which dining program is best. After all, 3 miles with one airline might be worth the same as 5 miles with another airline.
Generally speaking, the best program to join is the one associated with the airline you fly most frequently. West Coasters might better benefit from Alaska Mileage Plan Dining given the airline’s strong presence in the region. Meanwhile, people who fly frequently out of Atlanta might be better served by Delta SkyMiles Dining. In short: Earn the miles that won’t collect digital dust.
On the other hand, if you have a giant stash of miles for an airline you rarely fly, it might also behoove you to consider joining that airline’s dining program. That’s because many frequent flyer miles expire if the account sees no activity for a period of time, typically one to two years. Earning miles via restaurant rewards can keep your account active — and prevent you from losing those miles.
With that, here are the airline dining rewards programs, sorted by highest to lowest earnings rates.
Delta SkyMiles Dining
Member: Earn 1 mile for every $2 spent if you opt out of SkyMiles Dining promotional emails.
Select member: Earn 3 miles per $1 if you opt in to promotional emails.
VIP member: Earn 5 miles per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails and have completed 11 qualified dining transactions in a calendar year.
Earnings rate: Considering NerdWallet values one Delta SkyMile at 1.2 cents, base level members would earn about $1.20 worth of miles for an $100 bill at an eligible restaurant. Meanwhile VIP members would receive $6.00 in value from that same bill, which is a 6% return for minimal effort.
To become a Select member, simply check a box and agree to receive emails from the program. Keep getting the emails and eat out 11 times at a qualifying restaurant in a calendar year, and you’ll reach (or keep) VIP status.
On top of that, Delta frequently offers promotions to earn bonus miles for completing activities such as signing up, taking surveys or reaching certain spending thresholds at restaurants.
See eligible Delta SkyMiles Dining restaurants here. Your membership with SkyMiles Dining expires after 36 consecutive months of no dining activity with your linked credit or debit cards.
For those looking to score AAdvantage miles, the American Airlines dining program offers the same tiers as Delta’s program. In short: Both programs are equally good, so it ultimately depends on your airline preference.
Here are the AAdvantage Dining award tiers:
Basic member: Earn 1 mile per $1 spent if you choose not to receive promotional emails from AAdvantage Dining.
Select member: Earn 3 miles per $1 if you accept promotional emails.
VIP member: Earn 5 miles per $1 if you accept the emails and make 11 or more qualified dining transactions in a calendar year.
Earnings rate: NerdWallet values one American Airlines AAdvantage mile at 1.7 cents, so merely being a member would net you about $1.70 worth of miles for a $100 bill at an eligible restaurant. Meanwhile VIP members would receive about $8.50 in value off of that same bill, which is a tidy 8.5% return.
See eligible AAdvantage Dining restaurants here. Like Delta, your AAdvantage Dining membership expires after 36 consecutive months of no dining activity with your linked credit or debit cards.
Alaska Mileage Plan Dining
If you’re trying to earn more Mileage Plan miles, then the Alaska Airlines dining program is your ticket. Here are the Alaska Mileage Plan Dining award tiers:
Basic member: Earn 1 mile per $1 spent if you choose not to accept promotional emails from Mileage Plan Dining.
Select member: Earn 3 miles per $1 if you accept promotional emails.
VIP member: Earn 5 miles per $1 if you accept promotional emails and have 11 or more qualified dining transactions in a calendar year.
Earnings rate: NerdWallet values one Alaska Airlines mile at 1.4 cents, so being merely a member would only net you about $1.40 worth of miles for a $100 bill at an eligible restaurant. Meanwhile VIP members would receive about $7 in value off of that same bill, which is a 7% return for eating at a restaurant you likely would have dined at anyway.
See eligible Alaska Mileage Dining Plan restaurants here. Membership expires after 36 consecutive months of no dining activity with your linked credit or debit cards.
United MileagePlus Dining
The United MileagePlus Dining almost entirely mirrors the Alaska, American and Delta programs. The mileage earning rate is the same, and the eligible restaurants are almost always identical. But since NerdWallet values the aforementioned airline miles higher than United miles, this program isn’t quite as good for most people.
However, if you’re ultra-committed to United (or you just want an easy way to earn United miles), this program can still serve you well.
United Airlines’ MileagePlus Dining offers three tiers of membership, and the faster you can scale the status ladder, the better:
Basic member: Earn 1 mile per $2 spent if you choose not to receive promotional emails from MileagePlus Dining.
Select member: Earn 3 miles per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails.
VIP member: Earn 5 miles per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails and have 11 or more qualified dining transactions in a calendar year.
Eating out during periodic special promotions can earn even more rewards when you dine.
Earnings rate: NerdWallet values one United mile at 1.2 cents, so a member only receives about $1.20 worth of miles for a $100 bill. VIP members receive about $6 in value off of that same bill, which is a 6% return.
To become a Select member, you must agree to receive emails from the program. From there, level up to VIP status by eating out 11 times at a qualifying restaurant in a calendar year.
See eligible United MileagePlus Dining restaurants here. Your United dining membership will expire after 36 consecutive months of no dining activity with your linked credit or debit cards.
Southwest Rapid Rewards Dining
The Southwest Rapid Rewards Dining program earns you up to three points per dollar spent, with no VIP option that the aforementioned airline programs have to offer. Thus, it’s among the lesser airline dining programs. But if your preferred airline is Southwest, then this program is still an easy way to earn Southwest Rapid Rewards points.
This program has two tiers of membership:
Lower tier: Earn 1 point per $2 spent if you choose not to receive promotional emails from Rapid Rewards Dining.
Higher tier: Earn 3 points per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails.
That said, Southwest has a nice bonus structure that earns you more points for more spending. Members earn 500 bonus points after reaching the 1,500 point-earning threshold through either dining or completing reviews. There’s another bonus of 300 points for every 1,000 points you earn through the dining program.
Earnings rate: Not accounting for the bonus point milestones, your earn rate is about 4.5% per dollar spent at eligible restaurants, assuming you’re in the higher tier. That’s based on NerdWallet’s valuation of one Southwest Rapid Rewards point at 1.5 cents.
See eligible Southwest Rapid Rewards Dining program restaurants here. Your Southwest dining membership expires after 36 consecutive months of no dining activity with your linked credit or debit cards.
Best hotel dining programs
If you’d rather collect hotel points versus frequent flyer miles, consider opting into a hotel dining rewards program instead. As with the airline dining programs, we’ve sorted the best hotel/dining loyalty programs by highest to lowest earning rate:
IHG Rewards Club Dining
IHG Rewards Club Dining can earn you anywhere from 1 to 8 points in the IHG Rewards Club per $1 spent at eligible restaurants.
Here’s how the reward tiers work:
Basic member: Earn 1 point per $1 spent if you choose not to receive promotional emails from IHG Rewards Club Dining.
Select member: Earn 5 points per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails.
VIP member: Earn 8 points per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails and have already completed 11 or more qualified dining transactions in a calendar year.
Earnings rate: As long as you’re not a Basic member, then the earning rate for IHG Rewards Club Dining is superb, falling just short of Delta’s earning rate. Given’s NerdWallet value of one IHG point at 0.8 cent, a Basic member earns only about 80 cents worth of miles for an $100 bill at an eligible restaurant. But as a Select member, that 5 point return rate gets you $4.00 in value from that same bill, while VIP members get $6.40 in value.
Just don’t forget to dine at least once every three years, as your IHG Rewards Club Dining membership expires after 36 consecutive months of no dining activity with your linked credit or debit cards.
Marriott Eat Around Town
Rather than rewarding you for signing up for emails or dining frequently (as is the case with most other programs in this guide), Marriott's Eat Around Town blesses you with more points based on your level of Marriott Bonvoy elite status. Here’s how earnings shake out:
Basic member: Marriott Bonvoy members earn 4 points per $1 spent.
Elite member: Silver, Gold, Platinum, Titanium and Ambassador Marriott Bonvoy members will earn 6 points per $1 spent.
Earnings rate: NerdWallet values one Bonvoy point at 0.8 cent. That means Basic members earn $3.20 worth of points for an $100 bill at an eligible restaurant. As an Elite member, you’ll get about $4.80 worth of points from that same bill, or roughly a 4.8% return.
Hilton Honors Dining
Depending on your level of status, Hilton Honors Dining offers between 1 and 8 points toward your Hilton Honors account per $1 spent at eligible restaurants. Here’s how the reward tiers work:
Basic member: Earn 2 points per $1 spent if you choose not to receive promotional emails from Hilton Honors Dining.
Select member: Earn 5 points per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails.
VIP member: Earn 8 points per $1 if you choose to receive promotional emails and have 11 or more qualified dining transactions in a calendar year.
Earnings rate: Don’t be fooled by the ultra-high 8 points earned. Hilton points have among the most inflated values of any travel loyalty rewards programs. NerdWallet values one Hilton point at just 0.5 cent. That means being a member would earn you only $1.00 in Hilton points value given an $100 bill at an eligible restaurant. At the other end of the spectrum, VIP members would receive about $4.00 in value from that same bill, a 4% return.
Hilton Honors Dining membership expires after 36 consecutive months of no dining activity with your linked credit or debit cards.
Best non-travel dining programs
If you’re not interested in travel or you want more flexibility to earn general travel rewards that aren’t specific to a certain airline and hotel dining program, check out these reward options the next time you go out to eat.
Unlike most dining programs, Neighborhood Nosh (formerly called iDine) has a rewards structure based on how much you spend over a year, rather than whether you reach a certain status level. You earn:
5% back on spending less than $750 per year.
10% back on spending $750 or more per year.
Rewards are doled out in the form of an American Express gift card, which you’ll get once your rewards balance reaches $20.
While this program is mostly valuable for frequent users (so you can start accruing rewards in the 10% threshold), you’ll need to dine at least once a year to make this program worth anything at all. That’s because rewards worth under $20 can expire if no dining activity occurs within 12 months from when they were originally earned.
If you’ve got your eye on future college expenses for your kids, the Upromise Dining Program can help pad your education savings.
Members earn a flat 2.5% cash back on every purchase at one of the program’s 10,000 participating restaurants. Just link any debit or credit card you have to the program, and pay for your meal with that card. Or, pay with the Upromise Mastercard to elevate your earnings rate to 5%.
While the rewards potential is less than what you’d receive through Neighborhood Nosh, keep in mind that many states offer tax benefits to those who contribute to a 529 plan. Plus, your contributions can be invested and used later for qualified education expenses.
Rakuten can earn you cash back on in-store shopping, online shopping and even dining at over 10,000 participating restaurants nationwide.
To use it, you’ll have to download the Rakuten mobile app and add a credit card. Use that card at an eligible restaurant, and you’ll get 5% cash back. Here’s how it looks within the app:
You won’t get your cash back right away though. Rakuten sends payments every three months, either via a check or through PayPal.
Credit cards to pair with dining rewards
Given all these programs, you may be wondering whether you can just sign up for all of the dining rewards programs and watch the rewards roll in — earning points in multiple programs for the same meal.
As exciting as that would be, it’s not an option. Most of these dining programs are administered by a company called Rewards Network, which doesn’t allow you to have your credit card number registered with two separate dining programs at the same time.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t other ways to maximize your rewards. Because Rewards Network lets you register any credit card with any of its dining programs, you can choose a card that offers bonus rewards on dining out. Among the best credit cards to use at restaurants:
Rewards rate at restaurants
Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $6,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership. Terms Apply.
4 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at restaurants worldwide, plus takeout and delivery in the U.S.
Earn 20,000 bonus points when you spend $1,000 in eligible purchases within the first 90 days of account opening.
4x on dining, takeout, and restaurant delivery.
Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $900 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
3x on dining.
Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
3x on dining.
Earn a $200 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening.
3% cash back on dining.
Earn a one-time $200 cash bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening.
3% cash back on dining.
3% cash back on restaurants worldwide.
Earn 180,000 Hilton Honors Bonus Points after you spend $6,000 in purchases on the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card in the first 6 months of Card Membership. Offer Ends 1/17/2024.
7x Hilton Honors Bonus Points at U.S. restaurants, including takeout and delivery.
Earn 95,000 Marriott Bonvoy bonus points after you use your new Card to make $6,000 in purchases within the first 6 months of Card Membership. Terms Apply.
3x Marriott Bonvoy Points at U.S. restaurants, including takeout and delivery.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card